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Photography

How to Photograph Ceramics and 3-Dimensional Products with One Light

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Product Photography.
How to Photograph Paintings and Prints with Copy Lighting
How to Photograph Artifacts and Antique Objects
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Ceramics are easier to photograph than you might think; all you need is a single light and soft box. In this tutorial I will demonstrate how to photograph ceramics to make them look like they belong in a magazine. I will show you how to create a seamless backdrop with a gradient to help your work stand out.

You Will Need:

  • Long piece of paper to make a sweep
  • Tripod
  • Light
  • Camera
  • Tape
  • Gray card
  • Diffusion material such as frosted Mylar or tracing paper

1. Create a Seamless Backdrop

Begin by setting up a surface you will photograph on. I’m using a simple table placed against a wall and a piece of gray paper as my background. My sheet of gray paper from an art store that has very little texture. You want it to have minimal texture so that it doesn't look like fabric in the final photograph but you also don’t want it to be so smooth that it reflects light like a shiny surface. If you need a larger backdrop, look for a roll of seamless background paper. It comes in various widths from 36 inches to around 10 feet and is available from a photo supply store. It comes on long rolls so you can cut away a portion if it gets mangled or dirty.

Next, set up a sweep so that the background is smooth and continuous without a horizontal line. To make a sweep, form an arc out of the background paper that transitions from being flat on the table to vertical at the back edge of the table. It will look like half of a skateboarder's half-pipe. With masking tape, anchor the top edge to something vertical like a wall and the bottom edge to the table.

Side view of paper formed into an arc to create a sweep

If you want a long-lasting and durable sweep, paint a thin 4’ x 8’ Masonite board a neutral grey. Solidly clamp the front edge to a work table and bend the back edge against a wall to create the sweep. You can store it flat and repaint it as needed.

2. Position an item on the backdrop

Roughly position your subject on the sweep. This will help us know where to set up the camera, tripod, and light. The subject should be in the center of the background and near where it begins to sweep up. We can fine-tune the positioning as we go.

Positioning a ceramic mug on the backdrop

3. Set Up Tripod and Position Your Camera

A good, steady tripod is useful when working with product photos. It allows the camera to stay in a fixed position and eliminates the need to re-position the camera every time you want to take another photograph. Plus, you can take your time lining up each element used to create the final image. A tripod also eliminates camera shake so you can use a slower shutter speed than you would if you were holding the camera in your hand. A slower shutter speed gives your photograph a greater depth of field, which is extremely helpful when you’re working up-close with a product.

Setting up the camera for the photo session

Adjust the position of the object and the position of the camera while checking in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen until your desired composition is achieved. Here, I want to show the openings of the mug by carefully adjusting the camera position and the position of the object. I will raise the height of the camera until I can see the opening on the top of the mug, which will help reveal the unique shape of this piece. Make certain the openings are visible through the viewfinder. You should also take several test photos and zoom in to them to make sure that the important details are visible.

Ceramic mug with top opening and handle showing

4. Set Up and Position Your Light

For this tutorial, I’m using a single light and placing it above my subject to illuminate it. For ceramics, a single light is often all you need, which makes photographing your work even easier. You will set up your light stand and angle the light straight down. Then, position the light so it is directly above the subject. This will create a nice shadow under the bottom edge and will help ground the object. Visually, a strong shadow provides a sense of weight to a piece, allowing a potential buyer to imagine how it would feel in their hands.

Positioning a single light above a table

5. Soften the Highlights and Shadows

All we have to do to adjust the softness is raise or lower the light. The closer the light is to the subject, the larger and softer the light will be. With soft light, shadows will lose their harsh edges and become less visible. This will create more subtle highlights and smoother gradations of tone and color between dark and light areas.

A ceramic mug casting a soft shadow below it

If getting the light close to the subject does not create a soft enough shadow, you can add a diffuser between the light and the subject. A diffuser is made from translucent material and can be purchased commercially or made out of tracing paper or fabric. Placing a diffuser between the light and the object will dramatically soften the light and shadows.

6. Make a Gradient in the Background

As we have it set up right now, your object may look like it is floating in a nondescript grey space. To fix that, we can create a gradient on the backdrop that fades from grey to black toward the top of the image. This gradient will help define a space for your item to sit in. This is done by lighting a grey backdrop from above and using piece of cardboard to block some light from reaching the background.

Creating a gradient on a sweep
gradient will help define a space for your item to sit in.

Start by placing an opaque piece of cardboard in between the light and the backdrop.  You can control the way the gradient fades by changing the placement of the card. You can also change the sharpness of the gradation by altering the distance in between the light and the card. The closer to the light, the more gradual the fade will be.

Cardboard positioned to create a gradient on a background

7. Camera Settings: Exposure, Focus, and White Balance

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, select that option in your camera’s menu and use a gray card to adjust the white balance.

Using a gray card to set color 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.

Checking exposure levels on a light meter

For more information on using a gray card, check out this informative tutorial: A Simple Solution to White Balance and Exposure: The 18% Gray Card.

Carefully adjust the focus using manual focus and check with LCD screen on your  camera until you can see that the smallest detail is in focus. Then take a test image and zoom in to make certain that everything is in focus.

8. Take Your Photo!

You are finally ready to take your photo. So go ahead and press the shutter release. If the image looks good on review, great job! If not, check over the settings and repeat the previous steps. Once everything is dialed in, you can photograph ceramics all day long.

9. Post-Production: Levels and Sharpness

The shoot may be over but there are a few simple edits 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. To find the Adjustment panel and click on the Levels icon. 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.

Making a levels adjustment in Photoshop

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.

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 130%, or to where the surface texture becomes enhanced. If you see the edge contrast becoming more prominent it's time to stop. I usually set the Radius at 1.5 pixels to further enhance detail. The goal with with this adjustment is to enhance the details and make the image look clear and pleasing.

Here is a look a the final product.

Ceramic cup on gradated background

Keep Learning

There are a lot of things you can do with one light, but even more if you have two!

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