Many people are returning to America’s economic roots in innovation and manufacturing by making and creating art or items for sale, either in small businesses or in garages, workshops, or local makerspaces. The modern “Maker” movement is sweeping the nation and home-grown manufacturers are listing their wares for sale on personal websites, or on sites like Etsy and eBay. Each of these listings requires compelling product photography to grab the attention of potential customers. While anyone with a smartphone can take a snapshot of their latest product, such photos come out of a limited camera platform and are just that – limited; they will never have the same “punch” that a proper product photo created with an SLR camera in a studio with off-camera lighting will have. So, how do you create a product photo that will entice customers to buy your newest, latest, greatest invention? The short answer is that it’s all about the lighting. This post introduces the basic concepts behind product photography lighting and discusses best practices that will hone your craft and make punchy, well-lit photos of your products customers will find irresistible.
What is Product Photography? Understanding Lighting and a Review of Lighting Basics
Product photography is a subset of studio photography in which lighting and display techniques are carefully developed with one goal: to create photos that offer your product in literally the best light possible so you can convert window shoppers into credit card swipers.
Lighting Terminology and Basics
Studio lighting fundamentally consists of “Key” lights, “Fill” lights, and “Back” lights. Key light is the main light source, typically off-axis from the camera, which is pointed directly at the product (or subject). The fill light is a secondary, often lower-intensity light (this can mean lower volume of light or light placed farther away) on the opposite side of the camera from the key light. Back light is a light placed behind (or behind and above) the subject, to better define the subject from the background. A photographer might even add a background light, pointed at the backdrop, to draw (shape) light or texture on the background in order to make the subject stand out better, if the background is a part of the desired result.
Backgrounds for Product Photography
In product photography, shooters frequently want to “cut-out” the object from the background so it can be placed on pure white (or any desired color) of a website page. If that’s your desired end result, adding a background light to a white tabletop, seamless backdrop, or tabletop light tent will blow out the white background to pure white, which facilitates cutting out the object and delivering a PNG file with transparency around it. Not all products look good on white, so you may want to employ a paper backdrop of a different color, or consider shooting a product in a creative setting – the choice is all about what scene will best sell your product, combined with what deliverable you (or your graphic designer/webmaster) desire.
The “wet-floor” look made popular by Apple is also a common technique. This can be achieved in Photoshop, or by shooting objects placed on a reflective substrate, such as plexiglass.
Lighting Positions for Product Photography
Light placement is a critical decision a photographer makes after setting up the scene/background. Where will the key vs. fill lights be placed? How will that placement impact the drawing of shadows and highlights on the product?
This is the area of product photography where experience counts, so for those without experience to draw from, trial and error – and patience – is required to determine best results from different light placements.
Continuous vs Strobe Lighting
Discussion of studio lighting should include a review of the fundamental differences between continuous lighting and strobe lighting. Continuous lights, or “hot lights”, that are either on or off are a go-to solution for those just beginning product photography. Examples of continuous light solutions are LED panels, fluorescent mercury vapor tubes, or incandescent tungsten bulbs. Some of these offer dimmers, others not. While they bathe a studio with even, constant light, they do not put out very much of it.
Strobe lights or “flashes” are Xenon vapor tubes with high-voltage capacitors that are capable of releasing instantaneous bursts of light many tens of thousands of times more powerful than continuous lights, but over only a fraction of a second. Because of the limited volume of continuous lights, you can’t as easily freeze action with them as you can with strobes. This means that you need to employ slower shutter speeds than you might want in order to achieve the correct exposure – you have to drag the shutter to allow a sufficient amount of time for enough light to gather at the camera’s sensor. This rules out continuous lighting for most shoots involving moving objects when the photographer desires a sharp, focused image; for immobile products, this isn’t such a deal breaker. Continuous lights can also be harder to fine tune, although LED kits with dimmers have made this easier than it used to be with incandescent or fluorescent lights. With strobes, one can dial the intensity of the light down or up in minute increments, and since shutter speed doesn’t matter (below a certain threshold – shutters can be “too fast” for strobes and that will get discussed more later), aperture can be adjusted to control the “look” of the product in concert with moving the lights around the object (close or distant). This will change the intensity and control the fall-off and the way the shadows are drawn.
One attraction of continuous lights is that what you see is what you get – when metering in the middle with your camera, your photo should closely approximate what you see with your eyes based on how you have the “volume” of the lights set (if they have a dimmer). Adjustments can then be made to shutter speed or ISO to change the exposure/look of the lit product, as there isn’t much flexibility in the amount of light coming from most continuous lights. The “see-what-you-get” result of continuous light shooting is contrary to the workflow with strobes, where light intensity of each connected strobe often varies as you dial up or down the power of key versus fill strobes, in addition to making changes to camera settings, such as aperture, to control the exposure. Modifications in these areas when using strobe lighting will have drastic impacts on the resultant image – so you may not know what you will end up with until you take the shot, review, and make adjustments. The result of photos made with continuous lights includes variant color temperature, which is critically important in product photography. Strobes are far easier to color balance since they are typically shipped from the factory with a near-perfect 5,500° Kelvin color temperature. Continuous lights have notoriously variable color temperatures and make accessories such as an X-Rite ColorChecker Card critical. To learn more about using color checkers in your product photography, see The Art of Copy Work: Photographing Artwork Accurately Without Glare.
Strobes and Synchronization
Unlike continuous lights, which are either “on” or “off,” strobes require a means to synchronize with both the camera’s shutter and to each other. For example, one might employ a transmitter on the hot shoe of the camera with a receiver connected to the key light to fire the strobe every time you hit the shutter. If you’re using several strobe heads, you had to either connect more receivers to them or use optical line-of-light by turning on the “eye cell” of each strobe head so that the “slave” lights fire whenever the transmitter-connected “master” light fires – so that is a lot more to think about! However, it is worth it for the power (which allows you to stop down your aperture for deeper depth of field), the ability to freeze action, and for the increased color accuracy. Learn more about transmitters in BorrowLenses’ Guide to Lighting Sync Cables.
When using strobes, shutter speeds can’t exceed your camera’s fastest shutter sync speed, which is the mechanical limitation of the shutter curtain opening and closing and is usually around 1/200th of a second (this is true of my main camera, the Canon 5D Mark IV). The shutter mechanism operates like a set of curtains that open up to let light transmit to your sensor. The first curtain slides open to start the exposure and then the second curtain slides closed to end the exposure. Below a certain speed – usually 1/200th of a second – the first curtain has finished traveling across the sensor (has fully “opened”) by the time the last curtain has started (to begin “closing”). But above that sync speed one curtain is still trying to fully open while the other one is already starting to close, partially blocking the sensor. Strobe light – which comes in only the quickest of bursts – is not able to reach the whole sensor if part of it is covered by curtain. The result is an unsightly black band across part of your image.
This limitation is not in play when using continuous lights; you can use any shutter speed you wish. Continuous lighting acts like ambient lighting and doesn’t come in “bursts” – light from it is pouring into the sensor continuously during the entire opening/closing process of the shutter. This is why you won’t see black banding in your fast-shutter images when using continuous lighting.
But this isn’t a vote against strobes. Depth of field can also be an issue with continuous lights. Since the volume of light is lower than strobes, you will need to open up the aperture to achieve the correct exposure. This can foil your intention to show all parts of a long or complicated object in focus (one where you want a deep depth of field). You may be forced to crank up your ISO to unacceptable levels if you must shoot at a middle aperture, such as f/8 or higher, to achieve critical focus.
The largest light source of them all bears mentioning: sunlight or “natural light” is an excellent source of light for products, especially if one wants to show them in a natural habitat. An example is this image of a custom-branded coffee cup I shot on a commercial job for my favorite coffee shop in Truckee, CoffeeBar.
Quality and Quantity of Light and Shadow
If lighting is everything in product photography, what properties of light (continuous or strobe) are most important to achieve successful product shots? And once you decide what “look” you want, how do you go about achieving it?
The “hardness” or “softness” of light is of paramount importance. Non-diffused direct light will cast hard shadows on an object, which can be desirable or not depending on what the photographer wants.
Moving lights closer to, or farther away, from an object will change the softness of the light, as well as the intensity. Careful balancing of position and brightness of key versus fill or backlight will also impact the images.
Diffusion of light with light modifiers can also help achieve a certain look. Softboxes, umbrellas, and reflectors are often used to shape light sources, which in turn affects how products appear. Adding grids in front of lights help shape and focus the beam, which can be instrumental in placing hot spots on the desired part of an object.
Reflector kits are also great aids to really dial in needed fill light; a foam core board reflector is common and cheaply available. Bouncing a little bit of light from a white foam core into a shadow area can bring a dull image to life and, conversely, so can suck some light out of a highlight area or reflection with a black foam core (flag).
Quality of light – the way that highlights and shadows play across a product and how the light falls off an object – is crucial to how that object appears and how attractive it looks to buyers. Think carefully about the most important features of your product – how can you draw attention to these with lighting? Light at steeper angles will tend to show texture more than diffuse lighting.
How do you plan where to put lights and diffusion aids with respect to your camera and your products? I often use the fantastic Online Lighting Diagram Creator by Quoc-Huy Nguyen Dinh.
Gear Recommendations for Product Photography
Proper camera gear can make or break a shoot in studio photography. A good modern full frame DSLR, such as the Canon 5D Mark IV, the Nikon D810, or the Sony a7RII will offer maximum flexibility with file size for any needed cropping while still creating large enough files to deliver print-ready images. For lenses, make sure you cover the range of at least ~24mm to ~200mm. I do the bulk of my product shooting with either the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L or the 70-200mm f/2.8L. Wide angles aren’t useful for studio product work – they introduce distortion and don’t allow for zooming to eliminate unwanted elements such as light stand legs and backdrops. A macro lens, such as the Canon 100mm f/2.8L, is great for detail shots of specific areas of your product, such as a logo or tag.
Beyond your camera and strobes, accessories such as radio remote controls (e.g. Pocket Wizards) can quickly and easily synchronize all of your strobes with your camera’s shutter, enabling use of key and fill lights to shape the light and shadows on your products. There are many affordable rental packages available for learning the basics, and even for achieving most product photo lighting scenarios. For example:
Basic Beginner 1000W 2-Light Kit (Key + Fill Only)
Profoto 500W/s D1 Air Studio Monolight Kit (Key + Fill Only)
Modern LED light kits, especially when combined with table-top “light tents,” provide an easy means of softening (diffusing) light and making it wrap around an object to offer a warm, soft, inviting illumination. If your products are small, Amazon has some affordable table-top light tent pockets that make white background cutout shooting a breeze. It will, however, be difficult to control the lighting with such kits and will also be challenging to achieve a proper white balance to make your products look realistic compared to results when using a tabletop or floor seamless with dedicated studio lighting.
Product Photography Best Practices
If you are new to this style of photography, spend some time browsing catalogs and online sources of products similar to those you plan to shoot. It can be very helpful to deconstruct the lighting in your samples to help you plan out your own shot. Shadow/highlight shapes will indicate where the photographer placed these lights and the shape and form of the light will offer clues as to how close or far away the lights were and whether and how they were diffused. A careful eye may even be able to tell if a shot was created with hot/continuous lights or strobes.
When it comes time for you to choose, pick one based on which you think will deliver the best photos of your product. When setting up your own product lighting scene, be mindful of the desired end result – particularly if you need to deliver a cut-out on white, as this will dictate your studio background setup. Experiment with light placement, reflections, fill-cards, diffusion, and adding/subtracting lights to see how changes affect your photos. Don’t be afraid to change camera settings but be mindful of basic principles of photography, such as depth of field. Shoot, review, adjust, and shoot again. Remember, while you can often “fix it in post” it’s better to take the time to learn and apply how to achieve a certain look, such as a wet-floor reflection, in-camera in the studio.
There will always be arguments about the “quality” of continuous lights vs. strobe lights. Strobes have a steep learning curve and can have a prohibitive cost of entry. Continuous light exposure is easy to adjust but not so easy to dial in and can be difficult to color-match. Both are great for different scenarios and the savvy photographer will know when to employ one or the other to achieve a desired result.
With practice, one can develop a keen eye for shaping light and shadow and build a deep and versatile skill set to create any kind of lighting. Shooting products is a challenging and exciting form of studio photography. But even a newcomer can achieve great results after careful study and consideration of basic principles of product photography lighting. Turning lookers into buyers is the ultimate reward.
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