Sooner or later, everyone has to shoot products. You know, those bothersome photographs of objects that seem so simple until you try to get the lighting right. You may be lured into this regrettable task to pick up a little extra cash from a new client, to sell something on eBay, or for illustrating an article. Saying yes to the job was so easy. Actually delivering it isn't quite so fun.
I'm primarily an editorial and events photographer. But throughout my career, I've always had to deal with some product shooting. In my late 20s, I was lucky enough to apprentice for a studio photographer in Southern California named Dennis Tannen. He was a Brooks graduate and a darn good shooter. I used to hang around his studio and watch how he photographed everything from diver's air tanks to vitamin bottles. I still use his techniques today, and I'm going to show you my version of them in this article.
Full-time product photographers will certainly scoff at this setup. It's too easy! That's OK, because it isn't for them anyway. This technique is for the rest of us, who on occasion need to provide professional-looking results in an area outside of our normal expertise. If this is you, read on.
I shoot all of my products digitally, but you could use these same techniques with film, too. The basic setup is to build a "sweep" background with seamless photographer's paper, add one slaved strobe background light, put another strobe in a softbox on a boom, and call it a day.
That's right, I only use two lights. I have a good supply of white foam core that I use for reflectors to "kick" extra light where it's needed. Most of the time, I use the reflectors to better illuminate the front of the product. My mentor, Dennis, would use anything around the studio for this purpose, including aluminum-wrapped Polaroid film boxes.
Before I go any further, take a look at my equipment list. Then I'll talk a little bit about the softbox, which is the key to my system.
Studio Equipment List
The Westcott lightbox is the key to success here. Unlike many other brands, it doesn't require special mounts. It's an "umbrella-style" lightbox that allows me to use a regular flash on a standard bracket. I point the flash upward into the box so that the reflected light bouncing out the front of the softbox is as diffused as possible. I position the box very close to the product, which gives me the softened effect.
Since I hate wires, I've opted for the Canon Speedlite 550EX with the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2. The flash and transmitter communicate easily, even though the Speedlite is inside of the softbox. I have total ETTL functionality, which means I don't have to worry about flash ratios, etc. It just works.
I do, however, set my flash to overexpose by a stop and a half. This is because I'm almost always shooting highkey with a white background. I'd adjust this exposure setting for different toned backgrounds and products.
In order to have complete flexibility for positioning the softbox, I use a Bogen mini boom. Again, very simple. Two Bogen clamps attach the boom to the light stand and allow me to swivel the light box up and down and from side to side. On one end I attach the counterweight that comes with the kit, and on the other end, a standard umbrella bracket holding the flash and lightbox.
When I'm shooting, I just move the softbox around the same way a dentist moves the X-ray camera. I don't like to spend a lot of time fiddling with lighting position. Most of the time, I don't even look up from the camera when moving the light.
However primitive it looks, these boom clamps enable me to move the softbox to just about any position. By using the counterweight at the other end of the boom, everything is balanced, and stays where I put it.
My background is suspended from the ceiling using two brackets holding a PVC pipe. I slide the pipe through the roll paper and pull the backdrop down to my shooting platform, making sure I have a nice soft curve that makes an invisible transition from vertical to horizontal. I mount a slave flash on a second PVC pole and point it downward, illuminating the background. Since my seamless paper is white, I don't need a very powerful light for this purpose.
The Canon ignores the slave flash and treats its illumination as regular backlighting. I haven't had any problem with it messing up my exposures. I do know that some prosumer digital cameras might not fare as well. In those cases, I would simply use a second, dedicated flash made by the camera manufacturer.
When it's time to take the picture, I position all of my equipment around the subject, set the camera in manual mode to something like f-11 at 1/30th of a second, use manual focus, and take a shot.
The image will look brighter than it really is on the LCD for the Canon 10D. So early in the shoot, I usually upload a batch of shots to the laptop computer for more critical review. This prevents having to reshoot later because I missed a flaw on the tiny 2" LCD during the initial session.
When I'm finished with the shoot, I roll up the backdrop. It stays out of my way on the PVC pipe suspended from the ceiling. The light stand, softbox, and tripod all collapse and fit nicely in the corner of the room. I've now totally reclaimed all of that space to work on other projects. That is, until the next product shoot rears its ugly head.
If you have questions about any details I might have omitted, simple post them in the TalkBacks below. Then we all can discuss them. In the meantime, good luck with your product shots!