Along with portraiture, product photography is one of those few genres which can provide a steady year round source of income for a professional photographer. Product photography requires a simple setup – much of which can be done the DIY route. As a matter of fact you need very little equipment to get started. Once you have perfected the setup and lighting, you can shoot on that same setup year round making a handsome amount of money by shooting products for small and medium businesses. Here’s how you can get started.
Gear for Product Photography
You will need a DSLR camera, a macro lens, a tripod and some lights. Strobes, speedlights and continuous lights are all welcome. Strobes will give you more power. More power gives you more flexibility because you can adjust the power depending on the requirements of the shoot. Speedlights are the quintessential value for money packs. They are cheap, easy to set up and you probably already have a couple of these lying around in your home / studio. Continuous lights are probably easier to work with because by nature, with these lights, you get exactly what you see through the viewfinder. The best option to start with however, would be, speedlights, i.e., if you are on a budget.
You will also need a light tent. A light tent is a box type contraption that has translucent walls. These walls diffuse any light fired at them. They also have the option to hang a background. The background is important because it helps you to isolate and emphasize the subject being photographed. Light tents can be picked up for a few hundred dollars at a local photo supply store. Alternatively, you can build one yourself. I will try and put together an article on how to make a light tent at home in a future article.
The lens you pick need not be a true macro one. For some reason it is a popular misconception that you need a macro lens to shoot product photographs. This is not true. Any lens will do. You just need to be able to focus from a small distance. It means the lens you pick should allow you to work within a small distance from the subject. Preferably less than a foot. Because of this reason people invariably go for macro lenses. But you can use extension tubes as well. These are a much cheaper alternative. If hunting for a true macro lens something like the Nikkor AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G ED is a good starting point, that is if you are on a Nikon system.
You will also need a couple of light stands with boom arms, a tripod, softboxes, preferably strip boxes, some wipes and a cable release. Finally, I will keep a circular polarizer handy, just in case the glares become unmanageable in the shot.
Placement of the lights is important. They should be placed on either side of the light tent slightly towards the back and away from the direct view of the lens. If the translucent material making up the walls of the light tent don’t do a good job of diffusing the light, use a strip box or such small softbox to reduce the intensity of the light. The background should be selected according to the nature of the product. I prefer a pure black background when working with transparent bottles like perfumes, beer bottles etc.
A thing to note about the lights. The closer they are, the softer they would be. Keep that in mind when setting them up.
Wiping the Product
Take your time to wipe down the products. Take extra care to not use a piece cloth that might leave fiber residues on the product. Those can be a nightmare to clean up in post processing. Use micro-fiber cloth instead as those don’t leave any residue behind.
Camera settings should always be dependent on the final look needed for your product photography efforts. If you want a high-key effect, like in food photography, shoot at the widest aperture possible and use at least three lights, one each for either side and one fired from the top. I would personally use a fourth light for the background. Then again I am kind of biased towards shooting at the widest aperture possible. I love the shallow Depth of Field that’s possible with an f/2.8 lens. The problem you will face when shooting wide open with these lights is that you might over-expose the scene. Power down the lights to maintain the DoF you need. Use a light meter to perfect the metering.
For a bottle of wine on the on the other hand I would go for a slightly subdued lighting. I would use one light that’s fired from the back aimed towards the top to create that rim lighting effect and highlight the color of the beverage. The key light would be fired from the front. Two lights on either side would illuminate the label and the rest of the body. These two lights would be fired at a stop less than their usual power. It will be adjusted based on the results that I get in the test shots.
The background are liable to change depending on the product. For food photography it would definitely be white or some cheerful bright color. For the wine bottle it would be black. I would also keep it black for products like Watches.