Reflections on Product Photography

Reflections on Product Photography

I’ve been a fan of photographer Joachim “Kim” Guanzon for sometime. He’s one of those photographers that has a bag of tricks that is as deep as a canyon, always leaving me with the “how did he do that” feeling.

I recently saw some of his product photography work and decided to get the answers straight from the source. The technique in question this time around is “How do you shoot highly reflective objects?” For those experienced with studio lighting, you know this is not an easy thing to do. If you do it wrong it’s like holding up a magnifying glass to an acne-ridden teen’s face. Ok that’s a bit graphic. But, if you get it right, it can be as smooth as… something really smooth.

To start us off lets show an example. Here is a shot of stainless steel he did for a client:

product-photography-1.jpg

Ok, did you really LOOK at the photograph? See if you can break down the lighting before he gives it away. Hint: Where is the light coming from, where does the light go, and what is the quality of the light he is using. Let’s pick his brain and see if we can get some straight answers.

Q: What got you into product photography?

Kim: I started photography back in 2003 when I read about Lomography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lomography) at boingboing.com. At this point I was just shooting casually (mostly with my camera phone) and publishing stuff to flickr. When I moved to Utah my curiosity with Lomography peaked when I happened stumble upon an open box Lomo LCA kit from a used furniture store (yeah, of all the places!). So with my first vintage camera I began playing around with film photography while the rest of the world was going digital. I found myself going back in time, collecting vintage cameras from TLR’s to German “Robot” spy cameras. Eventually I got tired of scanning film, cleaning up dust from scans. I bit the bullet and got a Canon 20D, and from there I gradually accumulated professional camera gear and studio equipment.

I got my big break into product photography back in 2007 when I was asked to take some product shots for XanGo. Since then I have been building my portfolio which includes work doing food photography, product photography, editorial, executive and even the occasional wedding photography.

Q: What are the most challenging products to shoot?

Kim: One difficult subject to shoot we all deal with everyday is stainless steel (or pretty much anything similarly reflective). My solution is always to think up of ways to get the right reflections back from the subject and avoid any undesirable reflections (this includes seeing the camera & photographer in the reflections).

Q: Is your technique something you learned from others, or one you arrived at through trial and error?

Kim: My technique has mostly been countless hours of trial and error as well as reading a lot of lighting cookbooks, lighting blogs and product packaging blogs like The Dieline. I look at a lot of product photography online and try to decipher what tools were used to create the final shot. Most of the time you can see through the reflections what light modifiers were used to create the shot.

For example, let’s take a look at a shot that I tried to dissect from The Dieline website.

I can tell that they used a long vertical diffusion panel camera left lit by a very large stripbox with eggcrates. There is also a large white card coming from camera right to add fill.

Q: Impressive. What are stripboxes? Sounds kinky.

Kim: Stripboxes are long softboxes that create a strip of light. I use them quite a lot with bottle shots. Here’s a similar shot that I took with the same technique and a couple stripboxes:

product-photography-2.jpg

If you notice the thin reflections running along the edges of the bottles, that’s coming from a stripbox. I placed the stripboxes behind the subject and a little of the stripbox goes below the plexiglass to create a seamless catchlight. Check the diagram below to get an overview of the setup:

product-photograhy-3.jpg

Q: Ok, walk us through the studio setup. Sounds like lighting is the most important consideration. Where do you set up your lights and what kind of lights do we need?

Kim: My gear consists of an assortment of monoblock strobes, varying sizes of softboxes, beautydishes, century stands, regular lightstands, booms, grips, diffusion panels, white formica for nonreflected shots, colored plexiglass for reflected shots, sawhorses, etc. I know it sounds intimidating, but that being said, all those are just tools to manipulate light. Once you understand the basic science behind how light works, you can use that understanding and apply it to your shots. I highly recommend reading the book “Light: Science & Magic” by Fil Hunter and Paul Fuqua. That book is pretty much my lighting handbook. You can learn everything from “the family of angles” to dark/bright field lighting.

Q: Do you have a particular preference in how you trigger your off camera strobes?

Kim: I use a combination of Pocket Wizards and optical slaves (only in the studio). Pocket Wizards have been the industry standard and I have never had a misfire since I started using them.

Q: Looking at the sample shots, how did you get the light to fill the inside of the steel cups?

Kim: It’s crazy that you mentioned that. Honestly I didn’t even think about lighting the insides of the cups because they were too small to make a problem. Basically, these cups were shot individually and then I composited them to create the group shot that I submitted to the client. I lit each cup with the exact same lighting shown in the diagram below:

product-photography-4.jpg

Q: Is getting started with product photography going to break the bank? What are the bare essentials?

Kim: A barebones setup would be a cheap light tent big enough to fit your products, a couple strobes, and materials to control the spread and spill of the lights (flags, gridspots, gobo’s). I’ve seen a lot of these modifiers built using DIY methods and are documented at different websites online. Fortunately time is not as expensive as camera gear so be creative and you’ll be surprised at the results you can get.

Q: Ok, last question. How many hours of Photoshopping does it require to arrive at the final image?

Kim: Most of my clients request photos in white backgrounds. Luckily for me this makes editing easier and only takes me a few minutes to clean up and deliver the final files. More complicated files that require compositing can take up to 4 hours to edit.

Hopefully this article helps you better understand all the work that goes into seemingly simple photographs you see when flipping through your favorite catalogue. It’s inspiring to see he started with limited photographic skills and was able to excel a relatively short time. If you’d like to see more of his work, his site is www.kimguanzon.com and his flicker photos are here http://www.flickr.com/photos/jowchie.

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Abhay Patny May 10, 2011 06:48 pm

    interesting and useful interview Thanks for posting

  • Stanphill March 22, 2010 09:30 pm

    nice post, nice blog! :)

  • Lomos.com.br August 8, 2009 10:57 pm

    Lomo is a great way to get into photography. The future is analogue!

    :D

  • Mari March 6, 2009 10:58 pm

    DPS rocks!!!! You always have interesting info. I'm studying photography and find your tips useful. Thanx!!!

  • Harish Anand Thilakan March 1, 2009 07:36 pm

    I recently struggled to get a picture shot of a stainless steel water filter which was, till recently a very common sight in every Indian household.

    Re-discovered now for an overseas market, one of the manufacturers decided to get their product shot for their communication. The output can be seen here - http://www.flickr.com/photos/harishanand/3258186944/

  • kim guanzon March 1, 2009 03:54 pm

    @Graydon, I'm glad that you are doing your own product photography for your products. Your items fall under a more complex niche in the product photography world and requires a lot more techniqes and problem solving to achieve the best results. I'm glad that this article has helped. But if you need more tips, I live here in SLC to give a fellow Utahn some help.

  • kim guanzon March 1, 2009 03:48 pm

    @george. macro lenses are good for product photography but I exclusively use tilt shift lenses for still life and product stuff... i even use TS lenses for portraiture. BTW... most TS lenses are considered macro as well.

  • Graydon Blair February 28, 2009 03:19 am

    Great article! This is my whole reason for delving into digital photography; to shoot better product photography pictures for my site.

    Thank you for doing the interview! Keep them coming!

  • George Kravis February 28, 2009 02:47 am

    Kim, thank you for your frank commentary and useful information. However, in describing your equipment, you didn't mention one key item, the lens. I have the Canon 60mm macro lens and Sigma's 50mm and 105mm macros. I'd appreciate your opinion. George Kravis

  • kim guanzon February 27, 2009 05:07 pm

    Robin, if you are shooting clear items, it is always good to have some know how on brightfield and darkfield lighting. for white backgrounds... i use flags beside the subject to create dark outlines on the edges.

  • Robin February 27, 2009 10:41 am

    Great interview and extremely timely for me, since I've been struggling with studio shots of clear poly tubing. One question: Is the camera straight on (level) with the subject or above at a 45-degree angle. I've experimented with both as well as straight down from above the subject. Just wondering what the group thinks... is there a favorite camera position? Thanks, Robin

  • B P Maiti February 27, 2009 10:02 am

    Q&Aare welldone.It"s just the beginning.I expect some more articles on various facets of product photography.

  • Tracey Jacobsen February 27, 2009 02:05 am

    I'm not a pro...yet (are we ever?) Thanks for all the good info and great tips!!!!

    Tracey in Seattle

  • Chris February 26, 2009 04:58 am

    Great interview - thanks for the tips on lighting!

  • B. Moore February 25, 2009 04:20 pm

    WOW awesome interview! I wear multiple hats at a eCommerce site I work for, one of the hats is product photography. This interview gave me great ideas and insight in to what i have done wrong and what I can do to make everything better. I suprised myself on how much better my photos are now compared to when I started shooting products 2 yrs ago. Looks like I need to invest more time into my lighting set up, my small light cube and 3 lights (I can't remember exact type) on stands just doesn't cut it anymore. :( DIY is the only way to go!

    thanks again for doing this interview, does anyone else have anymore links or books that are a must read for product photography?

    B

  • stephen February 25, 2009 10:37 am

    FINALLY, a good DPS article!

  • D. Travis North February 25, 2009 03:50 am

    Great article/interview. As if I didn't think I had enough to learn about lighting, this only serves to increase that void in my photography know-how. I have a lot to learn.

    Good thing I'm up for the challenge.

  • Scott Jarvie February 25, 2009 01:22 am

    Kim is awesome! Always willing to share his knowledge and fun to be around.

  • dan February 25, 2009 12:41 am

    Very interesting. Is it safe to sum up taking photos of shiny things by making the reflections look good?

  • Lee Milthorpe February 25, 2009 12:25 am

    Wow, this was a really interesting read!

    I would have had no idea how to get reflections like the examples shown.