Capturing the Best Product Shots

Before I became an interior designer, I enjoyed a long career as a commercial photographer specializing in home furnishing, still life and food. Those skills are really handy to have, even though I must say I’ve seen some amazing photos taken with just an iPhone! The difference between your fun shots for Instagram and product shots is that the product shots really need to communicate information about your product – the materials, the shape, the features.

There really is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for photography – fashion, food, jewelry, hats, and furniture all require a different approach and variations on equipment to show them off at their best. Having said that, there are a few principles that can really help the quality of your photos, and these basics can be applied to all types of products. I’m going to stick to photographing products as still life, since on-figure fashion is not my area of expertise.

1. Use a camera that allows you to control the focus and the exposure.

A digital DSLR is the best choice. If you are into computers and want to shoot ‘tethered’ to a laptop, many high-end cameras come with their own software to do so. Otherwise, you’ll want to invest in a software compatible with your camera. The benefits of shooting this way is that you can really inspect the focus and lighting and see details on a laptop screen that you wouldn’t spot on the camera LCD. If you are using the camera’s LCD, you may be able to zoom in to make sure the key aspects of your product are in focus.

2. Use a tripod.

In addition to keeping camera movement from making your pictures blurry, a tripod will let you concentrate on the composition while keeping the framing consistent.

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3. Use a simple, clean background.

For smaller items you can purchase a half roll of seamless paper, or for very small objects (like jewelry) you can use anything that won’t compete with the jewelry. I’ve seen sheets of metal, slabs of stone, and handmade papers work really nicely for smaller pieces. For large pieces like furniture, pick a plain wall and floor if possible.

4. Make sure your product is prepped and clean.

Metal picks up fingerprints like crazy, so use cotton gloves when handling it. Keep a can of dust-off handy for cleaning the set. Steam soft goods and keep the steamer handy. For furniture, keep an eye out for dust and fingerprints as well.

5. When composing, leave some space around your the object and position it to its best advantage.

You’ve heard actors say, “I only let them shoot my good side.” Your product has a good side, too, so you’ll want to make sure any signature features are visible in your primary shot. Leaving extra space around the object in the captured shot will also allow for cropping options later. Don’t hesitate to give your product a little ‘help’. Stuffing handbags, putting gaffers tape on the underside of the strap to stiffen it, putting some batting under your soft goods or propping things up from underneath to get the best angle – it’s all fair game as long as you’re manipulations are not misleading.

6. Shooting with daylight:

If you are working with daylight, position  the camera to the side or slightly in back of your subject. Don’t shoot in direct sunlight —  wait until the sun is not punching through your window, or pick a northern exposure. Use showcards (see #8), a sheet, anything white to reflect your light source back onto the object from the other side. Wherever you see dark space, hold a card up out of frame and see how you can fill the dark shadows.6a00e008c9959888340154353cdf31970c-500wi.jpg.jpg

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7. Shooting with lights:

If you are shooting larger objects or plan to do a lot of your own photography it might pay for you to purchase a lighting kit. Fovitec is a great resource for reasonably priced kits. Regardless of what kind of lighting you are using the principles are the same: Light from the side(s) or slightly from the back, and fill the front with cards or a much softer, lower intensity light.

8. Cards – my favorite lighting tool

Many photographers work with fill cards or ‘showcards’ (I never figured out why they were called that). This is a piece of cardboard or fomecore you can use on the side OPPOSITE the light to fill in the shadows so it’s not too dark. If you’re shooting small items on a table, you can use small cards and lean them on a bottle of windex – or anything. If you use large cards, you can clip them to a stand or better yet have a friend hold them in place. Typical showcards, available at The Set Shop come in several finishes including  shiny silver, dull silver, and black/white. The silvers are good for metallics or if you need to really punch in a lot of reflection. You can also use the black cards to remove or limit light from areas that are too bright. If you can’t get your hands on the cards, regular letter size paper can do the trick for smaller items, and a white sheet for larger.

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8. Color:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address color, since it’s important for it to look right in your photos. The main thing to getting color right is to NOT mix light sources. In other words, if you’re shooting daylight, don’t use regular light bulbs to fill in the light. If you want to supplement daylight, you would need to use daylight balanced lighting such as strobe or daylight balanced soft boxes. If your camera is not getting the color quite right, you may be able to correct it in post (see below). However, if you are shooting with mixed light sources, that can make correction almost impossible.

10. Post processing:

So you’ve got your digital file, and now you need to use it, but the color’s not quite right and you don’t have Photoshop. No fears, iPhoto can do a decent job of the basics. If you need something with slightly more flexibility Gimp is a free tool that can do much of what Photoshop can in terms of basic image manipulation.

Your  photography will take a leap in quality if you just embrace the basics: Compose your frame to show your product’s best side, and remember that lighting is simply about taking away light where you don’t want it and adding light where you do. Keep that in mind and you’ll be shooting like a pro!

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