Tutorial: Product lighting in detail, part 1

sf600_black_rearFollowing on from our very successful free studio lighting workshop on product photography…

Well, some very interesting points were raised, for example that honeycombs play an absolutely crucial role in just about all of my product shots, and that they do the job quicker, easier and better than the traditional method of flagging the light in backlit shots.

People also said that I work at the speed of light and make everything look easy… well, that’s a valid point so I thought it might be an idea to pick a fairly typical subject and show exactly how I approach the various  lighting challenges.

I’ve picked a Lencarta SuperFast 600 flash head, partly because I actually need new photos of it because it’s a new model with a different modelling lamp and a different standard reflector, partly because it’s here, partly because it’s a fairly typical product and partly because it does have some interesting challenges.

Now, it’s obvious that with any product shot, we need to show potential customers the benefits of the product as well as what it actually looks like – flash heads aren’t particularly attractive to look at and it doesn’t help that they’re all black, but we have to do the best we can with what we have. The obvious benefits are its ability to freeze action and recycle instantly but we can’t show those benefits in a product shot so we have to settle for showing the build quality, the rugged appearance and the control panel.

What we must do is to balance truth with the desire to produce a decent shot. The name of the game is to make it look good, but not so good that the customer is disappointed when it arrives and so we must be careful not to exaggerate its good looks, in the way that Fast Moving Consumer Goods such as hamburgers are often exaggerated by photographing atypical products that are then retouched to death  – FMCG photos are often very deceptive, it’s wrong but it isn’t too important because the customer can see what the genuine item looks like before s/he actually hands over their money. They can’t do that when they buy from a website instead of from a shop.

Not everything can be shown in a single shot. This applies to just about every product, so more than one shot needs to be taken, showing different viewpoints, different features, different important details – but the one shot that arouses the interest and gets people to look at the secondary and tertiary shots is the most important because if it doesn’t do its job then customers won’t bother looking at the other shots.

The background
I don’t bother about a background at this stage. I may need to produce a white background for the website, a black background for a media advert or some other kind of background entirely, and the easiest (and best) method is to simply cut the product out of the background and stick it onto a transparent background in PP, leaving all of my options open. The only thing I need to concern myself with is that if a black product is going to end up on a black background, I need to make sure that all the edges are lit properly so that it can’t merge into the background and lose its edge definition.

My working method

Bottom softbox, too far away

Bottom softbox, too far away

I set up 1 light at a time. My WIP (work in progress) shots are lit with just the one light that I’m working on getting right at that time, because I want to see exactly what that light is doing, in isolation from any others that I’m also using,

My first (or main) shot is the one at the top of this post. It shows the side, but the side is pretty boring so it’s at an angle – and having it at an angle also shows the control panel on the rear. It’s shown pointing downwards a bit because this angle suits the product.

BUT it doesn’t show the business end, the bit that the light comes from, so that requires a different shot. We’ll move onto that one in part 2.

You’ll see that my camera was mounted on a camera stand. I use a camera stand partly because I have one and partly it’s quicker than a tripod, but a tripod will do provided it’s adjustable enough. The camera is mounted just slightly higher than the subject, it needs to be because it needs to show items on the top (slave sensor and release clip) that otherwise wouldn’t be visible.

So, what have we got in that first, main shot?
We have a sort of semi shiny surface that’s just crying out for diffused specular highlights.

This is easily achieved with two softboxes, one for each highlight or, in other words, 1 above and 1 below the product.  When that’s done, we can see what (if anything) hasn’t been lit properly by them and add any extra lights needed.

Firstly, I lit the underside, using one of our strip softboxes. I used a strip softbox so that the light was the right shape but also didn’t go where it wasn’t wanted. I lit the underside first because I know from experience that it can be a bit tricky getting the height of the softbox, relative to that of the subject, just right. It’s much easier to get the second, overhead softbox right so I did the one that was likely to be more fiddly first. Height can be a  problem here, so I mounted this flash on one of our low level combined lighting stands

The softbox was a bit too far away in the first shot and because of this the diffused specular highlight was a bit small, it didn’t quite cover the area I want it to, so I lowered the subject a bit to make theBottom softbox, right distance

Bottom softbox, right distance

softbox closer and larger in relative terms, and ended up satisfied with its size and position. You can see from the setup shot (above) just how close that softbox ended up being, that’s pretty typical.

Next, I introduced the overhead softbox. There are a lot of possible bodges in product photography but one thing that can’t be bodged is the angle of a softbox, which needs to be right, so I stuck it on one of our heavy duty boom arms. I could have used a second strip softbox for this but used a 140 x 70cm one instead, because I wanted a bit of the light to run down the flash head and light its front
With softbox added above

With softbox added above

(to some extent) and this was easier to achieve with a wider softbox. Of course, that softbox is also lighting the back of the subject but we won’t worry about that because we can’t see it. The overhead softbox was further away because it’s a lot bigger and it needed to be further away to produce a similar effect.

Here's the setup shot, on the left

Here’s the setup shot, on the left

The softboxes do a pretty good job of producing a diffused specular highlight as required, although it does require slightly more careful positioning of the softboxes than it may seem. But, the softboxes are straight  (in relation to the subject) and although this is fine on the straight part of the product, it doesn’t work too well on the reflector, which has quite a complex convex shape. And lighting it with the softboxes at the best angle for the reflector produces terrible lighting on the straight parts.

I suppose it’s possible to use 4 softboxes for this shot at different angles, but we would have problems getting them close enough and frankly it’s just easier and better to take two different shots and then merge them together in PP. This is something that I might do with some products but I haven’t done it here because its benefit is borderline.

When I came into this business we couldn’t do this type of PP work, some purists still insist that everything should be done in camera but this is unrealistic because some things are just better as well as easier when done in PP. The important thing here is to make sure that the shots are as good as they can be in camera and that PP is used only to enhance those shots, not to rescue them.

What we’ve got so far is sort of OK, it shows the shape of the product, it shows the rear control panel, it shows the screw that locks it onto a lighting stand, it shows the slave sensor top rear and it shows the handle. But the back

Separate flash head lighting the control panel

Separate flash head lighting the control panel

panel isn’t being lit by either of these softbox lights so I decided to add another light that would light mainly the back panel but also skim along the side of the flash head, to add a bit more detail and a bit more ‘life’ to it. The effect is subtle, it doesn’t exactly jump out and hit you but I feel that it’s these subtle extras that make a real difference sometimes.

I used a 70cm beauty dish for this, complete with a honeycomb. I could in fact have used a honeycomb in a standard reflector, it doesn’t matter for this. I want the light to be square to the control panel and to also run along the side in a straight line, so I made sure that the beauty dish light was at the same angle as the control panel. And I put it quite a long way away – why was that? Well, the Inverse Square Law can be our friend but it can also be our enemy. The Inverse Square law can cause a problem on this type of shot because, if the light is too close, the part nearest to the light gets a lot more exposure than the part furthest from it, and I didn’t want that to happen here.

Beauty dish lighting control panel

Beauty dish lighting control panel

Post Processing is also needed for the illuminated control panel. The panel is being lit by the beauty dish but of course its various indicator lights aren’t on, so we need a separate shot with it plugged in and lit up, which is then just blended into place in Photoshop. Now, I’m sure that you already know how to

Time exposure of the illuminated control panel

Time exposure of the illuminated control panel

photograph a continuous light source , it just involves using a shutter speed that’s slow enough for the continuous light to display properly, in this case it’s around 1 second. But in order to get that continuous light, we need to attach the mains power lead to the flash head, which looks plain ugly, that’s why we do that as a separate shot and add it in PP.

What we now have is a shot that is lit from both top and bottom, the control panel is lit, and is shown switched on and which works on either a black or white background, or come to that on any other background that you care to add.


Finished with this shot?
Well, not quite because every single brand new product, straight out of the box and carefully cleaned, always photographs showing dust marks and tiny little bits that aren’t even visible to the naked eye, and these need to be retouched out. Also, we may want to make some subtle changes in curves and perhaps to the colour saturation – but I simply don’t do this to the shots that I show in my tutorials.

All that we need to do now is to take a shot at the opposite angle, to show the front of the flash head, and you can see how that’s done in part 2.