How To: Product Photos 101

Ever wonder what it takes to get that perfect product shot?  It's not terribly difficult, but having the right equipment and controling the photo environment can make a big difference.

The most important part is to start by placing large light sources set uniformly around the product. In this case, all of the lights are using matched tungsten (approx. 3,200*K) bulbs. After that, you need to be able to control or prevent any other light from sneaking into the shot. Uncontrolled spill light can cause strange color variations (typically a blue or orange coloration), uneven exposure, and errant reflections that ruin an otherwise good picture.

Here's a few photos to help illustrate how these are done (and prove that you can do them outside a typical studio). There's a clear shot glass, a metal vase, and a matte, terra cotta figurine. I've also included a wider photo to show the set-up. These were all taken in my living room with stuff randomly pulled from what I have here.


ShotGlass MetalVase TerracottaWarrior
Clear glass products will show reflections from all around it and make them visible to you - in places you didn't expect. Extreme control of the environment is required. The quality and consistency of the glass' manufacture will also affect how the shadows and highlights appear. It's not uncommon in a professional environment to have to try multiple versions of the product before you find one that looks 'right'. This metallic vase has a semi-gloss surface. The reflective exterior, combined with the high contrast etching in the metal can be very tricky to photograph. Items with a high-gloss / mirror-like surface, especially round-shaped ones, are extremely difficult to photograph. This is because everything around the object will be reflected on the surface of it - including the photographer. Matte objects are probably the easiest to photograph. Their surfaces do not readilly reflect the lighting sources used around them nor any other elements beyond the camera's frame.  Application of back / side lighting is relatively easy without all the difficult reflections. This allows you to either spend more time on your creative approach to photographing the item or just get done quicker.

How was I able to take these photos without a studio?

I set up the gear and then waited until after dark. This prevented any extraneous daylight from coming through the windows and affecting the color rendering of the shot. A sheet of white foam core serves as the backdrop and another small piece is used under the shot glass on the product platform. The background piece of foam core is suspended on a crossbar about two feet behind the product platform. A large black cloth was then hung behind the background foam core and wrapped forward to kind-of seal in the side areas between the product platform and the background. This prevents reflections of household furniture and - the real purpose - provides the wonderful dark spaces you see in the shot glass up and down along its sides. Three large soft box lights were placed on the left, right, and above the product platform to illuminate the photographed item(s). And finally, two additional lights with a frost diffusion were placed under the product platform pointing at the background to illuminate it and create an 'infinity white' appearance at the bottom with a slightly darker top. It can be difficult to get a perfect match with the amount of brightness you have on the two white foam core boards. If you can get it at least visually close, you can easily touch it up in Photoshop.

To take the image, I used my old Canon EOS 60D and a stock, Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS lens. I set the camera to its Manual mode. This is important as the automatic metering functions in other modes will adjust exposure based on what is in the shot as you take it and we need the white background to always be the same - and perfectly at the point of overexposure.

For these shots, my camera settings were: ISO400, f/11, 1/125 sec, Manual WB@3,000*K

The resulting photos were taken in RAW format to allow for some minor tweaking. They were then cropped down in Photoshop to what you see here. The unedited pictures were probably good enough to use as-is. In all, this post-processing work took no more than five to ten minutes per image. I think the results speak for themselves.

Sure... you could purchase one of those white photo boxes off eBay, but it wouldn't provide the separation shadows that this configuration does. Nor will it give you the versatility to adjust for different items and their unique, reflective surfaces.

Photography is fun… You can do this