In this article I’m going to discuss the equipment you will need to create great product photography. I built my setup to provide great versatile lighting, speed, and the ability to cut out the product in post production very quickly and accurately. This setup can be used for still life, food, fine art and even some macro work.
When I first started doing product photography I was hired by a company to reshoot their entire 3200 piece inventory. Needless to say that was a HUGE job, and speed and efficiency was paramount. I had previously not done more than a few dozen parts at one time for a client, so I really was not set up to undertake a job of this scale. I was going to have to rethink a lot of things, and I knew I was going to need additional studio equipment. The words, “Not going to happen” were not going to come out of my mouth, as I wanted the challenge and the learning experience. Many of the things I implemented for that specific job are still in use for my product photography today. This tips in this article are a good base to start if you are an aspiring product photographer.
Requirements of a product setup
Here is what I felt were the most important things to plan for to make this job happen.
- Speed – to be able to quickly move through multiple angles of a single product, and to adapt quickly to the next product.
- Versatile light – lighting that can stay constant for similar groups of products, but remain flexible enough to quickly shift to get proper exposure.
- Cut-out ease – the ability to knock out a product from the background quickly in post-production, and place a product on pure white without having to open the image in Photoshop.
With this list in mind you find yourself smack dab in the crosshairs of a shooting table. There really is no other way around it. This is why a shooting table works so well for this type of setup.
A platform is needed when you want to quickly move products in front of your camera and then off the set. Why not make it a platform that is specifically made for photography? The seamless background of a shooting table means less fussing around with intersecting lines that is typical with most background setups, and you won’t have to spend much time with product placement within the scene. That alone will speed up your shoots.
2. Versatile light
You can bounce light off the white shooting table, or better yet light the table from below, causing it to glow. Another great thing about a shooting table is that it’s white. White is a great way to control the shadows of a product. If I had it my way I would have the product completely enshrouded in white light or reflectors, then introduce shadows that add shape and dimension via black cards for the ultimate control. That unfortunately isn’t going to happen, but a white table is a great start.
3. Remove background quickly in post-production
No one wants to sit around using the Quick Selection tool in Photoshop, refining the edge, seeing the horrible job that tool does, and then finally having to use the much more labor intensive Pen tool to mask out the background. It’s far easier to get this done in camera, or at least give yourself a huge head start. The time you will save with this method will add up very quickly, and will give you a more natural look.
A shooting table
A shooting table is the first place to spend your money. There are many different tables out there but after all my research I found the Foba DIMIU shooting table to be the perfect solution for me.
It is a large shooting area, a long sweeping seamless Plexiglas surface that allows you to light from above or below it, the table frame features 4 – æ inch studs at each corner that can be used for various attachments such as arms and brackets to hold cards, product or lights.
The table is lightweight, can be moved around the studio with ease, and is easy to assemble. I raised the height of my table by using 6×4 lumber cut into blocks, and some bed risers.
At $1,544 I realize that the price might keep it out of a lot of hands. But, don’t fret, a more affordable option can be found, like the Manfrotto large still life table for $811. If you’re planning on shooting only small products, the Manfrotto mini table at $480 is an option as well. Keep in mind, if you think you might have large products in the future, spend the money now and get the largest table you can afford.
Lighting is the next thing to consider. The type of system you choose is going to make a pretty big difference when it comes to shooting your actual products. You will ultimately be choosing between two main types of light; a constant (continuous) light system or a studio strobe (flash) system.
A constant light setup is going to be much easier if you’re just starting out with product photography. With a constant light system the learning curve is exponentially smaller. The benefits of What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) light cannot be overstated. I am going to go out on a limb to make a broad statement and say that if you are reading this article for help with your product photography, then you likely do not have the experience needed to employ studio strobes as your light source.
Even if you have some experience with strobes, unless you have two to three years or more of shooting strobes in a product environment, do yourself a huge favor and get continuous lights. You will be amazed at how much, and how quickly you will learn when you use constant light. Plus there are some added benefits of using a constant light:
- No tether equipment. You do not have to control the lights with a radio transmitter, by placing the light in optical slave mode, or by a cable like you do with studio strobes. They will always be on, ready to make pictures.
- You can use them as video lights if you want to get into motion for product shots.
- They are a far superior light learning tool, even for more advanced photographers. In my opinion this reason alone is why you want go with constant light.
Okay great, you are going to take my advice and get some constant light. My recommendation would be the Westcott Spiderlite TD6 system for the following reasons:
- They are bright.
- The fluorescent bulbs stay cool. A huge deal when you are stuffed in a studio with no windows.
- The included bulbs are daylight balanced and can be mixed with light from a window.
- Option to use tungsten halogens (not sure why you would because those bulbs run so hot).
- Westcott has plenty of light modifiers for shaping your light.
- Light output is controllable in 33% increments with three switches.
- Solid build, with all metal heads and quality light modifiers.
When I bought the kit from Westcott it came with the Spiderlite TD6 head, six 50w fluorescent bulbs, a tilter bracket, and the 36×48 softbox. I paid $700 per light, and bought two of those kits for a grand total of $1400.
There is some good news though. At the time of writing this article, there is a Westcott promo kit that comes with two of everything, two heads, two brackets, two sets of bulbs, and two softboxes, one is the 36×48 the other is a strip 12×36. The kit is going for $799. A fantastic buy for this lighting system.
If that is still a little more than you want to spend, then there are some other options for lighting. Impact has a kit that has light heads, stands, bulbs, and modifiers for about $265. But as my grandfather always said, you can’t afford to buy something twice. If product photography is something you are going to do, pay for the quality of Westcott. It will last, day in and day out.
My TD6 lights are used primarily as my key (main) and fill lights. I still need to be able to light my shooting table. For that I turned to some reflectors.
I went with two 16″ reflectors from Flashpoint, for $70 a piece. These sit under my raised shooting table and shine straight up through the bottom to blow out my table top.
Now is a good time to talk about support. Supporting your lights should be carefully considered, and you need to ensure you don’t skimp here. I have a story to help illustrate this point. While doing a product shot for a client I was moving about the studio, and I brushed past my lights on my way back to my camera. Before I could turn around and look at the scene I heard a crash. My light had toppled over, hit the table, knocked the product off balance, and it hit the floor and broke. It was a bottle of wine. I was left with a huge mess to clean up, a broken bottle that needed to be replaced, and a bill from the client for the unreturned product. It could have been worse, but not by much. Invest in your light stands. Get good ones and weigh them down properly with sandbags.
You are going to want to use some sort of a C-Stand. Whether it be a turtle base (removable legs from the center column) a rocky mountain C-stand (a stand with one leg that can go up and down the center column) or a super C-stand (extra heavy duty) invest in a C stand for your large lights. Also, always have sandbags handy to weigh the C-stands down once you bring them onto your set.
For the price of $129 per stand from Adorama, for their Flashpoint C-stand with turtle base is pretty great, I couldn’t be more pleased. It has been a fantastic solid stand for my large TD6 lights.
The other stand that I bought was a lot less mission critical, it was for my reflectors. I bought a few Manfrotto Nanopole stands which bottom out at 20″, and can go as high as six feet. They are not meant for anything too heavy, but they do the small stand job perfectly.
So, we touched on all the main equipment needed to make a successful product photography set. Do you have any other tips to add? What do you use for product photography? If you have any questions please ask in the comments below.