If you own a cellphone, chances are you have taken plenty of photos and selfies. Photography is a deep part of our culture as a way to share information and sell products. When something needs to be sold, someone is needed to take those photos.
With photography being as widespread and essential to the marketing process as it is, where should you start as a product photographer? This guide will teach you how to get into product photography and start your own product photography business.
What is Product Photography?
Product photography is a type of commercial photography in which a product is photographed for commercial use. Generally, the product being photographed is small enough to set upon a table but can also be larger.
Anytime you open up an ad online, read a magazine, see a poster or a billboard, and when you go shopping and are driving down the street, you are looking at various types of product photography.
Product photography is meant to display a product in an appealing and interesting light in order to get people to want to purchase it, which makes product photography a part of the marketing process. It is important, as a photographer, to understand the technical aspects of product photography and product photography lighting to produce the best photograph possible.
How is Product Photography Different Than Regular Photography?
Regular photography allows the photographer more creative leeway, where the subject of the photo does not have to be portrayed realistically or attractively. In comparison, product photography is more concerned with displaying a product in an attractive light such that a viewer will consider buying the product.
Product photography is meant to showcase the look and feel of a product because a customer cannot interact with the product themselves. Their trust is put in the hands of the photo, and it should provide them with an accurate representation of what they might be purchasing.
Product photography also does not deal with models that need to be prepped with hairstylists and makeup artists. All you need is the product and some extra tools beyond those that are in your product photography toolkit.
Steps to Becoming a Product Photographer
There are a few things you will need to do before you can get started in product photography and take great professional product photos. Here are just a few product photography tips.
Gather the Essentials
There are a few essential tools you will need to get started with product photography, more than just a camera. You will need:
- A DSLR or Mirrorless camera that gives you full manual control
- A lens (though usually cameras come with a kit lens, which will be suitable here)
- A tripod or stable platform for your camera
- A stand or table for your product
- Lighting, whether that is a strobe or continuous light or house lights for various lighting conditions
- A diffuser or a reflector to diffuse harsh light
- A white background (purchased or DIY)
- A photo editing software
- A product
Master the Basics: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO
What does it take to get detailed shots in product photography? When you get into product photography, you will hear about the main three things you need to know to take professional product photos: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together and complement each other to make an outstanding photo. You should know how to use and manipulate these variables to make your product photography stand out.
The aperture is the depth of field which controls the area over which light can enter your camera.
Shutter speed is the motion blur and controls the duration of exposure.
Finally, ISO is the image noise and controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to a given amount of light.
All three of them are the foundations of exposure, the amount of light that makes its way into your camera’s sensor, creating visual data over a given period of time. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are not mutually exclusive; they work together to achieve the right amount of exposure. To get good exposure, you need the proper balance of all three depending on your lighting conditions and the speed at which your subject is moving.
If you have an Android phone, chances are you can manipulate aperture, shutter speed, and ISO directly from your phone’s camera, giving you the opportunity to work with them before upgrading to a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.
Mastering the Basics: Composition
Composition is how visual elements are arranged in the frame of a photograph. You might have heard of the rule of thirds, where a frame is split with two equidistant horizontal and vertical lines that intersect and segment the image. Other compositional techniques include balance, leading lines, focus, depth of field, symmetry, texture, pattern, and color.
Composition allows for more creative ways to showcase and frame a subject rather than defaulting to centering them in every photo. Mastering the art of composition will sharpen your creative eye and allow you to take better and more interesting photos in which the eye can find its way to the subject.
What Camera Should You Buy to Get Started?
Almost any DSLR or mirrorless camera will work, but what matters most is the specifications. When looking for a camera, you should be looking for the specifications of sensor size (is it full-frame or APS-C?), resolution, viewfinder dots, monitor type, autofocus, and maximum continuous shooting rate.
The two most popular camera brands are Canon and Nikon, and they perform equally well. If you prefer modern lenses with the latest technology, then consider Canon. However, unlike Canon, Nikon has their own vintage and manual lenses, which are compatible with their DSLRs. When it comes to usability, Canon DSLRs are seen as easier to use and easier to handle.
Both brands have their strengths and weaknesses, but when you do choose one, you will most likely be sticking to that brand for the rest of your career.
Should You Go Mirrorless or DSLR?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, which works by light hitting an internal mirror at 45 degrees, where the light goes straight to an optical viewfinder, allowing you to see precisely what the lens is looking at so you may see a preview of your image before you snap the shot. When you take the photo, the mirror moves out of the way, allowing the light to hit the image sensor. DSLRs also use APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C) or full-frame sensors.
By contrast, mirrorless cameras do not have a mirror. Instead, the light passes straight through the lens to the camera sensor to be processed and then displayed on either a monitor or a viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras use the same size sensors as DSLRs but in smaller formats, allowing for smaller and lighter weighted cameras.
So which one should you buy? The answer is up to you. However, you might want to consider what is currently the industry standard. In this regard, mirrorless cameras might be the winner, because DSLRs are being made less frequently as photographers and freelance photographers become more likely to purchase mirrorless cameras. Therefore, to keep up with the industry, you might want to go for a mirrorless camera.
What Lens Should You Get for Product Photography?
There are many types of lenses for professional cameras, and as a product photographer you may end up purchasing and using more than one depending on what your needs are for a specific shoot.
Beginner and intermediate cameras are often sold with a kit lens, a multipurpose lens that is good for most scenarios. In that case, you will not need to purchase a separate lens for a while, as you use the kit lens until it no longer serves its purpose for a shoot.
There are two types of camera lenses: prime lenses which have a fixed lens focal length, and zoom lenses which use a series of lenses to allow for different focal lengths. Prime lenses are faster and more lightweight whereas zoom lenses are heavier and slower.
When it comes to product photography, a prime lens is preferable because the fixed focal length will not cause diffractions, which is a phenomenon of optical physics when light interacts with an object. Prime lenses will also give you a sharper image.
Within both prime and zoom lenses, there are a variety of lens types, all with different focal lengths. Some of these lenses include macro lenses, micro lenses, telephoto lenses, wide-angle lenses, standard lenses, fisheye lenses, tilt-shift lenses, and infrared lenses.
The best lens type for product or still-life photography would be a macro lens, which is used for taking super-sharp, detailed images very close up to your subject. A true macro lens has a magnification ratio of 1:1 or 1x; if a macro lens is labeled as 1:2, it is not a true macro lens.
How to Create a Home Studio for Product Photography
The beautiful thing about product photography is the products are usually small enough to be photographed right on your kitchen table. Maybe you have an entire room or section of a room to dedicate to your photography. In either case, this is where your lights, diffusers, reflectors, your white background, and tables or stands come into play.
If you have a separate room for your photography, consider painting the walls white to achieve that white background and prevent unwanted color casts from showing up in your images. Having a white background is essential because the white can be altered to different colors in post-production.
It might also be useful to invest in some basic props to spice up your photos so you are not always shooting your products alone. The props used will depend on the product you are shooting. For example, when shooting cosmetics for makeup brands, it would be beneficial to have makeup brushes on hand as props.
How to Set up Your Lighting in Your Home Studio
There are a variety of ways to set up your lights and diffusers or reflectors, and each of these will produce a different mood for your subject. Here are eleven types of lighting and what they are:
- Ambient Lighting Or Natural Lighting – Lighting that is not added by the photographer. Sunlight, moonlight, streetlights, and more can be ambient lighting.
- Flat Lighting – Lighting that is directly facing the front of your subject, greatly reducing shadows.
- Broad Lighting – Lighting from the side at a 45 degree angle from your subject, where the well-lit side of the subject is facing the camera and the less well-lit side is facing away from the camera.
- Short Lighting – The opposite of broad lighting, where the less well-lit side faces the camera and the well-lit side faces away from the camera.
- Split Lighting – Lighting that hits the subject from the side at a 90 angle, creating an effect where half the subject is bathed in light and the other half is cast in shadow.
- Back Lighting – Lighting that is behind the subject. Use reflectors to reflect some of the light back onto the front of the subject to avoid creating a silhouette and losing clarity.
- Rim Lighting – Lighting that hits the subject at an angle such that it creates highlights along the edges of said subject.
- Butterfly Lighting – Lighting that is in front and above your subject, creating a butterfly-shaped shadow below.
- Loop Lighting – Lighting that is set up at a 45 degree angle to your subject and slightly above eye level.
- Soft Lighting – Lighting that is large and broad and placed close to the subject to create shadow edges that are soft and open.
- Hard Lighting – The opposite of soft light, where lighting is placed in the same place as soft light but without being softened by a diffuser.
The best way to get started is to use artificial light or natural light to your advantage and take your product photos during the daytime near a sun-facing window.
Artificial light or natural light can be the best way to take dynamic and provoking product photos before you master the basics of other types of lighting. Artificial and natural light are a beginner’s best friend. Additionally, you can get a fill light to reduce the contrast of a scene.
Adobe Photoshop as a Photo Editing Software
Now that you have accumulated your gear, you have set up your home studio, and finally have taken some photos of products, how do you edit your final image so that it looks its best? Lightroom is a good choice, but it will not always be enough in postproduction. Therefore, to be a successful product photographer, you will need good Photoshop skills.
Master tools in Photoshop like the healing brush tool, the spot removal tool, and the clone stamp tools to deliver clean-looking photos. You can easily practice editing photos by editing selfies on mobile photo editing software like Pixlr.
Have a Website Portfolio
Once you have accumulated some well-shot, well-lit, and well-edited photos, it is time to set up a website to showcase your photography. This will be your product photography portfolio and a way for potential customers to view your work. There are plenty of affordable options for setting up a website. Places like Squarespace and Wix have easy-to-use templates that are clean and modern.
How to Promote Your Photography
You are now ready to market yourself to potential customers. But how do you do that? Here are a few ways.
Create a Promo Piece
Before you start your search for potential clients, you will want a promotional piece to showcase to them other than your website. Think of a spread in a magazine featuring several different photos of the same subject or subjects from different angles and in different lighting conditions. That is a promo piece. This will be something tangible that your potential clients can look at to see what your photography might look like in print. Professional photographers usually put out three to four promotional pieces per year.
You can email your promo pieces to your contacts or send them by snail mail.
Once you have one or several promo pieces, use social media and the internet to find companies that sell the types of products you would like to shoot. Once you have their information, contact them and introduce yourself and your work.
Using social media to build your brand will be a long game in which you slowly accumulate an audience and draw in potential clients at a steady rate. To grow an engaged following, you will need to post daily (or at least regularly) and comment on feeds.
Some photographers will make the mistake of only engaging with other product photographers instead of engaging with their potential customers, i.e. brands. Although it is important to stay connected with your peers, it is more important to stay engaged with the companies that will provide you with work.
Follow companies and comment on their posts, do a shoot featuring one of their products and write a caption where you tag them and say you love their product. This will grab their attention.
Everyone is a photographer these days. It isn’t a long jump from taking selfies to market yourself to your followers to shooting products for clients and start making money doing what you already do: taking pictures.
There is a lot that goes into starting a career as a product photographer, but with the right tools and the right mindset, you can get very far. Master the basics of photography and a photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop, take advantage of natural light, set up a website, and start marketing yourself to companies and potential clients.
Do you have any questions on how to get into professional product photography or start your product photography business? Let us know or share your own tips in the comments.