Product photography is a complex subject because every job is different, we rarely get 2 subjects that have the same shape, reflectivity or purpose, and all of these factors make a massive difference to our approach to the job.
This job involved photographing some snooker cues. The only thing that I know about snooker is that I’m lousy at it, but what I can do is to recognise the qualities of these hand-made cues, and appreciate their fine woodwork. Some things go without saying – the length is standard, and they have to be perfectly straight, so there’s nothing there to show in the photos and so we concentrate on the things that make this particular snooker cue special, and to give the customer a reason to buy it.
Looking online, I see that mostly they’re photographed on a white background, this looks clean and functional but doesn’t bring out the quality of the products, and some are photographed on a snooker table, but I don’t think that works too well either because the material is ‘dead’ and doesn’t create any reflections. It’s also coloured and I don’t want a green cast showing on the product, so I thought I’d try something different. I found some imitation carbon fibre on Ebay, it comes in rolls and is designed to be stuck onto cars to make them look better (?) – so I treated myself to a length of it, and stuck it onto a spare work table. The ‘carbon fibre’ is itself shiny, but that doesn’t matter because it’s a simple matter to angle the overhead softbox in a way that doesn’t reflect too much – it is of course possible to get no visible reflection at all, but that angle might not be right for the actual cue. And the cue is going to cast a shadow anyway, so a bit of a reflection in the lit part of the ‘carbon fibre’ just means that the unlit part of it – the shadow area – looks better 🙂
The long pointy bit (shaft) is made of American Ash. Apparently it’s the perfect material for the job, but it doesn’t look anything special so there’s nothing much to photograph there, except for the leather tip. With a product like this, I don’t bother to take a shot of the whole thing, a photo of the whole thing wouldn’t help them with their buying decision.
The butt is made of ebony, inlaid with various exotic woods such as walnut, burr wood, snake wood etc. That’s the pretty bit, and so that’s where we make most of the effort. And the butt joins the shaft with a threaded brass ferule, that bit’s pretty too, so we need to photograph that as well. There’s also the maker’s nameplate, which is also important because snooker cues are just as brand-concious as clothing. And some cues also have a threaded bit in the end of the butt, to take an extension, so that bit’s important too. Assembling this little list of benefits is vital with every product, a product shot goes far beyond showing what the thing looks like, it has to show the reasons why the customer should buy this version of it for a few hundred pounds instead of getting a £20 one.
So, what are the challenges?
Well, the first challenge is to photograph a very shiny bit of wood in a way that creates a diffused specular highlight, that we can see through to the wood itself. The principles involved are explained in this post, so I won’t repeat myself here. There is a special challenge with the snooker cues that is often, but not always found on other shiny subjects – it has a convex shape, and because of this the specular highlight produced by the overhead softbox becomes ‘shrunk’ by the convex shape. So, we need a much bigger softbox than you might imagine, and it needs to be as close as humanly possible, or at least it does if we want to get the diffused specular highlight as large as possible.
But, do we really want to get it as large as we can? Perhaps it looks better with the softbox slightly further away. True, with it further away we end up with a brighter specular highlight, but we get a better view of the wood…
Also, although we’re only photographing a small length, the cue is tapered so we need to angle the overhead softbox just a bit, so that it is equidistant in height from the cue because, if we don’t, the diffused specular highlight will be uneven.
Getting the angles consistent
Once camera height has been decided upon, every shot will be at an identical angle because of course the camera is mounted on a camera stand or tripod. But we need to get the angle of the product consistent too. Having it in a straight line never looks great, it needs to be at a diagonal angle, and the degree of angle is limited by the available depth of field which, if we haven’t got a tilt/shift lens, is limited. All shots were taken at f/16, this, with my full frame DSLR, gives me the maximum depth of field without introducing diffraction limitation. Having decided on the angle, and having tested the result for depth of field, we maintain consistency by marking the angle on the shooting surface, either with blu tak or some tape.
Product photographers have to be honest, and to show the product as it really is, and because of this, post processing is only carried out to an absolute minimum and nothing is done to enhance the colours or anything else that makes the product look appreciably better than it really is. On this particular shot, there is another minor problem – these cues are hand made and no two are identical. The client has to mention this when selling them and to point out that the one they get may not be the one in the photo, and as photographers we need to make sure that what we photograph is a typical example, not the prettiest one, so that the customer isn’t disappointed – with ‘hard’ products it’s always better to under promise and over-perform, that doesn’t apply to ‘soft’ products (FMCG) such as fast food, where the photos always look a lot better than the actual product.
The starting point here was an overhead softbox, I used the 70 x 140cm Chiaro softbox. It’s tilted forward, which puts a diffused specular highlight along the top of the cue. I know that I need to put light at the bottom of the cue as well, but I only ever introduce a second light once I’m happy with the result of the first one.
And then I introduced the second light, this was a strip softbox, at exactly the same angle as the cue. It was put onto a low level stand and most of the light was actually going to waste underneath the shooting table, but that’s fine because the 3″ or so that was looking over the top of the table was the right size and shape for the job. You can see, in the shot below, that this second light has added a second diffused specular highlight along the bottom. It’s really there just to create that second highlight and to fill in a bit of the shadow area, if I had used more of the softbox then it would have created a wider highlight, but I prefer it as it is.
So far so good, but we need a bit of light on the end of the butt, on the leather tip and on the end of the extension, so I added a honeycombed light to light just these areas. You can see, in the photo below, that it’s made a real difference. I use honeycombs a lot, and the one I use for product shots is nearly always the 10 degree one, which when placed close can light very precisely. But, on this shot, it was important to light ONLY the ends and not to spill any light onto the ‘carbon fibre’, so I simply covered most of the honeycomb with Cinefoil to mask it – more of this later.
And, basically, that’s all there is to lighting the cue. The job isn’t finished yet because each cue has a case available as an optional extra, and there are 3 choices of case, but they’re simple to photograph.
Of course, detail shots are needed too, the whole point of product photos is to give information, and the more information the seller provides, the higher the rate of sales conversion. But it isn’t just about giving information, it’s about using photos as an acceptable alternative to the customer actually seeing the product, picking it up, feeling it and wanting to own it, which is what can make producing photos for online sales more important than most people think.
In the shot above left, I again used a honeycombed light on the brass ends.
Here’s a step-back shot showing the overhead softbox, looking towards the camera. On a larger product, the angle of tilt would light just the top, on this product it’s adding light to the front too. The angle used creates the diffused specular highlight in
the right place, which is never exactly at the top.
You can see the strip softbox too, here’s another view of it (below). You can also see a piece of sticky tape at one end of the cue (the other end is almost out of sight) and it’s a simple matter to put a straight edge between the two bits of tape to ensure that each product is placed in exactly the same place.
I mentioned a honeycombed light, playing on the ends, to illuminate them without spilling any unwanted light onto the rest of the shot. Well, as I
mentioned, Cinefoil is used for this, it doesn’t look pretty but that doesn’t matter, it’s only the finished result that counts. The bit of clear tape holding the 2 halves of Cinefoil together isn’t pretty either, but it doesn’t affect the shot in any way, so that doesn’t matter either.