Top product photography tips
Why understanding studio lighting is so important
When people ask me about product photography, the most common questions I get asked are things like “What is the best camera for product photography?” Or “Which is the best lens for product photography?”. The reality is that the most important thing you can have isn’t the top camera or most expensive lens — it’s a good understanding of light.
My number one tip for taking great product photos (though I do share a few other great tips later in this article) is this: take the time to understand and learn lighting.
An understanding of light is a skill that will translate to all areas of photography, whether you’re creating an advertising image for a client, photographing a high-end fashion campaign or simply capturing your treasured family memories. Light can make or break an image.
If you’re looking to improve your product photography it’s essential that you’re able to recognise light and know how to use it.
To do this it’s important that you understand how light works and the fundamental principles of light so that you can benefit from and use that knowledge when you’re creating your images.
Size of the light
The size of a light source is very important as this is what determines the crispness or softness of the shadows. A small light source will result in harder shadows while a large light source will result in softer shadows.
Hard or soft light
Understanding the difference between hard and soft light and knowing how to create each is important because, as I mentioned, size plays a big part in the hardness or softness of a light and depending on whether you’re using a large light source or a small light source, you’ll get very different results.
Hard light, for example, reveals far more texture than soft light does, but it can also often result in harsh, specular reflections on skin or products with shiny, reflective surfaces.
The position of the light
The position and distance of your light source — whether the light is in front, to the side, behind, low down or up above — allows us to control the direction of the shadows and will also influence the amount of texture you reveal and the level of contrast.
The closer the light, the bigger it is and therefore the softer the light. The further away it is, the smaller it is and therefore the harder it is (the Inverse Square Law will come into play here, which I’ll discuss next). Frontal light tends to produce less shadows and texture whereas lower or side lighting will create more shadows and therefore texture.
Inverse Square Law in photography
I provide a detailed explanation of the Inverse Square Law and demonstrate how it works in the introductory video of our Lighting Theory & Equipment course, but to briefly summarise, the Inverse Square Law relates to the fall off of light and is dependant on the distance and apparent size of the light source from the subject. Basically, what this means is that the further the light source is away from the subject, the more gradual the fall off of light is compared to a light source that is closer to the object, where you will have a quicker fall off of light.
Lighting modifiers also, obviously, have an effect on the light. Softboxes, for example, can produce soft, even light whereas a standard reflector will produce a harder light with greater contrast. Understanding the different types of modifiers and their effects means you’ll know how to shape and modify light to achieve particular results and create mood and atmosphere in your photography.
So which modifiers are best for product photography?
I use a variety of modifiers for product photography. For bottle photography I often use softboxes and reflectors, for glasses I use specialist modifiers such as picolites with projection attachments and in our food photography classes with Anna Pustynnikova we often used a large Octabox.
However, probably the most common modifier I use is actually none of these — it’s a scrim.
I use scrims for a lot of my commercial and advertising photography, whether it be bottles, jewellery, cosmetics, watches or even electronic devices. They produce a beautiful gradated light that is ideal for working with smooth, reflective surfaces (which is often the case with product photography).
To learn more about the points mentioned above, visit our Lighting Theory & Equipment course. Although this is grouped in the Portrait section, it is relevant to any genre of photography and you’ll need to understand these concepts if you want to learn how to use studio lighting. I recommend watching the classes in order to ensure you understand each concept.
Product photography lighting
The two images below are a great example of how lighting can create a particular mood or emotion, which is particularly important in product photography. Compositionally these two images are exactly the same — the same product in the same place on the same background — but they have a completely different feel.
Once you understand light you’ll also understand how to make the most of the tools you have available. Many photographers get so caught up on gear that they forget knowledge is more important. The video below is a great example of some DIY product photography and shows how you can get a great product photograph using desk lamps!
Only once you fully understand lighting will you be able to shoot confidently and have full creative control over the images you produce. Then, and only then, is it time to look at the things like camera choice and lens choice.
Other useful product photography tips
- Lens choice: Choose a lens that allows you to get close to your product. I often use my 80mm or 100mm lens with extension tubes.
- Angle of view: Before you fix your camera, experiment with different angles of view and see how each makes your product feel. I often shoot from a low angle as it makes the product feel more imposing and impressive.
- Background choice and base surfaces: It’s very important to select backgrounds and base surfaces that compliment your product. Think carefully about the colour and texture to make sure they don’t distract from the product.
- Create the right emotion: I mentioned emotion earlier, but it’s worth mentioning again. Bright, fresh lighting may work for women’s skin care products but not necessarily men’s. Dark, dramatic lighting may work for a men’s shoe range but not for a women’s handbag line.