1. Prepare Product
To take quality photographs, the complexity and time required will depend greatly on the type of product you’re shooting. Some of the easiest products to photograph are solid objects such as cups and toys; you may just have to give them a good polish before shooting.
Clothing, textiles and other items that can bend, stretch and wrinkle are much harder to photograph and could require hours of ironing and arranging to get a perfect result. Details, like whether a shirt collar is straight, will determine whether the photographs look like they were shot in a serious studio or by an amateur with a point-and-shoot camera.
Whatever the product, inspect it carefully for tears, stains, chips and other imperfections before beginning.
To get a great-looking photo, lighting is crucial. Fortunately, with many products, you don’t need much equipment to get a well-lit balanced exposure. For objects the size of a digital camera or smaller, you can use an EZcube® light tent with two small 30-watt bulbs on either side. For larger items, such as clothing, two 60-watt soft boxes on either side of the product should suffice. Also consider using a light reflector to get rid of any shadows and obvious highlights.
3. Set Your Camera
Watch out for noticeable light reflections on shiny surfaces. Even though most product photos look very staged, you don’t want yours to look too artificial.
Obviously, you’ll need a camera to take pictures, so make sure you have one. It doesn’t have to be the best or most expensive on the market, but it should at least have manual focus and shutter and aperture controls. These are all standard on most SLR cameras.
Once you’ve arranged the product and lighting equipment, take a few test shots until you get an exposure that isn’t too bright or too dark. Keep track of the shutter speed and aperture settings of your best photos, and use them again in future to maintain consistency. If you aren’t sure how things like shutter speed, aperture and lens focal length affect images, you might want to do some basic research.
If you understand the basics of photography but your photos still don’t look quite right, don’t worry, because you may have to change several in-camera settings before getting the kind of shots you want.
If your pictures look soft or don’t enlarge well, make sure the ISO setting on your camera is as low as possible. The ISO setting affects the light sensitivity of a camera’s photo sensor. By setting yours to 100 or 200, you’ll get a higher-resolution shot with less grain and pixellation. While you’re at it, change the camera’s image size to the highest possible setting. Most cameras default to a medium-sized resolution (around 1500 x 850 pixels).
Next, make sure the white balance is set to handle the kind of light you’re working in. Most cameras have modes for incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight and cloudy environments, and you should adjust your camera’s white balance according to these different conditions. If the white balance controls are off, your images might either look too bright or have a sickly yellow cast, especially if your product is white.
Color control settings are important to consider as well. Most digital cameras allow you to select several degrees of color saturation, ranging from muted to normal to vibrant. If your product is already colorful (flowers, for example), a less saturated setting would probably work better. This is especially true with red, which many digital cameras (even high-end ones) have difficulty processing.
Finally, make sure the image format is appropriate. If you’re just putting the photos online, high-resolution JPEGs are probably fine. RAW files, on the other hand, carry more data because they aren’t compressed like JPEG or TIFF files, and they carry fewer digital artifacts; but they take up more space and require special codices and converters to be viewed and edited. Some cameras have a “RAW + high-res JPEG” setting, which gives you both compressed and uncompressed versions of an image. Do a little research on your camera when deciding which format to use, because some models are automatically set to give a softer focus in JPEG mode.
4. Edit the Photos
This is the final and perhaps most important step of product photography. This is when you really take your photos to the next level and make them pop. If you’ve gotten the lighting right and your camera properly configured, then you are well on your way to great photos. Factors such as unwanted colors and objects that couldn’t be removed during the shoot, though, will require some adjustment.
Surrounding a product in white space is common practice. This makes the photo convenient to use on websites and in catalogs because it won’t clash with other elements. To make a product float freely in white space, you have to remove the background with masking in your photo editing program. As common as it is, it is often done poorly, making an otherwise fine photo look amateurish. Masking properly takes time, especially when you are not working with straight lines. Photoshop CS4 has a great “Refine edge” tool that makes it much easier to correct crooked lines.
Many people also use a variety of artistic effects in Photoshop and other bitmap editors to subtly manipulate their photos. One such effect is the soft or selective focus, which, as the name implies, softens a portion of the photo while leaving other areas sharp. This is great for creating the illusion of depth and size, and the trick is often used for pictures of food, jewelry and watches (see the examples above). Depending on your lens, you can get a similar in-camera effect by setting the aperture low and zooming in on the product from a distance.
Also, depending on the product and the look you’re aiming for, you could also experiment with the perspective controls in Photoshop. Most people assume this tool is only good for tall buildings and scenes with noticeable vanishing points, but you can also use it to make geometric objects such as tables and desks appear overpowering, especially when photographed from a low angle.