Four Steps Of Product Photography – Improve Your E-Commerce Design With Brilliant Product Photos

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.

2. Light

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.

EZcube: TableTop Studio

Kuhl Lite: TableTop Studio

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.

Why Use A SoftBox for Product Photography?

What is a SoftBox?

A SoftBox is simply a larger light with a larger reflector. They are complimentary to, rather than a replacement for, a light tent. They are usually made of fabric and are collapsible for easy storage. They can be used with a variety of different bulb options but compact fluorescent, continuous lighting bulbs offer the best results for product photography and studio work (see more below).
Kuhl Lites™ from TableTop Studio

Why Use a SoftBox?

SoftBoxes work really well for lighting larger light tents, especially those larger than 30″ (76cm). When used with a light tent, they enable more specialised camera settings, such as a smaller aperture or a faster shutter speed. But beware of over lighting smaller products as this can lead to lack of clarity, blurring the product into the background and images that are too pale or that looked washed out. Unless you have a special reason for needing extra light, light tents of 30″ (76cm) or smaller are best lit with our standard lighting set. Remember, it is not always the case that more light is better! SoftBoxes work well as full studio lights for larger products, clothing, portraits and video or for other products that are too large for a light tent. When used with our TrumpetTop bulbs, the SoftBoxes do not heat up, keeping your studio, products and you cool!


Why use 4 x 30W Bulbs instead of a Single 105W or 125W Bulb?

The TrumpetTop Bulb has been specially designed in a conical shape, wider at the base than at the peak, which allows it to spread the light over a larger area. If you then use four of these, they spread light over a much wider area, providing a larger lit area and much more even lighting of the product. This gives a much more even and balanced lighting, with considerably better results.

 Four 30W Bulbs give a total equivalent light value of 600W. Some SoftBoxes are offered with a single flat-sided spiral bulb of a higher power, such as 85W, 105W or 125W. Flat-sided spiral bulbs tend to direct the light only in one direction, giving more light in the centre where the bulb is pointing, and less light at the sides, surrounded by darker areas.

Some SoftBoxes are offered with a triple flat-sided spiral bulb option, such as 26W each (total equivalent light value of 390W). These are better than the single bulb option but they still do not provide anything like the same amount of spread of light that is provided by four 30W TrumpetTop bulbs. The four 30W TrumpetTop bulbs option is a little more expensive, but the increased light utilisation and the improvement in image quality means it well worth it.
30W 5000K TrumpetTop Bulb Daylight Lighting
5000K Perfect Daylight TrumpetTop™ Bulb


Why Use a Big Reflector?

The larger the reflector, the larger area of internal reflective surface, so the more light “bounce”, which gives overall more light effect. Plus, the larger the reflector, the greater spread of light. For the maximum benefit, the light has to reach the reflective surfaces in sufficient quantities to be bounced back. So, if you consider this in conjunction to the points made above about using four 30W TrumpetTop Bulbs, you can see that, if you put a single. flat-sided spiral bulb into a large reflector, most of the benefits of the larger reflector are lost because very little of the light reaches the reflective surfaces.

Why Use Continuous Lighting?

Continuous lighting allows you to set up the shot and to see what the image will be like before you take the picture. This means that you can adjust the height and position of the lights and the positioning and angle of the product to get the exact image that you want. This is especially important if you are using special effects lights such as a Sparkler Light or Diamond Dazzler. The ability to set up the shot beforehand and to see how the item is lit saves a considerable amount of time. When you use flash lighting, you don’t know how the item will be lit until the flash goes off, so unless you are a very experienced photographer, you will have to spend time getting the right result through trial and error.

 Built-in camera flashes have additional problems, such as inflexibility of light direction and the inability to diffuse the light, creating hotspots, shadows and uneven lighting. The best light source for continuous lighting is a long lasting, cool-running bulb as this will allow you to have the lights switched on throughout the photography session at low cost and without overheating the studio, the photographer or the products. For these reasons, compact fluorescent bulbs are ideal.

Why Use 5000K Colour Temperature Lighting?

The colour of light (correctly known as the “colour temperature”) is measured in units of Kelvin (K). The range of the Kelvin (K) scale for visible light is 1500K to 9000K. The lower the number the warmer or more yellow the light and the higher the number the cooler or more white and/or blue the light. The human eye is not able to see all of the colour in the range of colour temperature.
The ideal colour temperature for product photography is 5000K as this provides the best colour balance and representation without the need for filters or software editing. This ensures correct colour rendering and balance such that the colour of the image closely resembles the colour of the original item. This is very important if you are selling items online as your customers need to be sure that your image accurately reflects the genuine colour of the item.
We recommend lighting that is 5000K for product photography because this most accurately reflects true natural daylight of the kind that will be coming in your window. It is important always use lighting products that all match in their Kelvin value. You should never mix light colours, not even different shades of “white” or “daylight”. This applies to window light just as much as to any artificial light you might use. Unless you want to work in the dark (at night or with blackout blinds) then the artificial lighting you use should be the same colour as your natural window light. Natural window light can actually be used to advantage providing that your artificial lighting is the same colour.

Why Use Compact Fluorescent Bulbs?

We recommend using Perfect Daylight 5000K Compact Fluorescent Bulbs because they:
  • are the perfect colour for the Northern Hemisphere, giving light identical to natural daylight (see below)
  • use very little power relative to the light they produce
  • stay cool and so are safe to touch
  • do not heat up the lamp holders, light tent or the products being photographed (especially important for some products)
  • have a long lifespan (typically 8,000 to 10,000 hours)
  • are eco-friendly

Find out more about product photography lighting and daylight colour temperature lighting.

Five Simple Steps to Better Product Photography

In order to ensure your images are sharp, make sure you know how to focus your camera.   Digital cameras with auto focus are often difficult to focus precisely, especially when shooting small objects.  Read your owner’s manual and be sure you understand how your camera’s auto focus operates. Most digital cameras are designed to easily focus on large objects but have difficulty on small subjects. It is often useful to put your camera in spot focus mode.  Spot focus will give you more control over what part of a scene the camera is actually focusing on.
Even the slightest movement while taking a picture will cause motion blur.  The closer you get to an object the more obvious the motion blur becomes. Even an inexpensive tripod will make a big difference in the sharpness of your images. For really sharp images it makes sense to invest in a good, sturdy tripod. If your camera has a remote shutter release then use it, if not then use the camera’s built-in timer to minimize camera shake.
To get the largest area of your subject in focus put your camera in aperture priority mode and set the aperture to the highest number possible. The closer you get to your subject the more important this becomes.
Your camera’s built-in flash will rarely give good results for product photography. For soft lighting either shoot outside on an overcast day or use a light tent  like the EZcube®. Diffused Daylight Studio Lighting can be ideal if you need to shoot indoors whatever the weather.

Even inexpensive software like Photoshop Elements™ can make your product photography much easier. It may seem like it’s faster to use an image exactly as it was shot.  But in reality, it is difficult to shoot an image precisely how you would like it to appear in it’s final form.  Image editing software allows you to crop an image, adjust it’s exposure, sharpen the image and then resize it, often in less than 60 seconds. 
The biggest difference between an amateur’s product snapshot and a professional’s product image are sharpness and lighting. Steps 1, 2 and 3 will improve the sharpness of your images, while Step 4 will improve your lighting.  A minute spent editing an image will improve it further.  Because these few steps seem so basic, it’s tempting to ignore them.  However, if you take the time to follow them, you will see a huge improvement in the quality of your images.