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Shooting an Amazing Product Photo That Tells a Story

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In the United States, around $400 billion is spent on advertising each year. That's "billion" with a "b." A slice of that goes to producing photos for those advertisements. Commercial photographers can make a career out of shooting objects for advertisements, and in this tutorial, I'll walk you through the process. I'll explain how to decide about props, setting, lighting and toning. Mastering the "product shot" could lead to your next six-figure income (or maybe just some great eBay auctions) - either way it will be fun.


The Goods

For this tutorial, I thought long and hard about what to shoot, and I decided to shoot a fountain pen. Like many consumer goods (electronics and jewellery etc), it's small. Secondly, this particular fountain pen isn't made anymore, so you don't need to worry about my credibility. I promise, I'm not actually trying to sell you anything.

Thirdly, this pen is made of shiny black plastic, a very hard material to photograph well. Finally, fountain pens, at least in the U.S., have a general feeling of classy nostalgia surrounding them. This makes it easy to choose a mood and atmosphere for the image. The image below is a quick snapshot of the pen, a Sheaffer's from the 1960's. Sheaffer is still around, but this pen hasn't been produced in at least 40 years.


The Story

All good ads tell a story. The narrative is a powerful way to influence people. So I want my fake ad to also tell a story. The story I decided on came about when thinking of where to shoot my product. The pen we are photographing has gold accents, so I thought of shooting it with something sepia toned to match the color.

I decided on an old atlas that has a warm, sepia background to each map. The atlas also has the old-fashioned feel to match the pen. My story emerged - traveling. All the pieces were coming together.


Odd Props

An old art and design rule is that when you're creating a scene, it's a good idea to have an odd number of objects in that scene. For whatever reason, it looks more natural. My atlas (and a bookshelf) was really going to act as my background, so I didn't really count those. So in addition to the pen, I wanted to find two more objects to help tell my story. The first was a compass that had brass accents, mimicking the pen. What better object to add to the story of our traveler?


Supporting Characters

Objects can be displayed in many different ways. Just like human models, objects can have many poses. Your job is to find your object's most flattering pose. For the pen, I wanted it open with the tip or nib exposed, and I wanted the photo to have some action to it.

The theme is traveling, an active process. So instead of having the pen at rest on its side, I wanted it standing straight up. In the world of Photoshop, you can make things looks like they're floating, but I wanted a pretty realistic image, so I needed something for the pen to be propped up against. I found a small wooden box with brass accents, again to match the warm, golden color scheme.


Augmented Reality

As you may have noticed, my wooden box is less than two inches high. There's no way that the pen could balance against it. The pen is too tall and top heavy and the box is too short. I didn't want to open the box because then you have to have something in it. You can't just have an empty box sitting there. So I decided to "augment" reality.

I balanced the pen against the box in two ways. First, I tied a piece of black thread to the clip of the pen and secured that to a rod running over the scene. Secondly, I attached a small loop of black electrical tape to the back of the pen in order to tape it to the box. The tape was totally hidden, but the thread needed to be removed in post-production.


Choosing the Right Light

There are infinite lighting schemes that can be used to light products. There's no one way to do it. But I want to walk you through the lighting process of this shot so you can see what influenced by decision. My final shot was lit with both continuous lighting and strobes. It's not exactly a traditional lighting set up.

The black pen needed a strong highlight on it in order to give it shape. The pen is a long and slender, so my lighting scheme centered around a long-thin fluorescent light tube. In the image, below you can see the scene lit with only this fluorescent light. Notice the light slender highlight running down the length of the pen.


Even It Out

Obviously, the image above is pretty dark. There's a good reason for that -cheap fluorescent lights are not great for reproducing colors, as they lack the magenta range of the spectrum. So the biggest goal of using the fluorescent is to create that highlight on the pen. The second light I wanted to illuminate the scene. I chose to do it from behind in order to avoid any strange reflections. You can see the lighting set up below.

So now I have two lights on the scene. The fluorescent tube and a flash in the back. These two lights together make the scene look pretty good. You can see below what we're working with when both these lights are used.


The Finishing Touch of Light

I still felt something was missing, even with these two lights in place. The pen still looked a little flat, the background was a bit too dark and some of the shadows looked too drastic. So I decided to fill all of this in with a third light, placed very far off to the left of the scene. So far in fact, that I couldn't get it in a photo showing the set up. The photo below shows what this third light does by itself. Notice the highlights on the top of the pen.

As you've seen, in this situation none of the lights on their own makes a great photo. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't a traditional lighting set-up. I started with a specific idea (using the fluorescent tube to create a highlight) and then built the rest of the lighting around that.

In this next image, you'll see what the scene looks like with all the lights working. This image is straight out of the camera - no Photoshop or other post-production techniques.

The camera was set at 100 ISO in order to get the best quality and to allow me to use a shallow depth-of-field. I used a 50mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. The f/stop was f/5.6, which doesn't seem that shallow, but the closer you are to your subject, the shallower your depth-of-field gets.

My shutter speed was set at 1/10 of a second to allow the fluorescent light to shine through. I wanted the light to be even and not "ultra contrasty" to keep with the antique, nostalgic look of the image.


Polishing in Photoshop

I want to accomplish four things in post-production with this image. First, I need to remove the thread that is holding up the pen. Secondly, I need to remove the ink marks on the paper that were caused by slight adjustments of the pen. I could have just replaced the paper before the final shot, but it's easy enough to clone out and I didn't want to risk displacing the pen which was literally hanging by a thread.

Thirdly, I want to touch-up the pen, which has some scratches and smudges on it (remember it's over 40 years old). And finally, I want to make a few slight color corrections.


Removing the Thread

The first and easiest part of removing the thread is cropping the image. I think the image is a little loose anyway, so I'm going to crop in a bit and a save myself some trouble. Next, I'm going to zoom all the way in, and use a small brush with my clone stamp to get rid of the thread.

I set the hardness of my brush to 15% because the background is out of focus and any hard marks will show up. I very slowly sample from one side of the thread and clone out half of the width of the thread from one side, and then sample from the other side to clone out the other half.

I then select the area where the thread was and apply a gaussian blur to it to blend in the cloning. You can see a before-and-after of this technique below.


Removing the Ink Marks

I'm going to use a slightly larger clone stamp to remove the ink mark. Using a small clone stamp works alright for areas where the color is varying a lot (like the top of the image). But when the color is consistent, it's actually better to use a larger brush because it blends in better. I'll still have the hardness of my brush set low. You can see the cropped and completely cloned image below.


Touching Up The Pen

There are three things I want to do to the pen. First, the highlight on the left side of the pen at the very top is brighter and bluer than the other highlights because it's caused by a flash and not the fluorescent light. I'll select that area and use the "Hue/Saturation" adjustment to make it match.

I took the saturation down to -100 and the lightness down to -20. You can see a before-and-after of this below.

Next I want to clone out the small highlight in the middle of the pen also caused by the flash. I find it distracting that it doesn't run further up or down the pen. For that I use the clone tool.

I also want to clone out any dots or scratches on the pen, especially any that break up the long highlight created by the fluorescent light.

Finally, I want to brighten up the long highlight by selecting it and using the Levels adjustment to brighten it slightly. You can see the image with all of the pen touch-ups finished below.


Overall Color Correction

The final bit of editing will be done to the entire image. First, I used the Levels adjustment to increase the contrast of the image by brightening the highlights and darkening the shadows slightly.

I then used the Smart Sharpen filter with a strength of 95% and a radius of 1.5 to slightly sharpen the image. I was using a macro filter to make this shot which has a tendency to make things soft.

Finally, there were some remaining cyan-colored highlights in the image, so I went into the Hue/Saturation adjustment and pulled the saturation of the cyan to -65%. Check out the final image below.


Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, every product is different. But when shooting, you can always build a story with your props and setting. You can also imagine a general color palette and stick to it with all the objects in your scene.

Finally, you can build a light scheme around a specific basic idea. I built mine around the desire to create one long highlight, but you can construct yours around a different simple idea.

Just for fun, I wanted to mention that before color printing became the standard, it was often necessary to have a color and black and white version of your ad. This is sometimes still the case. As most photographers know, some pictures work well in black and white, and others do not.

I wanted to see if my photo would pass this test, so I converted it to black and white and added some text to see if it would hold up as a newspaper ad. I think it works!

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