Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beginners product photography

Oh goodness! Product photography = pain in my curvy ass!
Anyone who has ever had to take snaps of the stuff they have made will know that it's no mean feat to produce clear and pretty pictures that really show your product to it's best advantage.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever received (and incidentally ignored) was from an old lecturer. He very wisely told me that the most valuable thing I could ever get out of art school was a friendship with a photographer. He was right, you can spend thousands of dollars on high quality product photography as quickly as blinking and the DIY approach can drive the sanest maker batty!
For several years I have battled along trying to create crisp, evenly lit images to show the things I have made to their best. I have fought poor lighting, windy outdoor conditions, over-blown highlights and crazy constructions to produce white backgrounds.

I FINALLY seem to have found the solution and although the process is still fairly time-consuming I get consistent results every time. WIN! 

I think a successful product photograph can be broken down into 3 key points, 1: Set up (lighting, backdrops etc), 2:Styling (how to make your image relevant and pretty) 3: Technical stuff (camera, editing etc)

I think I had better give a quick disclaimer at this point. I'm only a hobby photographer but I believe everyone can develop some key skills to taking awesome photographs without too much fancy (expensive) gear and studio setups. There are lots of resources out there for taking professional product images, this post is about taking a good quality image without the expense and gear!

SET UP
I like my product shots to have a neutral background like the above image. You can add in pretty bits in your styling, but to make the product shine, and show all the details clearly a clean, clear background is often best. 
I used to fiddle around hanging backdrops of white fabric or paper and always found it to be a nightmare removing creases and shadows. I now use and LOVE my product cube. It's like a pop-up tent with changeable backgrounds designed for product photography. It creates a consistent and instant background instantly. I have never worked out how to twist it back into it's zip-up bag, but aside from that it's pretty awesome and really affordable.
The best, and easiest light is natural lighting. The tricky part is that you don't want it to be  direct (shining straight on your product). The most even light is reflected at your subject and diffused to create an even light.

Again, the photography cube is ace for this, it softens light shining on your product and gently reflects white light back at it.
Despite all of this I struggled to get nice bright images until I discovered the perfect spot in my home... at about 5pm (in the summertime) the sun hits the window at the top of my stairway. It shines onto the white wall and the light is bounced all around the white space and creates the perfect conditions for photography in that spot. The light is in-direct and diffused. Ticks all boxes.

You can create this effect by using a reflector to bounce the light onto your subject if you don't have a handy white wall. Often we focus on creating a whit background forgetting that it's what's behind the camera that directs light onto our subjects.

STYLING
This is the bit I Iove the best but also find the hardest to do well. When you set up your shots you need to think like a shopper. You need two types of images to give you all the information you need to make the decision to purchase or not. The first type of image is a clear shot of the product it's self, no distractions. This is the part that helps the shopper work out the quality of the product, I have often been a bit disappointed as an online shopper when I took a chance on a poorly photographed product. 
As a photographer you need to show details such as surface texture, dimensions, details like fastenings, stitching and accurate colour. The tricky part is capturing all of this information in just a few shots. The below image shows the colour of the leathers, the adjustable buckle, the stitching quality and two-tone strap in one image. Don't be afraid to get up close, my webshop images are quite small even when expanded.
The other kind of image is the lifestyle shot. This image shows the buyer the way you want them to feel about your product. It might show the products uses, include pretty props or show how the buyer can style the product themselves. Props can also give a sense of scale to your images.



It's a process very similar to creating an amazing product description and there's a great interview here that's really useful in helping you work out that process.
I only make and buy products that I love, so style my photos in the same way... how I would use or wear that product. I'm not comfortable modelling things myself (I pull funny faces and accidentally stick my belly out) but a snippet of myself is fine and I stand in that magic spot whilst my fella takes a shot (under strict supervision!) :)

TECHNICAL STUFF
My DSLR was the best purchase I ever made. Even when I just use it for snap-shots it's wonderful to get the photo close to the way I saw it in my head. It took me a long time to get one because quite frankly being an artist my whole life I'm broke and paying the rent has to come first right!?
I eventually saved enough pennies to buy my Nikon D3100. It's an entry level DSLR. That means it's nothing flash but it has enough functions to take a pretty picture if you use it properly. It can also shoot film.
I'm not going to pretend that my cheap camera and lens takes the best image ever, but it's certainly a huge leap forward from my old compact camera. This article nicely explains the differences between the two. If you are using a compact there are a few simple things you can do to take a better photo like setting your white balance, here's a useful but fairly dry article giving you some tips.
I shoot in RAW mode. Essentially this means I capture as much of the visual information that my sensor can pickup. Even if it doesn't look much in the photo at first, I can draw on it when I edit. I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my photos, it allows me to adjust the image easily without loosing any information as well as store and catalogue them. My default edits include warming the image up and deepening the shadows. I also crop my images to a square, to fit the format on my webshop. Below is a before and after.

It goes without saying that the subject of your image should be in focus, and I think it's extra pretty when the background is blurred. Use the focusing tool on your camera and adjust your aperture settings.
Sheesh... this technical stuff can get pretty boring if you get bogged down in it, so let's leave it there huh?!
I'm hoping this post has given you a sweet overview into making your product pictures prettier and less stressful, let me know how you go, emails at hello@redbrickgallery.com.au are always welcome!
All the best 
X Steph