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19.10.16

Quality Product Photography Really Isn't That Hard

Do you think you have to buy styled stock photos to make your products look good? I'm here to tell you, you don't.

For a very long time I was intimidated by product photography and was convinced I couldn't get good results with my old camera and the random doodads around the house. This post is proof that it CAN be done!

Months ago I bought a set of napkins from Minted's home decor line of table linens of my pattern Dotty Chevron in the color "gulf coast." I was curious about the quality and I wanted a set. I even had a product shoot all planned out in my head to promote them.

By "all planned out" I mean I knew I wanted to use the mismatched English china that I collected while we lived in the UK and some gold cutlery that I got on super clearance from Sur la Table. Well, summer came and went and I still hadn't done anything. Last week, I finally decided it was time. After an hour of gathering my supplies and arranging everything just so, I went to turn on my camera and the batteries were dead.

#$%^&@!

After a minor tantrum, I decided to see what I could achieve using my little old iPhone 5. With a little editing in Instagram ... the photos turned out so much better than I ever thought they would!



Pretty, right?

I am a big fan of "behind the scenes" pictures, especially styled product photos so let me give you a little breakdown of the steps I took to get this final image and show you how not intimidating taking these photos really is.

See? My rather unremarkable set-up of the dresser top on on a window seat, counter cleaner and paper towel to remove dust, a desk chair to stand on, cold coffee posing as tea, extra cups and plates, ugly dead grass outside window, and pile of bed pillows on old chair. Normally, my camera and tripod would be here too but I didn't use them for this one.



































PLEASE NOTE: I am not a photographer. I am not trained in any of this stuff. I just know what I think looks good, what works for me and went with that.

1. Light: Decide what kind of light you want. It was an overcast but not dark day outside which is good for diffused natural light. I didn't use any other light sources. I probably should have propped up some white poster board on my chair to bounce light back into the scene from the bottom. It may have avoided that dark shadowing at the bottom of everything -- oh well!

2. Location: Set up near a North facing window. A photographer I talked to at the Maker's Summit last year told me Northern windows have the best and most consistent indirect light. Using that trick has worked for me so far.

If you have a camera, use a tripod! The tripod is going to be your best friend and keep you from constantly having to adjust your focus and position and give you a consistent frame to work within. I'd also recommend a remote trigger because if you drink too much coffee like me, it can be hard to push the shutter button without moving the camera. You can also try the technique of "push and hold," where you hold down the shutter button for a half second after pushing it to help eliminate any jerking motion that can move the camera.

3. Background: Use a backdrop that gives you the "feel" you want your photo to convey. I used a marble top from an antique dresser of ours (so heavy!) and moved it to the window where I wanted to shoot. Marble makes me think of high-end, clean, kitchens, which is a good backdrop for napkins and tea, no? Plus it reminded me of this humorous post.


4. Product: Think about the product you're photographing. How is it used? What are the characteristics a person using it would be looking for? In the case of these napkins, the pattern is most important with the function and feel second. I made sure to arrange them in a way that shows their potential use and the "feel" the fabric. Having three folded with some cutlery on them gives a sense of how they'll look at a set table while the unfolded one draped across the serving tray gives a sense of the fabric's texture and unfolded size.

5. Accessories: Set the scene with your accessories. Where would you find this product in real life? Gather items that have a variety of textures. A mix of matte, shiny*, metal, wood, stone, and fabric feel visually interesting and realistic. Since I had this lovely gold cutlery, I wanted to tie in more gold so I grabbed china pieces with metallic gold rims, floral elements and in soft, spring colors. I also pulled out two flower shaped brass candlesticks that I'd nabbed from a thrift store last year. In hindsight the candlesticks are not practical with this scene and could be eliminated altogether or replaced with something else more fitting, like a pretty tea tin, tea bags or sugar and cream servers.

*If you use shiny and reflective props, check that your reflection isn't distracting or obvious and for the love of Pete, wear clothes!

I realized, after posting this first photo on Instagram, that it was missing a key component. If you are photographing food related items, for heaven's sake, use food or drink in the photo. How stupid does it look to have tea cups with no tea? Also,  I didn't love this composition so I switched to a horizontal instead of the square and incorporated more items and a buttered English muffin for good measure.

6. Composition: First arrange your main product in an interesting way and NOT dead-center (unless that's the look you want). Then sprinkle in your accessory items. I stood on a chair and looked down on the layout so see how items were overlapping and where the visual weight was. Rearrange your items until you get a composition that you like. Use your camera (or in my case, phone) and take some test photos. Look at them in the frame, is your arrangement too centered? Is there a visual path for your eye to travel through the entire image with an emphasis on the main product you are trying to showcase? Are there any weird empty spots or edges where an object is not partially out of the frame or just barely touching? (See how there is an object going off each edge of this photo?) Move stuff around until you get a composition that is visually balanced but not too symmetric.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the adding of things and clutter up your composition so once you've got everything the way you like it, take the Coco Chanel approach to accessories, “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off,” and remove one accessory item before settling on a final composition.

7. Take Lots of Shots: More than you think you'll need. I always take a ton of photos, rearrange stuff and take a ton more. Make sure you zoom in on your photos now and then to check your camera's focus is on target. There is nothing worse that taking a gazillion photos and when you go to process them you realize they're out of focus or focused on the wrong thing.

When using a real camera (not a phone) play with the F-Stop and white balance and how much light you are allowing in for each photo. If you can get your lighting spot on while you take the photos you'll eliminate a lot of post-processing time. Keep in mind that your camera settings will need to change as the natural light in your space changes.

When using your phone, tap different areas of the image to see how that affects the overall lighting until you get a look that you want.

8. Edit: Get those photos off your camera and onto your computer and look at them at the size you want them to be viewed. Is your image framed the way you want? Are there any weird little blemishes you can edit out? How's the overall color of the photo? I felt my image was a little dark and cold so I lightened it using Instagram's brightness and warmth filters. A light touch is best when editing your photos this way because it's easy to change the colors of your product and then it's no longer representational of the real thing, which is obviously super bad for product photography.

While this may still seem super overwhelming, it's really a trial and error process and once you get past the "I can't possibly do this" phase into the "wow, I actually made this look good" phase you'll start to see how easy it is to take your own high-quality product photos without a lot of fancy gear and equipment.

Now get out there and give it a shot! If I can do it, I promise you can too.

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