The Best Lighting for Small Product Photography
Product photography is an essential part of both online and offline advertising for successful catalogues, brochures, magazine ads, billboards, online ads and company websites, specifically when selling products direct to consumer.
No matter how sophisticated, website visitors are first engaged by eye-catching visual elements, not written copy. Photos are an important part of a consumer’s decision-making processes, in the end, playing a big part in determining overall conversion and retention rates.
The quality of a product photo reflects on the brand image, creating the infamous first impression, oftentimes creating a tipping point for staying on a website and eventually making a purchase.
It is important therefore to know how to take images that can engage, convert browsing into sales & ultimately boost the lifetime value of each customer.
The key to making the most of the first impression is to present polished, professional images that evoke maximum engagement.
Quality visuals enhance every buyer touchpoint. Images need to be polished and professional.
Images are a key element of branding. Everything in an image—quality, subject matter, colour theme and saturation—should speak in a uniform voice that resonates with the target audience.
The Goal For Lighting Any Product
The aim is simply to inform, inspire and encourage a customer towards a purchase decision by interpreting the type of lighting and imaging needed to show key features and unique attributes of the products you are photographing.
For a technical product there is obviously a need to tell the story of the functions and visual highlights that make up the key features.
Another example is food - it needs to look delicious, fresh and elicit an emotional response, basically look appetizing and desirable. But what about a house brick? Or a tap or garden hose. A dress or t-shirt?
Some things to consider apart from the standard simple full image.
What would help you buy a brick from a photo? Size, shape and colour are all-important and can be roughly represented in a simple photo but most importantly will be the need to show the texture and the surface and this can only be done with proper lighting.
If a textured surface is lit with flat lighting that may suit some products. Where shape is all you present, the customer will be missing a key piece of knowledge about texture and the type of surface the brick has. To light this too softly could show an image of a brick to be mistaken as smooth whereas in reality, it is deeply pitted and rough to the touch.
Another example could be a piece of raw meat - what is important here?
To impart freshness and a desirable product represented in such an item, quality and colour rendition of the lighting is key. You must have good quality lights as nothing will turn off a buyer more than a chicken fillet that looks odd or un-natural, maybe even look unhealthy.
So thought needs to be given to these criteria, in relation to the product you will be photographing.
Many of the most commonly photographed products for e-commerce are shiny or reflective. Think of jewellery, bottles, glass, and more - reflective surfaces are are hard to photograph and will bounce light around in ways you don’t want, messing up your lighting setup, and causing unwanted reflections. You don’t want an image of your gear or lights as a distraction! Nothing looks worse than a gorgeous sparkly ring with a camera lens or lighting rig reflection right in the middle. So pay attention to reflections and prepare to move your lights around a hundred ways until you find the perfect configuration. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting in the editing room removing all those pesky reflections.
Light Quality and Shaping
Clarity, colour rendition and accuracy are important, as are soft or hard light - or maybe you need a combination of both, Light shaping with barn doors, soft boxes or Fresnel attachments might be the best solution. You must consider the shape of the light and how will it reflect in your subject or evenly cover the subject.
For long products you may need a strip light to create long reflections, an example would be a wine bottle. On the other end of the scale, jewellery will need to have lots of reflected white surface to show it shape and contours. A light tent may be the answer here.
Rectangular lights work better for products with straight lines. The main reason for this is that a round light could create a blob or small highlight reflection that could be unappealing in the overall look.
Another issue is ensuring that the colours of your product are true. Accurate colours are extremely important in any type of product photography. Many customers purchase products based on the colours they see in your product photography.
You don’t want disappointed clients if the product(s) they receive don’t match up. Everyone’s screens (either phone, computer, television, and more) are all colour calibrated slightly differently. But you will learn that there is still a baseline to follow.
Make sure that you use bulbs and flashes or strobes that have a true white light emitting from them.
Usually, this is labelled as ‘photography toned bulb’. True white light will not give any sort of colour cast, such as the blue or green of a fluorescent or the orange of a warm light. The result will be more desirable and correct colours.
The 2 Groups of Product Photography
There are two main types of images that should be used on a product page and across any associated marketing channels.
These are super clean-cut, white background, product-only images.
These should include just the featured product, and a variety of images showcasing the product from different angles. Product-only images are there to show the product in its best form, from all the relevant angles and of course looking great. They are generally shot on a plain white background, helping to create a consistent look, with no distractions, across the product line. These images describe the product at a glance and are best suited for the product page. Their job is to guide and encourage page visitors towards making a purchase. Contrary to what people might assume, you may actually need up to 10 images on your product page, not just one or two. Most of them should be product-only shots, but if you mix in one or two in-context images, you can create further emotional bonds with your product. Product-only images are usually the most suited for product pages, as they have a significantly higher rate of conversion.
The second is in-context or lifestyle photos that show the product being used in its intended environment or alongside complementing products. Lifestyle shots that try to tell a story, are best suited for social media, and areas like blog posts, emails, and other marketing channels.
The same rules apply to take lifestyle photos as when you are taking product-only shots, although lifestyle photos allow you a lot more creative freedom.
You can use a camera, with or without a tripod, or why not take your products for an outdoor shoot, to a setting that suits your brand’s voice.
For outdoor shots on a budget, natural light is a great resource. You can achieve really beautiful results if you shoot early in the morning or in the late afternoon when the light is filtered at a smaller angle. Of course you can complement natural light with some portable studio lights, or bring the whole set up indoors and control all the variables. Whatever choice you make, you should make sure both your hardware and software are up to the job. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, but it does have to do what you need from it.
Basic Product Photography Equipment
For those who are new to photography, your first product shoot could seem overwhelming. But with no live audience, and being able to take your time, after a few rounds, each step will become more natural, and you won’t even have to think about it.
It is important to find a working process that suits your needs, optimize it, and then create a set of guidelines to ensure you keep your images consistent. Later on, we will describe how to put together a style guide to help you keep the look you want across all your shoots.
Let’s take a look at some DIY product photography tips.
Set up your background and product.
Getting your background right is worth the effort because it cuts down how much work is needed in the editing process. It’s best to use a white or light backdrop, as it’s easy to remove when retouching your images. The white background is not just used to create a blank surface for your image, but to create a neutral colour balance. The white surroundings will ensure your product doesn’t pick up colours when the flashes are set off.
You can easily improvise a background on a budget, and we will look at two that you can set up for under $20.
A shooting table:
You can easily create this with a chair or stool you have in your home or office. For this, all you require is a long roll of paper. The simplest way to achieve this is by pushing a chair against a wall, and taping the paper on the wall allowing it naturally drape down over the chair and to the ground, creating a curved transition between the vertical and horizontal planes. Or you can clip the paper to the top of the chair to improvise a stand for your roll sweep. Another option is to take a large clear plastic storage container that’s flipped onto its side, tape some thick white poster board to the bottom of it, and let it curve and run along the floor.
A light tent
The other budget approach is to create your own lightbox, aka light tent. A light tent is a box-shaped device with sheer walls, designed to help distribute the light evenly around the subject of the photograph.
Here’s how to set one up:
To get started, you will need a large plastic storage container that you can put on its side with the lid off.
Then, tape some white paper inside the bottom, and you can also add white paper or cloth on the sides to serve as diffusers, which will all help to distribute the light better, minimizing the shadows.
Depending on your budget, you can use artificial lighting and place them either side of the container, or if you are on a budget take advantage of natural lighting by placing your DIY lightbox next to a nice large window.
Setting up your Product
It’s important to ensure you set your product up on a flat, stable surface so nothing gets knocked over or stepped on. Once you get the lighting right, you’re almost ready to shoot.
If you’re shooting something like jewellery, it’s always best to use a stand or an artificial bust. Those on a budget can improvise by making one by rolling a piece of cardboard into a wide cone and securing with tape. Sit it over a mug or other low object to keep it stable.
A strategy you might want to use is a fishing line to suspend earrings and other small items, which you can easily remove in the editing process.
Here are a few other ideas for harder to photograph items:
Use glue dots or tape to fix small items in place, in hidden spots
For clothing shots, use a mannequin, which can be easily removed later in editing.
You could experiment with a hanger or even a creative flatlay.
For lifestyle shots, why not ask a friend or team member to model the clothes for some bonus photos.
If you are shooting large items, like furniture, you will need to use a similar technique to a shooting table, but on a bigger scale - giving you a stand mounted sweep that might cost a little more. But you can improvise by getting a few rolls of paper, taping them to the wall or attaching to a stand, and letting gravity do it’s job.
2. Get your lighting right.
If there is one deciding factor that defines the quality of your images, it’s light.
Lighting can feel a bit tricky to get the hang of, but when done right, it brings beautiful results and simplifies your post-processing enormously.
You have 2 options:
Natural Light: The best option if you’ve created a chair mounted sweep.
When you’re on a budget, you should use natural light as much as you can. It’s much easier to manage, and for small in-house product shoots, it can save you lots of time and energy. Start by placing your shooting table near a large window, ideally one that faces the right direction to bring lots of light into the room.
If the light is too harsh, you can diffuse it by placing a cloth or white paper over all or part of the window.
If the shadows are too severe, use white plasterboard or cardboard at the sides of the object, helping to reflect some light and soften the look. It’s always best to shoot when the day is at its brightest, much better to have too much sunlight and minimise it, than not enough as it’s very hard to add in great natural lighting during the editing process.
Keep in mind never to shoot under direct sunlight. Just like a strong backlight, direct sunlight can create harsh shadows.
Studio Light: Great if you have the budget, or if you want to create a lightbox.
If you are going to use artificial lighting, you will need at least two softbox lights to get the shadows right. You can generally buy two clip-on light clamps, with powerful bulbs for under $30. If your budget will stretch a bit further, you can get two softbox setups for about $50.
One of the lights will be your key light, and the other your fill-light or backlight, depending on the look and feel you are working towards.
If using bare lights instead of softboxes, consider placing some white paper or cloth over them to diffuse some of the light, helping to achieve softer shadows.
Your key light should be placed in front — often slightly to the side — of the product, while your fill or backlight is on the opposite side, back or above.
Manipulate the angles and distances between the lights and the subject until you get soft, evenly distributed shadows.
Studio lights will give you more control over the entire process, especially if you are shooting a number of products over several hours.
Once you have your setup exactly how you want it, you can get consistent, professional results by recreating the same settings for all your shoots.
What Studio Lights to Use
There are three main designs of studio lights: Fluorescent, Tungsten and LED.
Fluorescent lights are pretty energy efficient but give off a relatively low output of light. While the bulbs are readily available, cheap and easy to replace, they can throw colour tints that are not what you want.
Tungsten (or “tungsten halogen”) lights offer the brightest output levels but also generate high heat. The bulbs are fairly inexpensive to replace but can also change color temperature if brightness levels are adjusted. Most continuous light softboxes use tungsten globes.
LED lights are very energy efficient and also produce very little heat. They are composed of many small “light-emitting diodes” (known as LEDs) and generally last a very long time. Most ring lights are comprised of LEDs.
Most photographers prefer a ring light or a continuous light softbox for e-commerce photography. This is because it is easier to work through your set up if you can see the lighting effects as you go, rather than having to continuously check with a flash. You can also resolve reflections easier this way.
If you’re looking for more than just a ring light, you’ll want as a minimum of three softbox lights. One overhead light and at least two lights you can use on the side, as a guide.
Many photographers experiment with shapes including square or rectangles for lights that will hit the subject level and maybe an octagonal light for overhead lighting arrangements.
You’re always going to want to diffuse your studio lighting. This ensures that the lighting spreads across and around your product evenly so there are no ”hot spots” formed - these are unflattering and hard to retouch. As well as that, diffused lighting works better for white balance than a spotlight.
Use a tripod
Tripods bring consistency, stability, and focus.
It is easy to blur your images when you try to do everything handheld. If you really can’t fit a tripod into your budget, try using a pile of books or a small stool to keep your camera steady.
A quality tripod will serve you well for many years, and you can get a nice one for under $30. It’s definitely worth picking one up when you have some room in your budget. In terms of camera settings, use a low aperture (high f/stop), and a slow shutter speed. That way you should be able to get a wide depth of field, keeping all your product in focus, and leaving your shots looking crisp.
Pick the right camera
A camera is the most essential element to any product photography shoot, and thankfully prices of DSLR and point and shoot cameras have steadily dropped over recent years.
Recommended DSLR Settings for Product Photography:
Don’t use a wide-angle lens. You will distort your product.
Use the appropriate aperture for each shot. A wide aperture like f2.8 or f4.5 will narrow your depth of field and could leave parts of your product out of focus. A small aperture like f8 or f11 will give you a wider depth of field, which should keep your entire product crisp and in focus.
Use the correct white balance. When shooting, you should set the flash to the same Kelvin temperature as your lights.
When starting out, if you have a smartphone, you don’t need to worry about investing in a camera just yet. Smartphone camera technology has advanced a long way and sometimes you can take better pictures than you would think - maybe even better than using a professional camera.
As long as you work on getting your lighting and background right, your iPhone or Samsung device can do a pretty good job.
You might want to get a smartphone stabilizer or tripod, especially if you won’t be upgrading for a while, to help reduce blur and speed up your post-processing.
Here is a short behind the scenes video on how Jed Dobre lights his small products on set.
Don’t forget post-processing.
Editing your images after the shoot is crucial to achieving the polished look you want. Even if you do shoot your product with a smartphone, editing can mean the difference between mediocre vs professional results.
For those starting out, getting the background or the lighting right usually takes some trial and error. Thankfully photo editing software can make a multitude of flaws magically disappear.
Retouching can mean anything from removal of a background or unwanted item, to colour correction, mannequin removal, and the addition of shadows for a more natural look.
Photo editing is usually a time-consuming process, especially until you get the hang of things. Luckily, there’s a range of free image editing tools available to help with all your photo editing requirements.
Examples of Free Image Editing Tools:
Pixlr – Free and has a lot of the functionality of Photoshop.
Canva – User-friendly free online editor best suited for marketing materials.
Fotor – Free, easy-to-use smartphone app.
Snapseed – Powerful, full-feature mobile app that is also free.
How to Create Product Photography Guidelines
Once you have refined your process down to some clear & replicable steps, make sure you take the time to create shooting, brand, and editing guidelines so you can maintain consistency as your business grows.
This step won’t cost anything, apart from the time it takes you to write it down!
Make sure you take note of all the minor things, including things like the distance between the camera and product, angles, and your exact lighting setup.
It is definitely worth the effort when you keep in mind that your product photos are basically brand ambassadors, and maintaining a consistent feel is crucial.
Create a technical guide and/or a template in your photo editing software that will assist you to maintain a consistent size and scale.
Go a step further and also create a style guide for your in-context snaps.
Make sure you include:
Location and Context
Share your guide with anyone involved in your product shoots, and also post a copy in your in-house studio for easy reference.
Having an image guide will save you money in the long run, and also save you lots of time as you won’t have to repeat the training processes for colleagues or associates. Instead, you can focus on more profitable (and fun!) tasks, such as expanding your business.
Optimizing Your Images (and Increasing SEO)
Don’t forget to optimize your image size so you get the best quality images possible while making sure you don’t slow the page load speed.
Most platforms and marketplaces have their own set of photo editing requirements, so make sure you find out what yours are. When it comes to your product page, every second counts and delayed loading due to large image files can ultimately hurt your conversion rate.
In summary, ask yourself some key questions:
What are the main features you need to expose?
How will you show texture and shape?
Does it have a mirror or reflective finish?
How will you handle a reflective surface?
What shape of light will work for your product?
Will soft light or hard light suit best? Or a combination?
How many lights will you need and will you choose flash or continuous?
What will be your background & how will you balance the light?
What other equipment might be useful - tripod, which camera & accessories, or post-processing programs?
Should I set up a lighting guidebook for this product or client so I don’t have to recreate the whole look from scratch again?