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Photography

How to Create Compelling Lifestyle Product Photographs

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Product Photography.
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All products make a promise to the buyer: to change their life for the better. Before buying, however, people want to see how - and in what context - a product is used. Product photos sell a customer on a piece by helping them visualize it in context. In any lifestyle product photograph, the context is as important as the product. Your pictures illustrate that all-important promise.

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to style a lifestyle photo of your product to convey not only the features of your item but the desired lifestyle of the potential buyer.

As an example, we'll look at the same mug from our last tutorial in this tutorial, but this time we'll construct a home-like scene to support the ideas we want the viewer to have about the value of the mug. Putting the mug in context helps buyers build a story about the product that builds the kind of lifestyle they aspire to. 

The final lifestyle product photo

1. Understanding Your Item and Planning for Context

Planning is the key to a successful lifestyle product photo. Knowing the product, how it will be used, who will use it, and where it will be used will help you create an appealing photo that will show a product in the context of a person’s life. These images will help transform an object into an experience. The first step is to brainstorm some ideas about what type of situations your product will be used in.

Ask these questions when brainstorming:

  • Where will the product be used?
  • Who will use the item?
  • How will it be used?
  • What other items belong with this product?
  • Is there a certain time of day or lighting that goes with this product?

The best location for most objects is the object's intended environment. This could be the bedroom, kitchen, or living room of a home or almost anywhere. If you don’t have access to the ideal environment, another option is to create a location in a studio that appears to be that environment, as in this tutorial.

Explore pairing your product with other things from its environment. When you place one item next to another, it helps create context for the product and can help to show its scale. Using other objects as supporting visual cues will help create a feeling of naturalness in the photograph.

Here I am going to place a tea bag in my mug and put a book next to it. I feel like the person who would use this mug would like a nice cup of tea and a good book.

Items for lifestyle photo

Carefully consider backdrop that will be behind the product. Keeping the background clean and uncluttered will keep the focus on the product that you are photographing. If an area does not have a nice wall color or if you want something different, you can either paint the wall or temporarily hang a piece of wall paper.

I found a decorative paper at the art store with a flower motif that I think works well with the organic shapes on the mug in my photo. The light red color of the paper is complementary to the green of the mug which will also tie the two together.

Setting up a backdrop behind a table

Think about what qualities of light belong to the environment and what time of day a product will be used. You can plan your photo session for a specific time of day such as early morning or you can position your light to mimic when the sun would be coming from during that time of day. Soft boxes work great for simulating window light and umbrellas simulate overhead sunshine.

2. Staging to Set the Scene

A lot of attention should go into setting up and styling a room or scene. Creating an inviting and aspirational setting is important to selling a product. A space that looks comfortable and inviting will help draw in a viewer.

Everything in the photo should be carefully considered and meticulously arranged. You don’t want to have too many things in the photo so that the attention is drawn away from your subject. Arrange items in a way that does not compete with your product.

I am placing the lamp and the book so that large portions of them lie outside the frame. That way the mug is central in the image and not overpowered by anything else.

Items staged on a table for a lifestyle photo

Any other items in the scene should match the product in style, theme, color or texture. If your item has a handmade feel, try to carry that theme through other things in the photo. Or if your product is high-end, make sure the other items in your photograph are high-end to reflect the lifestyle of the buyer. If you have any light fixtures in a scene, they should be turned on. Lights or lamps tend to look cold and dead it they are not illuminated so turning them on will help to liven up a space.

Cleaning and dusting everything that will go in the photos will save you from having dusty products or surroundings that look dirty in your final photo. While it is possible to remove dust in a photo editing program, a good dusting while setting up will save time and effort. I prefer to only do dust removal on the computer if there is something that cleaning has missed.  

3. Lighting to Set the Tone

Lighting is an important factor when photographing for lifestyle images. Natural window light is very effective in creating a feel that is consistent with certain times of day. Artificial light also works well if you mimic the angle that the sun would be coming in during a specific time of day.

Setting up a light for a lifestyle photo

Here I want to create soft, warm evening light because that is the time of day I think this product will be used. I am going to place my light low to create the shadows that match evening light. I am also going to turn on the lamp to fill the scene with the warm light that emanates from the lamp. Finally, I am going to place a reflector to bounce light in to brighten shadows.  

Placing a reflector to brighten shadows

4. Taking the Photo

Once everything is staged and lit, you can go ahead and compose the final image. Consider the framing so that the product is prominent in the frame. Think about how much of the image should be in focus. Adjust your aperture so that you have adequate depth-of-field to cover the product. I am using a medium aperture to render the mug crisply but slightly blur the background.

Close up showing depth of fiield in the image

It is important to have your color balance set accurately. So here I will use my camera’s custom white balance. To set custom white balance, I will select that option in my camera’s menu and use a gray card to adjust the white balance.   

To set exposure for the camera I will use the Manual mode (M) and my light meter reading. If you don’t have a light meter use a gray card and your camera’s meter to get a reading.

5. Adjusting the Image in Adobe Photoshop

Now that the session is over there are a few simple corrections and adjustments in Adobe Photoshop that can be done to make your photographs even more compelling to buyers.

The first adjustment we will make is to the Levels. Find the Adjustment panel and click on the  Levels button. This will adjust the tones in the image to look more like the original item. The levels adjustment shows a histogram that has three sliders under it.

We will begin by adjusting the slider for the light areas of the image. It is found on the right side. Take that slider and slide it to the left until it meets the histogram graph. This will brighten the light areas of the image.

Next, take the slider found on the left side and slide it to the right until it meets the histogram graph. This will darken the darker areas of the image.

Adjusting the levels in Adobe Photoshop

The third slider lies under the center of the histogram and adjusts the overall brightness of the image. If your image looks too light or dark, try adjusting the center slider slightly left or right.

The second adjustment we will make is to sharpen the image using the Smart Sharpen filter. Zoom in to 100% on the image. Then, go up the Filter menu in Photoshop and find the Sharpen option. Select the Smart Sharpen option in the sub-menu. I will set the overall amount to somewhere around 133% or to where the surface texture becomes enhanced. I set the radius at 1.3 pixels to further enhance detail. The goal with this adjustment is to enhance the details and make the image look more pleasing.

Sharpening the photogrpah in Adobe Photoshop

Conclusion

You are now ready to create compelling lifestyle photos of your product that you can submit to magazines or blogs for a feature. The steps we went through in this tutorial can be used anywhere - whether you are working in a studio or are on-location. Thoughtful styling always leads to a stronger photograph. 

Recap

Here are the key steps to making a lifestyle product photograph:

  1. Understand your item and it's desired context
  2. Use staging to set the scene
  3. Use lighting to set the tone
  4. Compose and take the picture
  5. Adjust and correct the image in Adobe Photoshop

Here is a look at our final image:

The final lifestyle product photo

Finally, for another way to approach photographing a three dimensional product, check out my previous tutorial, How to Photograph Ceramics and 3-Dimensional Products with One Light.



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