Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Evolving Product Photography at Home

I buy and sell a lot second hand through the use of online classified sites such as Kijiji and Craigslist. It's a great way to save money on a variety of goods and this is especially true of photographic equipment. Photographers are constantly buying and selling equipment which creates excellent opportunities to acquire this expensive gear at lower prices. Selling your own equipment is also a great way of financing future purchases or downsizing your equipment collection when it become overwhelming. Part of being successful in selling your possessions online is taking good pictures of the items you are selling. Good pictures allow the potential buyer to asses the item more clearly thereby creating confidence in him or her. Done right, good pictures can also make the item look more appealing and create a sense of desire in the buyer. There is of course a natural overlap with my love of photography in creating images of items I wish to sell so I approached photographing my latest batch of sale items as an exercise in product photography, my experience of which I will share with you.

Concept and Setup

The latest batch of unwanted possessions I planned to photograph was a collection of old watches and a ball head, all of which were small items that I could photograph on a tabletop or similar surface. Still buzzing off the high of my recent high-key photo shoot I decided that a white backdrop would make my photos look simple and elegant while enabling me to apply some of the same approaches and technique I developed at my recent shoot. I recalled a few sheets of flexible poster paper I had used in a previous attempt at product photography and decided that would be the backdrop I would build my setup around, curving it to create the seamless effect between the surface I was shooting on and the background. I used a foldable workbench as a table and deployed it up against a shelf I could tape the backdrop to in order to keep it in place. For this I used masking tape so that it wouldn't damage the paper when removed.

To light the shoot I set up a speedlite on ball head style bracket fitted with a shoot-through umbrella on either side of the set to provide even soft light from all around for both the backdrop and the subject. To fill in any shadows I hung a third speedite above the set from my Gorillapod Focus with a 12" softbox attached. Two speedlites were set as optical slaves and one was triggered using an inexpensive Cactus V2 radio slave. Being the first time using strobes for product photography, this setup seemed like it would light the subject evenly while overexposing the highly reflective glossy white background.

My camera and lens combo of choice for this shoot was my 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro mounted on my EOS 7D. I chose the macro lens for its close focusing ability and biting sharpness, both ideal for bringing out the fine detail in the sale items. I chose to use my 7D over my other DSLRs because it has more autofocus points and can select a smaller sub-sampling of a given autofocus point on which to focus, allowing for even finer control when focusing on fine detail. Besides the autofocus capabilities I also chose the 7D to leverage the crop factor in order to get in closer to the subject from a greater working distance, giving my 100mm macro lens an effective focal length of 160mm. The camera sat on top of my tripod and was triggered by a generic remote trigger I picked up from Amazon for about $10. The setup looked like like this:

The umbrella on the left side was removed to better display the setup.

The Gorillapod Focus doubles as a very versatile speedlite mount using the foot stand that comes with the flash and the small QR plate supplied with the Ballhead X. 

Shoot and Refinement

As I might have easily foreseen, my first strobe setup for product photography didn't work out. I found out after this shoot that achieving that high-key look on a white backdrop requires you to overexpose your background by +2 to +3 EVs over your subject (1). That is simply not possible using the same lights to illuminate the subject and the background. With the setup described above, the subject was slightly overexposed and I was getting shadows around and behind the item where the surface curled into the backdrop. I also failed to account for the fact that the items I was shooting were mostly metal and glass, both highly reflective, and I could see my light sources reflected on several surfaces as specular highlights. Suffice to say my initial results were not ideal.

Don't forget to use sandbags on your light stands. 
I began to rethink my setup and stripped the umbrellas off the backdrop lights and put on some home-made flags with the intent of lighting the backdrop with direct blasts of the speedlites. I moved both very close to the subject, angled in such a was as the flag would block the subject from direct exposure from the flashes. I then set up two white foam core boards on either side of the setup to reflect diffuse light back on subject from either side. The boards acted as large light sources and wrapped the light spilling off the flash and the inside of the flag (intentionally made of white cardboard) back on the subject in a nice wrap. I then changed the orientation of the overhead softbox to come in from a lower angle and provide more lighting to the foreground. It took a considerable amount of trial and error to position all the flashes and the angles of the reflectors in such a way as to get good even lighting with minimal reflections but I learned a lot through 'working the shot' and eventually got some shots I was happy with. Here are some shots of the setup so you can get an idea of how it came together:

I love the ball head style umbrella swivels because they allow me to tip my speedlites into a vertical orientation.   

Check out my high-tech flags!


Overall I was very pleased with my results and my learning experience from this shoot. Throughout the process I made notes on some of the limitations of my setup as well as some different techniques I might try next time, listed here so you can learn along with me:

  • Perhaps the biggest mistake I made was in not setting up the background far enough from my subject. This has  proven to be a recurring lesson in all of my high-key shoots. Because the subject was so close to the background I was managing a complex relationship of interdependent background and subject lighting that proved to be very ineffective. When the background is far behind the subject I can blast the crap out of it with the strobes on high power without affecting the subject substantially. Next time I'll either use  along table or separate the product table and background entirely so I can work the lighting for each independently. 
  • Next time I'm going to do a product shoot where the camera sits on a tripod and seldom moves I'm going to shoot tethered so I can compose and review the photos on my Macbook instead of the LCD on the camera. The camera's LCD, though excellent for what it is, is very limited in being able to display fine detail unless zoomed in to inspect the image section by section. In this case the old axiom rights true; everything looks good on the back LCD. After uploading my photos I saw many things that I might have corrected had I been able to see them, which leads me to my next point:
  • When shooting macro for Pete's sake wash, polish, clean, lint-roll and otherwise tidy up the items as much as possible before the shoot. To the naked eye the products seemed pretty good but the macro lens sees all and I was surprised when reviewing my images at how rough some of the items looked.

I hope you enjoyed my run-though of this photo shoot. Please post your own ideas and suggestions in the comments so we can all evolve our product shots. Below you will find some of the images from the shoot. Enjoy!



1. Cleghorn, M. (2004). Portrait photography: Secrets of posing and lighting. New York: Lark Books.

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