Raise Your Product Photography Game with the Right Gear

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Great products deserve (and often receive) great product photography. Whether you are photographing items for online sales, Internet auctions, or simply taking still life photos of a prized possession, there are some simple (and relatively inexpensive) gear and tips that can help your photos stand out from the others.

Online Auctions & Internet Marketplaces

We’ve all seen sub-par product images online. Let’s face it, they do not want to make you reach for your credit card or increase your bid. Smartphone snapshots are perfectly fine if you are selling a low-dollar item but, if you are trying to sell top-shelf stuff—like jewelry, wristwatches, or camera gear—putting some effort into your images can go a long way toward getting customers’ attention and getting your asking price.

A dramatic image of a subject can catch someone’s eye when compared to “standard” smartphone images… and lead to more clicks and bids.
A dramatic image of a subject can catch someone’s eye when compared to “standard” smartphone images… and lead to more clicks and bids.Todd Vorenkamp

For the Love of the Game

Even if you aren’t planning on selling an item, many shutterbugs find that doing product photography and still life images at home can be as rewarding as it can be challenging. Taking photos of your beloved stuff is a great way to stay in the photographic arena when the weather isn’t cooperating for that epic landscape or street shot. Bottom line: It’s a great way to create beautiful art from things you own and love.

Regardless of whether these bottles are for sale, or for accompanying dinner later, photographing them can be fun!
Regardless of whether these bottles are for sale, or for accompanying dinner later, photographing them can be fun!

Put in Effort in Order to Save Time Later

I mention “effort” above, and, for some, that word has a negative connotation. This article is designed to help you raise your game with a little bit of effort—in the form of getting the right gear or following simple tips. Bonus: Some of this gear and some of these tips will save you effort (and time!) in the end because you’ll be getting better photos right out of the camera and avoiding annoying post-processing headaches.

Setup can be super easy.
Setup can be super easy.

Capture: Tents & Backgrounds to Eliminate Distractions

Nothing takes a viewer’s attention away from a subject like a cluttered background and, by far, the easiest way to clean up a background is to get rid of the background altogether by using a backdrop. Yes, you could do some shallow depth of field photography or spend hours trying to remove the background in Photoshop, but, again, we want the viewer to see the subject and focus on that.

There are advantages to black and white backdrops. Your subject can help you decide.

Shooting Tents

Probably the best and easiest way to control lighting and provide a backdrop, shooting tents are generally tabletop-size four, five, or six-sided “boxes” that are designed to surround small objects. Some tents have built-in or included external lighting. (We will discuss lighting below.)

Not every tent or tent kit solves every photographic challenge. There are myriad accessories you can get to customize your rig, if needed. Know that you can customize them further with different backgrounds, as well.

Rigid background on a table
Rigid background on a table

Other Options

Background cycs and cycloramas are another option that allows you to do your tabletop shooting but not be limited to the size of a tent.

For even larger items, you can use studio backdrops and stands.

A busy photo showing an item and accessories, but the viewer isn’t distracted by extraneous information because a backdrop keeps the viewer focused.
A busy photo showing an item and accessories, but the viewer isn’t distracted by extraneous information because a backdrop keeps the viewer focused.Todd Vorenkamp

Capture: Shooting Tents to Hide Reflections

With most product photography, your goal is to highlight the product. Controlling reflections is the most difficult part of photographing any glossy or shiny subject. Many of us remember the online auctioneer who famously photographed a polished metal coffee pot while wearing… very little. Not only do you want to avoid taking a creative selfie while shooting products, but you’ll also want to keep the shiny product in question from giving folks a distracting virtual tour of your living room (or home studio).

The sides of the tent diffuse the light here to make the reflections soft and pleasant.
The sides of the tent diffuse the light here to make the reflections soft and pleasant.Todd Vorenkamp

The aforementioned shooting tent is going to be your tool of choice here because it is designed not only to help isolate the subject, but to envelop your subject to reduce or eliminate reflections.

Capture: Lighting

We cannot discuss photography without talking about light and lighting.

Some lighting tents and cycs come with built-in lights or they come as kits with external lights, but you can also use available light in the room or even flashlights to help light the product inside the setup.

A light table can light objects from the bottom, or, if you have the right way to “hang” it, above. Don’t let it fall on your subject!
A light table can light objects from the bottom, or, if you have the right way to “hang” it, above. Don’t let it fall on your subject!

A light table is another source of creative lighting for still life photography—aside or below your subject. You can even place it atop a sturdy tent or above a cyc for a nice, even flood of lumens from above.

If you already own studio lighting, your strobes or continuous lighting sources can easily be employed in the service of awesome product photography.

Small and powerful LED lights can mount on or off camera and add color or highly controlled lighting for your setup.
Small and powerful LED lights can mount on or off camera and add color or highly controlled lighting for your setup.

Another great tool for lighting products is on-camera video lights. Many of these lights are small, powerful, and some even have lots of creative control for different colors and brightness. They are designed to mount on-camera, but can easily be used on a tabletop, mini tripod, or be handheld.

Any white Foamcore or paper can work, but there are specialized bounce tools available as well.
Any white Foamcore or paper can work, but there are specialized bounce tools available as well.

Circling back to the discussion on reflections—lighting can impart reflections on your object. Diffusing the light can reduce or eliminate those reflections. Translucent shooting tent walls are designed to add diffusion, but you can also add your own diffusers or bounce the light off a ceiling, wall, Foamcore board, backdrop, or other object to make it less direct.

Capture & Post Processing: Cleaning

As you embark on your product photography adventure, you will find that another one of your challenges is dust. It seems that no matter how well you clean your subject before the shoot, the photos, when viewed on your computer, show insane amounts of dust, which then needs to be removed in post processing.

Blowers have many uses. Cleaning is one of them.
Blowers have many uses. Cleaning is one of them.

To save time after capture, there is a host of tools you can use to help reduce the dust problem. Grab your sensor blower and use it on your subject. Also, simulate your cleanest clean room by handling the items with darkroom gloves.

I could have saved time by cleaning the rear element of this lens before the photo instead of “cleaning” it in Photoshop. ©Todd Vorenkamp

Now you get to use your photo editing software’s clone or healing stamp to remove the dust that you missed with your blower and gloves. Dust is a huge distraction in any close-up product photos, so get rid of it, please!

Also, while you are tidying up, keep an eye out for “hot pixels” in your image. Hot pixels come from your sensor and can also be an unwanted distraction in your image. Remove them easily with a clone stamp or healing brush.

A detailed image can show the condition (good or bad) of your subject and inspire confidence in the buyer since they can see clearly what they are bidding on.
A detailed image can show the condition (good or bad) of your subject and inspire confidence in the buyer since they can see clearly what they are bidding on.Todd Vorenkamp

Capture & Post Processing: White Balance

Even with the quality of a modern JPEG image, it is advantageous to shoot your still life or product shots in the camera’s raw file format for white balance flexibility and accuracy.

Of course, if you are doing some personal photography of a favorite widget, you are 100% allowed to add or use a color cast to help set the right mood for the image. But, if you are doing product photography for an online sale or auction, you’ll want to show the object as accurately as possible as far as color is concerned—this prevents customers from buying a cream-colored cereal bowl when they were looking for a white one!

Is the bowl cream-colored or white? Dropping a gray card into the photo can help you make the color temperature/white balance more accurate. (Regardless, be sure to tell your bidders what color the interior of the bowl is in the description!)

A great way to make your white balance life simple in capture is by using a gray card or color checker. Simply place the card in one of your images and use that shot in post processing to set your white balance accurately. As you are shooting raw files, you can then apply that color temperature setting to your images. If shooting JPEGs, you can still tweak the white balance, but with less precision and fewer options than raw files have.

Challenging Can Be Fun

Elevating your product photography game can be challenging but, regardless of the challenges, it should always be fun.

Todd Vorenkamp

Success in photography does not always hinge on getting more or better gear but, in the world of still life or product photos, the simple gear we discussed above can add a great deal to the experience and help keep the shooting from being a chore.

Taking the time to create accurate and above-average images of your stuff shows potential buyers that you care enough about the sale to put in the extra effort.
Taking the time to create accurate and above-average images of your stuff shows potential buyers that you care enough about the sale to put in the extra effort.Todd Vorenkamp

Do you have questions on setups for product shooting or techniques? Or have you discovered some great hacks for this type of photography? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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