Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

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If you’re like me, you may be wondering, “What exactly is commercial photography?” Well simply put, it is taking photos for commercial use. Common uses include ad space, websites, product placement, and items for sale. As you can imagine, having a working understanding of the essential elements of product photography can be extremely beneficial. Commercial shots influence consumers immensely. You can spruce up a client’s Etsy store, eBay listing, or even personal website with well done commercial shots.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

Commercial photography is a great way to sell your prints to businesses as well. Many businesses love to have nice, professional shots of their product hanging in their office space, hallways, or lobbies. Have fun shooting products you enjoy, and you never know if the business will be interested in buying and displaying the print.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

In this article, I’m going to talk about some essential tips for nailing commercial work. We’ll talk about how to set up a lightbox, selecting gear that’s right for the shoot, placing the product in flattering light, and how to touch up the image once it’s shot.

Equipment for commercial photography

First, it is highly beneficial to have a lightbox or light tent to use. The particular model I use folds and snaps together using magnets. You will first assemble your lightbox into its standing shape and then select the backdrop. Commonly used backdrop colors are black and white, and you will see that these are the ones I prefer to shoot against.

Feel free to have fun with the colors though! After all, you are the one behind the camera, so you call the shots. The use of a small stand may also be very beneficial for you. One tip though – be sure to position your camera in a way that the product will obscure the stand in the shot.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

Lens choice

My all-time favorite lens for commercial work is the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro. In fact, all of the images included in this article were shot with this lens. Macro lenses are great, in particular for small objects, to reveal extreme detail in the item.

Remember, that is a core component of shooting product photography – you want to advertise how great the item is to the audience of consumers! All the details matter, and all the resolving power of the lens counts. One thing to be wary of is that exact resolving power.

The magnification of macro lenses can become a heavy problem because they will make things like dust, scratches, and fingerprints appear clearly prevalent. Thankfully, I will share my tips to help edit these things out in Lightroom and Photoshop later.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

Lighting

Most light boxes, like mine, come equipped with a set of LEDs that are programmable or can be dimmed to various ratios of light. You will want to position the item you’re photographing so that the LEDs can light it in a flattering and dynamic way. Depending on what you’re shooting, you may want softer lighting or something that will really pop.

Be careful to avoid things like glare when positioning the item, as this problem will only become a headache in the touching up part of the job. In terms of positioning, I love to mess around with the shadows that are cast against the backdrop of my lightbox.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

Get ready to shoot

Now, it’s almost time to shoot! I would recommend canned air to blast some dust and dirt off the subject if it needs it. A tripod is also a MUST for this sort of work.

I generally shoot at small apertures to keep the images as sharp as possible, with as much in focus as possible. However, sometimes it can be nice to shoot wide to create a nice depth of field perspectives with the shots. There is a delicate balance between showing artistic intent and making the shot distracting when advertising a product, so be sure to keep the client’s intent in mind when shooting.

Here you can see a real-world example of what the setup could look like when using a lightbox to shoot a product.

Practical Tips for Doing Commercial Product Photography

A remote trigger is also very helpful, as commercial work necessitates eliminating camera shake. If you don’t have a remote trigger, my advice is to use the delayed-timer on your camera. Simply set the camera (mounted to the tripod) on self-timer for 10 seconds or so, focus the shot, depress the shutter release, and wait. Naturally, this method can add time to the process, so it isn’t a bad idea for you to invest in a remote trigger.

Post-processing

Now that you have the shots you want, it’s time to touch them up. This part can be long and tedious, but it makes a huge difference in the end product. I generally lean toward Lightroom when touching up shots, but for commercial macro work, in particular, I gravitate to Photoshop. I will explain the process for each.

In Lightroom: I normally boost highlights and whites to blow out the backdrop and create a nice glow to the product. You can do this by sliding the adjustment sliders for both highlights and whites to the right. The amount really varies shot to shot, but don’t be afraid to experiment! Exposure can also be adjusted by moving the exposure slider to the right, however, make sure to not clip the highlights! I also may adjust clarity and make slight contrast adjustments. The real work comes in with spot removal on the dust specks, which I generally do in Photoshop.

Here you can see the lightbox shown with unattractive shadows and blacks, which can be boosted as explained above, to white out the background as shown in the image below.

Edits are done in Lighroom showing the effect on the image.

In Photoshop: You should always clean your product before shooting, but some dust will not be avoided. Luckily, with Photoshop, you can select Filter > Noise > Dust and Scratches. From here, you can select the radius in pixels to target the dust specks. You will have a tendency to lose some sharpness since the filter isn’t perfect. It can have a tendency to smooth out sharp edges or features you intended to remain in the shot.

For this reason, I always create new layers of areas I want to filter and then re-stack the layers to show the changes while leaving sharp edges unaffected. Select certain areas to target with the lasso tool, then copy those layers, run the filter, and restack the layers.

Original image showing the dust specks.

The masked image with the dust specks removed.

Restacked layers with the dust removed.

Outside of this dust removal, I generally reopen the image in Lightroom and do any other necessary edits there. Generally the discussed touch ups I talked about for Lightroom in conjunction with the dust/scratch removal in Photoshop is enough for my taste as long as I shot the frame with correct exposure and settings.

Conclusion

While commercial photography can be intimidating at first, I find that it can be extremely rewarding and versatile alongside other ventures. I’ve found it to be on the lucrative end of the photographic spectrum in terms of genres, and I definitely recommend it as a skill set to add to your photographic tool belt.

Be sure to pay attention to details when shooting product work, and also pay attention to how you market these images to organizations and businesses to ensure the highest possible level of success within the genre. Above all else, go out, purchase a small light box and shoot! You may find that you love commercial work as much as I do!

I hope these tips help you with your commercial product photography. Please share your images and thoughts in the comments below.

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Michael Neal is a concert photographer for UnderAir Media. Focusing on concert work, he branched into portraits in addition to commercial, macro, and landscape photography. He shoots digital primarily, but also branches into 35mm for portraits. You can check out his concert work for UAM and his portfolio of personal work. You can also follow him on Instagram.

  • Cass Durain

    Super informative post! Great work.

  • Michael Neal

    Thank you very much!

  • Sam Strathman

    This was actually extremely fascinating, I had no idea there were so many distinct facets to commercial photography. I’m stoked to see your future work!

  • Michael Neal

    Thank you! Yes, it’s an extremely intricate and vast caveat of photography that I think a lot of people skim over!

  • Jon Lockwood

    I’ve been curious as to how to get into commercial photography for a while. Are there ways to get into it besides offering free shots? Also with your lense choice I’m assuming you are using a full frame, but what would you recommend for a crop sensor? I don’t the money to upgrade my body yet but could get a newer lense.

  • Michael Neal

    For sure! In a way, it depends on philosophy. One method is to shoot your own items to build a bit of a portfolio, after which you can pitch your portfolio to businesses to hire you to shoot their products. Of course, you can also pitch yourself for paid shoots right off the bat, though naturally you run the risk of businesses turning you down without seeing your abilities beforehand.

    Yes, that it correct. I’m shooting here with a Nikon D750, though honestly I did a lot of macro and product work with a D5300 (crop sensor) beforehand. This lens is tack sharp, specifically in the center so it still works just as well (maybe even better) with crop sensor cameras. Keep in mind it will operate at an effective 157mm due to the crop factor. The key here is to make sure you have room to shoot!

    In terms of recommending other lenses, just make sure the lens is very sharp. It can be beneficial to have autofocus with manual focus override so that you can autofocus on a point and adjust based on the area of the product you want to emphasize. I have had good results with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 af-s and the sigma art lenses as well.

  • Jon Lockwood

    Thanks. That definitely helps!

  • Helpful article.
    I started to learn to shoot small product for my shop to save money as product photography price is expensive.

  • Michael Neal

    Yes, it’s a great way to cut back on expense for yourself as well! I’m glad you found the article helpful.

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