Taking photos of products can seem like a daunting task. If you look at a lot of advertising, you will find yourself inundated with a lot of high-end product photography that can seem (and probably is) out of reach for a novice. The thing is, not all product photography is equal. In many cases, a much simpler approach will do the job just fine.
This article will guide you through a process that can get you started taking product photos with minimal equipment. In these examples, you don’t even need a studio, just a backyard, and decent weather. You will also see that you can replace some dedicated kit (reflectors and diffusers in this case) with some basic and cheap substitutes.
What you need
With one optional exception, you will only need some basic kit to go through the process outlined here.
Camera – There’s not much to say about this one. You will need a camera.
Lenses – To get the best results you will want to choose a lens with a close focusing distance (if your products are relatively small) and a focal length that will give you the option to fill the frame.
If the products that you are photographing are quite small, you may want to opt for a macro lens. Fast lenses aren’t much of a concern here as you will want to choose an aperture that ensures complete focus on all parts of your subject.
Tripod – Because this is still-life photography, you absolutely should use a tripod. The reason should become clear as this tutorial progresses, but it will make your life so much easier.
An outdoor space – As for the where, all you need to get started with this tutorial is an open outdoor space. Even a small backyard will do. Anywhere that will lend you a decent, clean background will do.
Tissue paper – In lieu of a dedicated diffuser, you can use tissue paper. For ease of use, you can mount this in a frame of some description with clips or a bit of tape. This allows you to control and manipulate the natural light in your photos. I did use a dedicated diffuser in this tutorial, but tissue paper will work just as well.
Backgrounds (optional) – Using the environment as a background will be fine a lot of the time, but sometimes you may need something different.
Color Management – Depending on what you are photographing and whom you are creating product photography for, color management may be optional, or it may be a legal requirement.
Even if it’s not necessary for your situation, it’s still a good idea. The word ‘product’ implies that you are selling something. Even if you’re only creating an eBay or Facebook Marketplace listing, ensure an accurate representation of what you are selling. It is a means of treating the people you are selling to with respect. If you’re providing commercial services to a paying client, then that accurate representation of the product may be a legal requirement. Do your research and find that out before you get started.
Note: While you can use tissue paper and foamcore to great effect, I still believe you should buy a 5-in-1 reflector or two. These give you access to white and silver reflectors, diffusers and flags. Godox sells one for $15, so there’s no excuse. You can also use 5-in-1 reflectors as a background in a pinch.
With your gear collected, this process is relatively straightforward.
Step 1: Find a space
As long as you are photographing small(ish) objects, where you choose to set up isn’t very important. Since the focus of your image is solely the product, other elements like the background won’t be taking up very much space in your frame in most cases. As long as you can find a space that gives you a clean background (or somewhere to place your own) and gives you plenty of room to work, you will be fine.
If you are working with small objects at a close distance to the camera, work with small apertures like f/16. If you want an out of focus background, you will want to ensure there is a good distance between your subject and the background.
Without going into the math, the closer your camera is to the subject, the shallower the depth of field becomes. When you are really close (especially with macro lenses), the focal plane reduces to a tiny sliver. To combat this, use small apertures.
In terms of lighting, as long as there is light, you will be fine. If you have all of the equipment listed at the top of this article, you will be able to manipulate the light in most situations.
Broad daylight? No problem. Shade? No problem. Any time of day will work except for the night where you would probably need to add an external light source of some description.
Step 2: Set up
Now that you are in your space, pick where you want to set up and decide where you are going to photograph your product. Place your camera on a tripod and ensure that you have a good idea of how you are going to frame your product.
You can now evaluate your lighting. If you’re in open daylight, setup the tissue paper as a diffuser over where your product is going to be. You can fine-tune this later, but any diffusion you may be using should be in place before you start anything else. Diffusion material is going to affect the color of your images. Having it in place allows you to see the light as it’s going to appear in your photos while you are working on your composition.
Step 3 – Color Management
If you are opting to replicate accurate colors, do it now. Place your grey card (or whatever tool you’ve chosen) where your product will be under the exact lighting conditions that your final images will be created with. Take a photo of the card. If you’re setting the white balance in-camera, do it now. If you’re using a tool like the ColorChecker Passport shown in the example images, you can save it for the software later.
Step 4: Place your subject
The next step is to place your product in situ for the composition that you want. Adjust the subject and the positioning of the camera until you have your desired effect. I find it is important to get this right at this stage. With this done, you are free to adjust everything else (such as the lighting) while being able to compare any test shots. It also allows you to blend multiple exposures later (providing it would be permissible to do so).
Step 5: Choose your aperture
With products, most of the time, you will want to choose an aperture that provides maximum focus on the whole of the subject. Since the depth of field is most affected by the distance of the camera from the subject, small objects close to the camera (particularly with a macro lens) will lead you to use much smaller apertures than you might typically use in other situations. If you need to, take a few test shots at various aperture settings. Review the results until you have the desired effect. Depending on your camera, you may find the depth of field preview button useful here as well.
Shooting tethered is also a great way to be able to see if there is enough depth of field in your images.
Step 6: Evaluate the lighting
With everything in place, you’re just about ready to go. Here is where you can fine-tune your lighting to your heart’s content.
Use your white card(s) to fill in any shadows that may be providing too much contrast in your images. The beauty of using a card is you can cut it into any size and shape to match any need you have so that you are only reflecting where the extra light needs to be. For the most part, you are going to want to avoid heavy contrast in product photos, so feel free to use reflectors generously.
In the event that there’s light falling on your subject where you don’t want it, use your black card as flags. For example, if the main source of light is coming from behind your subject, you can use a flag to shape that light so that it is only falling on your product where you want it. You can also use flags to darken areas around your subjects, such as the surface it is resting on, to put more emphasis on the product itself.
This step may seem optional, and to be fair, it pretty much is, but if you want your images to stand out, this is by far the most important step. The more attention to detail and effort you place into getting the lighting right, the better your photos are going to be.
It pains me to suggest that you could to move your camera at this point. However, as a last resort, if you’re having problems controlling the contrast in your images, you can set your camera to spot metering mode and evaluate where your reflectors need to be from there.
That said, if your light is suitably diffused, you shouldn’t have to resort to that. Alternatively, you could use a second body or a light meter if your subject is big enough.
Step 7: Final shot
With all of the prep work done, you can now take your final shot. If all has gone well, you should have a well-lit, well-exposed image in the composition of your choice. Going through all of these steps should also mean there is very little to do in terms of post-processing.
Is this the only way to take photos of products? Absolutely not. It’s not even close to the only way to do things outdoors. This is just one easy method to help you get results with minimal gear.
Hopefully, you’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t need a fully decked out studio and a myriad of specialist and obscure equipment to achieve better product photography results. Basic equipment, basic camera craft and attention to detail can take you a long way and get you results that will help you to sell whatever it is you are trying to sell.