I love seeing how other people shoot. It’s something about peeking into another photographer’s set up and back story. Maybe it’s that peek behind the curtain or maybe I hope I’ll learn something I can use in my own shooting. Either way, I always enjoy it. With that in mind, I thought you’d want to see how I set up a product photography shoot for clients. I shoot for small businesses that typically have small products so my set ups are simple and quick.
Product and still life photography seem simple and straightforward, much easier than say kids who are unpredictable. At least, mine are! And they move so fast! But I find still life comes with it’s own difficulties. Maybe because it’s harder to portray the story even though all else is more controllable. It’s difficult to make the scene interesting without the moment people naturally provide.
Instead, with still life, you have to create interest and story with light, composition, and good styling of props. Luckily you have time to try out ideas, and products or items don’t whine or hide from the camera. Once you get the handle of it, it gets easier and more natural. Plus it’s such a quiet peaceful way to work!
For the small businesses I work for, I do two different types of product shoots. Those with a white background (because I know I’ll cut the background out in post processing) and stylized shoots.
I rarely use a softbox unless the weather is rainy and dreary, then I’ll create one out of a cardboard box, tissue paper and posterboard. Otherwise, I use foam core boards and my big windows full of natural light for my white background photos.
For stylized shoots, I always go with my windows. I love my windows because they’re big and there are so many so I get a lot of light wrapping around the objects. I use an assortment of background items. I have faux wood tiles that I picked up for less than $2 each (I have 5 tiles). I got two different colors for different styles. They look like wood but are cheaper and easier to store. I also have a selection of fabrics to choose from as well. I use these mostly for texture or a cozier feel. I also have some burlap for a more rustic feel. Usually I’ll set up the foam core boards and drape the fabric over the boards. Sometimes I use the fabric as the ‘flooring’ too for a softer look.
I also use an assortment of props to tell the story I need too tell. It’s a good excuse to go thrift shopping! These I have on hand or purchase when needed. Typically they are small items I know I might use again.
Finally, I also use a reflector to decrease the shadows and create softer light. And, my tripod is important for the most sharp photos with as little digital noise as possible.
That leads me to my settings. Even though I have lots of large windows, I use sheer curtains so I get soft light. They aren’t super bright because I choose windows that are on the opposite side of the house from the sun. I know I’ll need to push my settings, but I also know I want the least amount of digital noise as possible because it affects sharpness. So my settings are important.
To get sharp photos that are bright, my typical settings for a white background set up are: ISO 1000 to 1600, f-stop 11, and 1/40-1/100 of a second. This is all dependent of course on whether there are clouds in the sky, the time of day etc. Basically how much light is available. I use a higher f-stop because I want all of the product sharp and in focus. At times I have to stop down on the aperture even more if the product is larger, but f/11 is my go to. I try to keep my ISO as low as possible for both white and stylized shots to reduce the digital noise. Then I keep the shot as bright as possible (which also helps reduce noise) by lowering the shutter speed. This is where the tripod becomes useful.
Light is the most important part of the shoot and whether I shoot with a softbox or not is dependent on how much natural light is available. If the light is so low that I’ll have to increase my ISO over 1600 then I use a homemade softbox. DIY Photography has some great tutorials on DIY set ups for stuff like this.
However, if my light is good, I set up my shoot in my office in the afternoon. I shoot in the afternoon because the sun is on the opposite side of the house at that time, and I don’t have the direct sun causing harsh highlights. My only problem is the house next door to me is white and the sun reflects off of it so it’s still a bit harsh. My cheap sheer white curtains take care of that – they’re super great diffusers!
I set up the products so those windows provide a side light which is more interesting than front light. I also have a third window that I leave uncovered if I want bright, cheery and really soft light. I cover it up with black fabric if I want only the directional side light. I use my reflector opposite the big filtered windows if I want to reduce shadows and create even softer fill light.
That’s my set up! Simple with simple tools! It makes it less of a chore to create great photos and takes less time.