Introduction: Product Photography
let's face it. The hardest part of any project is getting decent photos. Sometimes you get in a rush and just grab your smartphone or whatever is at hand and take a quick photo of a project without stopping to really consider your photography. I'm the worst at this. I take terrible photos even though I have the equipment and knowledge to take better photos. Which is why I'm writing about product photography. This tutorial will cover the ins and outs of taking product photos that are amazing. While requiring very little time or effort on your part to accomplish.
Most of these are things that I've learnt from Pinterest and applied to my own photography on occasion. Some of the suggestions have come from friends and family who are into photography, using paper for example was inspired by my friend Hilary. An idea I'd never thought of until she'd suggested it. Many of them simply come from trial and error and playing around with different techniques or ideas from the internet, as well as the experience I've gained from being around photography for my entire life.
When I say my entire life I mean my entire life. My father was an amateur photographer who gave me my first camera when I was 6 years old. I spent years of my life getting film in place of an allowance and even more time taking classes and learning on my own about the subject. So at 32 years of age I have a great deal of experience to offer suggestions on taking photos. I want to keep this mostly simple though as the goal of this tutorial is to save time and take nicer photos.
Step 1: Equipment
now you might think the first thing you need is a fancy camera. Truth is the camera matters very little. The only tip i have is to get to know your camera. If the focus is in the center you can focus then hold the button and rearrange your shot, if your camera is old and takes lower resolution images that's fine just make certain that your lens is clean and that there is more than enough light to help make images seem better focused, as low resolution cameras often look unfocused because of their resolution. So take whatever camera you have and worry about two pieces of equipment.
The first is a reflector. You can make one easily enough by attaching tin foil to a large piece of cardboard. Or even using a mirror. Anything that reflects light will work. Sometimes you can even use a white piece of paper, poster board is great for this as it's often slightly reflective. I personally use a mirror. Now for the most part I only use a reflector when the shadow obscures what I'm taking a photo of, or if there's any backlight. Backlight comes from using a bright laptop screen or shiny papers in product photography, or any source of light that's behind your subject. Using a reflector counteracts these and makes for a nice photo.
The next piece of equipment that's important is a tripod. Now ideally you'd have a tripod that can tilt and be leveled over your project from above ( a levered arm tripod). But they're expensive. So alternatives, the cheapest and oldest trick, one I learnt from my father, is to use a sock filled with rice, you can pile books or use a stool that's the right height. Then you can sit your camera on top of this rice filled sock and reduce the shake from your shot. Alternatively you can also simply increase the light so that a tripod isn't necessary at all. But ideally having a tripod, even a tiny one is so helpful to stabilizing your shot and getting a good photograph.
Now let's say you don't have a tripod and can't afford to get one. Don't worry all hope isn't lost. Just make sure you're getting as much light as you possibly can but don't use your flash. Plug in some extra lamps or take your project outside on a sunny day. Using a flash never really gives you a great shot because the light from the flash is always so direct and focused. You can diffuse your flash, one of my favorite hacks is to put a coffee filter over my camera's flash before using it. But ideally you want to avoid using a flash as often as possible. The only time I use a flash is if I want the background to be blacked out. This works by using a flash in full light, when a flash normally wouldn't be needed. It's one way to declutter a background in a photo quickly, but your flash will still highlight your subject in a way that's often unappealing.
So to summarize all you absolutely need is a camera and good light. The other suggested equipment is good to have but still unnecessary to get a decent shot. Getting the right shot, to quote my father, is about "thinking it through".
Step 2: Backdrops Introduction
the most important and creative part of any product photography is backdrops. With some tips and tricks on getting a backdrop that looks good you can really make whatever you're taking a photo of look good.
There are three types of backdrops. Seamless backdrops, flat backdrops, and regular backdrops.
To set up a seamless backdrop you'd attach your material to a wall and curve it slightly along a table.
To set up a flat backdrop you simply lie a piece of your material on the surface and take a photo from straight above.
To set up a regular backdrop you make certain there is a line at the back where the wall and table meet. This shot requires that you make certain your horizon line is straight. Something I forgot to do in some of my paper shots that you'll see later in this tutorial.
These are basically all of the options available to you for backdrops and can be used at any size. So if your project is large you can use a regular backdrop in the form of a floor and a wall to take a decent uncluttered photograph of your subject. Or alternatively, you could put up a giant piece of material and let it curve out from the wall at the floor to get a large seamless backdrop. So when I say wall and table I mean for smaller projects (which is usually what I make) but you can still use these same techniques and backdrops as well as materials at larger scales.
Step 3: Cloth Backdrops
these are relatively easy to make. Simply take a piece of cloth and attach it to a wall. Then gently curve it out from the wall along whatever you're using as a table to make a seamless backdrop. To make a flat backdrop simply sit your material onto a table or the floor and set your subject in the middle of this. To make a regular backdrop either use one piece of cloth for the table and one for the wall, or use a single piece of material and make an edge where the wall and table meet.
Duct tape and tacks are two of my favorite ways of attaching cloth to a wall. But you could also run a rope across a wall and use clothes pins to hold the cloth to the line. I've seen this done with great effect. Though it's far more permanent than I prefer. A clothesline is great for taking outdoor shots however, though the wind can cause you lots of trouble especially if you're dealing with a light material. One thing you can use for larger products is a canvas tarp. Simply create either a seamless backdrop or a regular backdrop from the tarp outdoors.
You can play around with different materials. For example using a Terry cloth towel will bring texture into a photo, where as using something smooth will give you a more smooth texture and can add to your photo. Some materials like satin for example are shiny and will add a shiny texture to your photos backdrop. If your looking to build a photography studio that's small and easy to tuck away try making a black backdrop, a white backdrop and if you're really into digital editing you can make a green backdrop and use green screen techniques, but those 3 colors are the most common you find for photography backdrops.
In the photos you'll see I used smooth fabric and rough fabric used to give you an idea of the differences that can be achieved in texture. One was a wash cloth, one was a bright blue scarf, and one was some grey knit fabric that I grabbed from my sewing supplies.
So next time you're at a sewing supply store take a look around and grab some fabrics for use as photography backdrops. At 3 plus dollars per yard (sometimes even less) you're able to get a large variety of backdrops without breaking the bank.
I almost forgot, one thing you want to do is make sure the fabric is weighed down, simply use rocks at the corners or something heavy. This keeps it smooth and straight while you're taking photos.
Step 4: Paper Backdrops
this is one of my favorite techniques because it's incredibly simple and doesn't take a lot of time or money. You simply take one piece of paper and lay it on your table and put the other up against the wall. Or lay the paper against the wall and let it gently curve onto your table. Or you lay the paper flat on your table and take your photo from above. You can use different colors for the top and bottom, or the same color. You can also take and make some abstract art and use this as your backdrop. So your options are truly limitless with a bit of paint and some time. You can also use foil papers, like I have in the photos above, or even get scrapbooking papers that are decorated or textured. Another option for larger projects is poster board, my friend Hilary uses poster board to photograph shirts for her eBay store. And paper also comes in large rolls, while more expensive this works for full height shots and is a great investment if you're going to be photographing products or such regularly. (My favorite place to get rolls of paper for cheap is art supply stores)
For the purpose of these examples I stuck to plain papers so you could see the variety of shots you could get. All in all I was able to take these photos in about 5 minutes and edited then in another 5. So it took me around ten minutes worth of work using paper to get some really decent photographs of dice.
One tip I have is to store your papers in a 12 by 12 inch square plastic box that you can acquire from stores like hobby lobby or Michaels or any store that deals with scrap booking papers. This makes it even quicker to access your paper and get an amazing shot quickly. I have an entire selection of backdrops that I use, everything from cardstock covered in tinfoil to abstract paint splattered pieces. Though I've never used them in any of my instructable aside from one I did called pocket pets.
Another suggestion is to use foil papers. The ones shown above are 8 by 11 inches approximately and I acquired them from the dollar store.
Step 5: Shelf Liner
Shelf liner is another option for inexpensive backdrops. You can pick it up at most dollar stores (at least you can in my area). It also comes in different textures and different colors. So you have multiple options available to you so you can be as artistic as you like.
This is an option that I've used in the past but at current (I just moved) is still packed up in a box at my aunt's house. So I was only able to get one example shot for you. But if you look at shelf liner you can see that it comes in a wide variety of colors and options. This is a great inexpensive and quick way to get marble backgrounds for example. And shiny surfaces for your backdrops. Again even textured shelf liner can be used, just put contrasting paper underneath (the kind with holes in it) and put your subject in the center.
Step 6: Your Laptop
go ahead and use gimp to create a beautiful backdrop, or find stock photos of anything you like and then sit your product on your keyboard and take a photo ( or on top of a book on the keyboard depending on the height of your screen from the keyboard). The effect is amazing and incredibly easy. Of course you might want to cover your keyboard in something like cardstock or some contact paper. For a shiny surface you can always add some glossy modgepodge to a piece of paper and use this with your laptop screen so that your light reflects off the tables surface. Or even just use a notebook that's plain black or white.
The biggest problem with this one is that too get a really good shot you need to have extra light and faster shutter speeds. Otherwise as you can see in my photos the background has lines in it from the screens refresh rate. I unfortunately only have one light unpacked and couldn't get a high enough shutter speed to get rid of the lines.
So while this is fast it's not going to be an option that works well with every camera out there as it does work best with a camera that you can change your shutter speed on. But if your OK with the lines that you can see in the photos above then it's still an option that anyone can use.
Another problem with this technique is that it creates a backlight and darkens the subject in the foreground. Having more light would fix this problem as would using a reflector. My light was really insufficient in the photos above but I wanted to show them to you anyway since the mistakes might help you learn better than a "perfect" shot would have.
Again though with the right amount of light and some time to make some backdrops you can get truly unlimited options this way.
It's not one of my favorite techniques though and is one I rarely use because it does require that you set up more light and take more time preparing for a shot than I prefer. However if you're lucky enough to have big Windows and good natural light indoors this is a great option to use which is why I bothered mentioning it at all.
One last note, this works better with darker background images than with lighter background images as well. So if you notice the first two photos above the darker background shows less of the lines than the lighter backgrounds did. So stick to dark background if your camera cannot adjust shutter speed.
Step 7: Now What
Just because I have you shown you some materials to use doesn't mean that's all there is. Try using tin foil or your carpeting even, you'd be suprised at what you have around your house that will work. Maybe you have a nice doily that you can lay on top of a nice tabletop to get a good photograph.
so once you've got a backdrop the next thing to do is look at your composition. You want to have good contrast between your subject and your background. You want to have symmetry and flow to the position of your subject (usually), You want to have some texture.
Just remember that for every rule of composition there is, there's always a rule that breaks it. The rule of thirds for example is broken by symmetry. Both are appealing to the eye and both work. The rule of triangles is good but doesn't fit with the rule of thirds either. So my point is that while it's good to know these rules it's better to understand that they can be broken and that just about anything can work if it looks appealing. Just take your time and think your shot through before pushing that button.
In my experience most still life's are center weighted (meaning the subjects in the center) rather than being centered by the rule of thirds. However either way can work. Which is why in my opinion the most important aspect of composition to remember for product photography specifically is contrast. You really want to have strong contrast between your backdrop and your subject with product photography. The next important thing is to have texture. If your dealing with a reflective surface you might want to use a shiny backdrop to really amplify the texture of your product, or you may want to use a matte surface to avoid too much shine in the photo. You can also add other components like leaves to your composition to create extra texture, or even use a textured backdrops like a piece of cardboard that's been cut. Get creative and play around with photos, even spend some time on Pinterest or Google looking at product photos so you can get ideas of elements to add to your own photos. Play around with geometric shapes in different colors of paper on a flat backdrop. Or even add in a nice plate like I did in the first photo creating extra contrast from the light blue background with yellow and adding an extra element to allow you to focus on the dice in the center.
Also spend time thinking about how you're going to arrange things. For example you might want to put your tools in a square or line them up in a creative way to get a more appealing photo. Be to the point but don't be afraid to get creative as well.
Step 8: Some Closing Thoughts
hopefully this tutorial has helped you to understand product photography a bit better and can aid you in taking better photographs of whatever your subject may be.
I leave you with three steps. Simplify your background (avoid clutter) , keep your camera still and make sure you have adequate light. Use those three steps with the rest of what's been discussed and you'll find you have some beautiful photographs to enhance your projects.
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5 years ago
This is the kind of thing I need to know! Thank you so much for such a wide ranging tutorial. I look forward to trying out some of your lessons.
Reply 5 years ago
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. :) I'm glad you found it informative.