A simple product shot – how and why I did it, part 1

This is just a simple product shot, and this blog is about how I went about photographing it and why I did it this way.

Please watch the video, which shows how the shot was set up. Like the iPhone advert, it’s a case of ‘sequence shortened’ and I’ve left quite a lot of boring but very important things out of the video. For example, any product that’s going to be photographed, and especially with hard lighting, needs to be cleaned very thoroughly. And I left out some of the metering, plus I didn’t bother to show tidying up and hiding the lead from the flash generator to the flash head – and as it’s a massive 12′ long lead that was  a job in itself…

And right at the end, you can see the modelling lamps and the room lighting being switched off so that I could capture the LED display in the same shot. Well, I didn’t bother with a shot showing the shutter speed being reduced from 1/125th to 1/30th to make this work, and I didn’t show the testing to find out what the shutter speed needed to be.

The product I photographed was a Safari Li-on, but the same principles apply to just about all photography, including people photography.

These are the separate stages involved

  1. Why am I taking the photo? What is it for? What effect do I want to achieve?
  2. Compose the shot to achieve the result I want
  3. Sort out the camera position and shooting height
  4. Light the shot – the lighting may be the most important single bit, but the lighting always has to come after everything else because it’s dependent on everything else
  5. Press the magic button

I did this purely as a lighting exercise, but what I wanted to achieve here was a photo that shows that the Li-on flash head can be used as a very powerful alternative to a hammerhead flashgun – it comes complete with a camera bracket and a handle, and the handle can also be used to handhold it.

I arranged this shot so that the flash head on the camera bracket was well forward of the flash generator itself. The flash generator MUST be in the shot because otherwise some people will think that it will work without it… But I wanted the eye to catch the flash head etc, not the flash generator and anyway, setting the flash generator further back (and using a short focal length that allows the camera to be close) makes the generator look even smaller than it is, this is often an important component of product shots. Of course, I could have put the flash generator out of focus as well, but didn’t.

I used a product table for this shot, it would have been fine on a bench, I just used what was convenient.

I used a boom arm too, and that really was necessary. I used the home studio boom arm, which was fine for it, but mostly I use the much larger Parallelogram boom because it maintains the angle regardless of the height setting. And I used a 140 x 70cm softbox, which is ideal for most small product shots. Normally, overhead softboxes are very close to the subject (just out of shot in fact) because the subjects are often highly reflective. This subject isn’t highly reflective so I had it quite high, to create a harder light on the top. And I only needed very low power on it because I only wanted a very low level of light on the top.

The first job was to light the flash generator. It’s a great bit of kit but it isn’t especially attractive to look at – a great pity that the late great Steve Jobs didn’t run Lencarta – so, as photographers, we have to do what we can to make the most of what we have.

It has some decorative fluting on it, so I set up a flash head at an acute angle to skim across its surface and reveal the texture – just a 10 degree honeycomb fitted to a standard reflector. It was a long way away, so that the inverse square law worked in my favour and put almost the same amount of light across the entire width. That’s important, and one of the reasons why even small products sometimes need a fairly large shooting area.

Effect of honeycomb at an acute angleThis photo shows the effect of that light, it was overdone at this stage because I knew that when I added the key light the effect would be mitigated. It doesn’t show much in the finished shot but it does show a bit, and this kind of attention to detail is essential.

I then metered the exposure and set the power to give f/8. I set the camera to f/11 because I intended to add another, key light, from roughly the opposite direction.

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This is quite a detailed tutorial, so check back in a few days for the next chapter – or click on ‘subscribe’