How to create a media photo from scratch

Adverts vary, a lot.

Some adverts are born in an advertising agency, often the agency provides a detailed brief showing exactly how they think it should be photographed. That’s fine, commercial photographers are happy working to a brief. There is no brief for this shot, but I started writing this blog entry before I did the photography, this is a big help because it helps to clarify my thoughts and so, in effect, I end up with a brief.
Often, advertising agencies send their Creative Director along to the shoot to ‘help’ the photographer. That isn’t fine, because although a few of the creative director/art director types are excellent, many of them make about the same contribution to a photoshoot as my cat does, and I haven’t got a cat… And often they send along the account manager, and their client, and even throw in a couple of staff having an away day at the client’s expense, they sit around drinking my coffee and showing off. That’s even less fine, but it’s just something that photographers have to put up with.

This advert has much more humble beginnings, just an idea that came to me out of the blue. Well, not quite out of the blue because just about everyone who sees this particular product comments on how little it weights, so I thought – let’s show everyone who hasn’t seen it exactly how little it weighs…

And at the same time, it gives me an opportunity to share my passion for the product. In the case of the Safari Li-on, I have a genuine passion for it because I believe it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but even if happened to be a product that I’d never seen before and that didn’t interest me personally, it would still become my product – commercial photography is as much about the marketing as the photography and so I do my very best to learn about its qualities and benefits, and to show them in the photo.

The light weight of the Safari Li-on is probably the last frontier Lencarta had to cross.  It’s now accepted  that it has more power, better performance, better high speed synch capability and much more battery life at a lower price  than just about everything else on the market, so in this advert we’re going to concentrate on the light weight and forget the rest. Let’s keep it simple, because a single photo and a single message usually works better than trying to do everything at once. Because of this I didn’t exactly go to town on the lighting of the equipment, you’ll see further down that I added the bare minimum of extra lighting instead of making the image really ‘pop’ – the emphasis in this image has to be on the light weight, with as few distractions as possible.

These are the decisions that need to be made.
As always, we have to decide on the composition and overall shape. The shape will be A4 portrait (full page photo magazine) and there has to be the right amount and the right shape of space for the headline and advertising copy. The copywriting and layout will be done by a professional ad designer, but I need to have an idea of what it will look like in advance, and create a photo of the right shape. Somehow, I have to balance the ideal shape for the text with the ideal shape for the image, and these two ingredients are often in conflict with each other.

  • Then we need to decide on the focal length of the lens.  Too long a lens will compress the perspective and too short a lens will exaggerate it, so I decided on a short-ish (80mm) lens for this, on a full frame digital camera.
  • Then there’s camera height. Does it need to be low, looking up at the product? Or looking down? Both will produce a very different effect. A low shot will make it look heroic, big and bold, and a looking down shot will make it look insignificant. I decided that I wanted to show the depth of the product, so I shot it looking down – but just a bit.
  • And then there’s the lighting, which is the final ingredient in the basic mix.
  • And we need to decide on depth of field. Do we want just the display on the scales to be sharp, drawing attention to the message that this gives? Or does the actual product need to be sharp too? Generally it’s a simple choice of either everything being really sharp or just one element being sharp, and both are easy to achieve. The one thing that never works is to have one element being really sharp and everything else not quite sharp. My immediate thought was to use shallow depth of field, but I ended up shooting at f/16 to get the maximum depth of field possible without creating diffraction limitation. f/16 is about the limit with a full frame digital camera, with a cropped sensor camera the limit would be around f/11.

One thing I don’t care about is the background. Lencarta’s boss likes things on white backgrounds, he pays the bills so it’s his choice, but I’m not going to photograph it on white because unwanted light spill will destroy lighting control. If he wants it to be white I’ll cut it out later, add a drop shadow, semi reflection or whatever else he wants.

I shot it on a large product shooting table, simply because I’ve got one handy, but it would be fine without it.

And I shot it tethered to my laptop. That isn’t essential but it does make life easier.

The sequence of operations never, ever changes.

  1. Start with a ‘blank piece of paper’ no lighting at all.
  2. Arrange the subject, roughly.
  3. Mount the camera on a stand or tripod, move it left and right, up and down etc until it shows the view I want it to show.
  4. Connect the laptop so that images can be viewed as they are taken. The large image will show all the faults.
  5. Take a shot using ambient light only (above) . This shot will of course be thrown away, but it’s useful to have it as a reference point. The colour balance is way out because I used the room lighting for this reference shot.
  6. Decide on the lens aperture that will produce the best results.If you’re not sure, it’s a very good idea to consult a depth of field chart, rather than leave things to chance. The distance from the sensor to the nearest part of the subject ended up at 2100mm, then there was another 440mm to the furthest point of the subject, this means that I needed a depth of field of 440mm. The DOF calculator shows that the image should be acceptably sharp between 2120mm and 3050mm, so I know that the DOF will be enough. I could have shot from much closer, filling the frame, but I decided to sacrifice a bit of image quality by using only part of the frame and moving the camera further from the subject to increase the depth of field.
  7. Focus manually, autofocus has its place but but a small static subject shot in the studio isn’t one of them.
  8. For this subject, I fitted a large softbox overhead, fitted to a boom arm. It puts a nice sheen on the top of the product, without blowing out the highlight areas. It’s tilted forwards, as you can see this puts the front surface in shadow (which allows it to be lit separately) and also puts an ‘edge’ to all surfaces. This will help regardless of the final choice of background. It doesn’t look much so far, but this is  how all subjects need to be lit, one light at a time. Other lights are added later, gradually building up to the final image.
  9. I decided to add a light from the rear right, skimming across the top of the flash generator. You can see that, as well as revealing the texture of the generator, it’s also added a highlight to the flash head and a highlight going from front to back of the flash generator, and it has also put a bit of light on the side. I used a honeycomb for this, fitted to a standard reflector. If I hadn’t used the honeycomb the light would have gone everywhere, and would also have caused lens flare.
  10. The next job was to add a softbox to camera left, positioned to catch the side of the flash head on the left and to also light its reflector. Although everything is normally metered, I just set the power on the softbox flash head very low and then very gradually increased the power until the result looked right to me. Working to some kind of lighting ratio never works, basically if the contribution from a particular lighting source looks right, it is right.
  11. The front of both the weighing scale and the flash generator is a bit dark, I want it dark but there are limits, so my next job was to add a 5-in-1 reflector, over to the right, picking up ‘spare’ light from the softbox on the left and kicking it onto the front. It’s fairly subtle, but it was worth doing.
  12. The weighing scales are black, the Safari Li-on is dark grey and it’s important for photos to show colours and tones accurately, so I metered the final result carefully, accurate exposure is essential for accurate rendition – adjusting later on the computer is a poor way of getting it ‘right’.
  13. So what’s left to do? Well, if I had connected the cables I could have switched the modelling lamps on, but I didn’t, because of the problems that this would have caused with wires showing, explained below. With the modelling lamps switched on, I would have simply adjusted the shutter speed until the flash heads looked about right. The modelling lamps are pretty bright and 1/60th sec would probably have done it, but I used a different method, which is actually easier… I didn’t bother about the flash head at the rear, that one already has light reflected into it. What I did was to aim another flash head, again fitted with a standard reflector and a 10 degree honeycomb, at the flash head. I had it at a fairly acute angle, so that I left part of the ‘step’ that holds the honeycomb visible, I didn’t want to blow it out. Of course, if you don’t have enough flash heads you could do this on the computer, but it’s easier, quicker and better with a flash head.

I hate bits of wire, they have a life of their own so unless they are absolutely vital, I either don’t include them at all or I cut them out of the final shot. In this shot, there were bits of wire going to the weighing scale, it won’t work without them but I tucked them out of the way, making sure that they weren’t covering part of the subject,  so that they could be cut out later. Even worse are the heavy cables that go from the flash generator to the flash heads. I didn’t fit these at all and arranged the flash head on the left to partially cover the sockets that the cables fit into.

This left me with a small problem because I wanted the display on the flash generator illuminated, and this is only possible with at least one flash head connected. So, after taking the final shot, I simply connected 1 flash head, photographed the display and then added it to the final shot. I switched off all the flashes except for the one illuminating the standard reflector on the left (I forgot to switch that one off) and used a long shutter speed to capture the display. The room lights caused the colour temperature shift, visible in the background but that doesn’t matter as I only used the illuminated display from this shot, adding it to the final shot later.

It then occurred to me that I really don’t want to advertise the weighing scales (they aren’t paying me:) so the name, model number etc has been retouched out of the final photo.

And my final problem was that I don’t have a new bit of kit to photograph, the one I photographed has been tested, used and abused. In fact it had bits of grass sticking to it, after doing a photoshoot with it a few days ago. I cleaned it up as best I could, but really it should have been a new one. The body isn’t a problem because it’s metal, but the control panel is made from hard nylon and, with the hard lighting that’s needed, it shows marks that aren’t normally visible – I’ll just have to retouch it a bit.

This is the image  so far. You’ll see part of an old lighting stand, used to support the rear flash head, sticking out to the right. That, along with the background and the bits of wire between the weighing scales and the flash head, will be cut out later by Clipping Paths Asia. I push all my clipping path work in their direction, they do an excellent job at reasonable prices.

lion_scaleAfter a few hours I have the image back. It’s time to wander around it, making small adjustments to colour and retouching the odd mark and spec of dust that always appears. Some photographers are multi-skilled, and can do everything themselves but I don’t have those skills so at this stage  I just drop in some text and let our graphic designer work on the actual advert.

The photo above  is the white version, this ended up being used on the website, and the black (well, black -ish) version was used in the media adverts.

But what is sent to the designer is the version below, so that he has all the options available.

The text I’ve added is in grey, so that our designer can toggle between black and white layers and still see the text. The actual colour, as well as the actual text its position and the choice of black or white background will be decided later, and not by me.

When I know in advance that the background will be, say, black then I usually create a semi reflection when I take the shot, as in this or this example but with this shoot I’ve added it in post production so that it will work with either final result and leave the options open.

Here is the finished result in black (there is also a white version) ready to go to the printers.