Tutorial: Creating an outdoor product shot


My brief

My brief was to create a photo for a full page media ad for the new Safari 2 portable flash system.
Like most of our products, it’s mostly black, which can be pretty boring in an advert, so I thought I’d add some colour, even if the colour could only be the background.
It’s an outdoor product, so it made sense to photograph it outdoors, on location.
It can be used in the wet, so it made sense to include some water.
It’s more than powerful enough to overpower the sun, so it made sense to do that too.
So, I decided to shoot it outdoors with a colourful backgroud in the rain, and show its capabilities.

I’ve had this idea in my mind for a while now. What I wanted to do was to demonstrate that it can actually get wet, which it can. I could easily have produced a nice ‘clean’ shot of the product in the studio and then produce fake rain in Photoshop, but I wanted the real deal because, personally, I hate deceptive advertising.

What we wanted for this was a rainy day, in fact we wanted torrential rain!

What we actually got was brilliant sunshine on a baking hot July day – so we created our own rain, which was fire brigade rain – the type of rain that comes out of a hosepipe, and instead of using a hosepipe we used a watering can.

The shoot took place in a local park, which has some nice scenery including a duckpond. As every photographer knows, it’s good to get permission in these situations, or at least to ask for permission, and to my amazement the very helpful guy at the local authority actually said yes!

There are ducks and geese in the pond, and I thought it would be a good idea to include one in the shot. A goose would be best, it would give scale to the shot and add a bit of interest. The idea was to bribe one to get out of the pond using bread, lay down a trail of bread to get it to go up to the Safari and then get the shot. Sometimes though, the local wildlife just won’t play ball. We need to get the results we need, so if necessary we have to be prepared to add details like a goose later, in PP.

The Safari 2 is perfectly happy standing in water, so we sloshed some water (OK we sloshed A LOT of water) on the ground too. You can see this being done in the video. The Safari top panel isn’t waterproof, and when I actually use it in rain I use the standard professional solution, which is to put the unit into an upside down carrier bag, to protect the top. I recommend carrier bags from the Co-op, the Tesco ones are too flimsy, and the Co-op needs the business anyway 🙂

My method of working out the exposure for this type of shot is simple but effective.
1. Set the camera to shutter priority, so that it measures the required aperture (without flash)
2. Set the ISO as low as possible, in this case at 100
3. Set the shutter speed to the maximum that it will sync at, in this case 1/250th second, to minimise the effect of the ambient light. In fact, I ended up setting the shutter speed to 1/320th second, knowing that even if there was a little bit of the frame, right at the bottom, not lit by flash, it wouldn’t matter. I could have gone faster in this situation, with ‘spare’ content at the bottom of the frame, maybe 1/500th – but I didn’t bother because there was no need, I knew that I had more lighting power than I needed.
4. See what the exposure would be without flash.

The answer here was f/8. I wasn’t happy with this because I wanted the background blurred and f/8 wouldn’t do, even using just the ambient light. So I fitted a 3-stop (0.9) neutral density filter to the camera lens, effectively reducing the ISO to just 12.5.
I needed to do this because I was going to overpower the sun by about 2 stops to draw more attention to the subject , and the neutral density filter now gave me a nominal aperture of f/2.8 which I would later adjust if necessary, once the flash had been added.
This is the standard method of allowing large-ish apertures to be used in bright sunlight.

I could have taken a combined ambient and flash reading, to work out the ratio of flash to ambient light but frankly I didn’t bother, I tend to use experience instead of a flash meter in these situations. In my view, the ‘correct’ amount of flash power is the amount that gives me the result I’m looking for and nothing else matters.

Landscape or portrait?
duck_landscapePortrait was the obvious format choice because of the shape of the final image BUT I decided to shoot in landscape instead. The reason for this was that we were hoping to get one of the geese in the shot, and so wanted to have enough space in the frame for it, which may or may not go right up to the Safari unit. As it happens, we couldn’t persuade any of the geese to cooperate but I decided to leave the camera in landscape just in case. I wasn’t really concerned about the loss of image quality resulting from the resultant crop, as this image won’t end up as a large print.

However, if I had shot in portrait then the camera would have been closer, the depth of field would have been less and I could have shot at a smaller aperture. This is the type of decision that often has to be made – should we fill the frame to preserve maximum image quality and reduce depth of field, or should we take the shot from further away to make sure that we get everything in?

The final crop is in fact much tighter than the one showing in these pictures.

Surprise surprise, we lit this shot with the Safari 2 1200Ws kit.
The subject was also the key light, just a simple silver reflective umbrella pointing down at the Safari, and turned down to 1/16th of its power, despite the brilliant sunshine. It was kept very simple because simple is often better, and certainly when the subject is sitting in bright sunlight there’s no need for the subtlety of more ‘creative’ light modifiers – the difference in effect between say a softbox or an umbrella and a beauty dish is enormous in the studio, but very slight when used outdoors in such bright light.

duck_backlightAnd then I added a second light, shot through a high intensity reflector positioned on the right hand side, this sidelit/backlit the fire brigade rain. This was quite a long way away, and was fitted with a honeycomb to prevent flare, which eats light, but even so didn’t need full power. Here is a comparison, with and without that sidelit flash added.

You can see that adding that second light made a massive difference to the visibility of the ‘rain’. At a purely technical level, it was too much, and would have been better with the flash head set at a lower power, but we were going for drama here.

Before we set off for the shoot, a colleague suggested that we should take along a stepladder too. Of course, I knew better and so we had to manage without the stepladder, which we really did need because we couldn’t get the watering can high enough… and I definitely should have taken it, after all it wasn’t me who had to carry the gear… Because of this we had to comp in a bit of extra ‘rain’ but it was all genuine water, it was just from a couple of different shots.

PP work
Well, as well as comping in the goose and some extra water, we adjusted levels a bit, and cropped it to suit. But there was minimal retouching needed.