A beginner’s guide to product photography

A beginner’s guide to product photography

Cover image by James Abbott

Capture perfectly lit product shots against a seamless white background using only basic kit and techniques

Whether you’re shooting products for a client, capturing images to sell an item on eBay or expanding your stock photography of specific objects, you don’t have to have a professional studio to be able to capture professional images. Product photography can be much easier than you think, especially when you only need simple shots of a small object on a clean white background.

High-end professional product photography, of course, takes a huge amount of skill. Not to mention studio flash, modifiers and the accessories required to achieve a range of creative effects. But for most photographers, this is much more advanced and time-consuming than necessary, and there is a way to capture great product shots in a matter of minutes using minimal kit.

All you need to shoot quick and easy product photography is a camera, lens, flashgun and ideally an A3 sheet of paper or card for the background. A tripod is useful for locking the camera in position, but it’s not essential if you prefer to shoot handheld. For the lens, a focal range such as 24-70mm for full-frame or the equivalent focal range for other camera formats is ideal. Alternatively, you could use a macro lens. The flash is then bounced off the ceiling, and by using specific settings, the resulting images will require minimal processing and will look like they were taken in a studio.

This will produce a simple packshot-style product image, so the lighting will be fairly even. To demonstrate how to shoot small products in this way, we’ve shot a Lego camera on a white background made from a piece of A3 card leaning against an old shoebox to create a mini infinity curve. Follow our simple guide below and you’ll be shooting basic product photography that looks like it was shot in a studio with ease.

Author tip - Shoot in manual

Shooting with both the camera and flash in manual mode provides much greater control than when shooting in aperture priority with the flash set to TTL. Shutter speed and aperture remain fixed, while the flash power output can be reduced from full power to darken the exposure when ISO is set to 100. While to lighten the exposure if the flash is at full power, ISO can be increased. It’s a slightly different way of working, but it works well for this type of shot.

1 Create a mini studio

Use an A4 or A3 sheet of white card or paper, depending on the size of the object you’re shooting to create an infinity curve. The paper/card you use doesn’t have to be in perfect condition because light creases and marks can be cloned out easily in Lightroom, but the better the quality the quicker processing will be.

Use two small pieces of Blu-Tack to secure the bottom of the paper to a table or other surface where there’s a white ceiling above. Once the bottom of the paper is secured, place something like a shoebox or a stack of books behind the paper to support it and make sure there’s a curve between the horizontal and vertical halves of the paper/card. Once you’re happy with the infinity curve you can position the object ready for shooting.

2 Flash settings

Attach your flashgun to your camera’s hotshoe and set it to manual mode with the power output at full. This is often represented by 1/1 on the rear screen. Shooting manually gives you more control over power output and ultimately makes it easier to achieve the desired results when compared to shooting in TTL mode. TTL mode uses through the lens metering to set power output.

For this technique to work you must use a flashgun because pop-up flash isn’t sufficient. If you don’t have a flashgun, you can find inexpensive manual-only models on eBay with Yongnuo being a popular brand that’s well-known for being both affordable and reliable. Just make sure that you purchase a model that’s compatible with your camera.

3 The set-up

Ideally use a standard zoom such as 24-70mm for full-frame cameras or 16-50mm for APS-C cameras. Macro lenses also work well but avoid telephoto lenses because the minimum focusing distance is often too long for small spaces. The lens used here is a 90mm macro lens with a full-frame camera.

The easiest way to shoot is with your camera attached to a tripod because you can lock the composition and then tweak the position of the objects while viewing the LCD screen. You can also shoot handheld if you prefer but you’ll have to take more care with framing. And whichever way you decide to shoot, make sure the flash head is aimed up towards the ceiling at an angle of around 70-80°.

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4 Camera settings and adjustments

Set the camera to manual mode at ISO 100, f/8 at 1/60sec. Shutter speed and aperture will remain fixed and adjustments to exposure can be made using flash power output and ISO. Since flashguns have different maximum power outputs, you may need to adjust settings away from the settings we used because these apply to the flashgun used.

If images look too light when ISO is set to 100 and flash power is at 1/1, you’ll need to reduce the flash power to darken the exposure. If images are too light at these settings, you’ll need to increase ISO to lighten the image. Raising ISO to 200 gives you one-stop of additional exposure, while ISO 400 provides two additional stops of exposure when compared to ISO 100. If your infinity curve is on a table start with ISO 100, and if you set up on the floor start with ISO 400 to account for the additional distance from the ceiling.

5 Edit the image

The Raw image straight from the camera will be fairly evenly lit, and with a correct exposure the amount of processing required will be minimal so it should only take a few minutes to complete using the adjustments in Lightroom’s Basic tab. But one of the characteristics of shooting with a small infinity curve and bounce flash is that the vertical part of the background will be slightly darker than the horizontal paper beneath and in front of the object you’ve shot.

The easiest way to balance the exposure is to use Linear Gradients to lighten the back part of the image and darken the front part. Again, this will only take a minute or two, and if you’ve shot several different objects with the camera on a tripod and using the same flash and camera settings, you’ll be able to bulk process the images so you will only need to process the first image and bulk apply the same settings to the remaining images.

Author tip - A flash alternative

If you don’t have a flashgun and can’t justify buying even an inexpensive manual-only model, an LED light panel can work well as an alternative. With a small LED light panel, you’ll have to hold the light above the object being photographed, but the lighting effect you can achieve will be similar to bounced flash. The exposure time will be much longer, possibly as long as 15-30 seconds so you’ll have to attach the camera to a tripod and use a shutter remote to release the shutter. Shoot in aperture priority at f/8 and use positive exposure compensation to stop the white paper/card from underexposing.