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Secrets for Unique Product Photography From 4 Professionals

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The tricky part of any photograph taken for the purpose of capturing attention and making a sale is that it has to create a strong impression immediately. Product photography can be difficult to get just right, especially if your subject is something as seemingly mundane as a white bottle of lotion. Yet, many professional photographers somehow make that lotion bottle look like it is worth the price tag.

I've interviewed four professional photographers who were willing to share their secrets for taking unique product photographs. Each has original advice covering lighting, equipment and personal style.

Nev / No Entry Design

Not all photographers remain pure photographers. In fact, Nev has run into the same problem as most lovers of photography: it is one of the more popular creative industries. His talent in and love of photography still shows in his portfolio with the photos he takes of his work, which includes hand-painted signage, print and web design, photo retouching, and photography. Most of Nev's product photography is an additional service he offers alongside design and branding projects, often in the area of food and drink. To learn more about Nev, visit No Entry Design.

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Photo by Nev
Q. What would you like us to know about you?

I used to pick up a lot of work as a scenic artist on major film sets and photo shoots and that was how I got exposed to the world of commercial photography. Over the years I warped into more of a designer/creative director. I feel that having good photos of the items in my portfolio is quite crucial so photography is my side job.

I personally love shooting photos more than anything. Problem is that photography has got to be the single most oversaturated market in existence, so I make my living as a designer. I'm hoping to pull in more paid photo gigs in the near future. They get thrown my way from time to time and I always jump on them when they come!

Photo by Nev
Photo by Nev
Q. What techniques do you use to create unique product photography?

There is no one specific technique I can pinpoint aside from I like backlighting things. Other than that, I try to use different backdrops than the typical all white background approach. I tend to do a lot of food and drink photography for restaurants, so I'm usually already provided with a unique backdrop for my shots by being on location. The tricky part with that is lighting, it's really important to shoot food with natural light and some of the restaurants I've been to are quite dark without many windows.

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Photo by Nev
Q. What equipment do you normally use?

I currently have a Nikon D90 and shoot most of my product shots with a 28mm fixed lens. I'm definitely aiming to upgrade to a full-frame camera soon. But for now, I usually do small-scale photo gigs so I don't feel the need to invest in expensive gear just yet. I usually shoot with natural light, but every once in a while I'll use a studio set up. A good friend of mine has a studio with a ton of ProFoto equipment that I can use when its necessary.

Photo by Nev
Photo by Nev
Q. What advice would you offer aspiring product photographers?

For the most part I consider myself to be a beginning product photographer, so I'm not sure what I can say other than have fun doing it and try to have a portfolio that expresses your personality. Otherwise, you're just going to work with a lot of (bad) clients.

Jackie Donnelly / Spice & Ink

Photo by Jackie Donnelly
Photo by Jackie Donnelly

Jackie Donnelly specializes in wedding photography, portraits, event photos, and especially food and product photography. In fact, she recently launched a new website dedicated entirely to her food and product photography services called Spice & Ink. Her passion for finding the perfect angle and lighting for each shoot is very noticeable. She graciously offered some advice for those wanting to break into product photography.

Q. What can you tell us about yourself?

I started shooting food in 2003 when I lived in Belgium that year. All the new and interesting foods fascinated me, so I documented it all. When I returned, I met a couple of restaurant owners through friends and asked if I could photograph their food to put together a portfolio.

I also shoot events and portraits, but for some reason, the food photography is the niche that's really taken off for me. I've been doing it professionally for about seven years now. My largest client was probably Quaker Oats, who hired me to shoot cereal boxes and a poster for placement in health food stores.

Photo by Jackie Donnelly
Photo by Jackie Donnelly
Q. What techniques do you use to create unique product photography?

For food, lighting and positioning are equally important. For example, food can look really un-appetizing if you shoot it with a straight-forward flash. It's best with side lighting, or natural lighting. Also, each dish has a "face", a certain side where the dish looks best. You have to find that face and shoot it from various angles with the light hitting it to emphasize the texture, whether it be the sauce, the texture of meat, a glaze on a donut, or something else that makes it mouthwatering.

Photo by Jackie Donnelly
Photo by Jackie Donnelly
Q. What equipment do you normally use?

I use a Canon 5D Mark II and various Canon L-grade lenses. I only shoot with prime lenses. I do not own any zoom lenses. My favorites for food are my 100mm f/2.8 macro lens and my 50mm f/1.2 lens. I've also occasionally used the 90mm tilt-shift, which is another great lens for still life (images).

Q. What advice would you offer aspiring product photographers?

Be prepared to volunteer at first. Sometimes you have to be in people's faces before they will take a risk at hiring you for a gig. That said, do not let people take advantage of you. There is a fine line between volunteering, and being a doormat. In addition to that, never stop learning. You can never know everything there is to know about photography, so keep expanding your knowledge.

Q. What other product photography advice can you share?

Find groups online to join, whether it be on Flickr or 500px or other sites. Network with people who do the same thing. Instead of being "competitive" with your colleagues and contemporaries, align with them and share information. There's plenty of product and food photography to go around. No one needs to be your nemesis, and each person has their own style. Congratulate other photographers on their successes instead of shunning them and being arrogant. It's best to remain humble and realize that people help each other succeed. No one does it alone.

Renée Aylworth / Renée Aylworth Photography

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth

With many photographers, their stories are similar. Photography started as a passion they knew would turn into a career. Renée Aylworth, however, has a slightly different path having started her studies in painting and drawing. This lends a "fine art" feel to each of the products she photographs, bringing out the natural beauty and textures in objects. Learn more about her at Renée Aylworth Photography.

Q. What would you like us to know about you?

I went to the University of Georgia, where I began my studies in painting and drawing. A background that I think has helped my photographic work, especially with regards to retouching and composition. By the end of my sophomore year, I had transitioned to fine art photography and photojournalism.

After graduation I moved to Atlanta, where I started assisting Laretta Houston, a well-known fashion and beauty photographer. (It was) a great learning experience that prepared me for dealing with clients and for seeing how big shoots can be run. I have since started my own business, focusing on model and product photography.

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth
Q. What techniques do you use to create unique product photography?

The techniques I use for product photography are aimed at exaggerating the object's characteristics. I like to light transparent objects from beneath, so that they appear to be lit from within. In lieu of a light table, you can place the object on a sturdy piece of clear acrylic, raised up a few inches from the surface you're working on, and place the light source underneath.

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth

For objects with interesting textures, I like to let the light just graze the surface, highlighting the details and deepening the shadows to create a richer-looking texture. I tend to shoot objects either at their level or below, which makes them appear grander, more imposing. For any type of product, my intent is to create a unique atmosphere in which to view it and to visually elevate what might be a mundane object into a work of art.

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth
Q. What equipment do you normally use?

I use a Nikon D300s for all my shooting. I generally use my Nikkor 35mm f/2 when shooting products. It's comparable to 50mm on a FX sensor. Though I occasionally use strobes and softboxes for products, I have found that a speedlight, accompanied by several reflectors, is the easiest setup to manage and adjust when dealing with small-ish objects. It's far easier to shift a speedlight two inches to the left than to try and maneuver a boom arm into just the right position.

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth
Q. What advice would you offer aspriring product photographers?

Start shooting. Grab a few objects from around the house and try to make them look as great as you can. It's only by practicing that you'll get better. Also, make sure you're well-versed in Photoshop. In this day and age, it's unlikely you'll get a professional-looking photograph straight out of the camera.

Every photo you see in an advertisement has been heavily edited in Photoshop and learning to get the most out of your curves and how to retouch effectively will make the difference for your work. Take a class or dedicate a few weekends to teaching yourself online if you don't already know how.

Photo by Renée Aylworth
Photo by Renée Aylworth

Nikolay Razuev / Air Layer

Photo by Nikolay Razuev
Photo by Nikolay Razuev

Located in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, Nikolay Razuev specializes in creating unique advertising visuals, photo retouching, 3D, and even matte painting. His clients include big brands such as Range Rover, Mazda, Ford, Powerade, Tuborg, McDonalds, and Axe. See more of Nikolay's work on his website, Air Layer.

Q. What would you like us to know about you?

I worked as web-designer many years ago, but always dreamed about matte painting and creative retouching. A year and half ago I founded a company, Air Layer. I'm doing key visuals for advertising, movie posters and matte painting at the moment and I'm very happy about it. It's awesome to have like-minded people around.

Photo by Nikolay Razuev
Photo by Nikolay Razuev
Q. What technique do you use to create unique product photography?

Photography is only half the work for me. The rest of the beauty can be achieved only after many many many hours in Photoshop. Understanding the basics of physics, mechanics, anatomy, theory of light and lighting, properties of materials,shapes and textures is very important. The main objective is to define what elements there are in an image, and what to take as a basis. However, without pictures I can not do anything.

Photo by Nikolay Razuev
Photo by Nikolay Razuev
Q. What advice would you offer beginning product photographers?

When you first start to do this, do not get hung up on price. In the beginning, it can be done free for self-development and self-realization.

Q. What other product photography advice/ information can you share?

Don't take projects that you don't like. Don't waste time on it. Otherwise the work will become routine. Good luck and success!

What's Your Story?

Are you a product photographer? Tell us how your journey began in the comments. What sets your work apart from the rest of the pack?

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