Tabletop Photography Walkthrough or How to Create an Eye-Catching Product Shot

Tabletop Photography Walkthrough or How to Create an Eye-Catching Product Shot

A Guest Post by Alex Koloskov

In this article I am going to show a common routine I use as a product photographer or at least that’s how I see it. Being completely self-taught, I’ve always taken a step-by step approach to any and all of my photography assignments. Learning photography based on the trail and error method. For this shot, I’ve made more steps then I would usually would for a shot like this as I wanted to make it specifically for this tutorial.

However, my approach remained the same. Since this is how I learn and this is how I would shoot something I’ve never done before. I started from the simplest lighting setup and built the composition step by step, analyzing the outcome with every change I make.

Self-assignment: Motorola Droid X2 phone in a multimedia docking station. Create eye-catching yet simple image of the product.

Few notes about the shot and gear used:

I used Elinchrom and Paul C Buff strobe lighting with various modifiers to create this image. Please keep in mind that similar results can be relatively easily repeated with ordinary tungsten lights, DIY diffusers and snoots. The key to success is not solely the lighting itself, but the positioning and control of lighting direction.

So don’t make excuses for yourself if don’t have the professional lighting. Experiment with the lights you already own. This same shot can be done with the lights you already have in your home. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example of two shots I did with and without pro lighting: How to get complete white background out from a camera and The follow-up shot: does the equipment really matter?

The composition for this shot was simple. I placed the phone in its docking station then placed on the black glossy surface, rotated about 30 degree to a camera.

Let the shooting begin!

First part. Lighting the subject

I started out by placing two large soft boxes on both sides of the subject: Light #1 is a large square at about 45 degrees on the right, light #2 is a strip box at about 20 degrees on the left:


I then placed the phone on a black glossy glass (regular mineral glass painted black from the other side).  I used black foamcore board as the background, placing it about 6 feet away (~2 meters) from a subject.

This was the result (Two light setup):


As you can see, the strobe from the right had more power then one on the left. I never use a flashmeter when working with products, as I use the luminance histogram and my eyes to judge the lighting.  I prefer to shoot tethered to my laptop computer and view the image on an external monitor. There is no reason to remember ratio between the lights, because I don’t shoot large quantities of the similar products. Its too boring for me:-), instead I work on individual shots where the lighting is set specifically for the individual product.

This basic lighting setup is fine, but I want to add more light to the top edge of the phone. I want this to edge to be more pronounced and separate it from the background.

A third light was added to a scene:


Strobe #3: PCB E-640 monolight through a stripbox was positioned above and about 2 feet behind of the subject. The stripbox was aimed the to only highlight the top edge of the phone.

This was the result (Three light setup):


Second part. Lighting the background.

Now after I’ve got my subject lit the way I want it, its time to start working on lighting the background. I know how appealing gradients can be to the eye (in terms of making an image look more interesting) and I like to use them any time I want to add some drama to relatively plain image. (Read more about this in another article of mine: “How to add drama to a plain picture“).

I wanted to have gradient on both the shooting table and on the background. But first I need to fix the reflection we’re seeing on the glass. Its supposed to be 100% black, but if you look at the image above there is a clearly a visible gray cast on the table.

How we work with reflections on the glossy surfaces is easy. Simply flag the light or in this case, the reflection at the appropriate place in order to block the light from which the reflection came from. In my setup, it was coming form the white ceiling and wall behind the subject. Please look at the image below, the red highlighted screen was added to block the unwanted reflection.

Screen to block reflection from the wall:


The result was exactly as we expected.  We now have a completely black table surface.


Now that I’ve got everything ready, its time to add a gradient to the background. A PCB E-640 (light #4) was added to the composition.


Strobe #4 was flagged with black (other side is white) foamcore board to prevent spilling the light and to make highlighted area on the background even more narrow. Side view of the setup is below.


The resulted image was this:


Much more interesting, wouldn’t you agree? This is why I like to use gradients:-)

Before we go further, a few words about the background:

Ideally I would use a white background to create the same effect as I did on black one, but I would have had to put background at a greater distance than was available in my studio. White can expose completely black with no light on it and it would require less power to create the same effect on the background.

However, if your room is limited its easier to use a black background and highlight it with an intense enough strobe to make the desired gray-to-black gradient.

Now, the next step. Since I want a gradient on the glass table as well, I added another PCB E-640 (light #5) to the scene. I used a 10 degree honeycomb grid on it in order to get the small spot we see on the foamcore. It was positioned to cast a reflection on the left bottom corner on the glossy surface behind the phone.


I decided to use a circular gradient on the background as well. So I changed the modifier on light #4 from a stripbox to 20 degree honeycomb grid, focused on the right, so that it appears at the right corner of the subject. This created a very interesting effect to the overall image. Take a look at the resulting image below.

The composition with 2 circular gradients:


Highlighted area on the table (right from the phone) was created by the reflection from light #5, and left side of the background was lit by light #4. As you see, I’ve positioned both spots to be divided by a shooting table by half.

Third Part. Composing the final image

At this point I considred the main setup to be done, and was ready to tweak the lighting a little, as I usually do at the end of the shot. I was slighly changing lights position and modifying a power ratio between the lights. The shot I’ve liked the most was this:


Here’s what I’ve done so far:

The power of the background light was increased, and both main lights (#1 and #2) were moved more towards the sides of the subject. This gave me the more edgy and dramatic look of the phone I wanted. A darker subject with nice “hairlight” (the edges) and an even brighter gradient-filled background.

The next step was to add a color. I wanted to have phone’s blue screen to be ON for the final image, so two blue gels were added to the strobes #4 and #5.

The result of this change is below:


The final step.

In order to capture both the phone’s screen and still use high-intensity strobe lighting, I needed to get sort of “double exposure” in one shot. I use this technique every time I need to capture subject’s own light without actually making 2 exposures and combining them during the post-production. There is an example and detailed explanation of such technique on my another article, “Lighting the lights“, you may wan to check it to get better idea of what I am talking here:-)

The idea of this technique is simple. Because required exposures are very different, 1/200 sec. at F 16 for the strobe and 8 second F16 for the phone’s LCD screen, I’ve shot an 8 second exposure in complete darkness in the studio. Turning off all of the lights, including the strobes modeling lights and turning “on” the phone’s screen. I took an 8 second exposure at F/16 to capture the desired image. I call it a “double exposure” because there’s an exposure from the strobes was around 1/1000 sec. (duration of a strobe impulse) and the rest of 7.999 seconds of the exposure captures phone’s LCD screen.

Pretty simple, yet powerful technique that allows me to get the image below. This is “as-is” from the camera RAW:


The only thing we have left to do now is a dust cleaning, some color management and other minor adjustments in Photoshop.

The final image:


The only regret I have from this shot is that I’ve used a non-standard Droid docking application. The original one probably looks nicer, but my phone is deeply rooted and there is not much left on it of the stock applications:-)

I hope this was interesting for you to read and as it was for me to shoot. Studio product, liquid and jewelry photography is my true passion and if you’re interested in learning about my photography, you can visit my blog: There you’ll find that I have most of my assignments dissected similar to the way I have presented this one here. My goal is to show you practical, useful things that you won’t be able to find in a college textbook or any other photography book. I share real-world, everyday experience of successful commercial photographer.

Thank you, Alex Koloskov

P.S. Many thanks to Evan Tantum for his great assistance during the shoot.

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Some Older Comments

  • Jim March 31, 2013 12:28 pm

    Excellent article...makes me want to run down to the basement, set up and start shooting as explained in the article... only problem is i have two strobes... Can the author send me a check for about $1000 so i can buy three more lights, three softboxes and some stands :-)

    I love reading informative and insightful photo articles like this.. Gets my blood flowing until I realize I can't duplicate the process because I need a lot more equipment to do it. I would imagine a reflector or two instead of all thsoe lights could bring similar results. There must be some inexpensive strobes out there specifically for table top & product lighting that would allow us to get these great results without spending too much cash. Since I already have two powerful strobes, can anyone suggest what inexpensive strobes are out there? Thanks.


  • tom bird January 22, 2013 06:17 am

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks so much for sharing your shooting with us! I really appreciate your images; they are great images! I have been working to shoot iphone w/ accessories and the client wants the images straight on which poses a challenging dilemma. the reflection is difficult to get out of the picture. Ive tried shoot off center but have to crop and do a lot afterward in photo shop and the rate i thought i was getting is not worth the ps work and time. Can you suggest a different way to shoot this product? Thanks again.

  • Brian February 18, 2012 03:29 pm

    I guess I'm resurrecting an old thread, but I can't resist a comment.

    Although the result is good from a technical standpoint, it is extremely sterile and "cold" from an emotive standpoint - and I grant that this might be what the client wanted.

    I like to see evidence of the "unseen user" in product shots. Perhaps some car keys, a classy pen or watch and sunglasses, to say that the product is being used by someone who came home and docked it. I'd also give more thought to what's depicted on the phone's screen, which again is quite sterile in this shot.

    I'm sure it's a matter of personal preference, but product shots these days seem to be following what I call the "eBay model" - just the product, and nothing but the product.

  • Alex Koloskov August 10, 2011 02:10 am

    Hey guys,
    As promised, I've got $5 DIY lighting used to get the same result
    Check this out:

  • Suresh Sharda August 1, 2011 03:37 pm

    Alex,Thank u for for sharing your expertise,one can learn a lot by going through this article.Sharda.

  • Jon August 1, 2011 07:17 am

    Great step by step detailed instructions!

    I too have played around with different lighting affects, using various poster style paper (from heavy texture, metallic, to color) underneath and behind the subject for interest. All while adding degrees of lighting to each material. I'm still leaning the proper technique to remove unwanted light using flags, but over all the results have been exciting especially with metallic paper and bending the light. I have a ways to go still! Thanks for taking us through the steps.

  • TWJ July 30, 2011 06:49 am

    Fab article! Great no nonsense advice and tips, I've been able to utilise scrap overhead projector lamps as they are completely obsolete these days, they make superb barn doors!
    Thanks for sharing Alex!

  • Alex Koloskov July 30, 2011 04:35 am

    Ha-ha :-)) Thank you guys!

  • Art Derfall July 30, 2011 02:40 am

    There's a lot that goes into a product shot. I'd like to see instructions on how best to use a light cube for a simple shot of a watch or trinket for Ebay.

    Two years ago I experimented with LED flashlights having 28 to 150 lights. I came up with a way of mounting them to short tripods that could be placed on a lamp, mantle or hand held. I'm not sure what the color temperature is, but they did well as fill in lights. Since they are cheap (Ebay), I'd like to see how an experienced photographer would use them. It wasn't long after my experiment that I began to see professional LED lighting systems.


  • Doug July 30, 2011 01:28 am

    An exceptionally good post . I also had a look at your site and want to have a go at product shots using what I have to hand. That gradient on the "Aninisa" brushes made me want to buy and I am an ugly old git that only a large paper bag might improve :)

  • Ravi iyer July 29, 2011 05:33 pm

    Absolutely fantastic step by step explanation. It's so nice too see someone so open and not insecure about sharing his trade secrets and giving others an education. Thanks!

  • Body Lawson July 29, 2011 07:49 am

    Nice and simple but yet very powerful! Nice one Alex.

  • Alex Koloskov July 29, 2011 01:25 am

    @Andre It is only because you may not be good (my guess) with the lighting and good at 3DSMax.. For me it is opposite:-)
    BTW, In real assignment it will take me about 30 minutes to get that shot,as I won't go back and forth with the lighting as i did specifically for this example.
    Will you be able to create EXACTLY this phone in CGI in 30 minutes? (remember, client wants to see a real product) If yes, it means you are really good at this:-))

    Thank you all!

  • Tiera July 29, 2011 01:25 am

    Wonderful post! I always enjoy reading them and they are so well written. Thanks!

  • Andre July 29, 2011 01:04 am

    I suppose actually it's more simplier to use 3DSMax or Cinema4D and Vray )))

  • PhotoAlbert July 29, 2011 01:02 am

    Thanks for your tutorial. Great job

  • Abhay Patny July 27, 2011 03:22 pm

    Alex as always I love your posts, you are doing a great job and is an inspiration

  • Glen July 27, 2011 04:25 am

    Thank you for the inspiration. I'm going to put together a little make-shift table-top photography workshop. The article was very well written. I really liked the details and image examples given. It helped bring it all together.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 27, 2011 12:43 am


    This is the Boston Puck shot

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 27, 2011 12:43 am


    I will have to go over this article in great detail - I started tabletop work about 6 months ago and love it! I really appreciate all the great technical tips and use of light modifiers. So far I have gotten along with a few soft boxes and a couple Alien Bee strobes, however nothing compared to you skills!

    This is a simple hockey puck which I shot after Boston won the Stanley cup:

  • JKKLstudio July 27, 2011 12:01 am

    Thanks Alex - for let us know....
    Would like to see more example like this; - lightsetting in studio.
    I use to follow tips from this website;

    click on...

  • bycostello July 26, 2011 05:17 pm

    nice tutorial thanks...

  • Fuzzypiggy July 26, 2011 05:06 pm

    Incredible what has to be done for something that appears to be so simple, sad to think most people will simply skip over the ad when they see it in a magazine. However I suppose when that one shot is going to net the company that makes XYZ millions of dollars in revenue, a couple of days in studio with a pro photgrapher and all his kit, is peanuts to pay in comparison!

  • scottc July 26, 2011 10:05 am

    Sorry, wrong photo. Try "Guiness in a Dublin Pub" for a better description.

  • scottc July 26, 2011 10:04 am

    Interesting step-by-step and impressive results. Still quite a bit of setup in your linked article on the followup for the other series but defintely less expensive.

    Natural light, and "on location" if you will. Far from perfect, but it does say "beer on a cruise":

  • Alex Koloskov July 26, 2011 05:41 am

    Thank you my friends!
    To make things even more interesting, i am going to repeat the same shot with only regular home lighting (tabletop lamps, etc) and DIY light modifiers used:
    I want to show you that professional lighting makes shots like this much easier to do, but lack of the equipment is not a show stopper.

    Exactly the same result will be achieved without professional equipment at all.

    Check out my blog for updates, It will be posted there!

  • Teson agnes July 26, 2011 04:46 am

    Fantastic article-With the equipment can work wonders.Nicely done.TFS

  • Gered July 26, 2011 02:40 am

    Wow! This was a fantastic article. Very concise and the behing the scenes shots clearly demonstrated what you were writing about. I tried doing product shots of my lpatop lately and was very unhappy with the outccome. I will definitely see what I can come up with based on your article. Thank you!

  • Chuck July 26, 2011 02:14 am

    Well done Alex. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I learned several new items by reading this tutorial.