Product Photography on a Shoestring Budget

The beauty of living in a tech filled world is that now, more than ever, we have incredible access to “prosumer” (semi-professional) equipment: DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex camera) range from thousands of dollars to the low hundreds. Even our smartphones have better digital photography capabilities than the first generation of digital cameras.

This access to technology is beneficial to the start up brand or entrepreneur. You have already spent large amounts of money just to see these products made, and now you have to show them off to buyers–with what money? Taking product photos may be easier, and more affordable, than you think.

I cannot stress how important it is to have photos (and lots of them) of your products for people to see. We live in a world of rapid communication, and if there is no digitized evidence of your product, it may as well not exist.

Money and time are usually the two things that prevent people from getting high quality product photos. The costs of working with a professional photographer, (equipment, lights, studio time, etc.) will accrue fast. Or maybe you’ve found yourself in a position where your buyer needs photos immediately and you can’t get a DSLR or a point-and-shoot in time. Following these tips will help you produce perfectly acceptable shots that will entice any buyer or audience, all without professional equipment.

What You’ll Need:

I kept this tutorial as basic as possible in terms of materials–one trip to Staples will get you all the supplies you need. It is worth noting that our office space has lovely natural lighting, but I shot later in the day (when the sun is less direct and more orangey colored) and farther back in our space.

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As you can see I picked up a tri-fold board (the kind kids use for science fairs), white poster paper, coffee cups, and two standard desk lamps (with tungsten, not compact flourescent,  bulbs) that we had in the office. The whole thing cost me a little over $14.

We need the white board and poster to create a highly reflective environment that bounces as much light off our products as possible–especially since we don’t have the high-powered professional lights used in product shoots. Additionally, one expects a nice white back drop from a product shot so all the focus can be on the item.

Weapons of choice:

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Now, not everyone has that friend who happens to have a DSLR, fear not! Even new point-and-shoots have comparable quality, megapixels, etc. DSLRs just allow for more manual manipulation, which isn’t necessary in this case. I just happen to have a DSLR at my disposal, but please apply anything I do with a DSLR to a new point-and-shoot.

And if you cannot find a DSLR to borrow or a point-and-shoot – there is always the handy smartphone. In a pinch, it can work!

The set up:

First thing’s first, we need to set up our materials. If you happen to have a window that receives a lot of natural light feel free to place your set up facing the window and skip the lights (tip: do not mix your color temperatures – sunlight + tungsten light = funky coloring). Otherwise grab two of your strongest lamps/desk lights/etc.

Place your white trifold board (three white foam core boards duck taped to one another would work as well) on top of the white posterboard (shiny side up). Place a light on either side of the trifold board so that they each cancel out the shadows the other casts on the product. Place your product in the center and continue to shift the lights around until the shadow is most minimized. Play with pushing them closer, moving them back, elevating them, or bouncing the light off the board. It’s not an exact science, but the more you fiddle with it, the better your result will look!

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Now, depending on your product you may want elevation both for the product itself and for the lights. I took the paper coffee cup and place a piece of white printer paper on top and had my bracelet set on it. I then grabbed two canisters and set my lights on top of those to really reduce the shadows forming from the multiple layers of straps the bracelet made.

My result…

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And with some more products….

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For this amateur product shoot it’s worth quoting legendary photojournalist Robert Capra’s advice: “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.”

Get close, get focused, minimize distracting background elements, and really show off that product. Also most computer operating systems (Mac or Windows) have an image reader application that can help you crop your image so you can remove any unwanted shadows, scuffs, or white space. Do not hesitate to crop a lot!

What about the smartphone results?

Closer, once again, is definitely better! The farther away you get with your smart phone, the more likely it is that blurs, grain, or defocusing will occur. Keep your lights the same as you would if you were using a DSLR (I suggest putting them lower to minimize your hand’s shadow). Try to hold your hand incredibly steady and take about four in a row before starting again. Also, I highly recommend downloading an app like VSCO cam or Afterlight so you can bump up the brightness and neutralize coloring with a muted filter.

Here’s what I got…

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Not too shabby, right?

What if your product has to be worn in order to be displayed?

This requires a good overhead light or a bright/sunny room in order to get a decent shot, but it is still very much doable. Grab a model or friend and place the product on them. Have another friend (or table) hold the trifold board around the model. Like so:

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Hold your camera steady and play with how open or closed the folding sides of the tri-fold board are. This can narrow reflected light or diffuse it.

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And, of course, there’s always sunlight and the great outdoors:

Sometimes the best way to take a product shot without a studio is to put it on someone and take advantage of light provided by the sun. Sunrise, sunset, and cloudy days are the best light conditions anyone could ask for. If you have a good friend, or a willing model, take him or her outside and snap shots of the product on them. Just make sure it’s less about them and more about the product. Get close!

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Bonus if you have Photoshop or use a free photo editing tool:

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To take it one step further I suggest using photo editing software to completely eliminate the white backdrops altogether in each image. By selecting the background and simply clicking ‘delete,’ you are left with a stellar photo that you wont have to worry  about looking inconsistent with your other shots. The tools like ‘Quick Selection’ or even the ‘Magic Wand’ will make selecting the white backdrop a breeze. Don’t hesitate to neaten up choppy corners or rogue spots with a small eraser tool.

Ideally, one should take more time to really trace each edge of the product with the ‘Polygonal Lasso’ tool. This way you can manually erase any nicks and bumps that will inevitably be left behind by any quick selection tool. The end result will look professional and seamless with your other shots. Here is an example of a photo edited with the ‘Polygonal Lasso’ tool:

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Check out these free photo editing tools.

Hopefully these tips and tricks will help you save time and money and redirect focus/funds where they need to be– the production of your awesome products!

Thank you to Scough, Sherry Accessories, Genil Accessories, and Bollman Hats for providing us with such beautiful (American made) products to demo–all sourced on Maker’s Row!

If you enjoyed this article, check out these:

› Why You Need to Art Direct Your Instagram Photos
› E-Commerce Guide for Small Businesses
› 5 Ways to Get Your Product Into Stores
Free Photo Editing Tools

  • Tyler Harney

    All of the photos are missing :/
    Looks like a good article!

  • Nikki

    Two quick questions: 1. When you had the bracelet popped up on the cup with the desk lights on either side, where did you place your camera or phone (overhead)? 2. When shooting the hat, did you use the DSLR due to the hat’s circumference?