In part 1 of our Product Photography TIPs, we went into detail about what equipment we use. Part 2 is less about gear, and more about how to use it! It's great to have a tonne of softboxes, strobes, booms, backdrops, etc., but if we don't know how to use them, it is useless. So let's dive in!
We use a lot of lights for our shoots. The lights need a known white balance, good adjustability, and of course be bright. White balance is measured in Kelvin, which is a temperature that each frequency of light has - in other words, the blue-ness or yellow-ness of a light is described by that temperature, and as long as we know what that is we can make sure it looks good in post. It is important that the lights we use have the same or very close white balances. Once we have the light sources, we modify those with softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, reflectors, and a light tent. I'll go through each setup's lighting now.
Models must be lit with a light that is large enough not to create harsh shadows (the smaller the light source the harsher it is), but small enough to create good definition, showing the details of the garment. We use a softbox from above, off to one side, and high. We fill in strong shadows with a reflector in front, define the edge with a strong umbrella kicker, and light the backdrop with two parabolically reflected strobes. Here is a shot showing both the model setup, on the right, and a version of the flatlay overhead setup on the left.
Small Object Setup
This is when we use our light tent. The reason to use a light tent is to control reflections coming off of shiny surfaces. It is not professional to be able to see the photographer, the room, or anything else, reflected in a client's product! The light tent, as shown below, makes sure that the only thing you see is a nice white reflection. The strobe lights sit on the outside of the tent. If we're going for a very evenly lit flat look, we place our lights farther from the tent so that the whole side of the tent is the apparent light source for the subject. A bit more definition results from the lights being placed very close to the light tent, so that they appear as smaller light sources to the subject.
This is the simplest setup. We use a small and large umbrella for this, above and to either side of the subject. The small light is the main one, providing definition and most of the illumination, while the large one fills in any dark shadows. The overlay setup is shown in the first image, note the camera on a long boom overhead.
Attention to Detail
Once we have good light, then we have to actually take the photos. There are so many details to look for, and it varies with every single subject, but a few are:
Dust and fluff: it might not be obvious during the shoot, but our cameras are so sharp that any bit of dust shows up, and needs to be removed in post-production. Better off getting rid of it before we shoot!
Fingerprints: Same as dust, this is an easy fix before we shoot.
Wrinkles in clothing: while some clothing will inevitably have folds, and often those are needed to show the shape of the clothes, or are part of the design, wrinkles that are not supposed to be there should be removed.
Consistency: for proper e-commerce photography, consistency between shots is important, such as model pose, object straightness, composition, angle, so that buyers can properly compare products.
Controlling reflections: The light tent helps a lot with this, but sometimes the reflection of the light itself becomes problematic if it is covering a key message on the packaging, so we make sure that all reflections are controlled.
Variety of angles: A product has various features that need to be highlighted, so it's important to make sure to show all of them, while still being consistent in how it is shot. Things like tags, labels, operating features, etc.
Tethered shooting: We shoot from our cameras straight to computers, so we can see shots as they come in. The screens on the back of the camera are good for a composition overview, but to see details it isn't good enough. The ability to see the images full size is crucial in making sure that the images are looking how we want them to.
While every brand will differ, it is a good idea for them to think about what kind of models they need. Local Laundry, our first Product Photography Day clients, specifically need size small women, and size large men, while other manufacturers might need size medium of either male or female or both. It is all about what will help clients pick the size they need while browsing online.
It is important to be prepared before we start a shoot. In particular with garments, which are very prone to wrinkling during transport. We are never sure what is the best way to smooth a garment, and we're rather expensive iron-ers! So we always recommend that our clients prepare their clothes the way they know best - steaming, ironing, or whatever that may be - before they even drop off the clothes to our studio.
Another important aspect of preparation is knowing exactly which pieces you need photographed. It isn't a good use of your time with us to be deciding which item you'd like shot and then preparing it, so be sure to plan it out ahead of time.
Our post-production process has been fine-tuned over the years. Some key things to look for are:
Colour accuracy our monitors are carefully calibrated, as are our eyeballs from years of looking at images. We want to make sure that the colours of products are displayed true to life.
Background separation: when shooting on simple backgrounds, it's important that it be uniformly the same colour. A shot taken on white, when actually put on a white screen, often turns out to be on a light shade of gray. In post production, we ensure that the product is on a truly white, black, or whatever colour background, as required by the client.
Working on highest quality files as possible (RAW): we only shoot and post-produce in the native raw data format that the cameras produce, so that we retain as much information as possible to do our work. That way we get the sharpest, most colour-accurate images possible.