A Short Note on Product Photography


Product photography is a really difficult thing to pull off well. You need drama and depth, but clarity as well. Your images are almost always highly constructed, but they need to look natural and spontaneous. They need to show a sense of the scale of the object, which means you need other things in the picture that convey scale without distracting. I used to have a whole shelf of books, which I practically memorized, about problem-solving different types of product photos.

One photographer I hung out with a few times was the guy who shot the Culligan catalog. He did their photos for decades and I suspect they were his only/main customer. Culligan’s products are often about showing: water. There are several things that are notoriously hard to photograph and that’s: clear stuff (water, glass), self-illuminated stuff (fire, nuclear weapons, glow in the dark objects, red hot steel) and kittens. Obviously, I’m kidding about the kittens; they’re easy – that’s why the internet exists as a global vehicle for delivering pictures of kittens and otters. Actually, an otter can be insanely difficult if they’re in the water and there are bright sun reflections dominating the light-map, and you have a dark-furred otter in the scene. But, I digress.

The main point is that a product shot has to simultaneously reveal and have artistic interest, which means our tendency is to push for flat lighting (“porno lighting”) that reveals detail very well; then, the rest of what we’ve got to work with is composition. Now, you know why a lot of catalogs and product shots look stylized and constructed – that’s the main thing they have to work with. Another aspect which I will not touch on further is the marketing aspects of a product shot.

Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren

The photo above, as a product shot, is almost as bad as the fit of the suit the unfortunate model is wearing. But the composition works, and there’s a visual patriotic reference, and the model looks stern and resolute (as men wearing French berets often do!) etc. Since the product is in service of ultra-nationalism, it’s important to get those marketing references in there.

Allegedly, when Abercrombie and Fitch was taken over, and re-launched as a hip clothing store for young people, the company’s management decided to use sex to sell the product and so the art directors and photographers made the pictures barely feature the product at all. The interface between marketing and photography is fascinating and I should probably stop there, after I point out that those jeans are extremely unflattering on the girl’s butt – they fit as well as any garbage bag, I suppose, but that’s enough of that.

Product photographers have come under a lot of pressure, lately, since digital cameras have replaced film. Back in the film days, you had a develop->print->review cycle that has been shortened to zero with digital. Now you can see your images on a laptop right away and there’s no need to go over contact sheets with a loupe and decide which photos to print. So, a lot of marketing teams decide, “why should we pay a photographer? We’ll just do it in-house! How hard can it be?” This is how the internet era has resulted in a lot of mediocre product shots and starving photographers selling dope on the streets of LA to make ends meet.

If you find yourself responsible for photographing pretty much anything, here’s how to make shots that look great: go buy the Pro-Lighting series book for whatever problem it is you’re working on. [abebooks] Read them and ignore the specifics about what lighting gear to use and use something cheap off Ebay instead. The guys who wrote those books are all about using a $4,000 Broncolor reflector, color white, when a perfectly good sheet of $5 foam-core, color white, will do. Their “product shots” book is particularly excellent. The “food photography” book will make you angry every time you see a menu with photos in a restaurant – because you’ll know how it’s done. After that, all you need to do is master photoshop, which is not hard either: you just spend 2 or 3 days studying the fundamentals of the beast and you can handle it. I’m endlessly amazed by the people who insist photoshop is hard, when really what they mean is they haven’t been arsed to actually attack the base of the learning curve.

One more piece of advice and I’ll talk about what I really meant to talk about.

You know that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection, right? If you shine a light on a knife blade from a certain angle, the light will reflect at the same angle. That doesn’t mean much except that you can predict where the reflections will be. What most people don’t realize about photographic lighting is that the size of the light-source controls the size of the reflection-spot. If you want great big sweet diffused light, you need a great big light, really close to the subject. If you want hard-edged crisp light you want a tiny light-source at a distance. A huge light-source 92 million miles away will also appear small in reflections, so it looks hard-edged and crisp too. Thus, for most product shots, you will want a great big softbox fairly close up. You know what glowing gothy light that Tim Burton has in Sleepy Hollow? That’s produced by shooting on a set where the entire roof of the set is a gigantic light-box. All the light comes from all the directions, to the reflections are huge and it gives a surreal look because we seldom experience light like that except for in San Francisco in the morning, when the fog hasn’t burned off yet. And you don’t need a huge $4,000 Plume softbox, you can take a perfectly normal light and shine it at a big sheet of $5 foam-core, color white, so the light reflects off the foam-core onto your target. That way, the apparent size of the light-source is huge and you’ve got that even huge softbox look. By the way, that’s why it’s easy to photograph people in Santorini: there are all those reflective white plaster walls, and white plaster diffuses light wonderfully. I know a fashion photographer who has a big wheeled stand with a plywood wall that has been painted with white plaster. It probably cost $50 to build, and he’s put everyone from Angelina Jolie to Steven Tyler next to that wall.

Here’s a screw-up I did:

Things I got right:

  • Even lighting, soft shadows – hey, it’s a great big soft-box!
  • Leather background does not distract, harmonizes with color
  • Leather background implicitly conveys scale of the product

Things I got wrong:

  • I exposed using an incident meter, so the surface of the blade looks pretty much what it would look like if I was standing there. It’s not textureless – if you look closely – but it may as well be. Since the point of a knife is the blade, this image is unusable.

How I would/will fix it: there are several possible ways, all of which involve a re-shoot

  • Re-shoot with the exposure set two stops low, and again with it set right on; composite the two photos in photoshop (this is the technique used by HDR – high dynamic range – software)
  • Shoot it with the exposure set for texture in the blade, then “pull” the exposure of the rest of the image using levels and curves in photoshop

The second option is lazier and faster. And you almost can’t tell the difference. If we were talking about an ad for Chanel No5 – every pixel of which is manipulated individually – then maybe it would be worth that much effort.

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Food shots: you know that beautiful minestrone soup with all the chunky goodness floating in it? It’s floating because the photographer filled the bowl halfway with clear glass marbles. You know that juicy-looking hamburger? That juice is PAM (industrial food lubricant) sprayed right onto it. Etc.

Would anyone be interested in some photography/photoshop tricks? (photography and photoshop are now synonymous)

The models in the Abercrombie ad both have beautiful bodies. It takes a real sort of skill to make jeans that look bad on the girl’s backside. So, I’d sure run out and buy Abercrombie jeans to wear with my Ralph Lauren olympic beret. If I were going to tour hell.

Comments

  1. EigenSprocketUK says

    I, for one, would love to see photography and lighting tips with an emphasis on eschewing fancy gear in favour of baling twine and duct tape.

  2. kestrel says

    I second the enthusiasm for photography tips. Low tech is me all the way: I am diffusing my light source with several layers of feed sacks.

    This is very timely for me as I just started attempting to shoot a product I’ve never shot before (because I just created it). I am so happy about digital photography: I can look at the shot right on the camera and delete it right off the SD card immediately. The way I normally shoot things is not working at all on this new product so at first I made lots of really bad mistakes. Now I’ve corrected a lot of my problems but good tip on that book, I think I’ll pick one up!

  3. says

    There are several things that are notoriously hard to photograph and that’s: … kittens. Obviously, I’m kidding about the kittens; they’re easy – that’s why the internet exists as a global vehicle for delivering pictures of kittens and otters.

    Kittens are cute, hence people are willing to look also at mediocre quality kitten photos. Excellent kitten photos, however, aren’t so easy to make. The main problem is that energetic animals won’t just pose for you, therefore you will spend hours with your camera in hand waiting for the animal to finally do something that looks good in a picture.

    which means our tendency is to push for flat lighting (“porno lighting”) that reveals detail very well

    Personally, I perceive flat lighting as ugly and boring (it depends on the photo and the portrayed subject—I have seen a few photos with flat lighting that I really liked, but in general I do perceive such lighting as the ugliest option most of the time). Here http://fav.me/dcy2q23 is a “product photo” I took today. This puppy is up for sale right now, therefore, in some way, this is a product photo. I couldn’t go for anything “artistic” that would obscure most of his body in shadows, after all potential buyers would be interested in seeing how this puppy looks like. But notice that the lighting isn’t flat. My main light source was a large softbox with a grid located on the left side. There’s also a second smaller softbox located behind the puppy for a hair light.

    My point with this example is that flat lighting isn’t obligatory for photos that need to reveal detail. It’s possible to opt for a bit more interesting light setups. Of course, I cannot go for anything too dramatic with lots of contrast and deep shadows.

    So, a lot of marketing teams decide, “why should we pay a photographer? We’ll just do it in-house! How hard can it be?” This is how the internet era has resulted in a lot of mediocre product shots and starving photographers selling dope on the streets of LA to make ends meet.

    After retiring, my mother got into dog breeding, which is why I have taken tons of puppy photos over the last few years. Most other dog owners take photos of their puppies on their own without hiring a professional photographer. This is why a couple of potential customers have complained to my mother that her puppy photos were too good—would be buyers assumed that these photos were taken from some online stock website and didn’t show the actual puppy which was up for sale. It was somewhat flattering to hear that my photos were perceived as too good to be real, but I did start wondering about whether I should intentionally make poorer quality photos.

    The guys who wrote those books are all about using a $4,000 Broncolor reflector, color white, when a perfectly good sheet of $5 foam-core, color white, will do.

    Yep. My puppy photos are made with cheap Chinese speedlights and even cheaper Chinese softboxes. If the product you are photographing is small, you don’t need that many watt seconds, so big and expensive strobes like Broncolor aren’t necessary. (Although they might be necessary for extremely short flash durations while shooting water droplets and splashing liquids.)

    Shoot it with the exposure set for texture in the blade, then “pull” the exposure of the rest of the image using levels and curves in photoshop

    Actually I would do this one differently. Enable blinkies (highlight alerts—blinking, overexposed areas on my preview on the camera display) in my camera menu. Shoot RAW. Set my exposure so that the blade is slightly overexposed but not to the point where highlight details are lost (that’s what blinkies are for). Afterwards in Photoshop (or Adobe Lightroom) I would darken the blade and lighten all other areas around it. I would choose this option, because darkening slightly overexposed areas doesn’t introduce noise or degrade image quality. Lightening underexposed areas does increase noise, hence I never intentionally underexpose my photos any more than absolutely necessary.

    Would anyone be interested in some photography/photoshop tricks?

    Yes, I am interested in photography.

  4. lorn says

    Never much into photography I had a dormie who was amazed at the fact that the first professional shoot he witnessed used highly modified clothes that were essentially unwearable. The Olympic shot might have the entire back of the jacket cut out and held in place with pins and tape. To eliminate bunching and lines the shirt underneath might be reduced to a dickie taped to the man’s chest.

    In the Abercrombie shot the pants and belt look to me to be way too big. If both models stood up both pairs of jeans would hit the floor. Then again, if those jeans mean the beautiful person of you dreams will want to get horizontal and topless with you, the fact that your jeans tend to fall down isn’t of much concern.

    Professional models are trained not to manipulate the clothing during a a shoot. If the pants fall down they just hold their pose and wait for a photographer’s assistant to place them back in their proper place. According to my friend the go-to device for holding clothes in place are binder clips.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I also heard that, on the cereal boxes where the milk is splashing out of the bowl, the “milk” is actually plaster of Paris.

  6. voyager says

    Yes, please. Photography tips and photoshop both interest me. Also, maybe some info on what to look for in equipment like a lens or a tripod.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    and the model looks stern and resolute (as men wearing French berets often do!)

    Tell the truth: a man wearing either a French beret or an English driving cap looks like he’s hiding a bald spot, and usually he is.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Actually, an otter can be insanely difficult if they’re in the water and there are bright sun reflections dominating the light-map…

    This sounds like a job for a polarizing filter.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Recent developments in photography have been labeled Computational photography because they do not rely on the physical camera so much as the computational manipulation of the photos. An example of such a technique is the Night Sight feature recently introduced by Google. For shootng in very low light, it reduces noise by combining multiple exposures, but is aware of portions of the scene wehre there has been movement.

  10. John Morales says

    leva @5, that’s a terrible photo. It only shows the very front, and is not very appealing.

    “… after all potential buyers would be interested in seeing how this puppy looks like …”

    Yeah. Exactly. So why don’t you show what the puppy looks like?

    (Does that puppy have a tail and/or back legs? Is it blind in one eye or something? I sure can’t tell from that image)

    There’s art, and there is information.

    (I don’t even think it’s very arty, but I am a philistine, so fair enough)

  11. John Morales says

    Regarding those images of food; what sort of fool would be fooled by them? We consumers are well inured by now.

    I’m reminded of that movie where the famous actor gets even more aggro after comparing the product produced to the promotional poster. With good reason, I thought; that resonated with me.

    It was a thing in a recent Oz consumer information program: https://www.google.com/search?q=Product+Vs+Packshot&tbm=vid

  12. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#12

    I somewhat disagree with this article. It sounds more like a paid advertisement for Google Pixel 3 phone than an objective news article. Facts are cherry picked, any other facts that disagree with the author’s conclusion are conveniently ignored and even then the conclusion that smartphone cameras can compete with DSLRs seems far-fetched.

    For example, when comparing full frame mirrorless cameras vs. full frame DSLRs the author mentions the advantages mirrorless cameras have, but conveniently forgets their drawbacks, namely the very slow autofocus speed, which is no problem when photographing stationary subjects, but a deal breaker for sports or action photographers.

    Or consider this quote:

    Perhaps some of the most advanced computational photography available now is in Google’s Pixel 3 phone, which arrived in October. Here’s some of what it can do:
    * Combine up to nine frames into a single shot with a technology called HDR+ that captures details in both dark shadows and bright highlights.
    * Monitor how much your hands shake the photo so it can snap shots during fleeting moments of stillness.

    -It has been possible to create HDR images by combining multiple exposures into a single image for as long as digital photography exists. I used my DSLR to create such images already a decade ago. It’s nice that smarthones finally have this capability, but come on, don’t you dare telling me that something that has existed for so long is new and groundbreaking.
    -Image stabilisation is also something that has already existed for a long time with DSLRs.

    Crap like this isn’t going to convince me that smartphones will soon replace full frame DSLRs. Instead I’d prefer hearing about how engineers are planning to overcome limitations caused by laws of physics. Here https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2012/02/sensor-size-matters-part-2/ is an overview of the problems I’m talking about.

    For the record, I’m not one of those old grumpy people who believe that grass was greener when they were younger and that all new technology sucks. I’m comfortable making a prediction that ten years from now I will be shooting a mirrorless camera. Once the slow autofocus speed gets improved, I will be happy to enjoy the advantages of mirrorless cameras. And those advantages go way beyond what was mentioned in this article. Lack of mirror means that camera designers can use different mounts that allow for new and exciting lens designs. Personally, I use Canon cameras, and the RF mount’s flange focal distance at 20 mm is much shorter than that of the Canon EF and EF-S mounts at 44 mm. That’s useful when designing camera lenses. And I also do understand that computational photography can be useful. My problem with this article was the cherry picking and the fact that it seemed like an advertisement for a specific smartphone model.

  13. kestrel says

    @John Morales, #13: This comment seems pointlessly mean. Do you actually believe the puppy has no hind legs, because they can’t be seen in the photo? Seriously?

  14. John Morales says

    kestrel, seriously? Did you believe I actually believe the puppy has no hind legs, because they can’t be seen in the photo?

    Again: “I couldn’t go for anything “artistic” that would obscure most of his body in shadows, after all potential buyers would be interested in seeing how this puppy looks like.”

    Look at that photo and tell me most of the body is not obscured. But not by shadows.
    And it still looks like there’s something wrong with its left eye, it’s all squinty.

    “It was somewhat flattering to hear that my photos were perceived as too good to be real, but I did start wondering about whether I should intentionally make poorer quality photos.”

    That was funny to read, having seen the featured photo. Much of it is not even in focus.

  15. says

    John Morales @#17

    And it still looks like there’s something wrong with its left eye, it’s all squinty.

    This is called “split lighting.” For more info on the subject, see: https://digital-photography-school.com/6-portrait-lighting-patterns-every-photographer-should-know/

    Much of it is not even in focus.

    This is called “shallow depth of field.” For more info see: https://www.colesclassroom.com/depth-of-field-dof-explained-easy/

    I do suggest you to use proper terms when talking about what you like or dislike in a photo. This way others who read your comments are more likely to assume that you understand what you are talking about.

  16. kestrel says

    @John Morales, #17: yes, seriously. Why are you arguing this if you don’t actually believe it? Your argument is ridiculous, dishonest, and not even close to something an actual person would believe.

  17. John Morales says

    Ieva:

    I do suggest you to use proper terms when talking about what you like or dislike in a photo

    You clearly understood me perfectly, and I have zero interest in photography either as a hobby or as art. I don’t even own a camera.
    What I do know is, that as a “product photo”, which is what you claimed it to functionally be, it fails miserably with me. It makes me think that either the photographer was incompetent or that the product is so shoddy it daren’t be properly revealed.

    This is called “split lighting.”

    The link you provided does not show the subject squinting. And whyever would you want to put half the image in shadow, other than for artsy-fartsy purposes?

    “It is often used to create dramatic images for things such as a portrait of a musician or an artist.”

    How it’s supposedly dramatic is left unsaid.

    This is called “shallow depth of field.”

    So? It’s still out of focus, whatever you call it. Again, it may be artsy as all fuck, but when I want to see what something looks like, I prefer to actually see it in focus.

    kestrel, heh. If it’s not even close to something an actual person would believe, it follows that you either didn’t think I believed it in the first place or else that I’m not an actual person. Me, what I think is that because you thought I was mean to someone else, you’d try be mean right back.

    (How’s that working for you?)

  18. cvoinescu says

    Ieva, I think the photo is artful and I like it very much, for the most part. It’s a good main photo for the “product”, but, as a buyer, I think I’d expect a couple more photos (at least one), from different angles. What I don’t like about this photograph is that I can’t see the shaded eye almost at all. Perhaps a small catch light would have helped?

    Marcus, I second (seventh? twelfth?) the call for more posts about photo{graphy,shop}.

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