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Lighting

The Simple Guide to Shooting a Perfectly Lit Product Photo

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Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in October, 2009.

This tutorial will outline how to shoot a basic product shot. The emphasis will be on background, lighting, and the positioning of the product itself. The subject chosen to work with is simple - a shoe - it offers a great example to highlight the basics of lighting and shooting an isolated product photo.


Step 1: Gather Your Equipment

Table

Anything will work. You can use two sawhorses and a damaged door or your kitchen table. Most product shots are outlined in Photoshop (called "white seamless" shots) and the background is eliminated anyway (as you'll see in some of the photos below, It doesn't matter what is in the surrounding area!)

White Background

I'm going to use a large 4' x 8' foam board for my background. You can make anything work; a bed sheet, picture frame matting, two white cards, or anything flexible.

Stands

I am going to use four Century stands and one background stand. One Century stand has an extension arm on it and the background stand has an extension arm on it. Whatever stands you have should be fine.

Flashes

Any flash system with three heads will do. I am using Alien Bees (800 and 1600 heads).

Tripod

Make sure your tripod is sturdy enough to hold the camera at any level or angle. Don't skimp here. I don't use a level for most product shots so don't worry if your tripod doesn't have one.

Clamps

You will need at least 5 strong clamps with protective rubber covers. If all you have are the cheap plastic ones, you should wrap the ends with duct tape so they grip better.

Lens

The lens you use really depends on how big your product is and how close/far away you are to it. For this, I am using a 24-85 and will be shooting at f11 - approximately 4 feet from the shoe.

Camera

I shoot with a Nikon D-300. I take it off of the ‘auto' setting and use ‘manual' only. My focus is set to AF/AE button (not the shutter release button). This keeps the camera from re-focusing each time it takes a photo. Since each camera is different, I encourage you to read the section in your manual titled "Auto-Focus". My aperture is set to f11, the shutter speed is 125th/sec and ISO is set to 200. I have my camera set to a custom white balance, but since that is a matter of preference, you can set it to "auto white balance" or a "flash white balance"...

The more stable you build your set and all that goes with it, the fewer problems you will have doing any shot.


Step 2: Preparing the Background

Get the background stand with the extension arm and position it on the rear side of your table. Swing the extension arm into a 90 degree angle and tighten so that the arm can support the background.

product photography and lighting

I took my 4' X 8' card, folded it in half from top to bottom (making a 4' X 4' surface - but you can use 2 cards or fabric). I now take one section of the card and lay it flat on the table and clamp securely to the table (this is your horizontal surface).

product photography and lighting

Unfold the card so that it now becomes your background and clamp it to the extension arm on the stand we positioned behind the table.

product photography and lighting

The horizontal surface and the background need to be completely flat and smooth with no wrinkles or creases so that the lighting will cast evenly. If you have sand bags, place those on the feet of the stand to prevent the stand from moving.

product photography and lighting

Step 3: Positioning the Product

Get one Century stand and an extension arm. Position the extension into a 90 degree angle and tighten. Place the stand left or right of the table so the extension arm is over the center of the background.

To hang the shoe, use a piece of fishing string (cut long enough so that it is twice as long as the distance from the table top to a height of one foot above the arm), and some duct tape.

product photography and lighting

Then get a piece of wire (I used a coat hanger and cut it to the same width as the inside of the shoe)

product photography and lighting

Next, find the center of your string and wrap a small piece of duct tape around it.

product photography and lighting

Tie the string into a knot around the tape so the tape will not slip out of place on the string.

product photography and lighting

Now tape the wire to the knot of tape on the string in the center so that the wire and the string are coming out both sides of the duck tape equally.

product photography and lighting

This is the finished ‘rig' that will suspend the shoe.

product photography and lighting

Get the shoe and clean it well. Securely fasten the rig into the bottom heel of the shoe so that the ends of the rig have a good grip on the inside walls of the shoe.

product photography and lighting

Gather the strings coming off the rig and lift the heel of the shoe off the table to test if the rig has a good grip. It is important that it is secure, so do whatever it takes (bend the rig, push it around to get it in place).

Make sure the shoe looks good by using paper to fill the toe and keep the tongue up and in place. Tuck the shoe strings into the shoe to give it a clean look.

product photography and lighting

Now place it on the table just below the extension arm.

product photography and lighting

Take one end of the string and wrap it over the extension arm which will pull the heel of the shoe off the table to the desired height. I suspend it about 3 inches off of the table to help light the bottom of the shoe - important when shooting a product of any type.

Now while holding the string to the arm, wrap the string 3 or 4 times around the arm and clamp it securely to the extension arm.

product photography and lighting
product photography and lighting

Now that the shoe is hanging unevenly, get the other end of the string and wrap it over the arm so that the heel of the shoe is level, Now clamp the second string to the extension arm and place sand bags on that stand.

product photography and lighting

Step 4: Lighting the Shot

Basic product shots require 3 lights (top/overhead light, and front/side umbrellas).

The Top Light

Take one head and mount it on a boom arm to the Century stand. To diffuse the light, I am using two sheets of wax paper cut long enough so that I can tape them loosely over the reflector (I do this rather than use a soft box because I only have an 8-foot ceiling here).

product photography and lighting

Position the light over the top of the shoe and place a sand bag on the stand.

product photography and lighting

To set your top light exposure, place the light meter over the shoe, test your flash and keep adjusting until the meter reads f11. Once it is set, turn the top light off.

product photography and lighting

The Umbrellas

Get two century stands and dress each of them with a head, reflector and umbrella. Place the umbrella lights at a 45-degree angle to the shoe and towards the front of the table approximately 3-5 feet from the shoe.

product photography and lighting

Turn power on to both of the umbrellas. Again, place the meter over the shoe and adjust the power so that both heads are equal and the combined exposure is around f/11. As you can see, mine is at f/8.9 but that is close enough... the important thing is that both lights are equal!

product photography and lighting

Now turn on all of your lights.

If you don't have a light meter, take test shots with your camera and even visually through a trial-and-error process.


Step 5: Setting the Camera

Take your camera, set your preferred white balance, set the aperture to f/11 and the shutter speed to 1/125, mount it on the tripod and place it approximately 3-5 feet from the table directly in front of the shoe. I adjusted the tripod so the camera sits just above the table height.

product photography and lighting

Fill the frame with the shoe, focus, then plug in your sync and take the photo.

product photography and lighting

Step 6: The Final Product

The final photo needs to have the background stripped to white. I do this in Photoshop with the selection tool, but I am not going into detail in this tutorial on how to do that. Here is the final shot:

product photography and lighting

The shot will always need fine tuning in some way or another:

  1. If one head appears to be putting out more power than the other, adjust as necessary (you'll know if there are shadows or one side of the shoe is darker than the other). Also make sure the umbrellas are set at the same distance.
  2. If the top of the shoe is too bright, adjust that power down.
  3. If you are over exposed check to be sure the ISO on the camera is the same as what was measured on the light meter.
  4. If the color seems to be off, you may need to adjust your white balance.

Now that you've put the setup together, you can have fun, experiment, and try different products. Turn on/off and move around the different lights to see what exactly each light is doing and this will give you a basic idea of how the outcome can be adjusted.

I covered flat lighting first since this is what most e-commerce sites are using. Feel free to experiment - remember that knowledge is king and practice makes perfect, even if it is a little boring!

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