I don’t normally post behind-the-scenes stuff here on my blog, and I don’t seek out product photography work as a rule, [I’m a portrait and wedding specialist] but I had the honor of speaking to a great group of working artists who form a creative community here in the Phoenix area known as Tiny Army. The grand poobah of the group, the prolific and talented Daniel of the amazing Steam Crow invited me to help his team improve the photos they make of their creations, art pieces, and wares that they might use in their online stores or just to showcase their work in some sort of portfolio. Of course, we talked about when it would be the right time to call in or head to a professional photographer, but there were some simple things that I could show them for their immediate and everyday needs. What follows may get a little technical, so I won’t blame visitors who weren’t in attendance for skipping past the tech talk below.
For those seeking just the video I mentioned; the one about how the professional product photography specialist made an item seem to float in air, with no shadows, and no lost highlights, click here. (The video is at the bottom of the post.) Note that he includes a link in that post to a recreation of the technique without all the high end pro light gear. His second set-up does require a camera that can be set to make a 6-second (long!) exposure, so it’s not for the point & shoot, let alone iPhonography, crowds.
My main points from our talk:
- It’s all about SET UP – the click is a fraction of a second – photography is about setting up the shot – deciding on the light, and designing the frame.
- CONSISTENCY is what makes a series of images, and a series of different uploads look professional – white seamless is the easiest route to consistency, so that’s what we’ll be discussing here.
- IMAGINE/ENVISION : what do I want to feature about each piece or series? this leads to direction on: lighting, camera height & distance, background.
- If you can leave an area dedicated to a small photo rig / set-up, it will always be easier and more convenient to use, and help with consistency over the long run.
- MAKE NOTES so you can recall your camera settings, gear positions/heights/distances and what your operation looked like. Use text and photos of your workspace as reminders, so you can duplicate the results next time.
- If you can use a DSLR camera and have lens choices, those with focal lengths with higher numbers are probably going to be better for these kinds of images. Try to get higher than 50mm. Lens with smaller focal length numbers might put into situations where the shape of your subject is distorted by the ens, particularly in the sides and corners of the frame.
- LIGHTING: It’s all about the lighting. Build the lighting one light at a time. Pay careful attention to the lighting of the background. This is what will make your photos look good or cheesy. Lighting from the side(s) is usually more flattering to most subjects, and can help isolate the background from the main subject. Use a subtle front light, perhaps indirectly or diffused, or even just reflectors bouncing back the light from the background onto the front of your subject. (We did this with the “doors” on the box we had in the classroom, and my handy assistant was there to shine the $12 IKEA light onto the “floor” of the box just in front of our little monster subject. photo below) Remember that you will achieve the most consistency by keeping other room light out of your set-up.
- If you’re using non-flash lights, like the IKEA or home-store desk lamps or shop lights: GO BRIGHT! The brighter the better, just don’t catch anything on fire. Actually, 100 watt bulbs should do fine. If you go with compact fluorescents, go with a brightness that’s hard to look directly at.
- Keep the lighting the same color, i.e. the same kind of bulb, so you have a consistently reproducible look, without odd colors to have to fight against.
- Look for White Balance (color temperature) controls on your camera, and set them to match the kind of light bulbs you are using. If it’s an important job – hire a pro, to make sure your work looks top notch in whatever magazine or book you’ll be published in. If it’s not quite at that level, but you want to nail accurate color, using a color target can really help. I use the ColorChecker Passport from X-Rite.
- Make a SHOT LIST: make it ahead of time, add to it when inspiration hits, so you’ll see if you need to go back to the pieces you’ve already finished, and double check it when you think you’re done BEFORE you tear down. Consider whether your item would show or sell better if it could be shown from multiple angles, or if it can be show from an angle that elicits emotion in the viewer that suits the item.
- CLEAN the item you are about to photograph. Do your best to remove dust, hairs, and fingerprints.
- Once you feel like you’re all set, make a TEST SHOT. Then [I forgot to stress this part during our time in the classroom together, but it’s important] load the image into your software and look closely at the photo on a large screen. The back of the camera or the screen of your iPhone/Droid will not tell you enough. Look both close up, and zoomed way out. This is where you will discover faults / irregularities / bad-compositions that you need to fix BEFORE you’ve spent who-knows-how-long on the series of images. Trust me. The small amount of time you spend here will eventually save you more than you can imagine. In a perfect world, you’d check each new item’s test shot on a big screen to look carefully before proceeding. Honestly.
- Pay careful attention to REFLECTIONS in shiny areas and surfaces, particularly when your subjects have eyes. Think about what’s showing up in there. If you need to make a cardboard cut-out to hide your camera, the lightbox reflections, or your hands behind, do it earlier rather than later.
- Get as much “right” in the camera as you possibly can. Don’t leave for “post” or “developing” anything that could fix right there in the physical world. It’s almost always more efficient to take the time getting it right in camera than putting things off for the digital darkroom. The more items on your shot list, the more true this is.
- If you have the opportunity to overexpose just a bit, it can help digital cameras capture the most detail. If that’s important to you, and if you are using software that will allow you to “pull back/down” the shadows and blacks in the images, you may find this a pleasing solution. This works really well with professional software that allows “batch” processing.
- Remember to turn off your auto-flash settings. Do NOT use the camera’s built-in flash. That direct harsh light is not flattering to anything, or anyone outside of an American Apparel ad.
- Before sharing some of the photos from the presentation, and the results of the photos you saw me create with the IKEA lights, the cardboard box, some paper, scotch tape, and an iPhone, let me remind you of the shiny floor option that a piece of glass, acrylic, or plexiglass can add with ease. Don’t forget that you can also add lots of character to a product photo by using a single 12″x12″ square of quality tile from a home improvement store under your subject.
This is our cardboard lightbox under construction.
Inserting a tube of paper to support the curve of the seamless paper sheet that will run from the top down and under the subject and out of the front of the lightbox.
Cheap shoplights, just from the sides, are more than enough light to give the reflectors all they need to fill the front of the subject.
Note the visible white iPhone sneaking around the reflector “door” in the reflection in Milo Snappy the Monster Camera’s Eye.
Using different lights, and a fancier camera to make them flash, I balanced the background before preparing the front (key) light, after propping Milo up on a riser inside the box, so I coud get the camera position relatively low.
Milo’s dashing “hero shot” with the light from camera-right pointed a little away from the box’s window, bringing that side’s light down, giving him more dimension and character.
Here is the first of the three photos we made of Steam Crow’s yet-to-be-named creation during the presentation. iPhone, cardboard box, paper, tape, and three $12 IKEA lights.
Same set-up and proof that the “hero shot” does not work on all subjects.
Same iPhone/IKEA-lights set-up. This is just a higher camera position, looking down to accent the cute monster’s emotional appeal.
I had a great time getting to speak at the Tiny Army meeting, and appreciated the great questions and good conversation that arose during my visit. Thank you for your kind hospitality. Remember, I want you creative artists to be successful in selling your wares, and to make money! Keep making great work, and price your products accordingly. Don’t hesitate to send me some links to images that you create with your own lightboxes.
UPDATE: I’ve always appreciated the work of Peter Belanger and this short video shows how a top product shooter does his thing, making a photo of iPhones for the cover of MacWorld magazine. The 2-minute time lapse that starts the 3.5 minute short are worth taking a look at.
Also, here’s a longer look at how a wedding and portrait photographer like me approached a personal project to recreate a promotional photo of a Rolex watch. Note the careful attention to detail, the evolution of the plan, and the unorthodox solutions that he found right in his own office.