Learning Product Photography with Sandy Dorau

In Photo Basics by Brent Huntley4 Comments

If you follow the Improve Photography network of podcasts (and you are crazy if you are not, each show offers some unique insight from different hosts that make my commute much more enjoyable), you have noticed a lot of talk lately about product photography.

If I am going to be honest, product photography never interested me at all, but the more I heard about it, the more interested I got in giving it a try.  The awesome thing about product photography is it doesn't matter where you live or whether you can travel because you can do it in your house.  I have been so swamped with my work and family since I returned home from Europe in January, I needed a photography outlet I could do at home.  Enter product photography.

I thought shooting non-moving objects in controlled conditions would be pretty easy.  I was wrong.  It might be easy to get a half-way decent image, but not something that you would see in a catolog.  There is little room for forgiveness.  You have to nail focus and have a good understanding of lighting.  Luckily, Sandy Dorau has put out a great tutorial at Improve Photography Plus that is a great introduction to product photography that will have you nailing the basics right away.  The awesome thing about this tutorial is that it is really really easy to follow.  She walks you through her set up for shooting a small object with natural light, shooting a medium object with a simple lighting set up and shooting a large item or model with a more complex lighting set up.

I received permission from Sandy and the IP powers that be to share some of the key lessons I learned from studying the tutorial.  So many of them are so simple, but they make all the difference.  I will promise you, though, you will get much more out of watching the video than reading my tips, so if you want to get started in product photography, head over to Improve Photography Plus and give it a view (there is a free trial period so it won't cost you to check it out).  While you are there, enjoy the other great videos.  I don't want to sound like a commercial, but I seriously do love the content there.  A couple years back, I bought the 5-Day Deal, which is a popular photography bundle.  I have not finished most of the videos I purchased because they are so boring and I enjoy the IP products more.  Even my wife would make fun of how boring the videos were and then she saw me watching a Nick Page tutorial on IP Plus and she commented how much more interesting it sounded.

Okay, on to the product photography tips.  Here are 16 that I found the most beneficial.

  1. SHOOT ON WHITE

Shooting on white is perfect because it gets rid of all distraction and allows you to focus on the product.  That is the reason most of the product images you see on the internet are on a plain white background.  The other huge benefit of shooting on white is it makes Photoshop so much easier because you can quickly select the background and replace it.

Image by Sandy Dorau. This was shot using natural light from the window with fill cards to reflect the light and cut down on the shadows. She walks you through exactly how to get this shot on the video.

  1. SHOOT WITH LONGER FOCAL LENGTHS

Sandy gives this advice when you are shooting people or larger products.  She uses her 70-200 and tries to stay as close to 200 mm as possible.  This keeps compression at a nice level and helps avoid any bowing that would have to be fixed in post processing.  A theme you will learn throughout the video is getting it right in camera.  Sandy gives you all the steps to nail everything so that your post processing time is very minimal.

  1. USE FILL CARDS

Fill cards was a new term for me.  Sandy uses pieces of white foam core to control the light.  She also uses cheap clamps to stand the foam core up so you have a really simple, cheap and effective tool.  Watching the video, you see how well she can control the light from spilling over too much on the subject or bounce the light back to improve shadows.  I was really impressed how much control these simple tools give you.

  1. GET SOME WHITE PLEXIGLAS

You can get Plexiglas online or at a plastic shop, but it is more expensive than foam board or paper.  Sandy says if you are going to get into product photography, it is well worth it.  Just make sure you get solid white Plexiglas that is not see through.  She says you can really beat up the Plexiglas and scratch it and it won't show the wear at all.  Since you likely won't be starting with huge items, invest in a small piece that you can test out on small objects and see if it is worth it for you to invest in a larger piece.

Image by Sandy Dorau. You can see the lighting she used below to make this image.

  1. USE A GRAY CARD

I am firmly in the Jim Harmer camp when it comes to gray cards.  I have never used one because it is so easy to control white balance in post (when you shoot in raw), but Sandy makes a solid argument for using a gray card when it comes to product photography.  With product photography, you have to nail your color.  Nobody wants to buy something and find out the color of the product doesn't match the product image they saw.  Sandy uses the gray card on every shoot and she shows you how it only adds a few seconds to the process.  She also recommends using the gray card as the very last step to lock in your white balance before taking your final shot.

I personally do not own a gray card, but I have a really cool alternative I am currently testing out for an upcoming article on monitor calibrators.   I have just moved on to testing the Colormunki Design.  This tool is a monitor calibrator on steroids.  It is tailored more toward design, but has amazing capabilities for product photography.  You can take the scanner and scan the product you are shooting, then move that color to your image to ensure the colors match.  I have to give a disclaimer here that I am just starting to test this tool so I cannot vouch for how well it works, but I am looking forward to trying it out to see if it works in practice as well as it sounds.

  1. WINDOW LIGHT WORKS GREAT, BUT CAN BE HARDER TO CONTROL

Sandy shows a complete shoot of a smaller item using only window light and fill cards.  She points out that window light is plenty sufficient when working with smaller items, but that it can be harder to control as the sun will move throughout your shoot and you could face changing light from clouds (unless you live in Vegas like me, then you are fine 350 days out of the year).  One thing that is absolutely necessary when using window light is to commit to that light and turn off all other lights.

  1. MAKE SURE ALL YOUR LIGHTS ARE THE SAME TEMPERATURE

One beautiful thing about shooting landscapes is you never have to worry about different color temperatures.  Sandy, having had experience shooting with different temperatures, says it can be very hard to impossible to fix in post production.

  1. START TETHERING

Sandy recommends to tether if you can.  Focus is so important in product photography, it is worth getting that image on a large screen so you can be sure you have the focus nailed.  Sandy says she has had enough experience without tethering that she does not trust the led screen on her camera.

  1. LIGHT THE BACKDROP SEPARATELY THAN THE SUBJECT

When shooting on white, it is essential you completely blow out the background.  Sandy pointed out that an image on a white webpage will have a slightly gray or dingy look around the edges if you don't get the background completely white.  So, before you light on your subject, point a separate light at the backdrop and make sure that is blown out.

This is the lighting set up Sandy used for a purse. You can see two umbrellas lighting the backdrop, fill cards blocking spill light and a separate key light on the subject.

  1. START WITH ONE LIGHT AND BUILD UP

Sandy echoes advice I have heard from Jim Harmer and many other photographers:  Start with one light and build up from there.  This is a simple process.  You start with one light, your background light in this case, and get it perfect.  Then you add your second light and make sure that one is perfect . Then move on to your third and so forth until you are done.  This may seem more time consuming, but if you have all your lights set up and have a shadow or something isn't just right, you then have to go through and test each light to figure out where the adjustment is needed.  It is far easier to just work with one at a time and avoid any problems.

11.BLOCK SPILLED LIGHT

Part of lighting the backdrop separately from the subject means you have to block that light from spilling over onto your subject as you want to be able to control how you light the subject to make it stand out from the background.  Sandy uses her  foam-core fill cards to block the light from spilling onto the product from her background light.

  1. GET A ROLL OF WHITE SEAMLESS PAPER

Sandy uses white seamless paper for her backdrop.  This makes a really nice, simple backdrop that is very easy to light with a couple umbrellas.

  1. WEIGH DOWN YOUR TRIPOD

Sandy uses a sandbag to weigh down her tripod.  This is important in product photography as you are going to be running around adjusting your lights and subject and you don't want to bump your tripod and knock it over.  You are also likely to have cords all over from tethering and potentially using power sources for your lights.  Since you likely won't need to move your tripod during a product shoot, play it safe and weight it down.

  1. CROSS LIGHT LARGE SUBJECTS OR PEOPLE

Sandy says her favorite way to light large objects or people is to use a large softbox to cross light in front of the subject.  She then uses an umbrella behind the camera to the non-lighted side to fill in the shadows.  Sandy says this creates an appealing light that really helps the subject stand out from the background.

This is Sandy's lighting set up for larger products or people. You can see she again uses two umbrellas to light the background. She then uses the biggest softbox I have ever seen to cross light and an umbrella as fill light.

  1. USE THE CLONE/HEALING BRUSH TOOLS

One of the best parts of learning product photography from Sandy's tutorial is she teaches you how to get the shot where very little work will be needed in post.  Since you won't have to worry about white balance or exposure, she jumps right in to using the clone or healing brush tools in Photoshop to clone out any imperfections in the product.  This is extremely important as your whole job is to make the product look as good as possible.  In her example, Sandy clones out some stray stitching on a purse.  Hopefully, you have prepared your product well enough that there won't be much to clone out, but take the time to make the product look perfect.

  1. SHARPEN IN PHOTOSHOP

The only other post processing Sandy does is sharpening on the product.  Sandy says you can sharpen in Lightroom, but she prefers the better control you have in Photoshop.  She shows how to sharpen in Photoshop by using an overlay layer and the high pass filter.  I have seen many others recommend this method for sharpening and am ready to jump on board.

I hope these tips will help you on your journey to learn product photography, but I cannot recommend enough to you the video done by Sandy over on Improve Photography Plus.  She is so easy to follow and explains everything so cleanly, you will have no trouble getting this process down.  She will explain these tips in more detail and provide demonstrations to really help you understand.  You also get extra access to the Improve Photography hosts at Improve Photography Plus and Sandy is very active there so I am sure she would be happy to answer your questions and help you with anything you don't understand from the videos.   An added bonus if you read this in April or early May, Improve Photography is running a product photography competition over on Improve Photography with a cash prize!


About the Author

Brent Huntley

Facebook

Brent Huntley is a 32 year old partner at a litigation-focused law firm. He is a hobbyist photographer focused primarily on landscape and travel photography. He also writes articles and shares his work at photographyandtravel.com and is active on instragram @brentdhuntley.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing! The problem seems simple, but through your pen, it impresses me!

Leave a Comment