Do you want to capture amazing product photography shots, consistently? The kind of product shots that look like they belong in magazines?
Because this article is going to give you 11 easy product photography tips–that will instantly take your product photos to the next level.
Let’s get started.
1. Clean Your Product Carefully Before Starting the Shoot
First things first:
When it comes to capturing stunning product photography…
…you’re going to want to start by cleaning your product.
And I don’t just mean a quick once-over.
I’m talking about a thorough clean, where you inspect your product from every angle, and remove any dirt, dust, fingerprints, and blemishes that you see.
Why is this so important?
When you take product photos, you’ll be giving the viewer a magnified, clear look at the product–and if that product is anything less than perfect, the viewer’s eyes will go straight to the flaws.
And here’s the thing:
Unless you clean your product carefully, there will be flaws. Fingerprints will manage to creep into photos of reflective objects, no matter how clean you think it is. Same with dust and dirt, and more.
So before you even turn on your camera, give your product a good cleaning.
Note that, even though cleaning is important, you’ll probably never manage to get every spot of dust off your product. Plus, dust can settle on your product during the shoot.
But that’s okay. That’s what post-processing is for–removing all those pesky things that cleaning couldn’t take care of.
However, you want to head into post-processing with the cleanest product possible. Otherwise, you’ll spend hours behind the computer…
…hours that you could spend shooting!
2. Use a Telephoto Lens for the Perfect Perspective
Here’s a common question from beginner product photographers:
What lens should I use for product photography?
Generally speaking, product photography looks best with a telephoto lens. This is because the telephoto focal length prevents distortion in your photos, which in turn helps you portray your product accurately.
Plus, telephoto lenses give you a nice, compressed perspective, one that can give your photos that subtle ‘wow’ factor.
So I recommend shooting with a lens in the 70mm to 200mm range. The longer the lens, the more compression you’ll get–though you’ll also have to back up to get your entire product in focus, so you’ll need to tailor your focal length to the amount of space you have.
I’d also suggest choosing a lens with a short minimum focus distance. Product photography often involves photographing small objects, and the ability to get close is invaluable. So having a lens with a short minimum focus distance will help you capture some nice detail shots, plus you can use it to get creative and shoot more abstract product photos.
Note that the best close-focusing lenses are pretty much always macro lenses, and (bonus!) they tend to sit in the 90mm to 150mm focal length. In fact, a 100mm macro lens is a great choice for product photography, because it’ll give you sharp detail photos, a reasonable focal length for shooting in a small space, and a bit of telephoto compression.
But if you don’t want to spend on a macro lens, that’s fine, too. There are plenty of close-focusing non-macro lenses, which will get you close to your subject, even if it doesn’t let you reach macro magnifications!
3. Diffuse the Light for a Soft, Subtle Product Photography Look
Now that you know all about the best lenses for product photography, it’s time to take a look at what might be the most important aspect of product photography:
Because good light is the key to getting stunning product photography shots, the kind of shot that you find in magazines.
Whereas bad light can easily ruin an otherwise strong product photo.
So how do you light a product for beautiful photos?
Well, before you think about lighting angles, you should start by ensuring you have the right quality of light.
What do I mean by this?
It’s actually pretty simple:
There are two broad types of light (in terms of quality):
And soft light.
Hard light is harsh and very focused. It’s the type of light you find outside on sunny days, and it’s the type of light you get if you fire your on-camera flash without using a diffuser. Hard light causes lots of dark shadows and bright highlights, which is why it’s generally terrible for product photography.
Soft light, on the other hand, is very broad and diffused and, well, soft. It looks subtle and beautiful, and it’s the type of light you find outside on cloudy days. You can also create soft light with the use of lighting modifiers.
Now, while you can occasionally capture cool product shots by using hard light, this is quite rare.
Because for product photography, soft light is king.
That’s why I recommend you always ensure you’re using soft light for your product photos. You can get soft light naturally, by working with a thoroughly cloudy sky.
You can also find soft light by working near a north or south-facing window–one where the sun isn’t streaming directly in but instead comes into the room from an oblique angle.
But my absolute favorite way to get soft light is to use flash modifiers, because it results in light that’s very easy to control. And you can tailor the flash power to your needs, that way you can easily create the look you’re after.
By flash modifiers, I’m referring to things like softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, diffusers, and more, all of which are made to soften the light and give you a beautiful, diffused look. These are great for product photography, and they’re what most professionals use in the studio.
(I talk more about choosing a flash modifier in the next section.)
Here’s the bottom line:
If you want to capture stunning product photos, you must start by using soft light.
Now let’s take a more detailed look at how you can work with flash to create a wonderful product photography lighting setup:
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Use a Flash (Or Two, or Three)
If you’re serious about product photography, then you’re going to want to invest in some lighting gear.
Yes, you can create beautiful product photos using natural light.
But lighting equipment will allow you to control light in every possible way–and then some.
With the right lighting gear, you can produce soft light in an instant, you can turn it hard, then you can turn it soft again. You can light your product from the front or the back or the side, which is extremely important (for reasons that I go into later).
Fortunately, lighting gear isn’t all that expensive (at least, not in relation to your camera and lens!). And there are plenty of DIY lighting solutions that will suffice if you’re trying to stick to a budget.
So here’s what I recommend for a bare-bones product photography lighting setup:
First, you’re going to need a flash.
And the pop-up flash on your camera doesn’t count. That’s a flash that you should never, ever use for your photography, not even if you’re offered a million dollars.
(Seriously. It’s that terrible.)
I’m talking about an off-camera flash. You can grab a decent one for less than $100, or you can pay triple that for a longer-lasting option. It’s up to you, and really, it depends on your budget and your dedication to product photography.
Now, one off-camera flash is good. And you can do a lot with it.
But two off-camera flashes is even better, because it’ll let you create a lot of cool, two-light setups, which are great for adding a more dramatic look to your product photos, or a bright and airy look (and so much more).
And three or four off-camera flashes is better still, because you can pull off some really sophisticated lighting setups.
Unless you’re absolutely crazy for product photography, I recommend starting with one flash (two at the most). Learn to use it–and then purchase that second and/or third flash once you feel confident with single-flash setups.
But a flash isn’t all you need for a basic product photography lighting setup.
You’re also going to need at least one modifier for every flash you own. A white umbrella is a good place to start, because they’re extremely cheap and are great for product diffused light. But you could also invest in a softbox, or even a stripbox, which creates very nice highlights and some nice directional light.
Note that every flash should also have a stand and a mount–preferably a mount that can hold an umbrella.
Oh, and you’ll want to grab a reflector of some sort. You can use a 5-in-1 reflector, sold by companies like Neewer, or you can create your own reflector using a white poster board and a book to help it stay upright.
For a basic product photography lighting setup, you’ll need:
A flash modifier (such as an umbrella).
A light stand.
A flash mount.
And a reflector.
Once you have this equipment, you’ll be ready to start creating and shaping light like a pro.
Which is what the next product photography tip is all about:
5. Use Sidelighting to Add Depth to the Product
Generally speaking, the best product photos have lots of depth.
I’m talking about a three-dimensional look, where the product pops from the background and appears to have a life of its own.
But how do you create depth?
By controlling the light.
This is one of the reasons it’s so important to really master product photography lighting. Because without good light, you can’t create depth.
Fortunately, one type of lighting is better than all others for really making your product photography subjects look three-dimensional:
As you might have guessed, sidelight comes from the side of the product. In doing so, it brightens up one side of the product, while leaving the other side in shadow. And this interplay of light and shadow is what creates the illusion of depth–and can take your product photos to wonderful new heights.
If you’re using natural light (a window, say), you should position your product so that the light is hitting it on the side.
And if you’re using a flash, you can do this very easily by bringing the light stand around to sit next to your product.
I recommend you start by taking a single test shot. Look at the photo on your camera’s LCD.
How do the shadows look? Do you want them to stay dark? Or do you want to punch them up a bit?
If you do prefer brighter shadows, you can take a reflector (and remember, you can simply use white poster board) and put it opposite your light source, on the other side of your product. This will reflect light back into the shadow areas and keep your photo looking a bit more even-toned.
Note that if you have a second flash, you can position it in place of the reflector, or you can put it at an angle behind your subject.
In the latter case, the flash will give your subject something called rim light, which is great for separating your subject from the background and will really make it pop off the page!
6. Use a Narrow Aperture to Keep the Entire Product Sharp
Here’s something that beginners often don’t realize:
Aperture is key in product photography.
Briefly, the aperture is a hole in your camera lens that opens and closes in accordance with your aperture setting. And aperture settings are written like this: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc (all the way up to around f/22).
The higher the f-number, the greater your depth of field–that is, the amount of the photo that’s sharp.
So with an aperture of f/16, the photo should be sharp from front to back, like this:
And with an aperture of f/2.8, very little of the photo should be sharp, like this:
Now, in product photography, you generally want the entire product to be in focus.
Which means that you need a narrow aperture.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to identify an aperture that you can always use to keep your product sharp. The perfect aperture depends on the length of your product, because the farther back your product goes, the greater the depth of field needed to keep it sharp.
The perfect aperture also depends on the distance between the product and your lens, because closer products appear bigger and therefore need a greater depth of field for maximum sharpness.
You have two basic options when selecting your aperture.
First, you can choose an aperture of around f/16, take a few photos, and see whether you have everything in focus. If you do manage to get a shot that’s sharp throughout, you’re free to continue your shoot. If you don’t, then you’ll need to narrow the aperture, then go through the same process again.
The problem with this approach is that you may never manage to choose an aperture narrow enough to get your entire product sharp, because you might be shooting close-up or with a very long (that is, deep) product. And lenses have a minimum aperture, which ranges from around f/22 to f/32.
Plus, the narrower the aperture, the more your lens will fall prey to something called diffraction, which is a form of blur.
Which is where option two comes in:
You can choose an aperture of around f/11 to f/16.
And then you can do something called focus stacking, where you capture a series of photos at different points of focus, then combine them for a perfectly sharp photo.
In other words, you start by focusing at the front of your product, then you move the point of focus back slightly, then back more, then more, etc., until you’ve managed to capture enough shots to produce a photo that’s sharp throughout.
This method works well, but it does have a few drawbacks. First, it requires a tripod, because you’ll have a tough time getting 8 slightly-different frames to align properly in a post-processing program.
Second, it requires some dedicated post-processing. I’m talking about Photoshop CC, or programs made for focus-stacking such as Helicon. Both of these options cost money, though Helicon is fairly inexpensive for a year’s subscription.
Whatever way you choose to make it happen, it’s critical that you ensure your product is exactly as sharp as you want it to be. You don’t want part of your product to be blurry–unless, of course, that’s how you conceived of your shot!
7. Carefully Position Your Lighting (and Product) to Avoid Unwanted Reflections
I’ve talked a lot about the importance of lighting in product photography.
But there’s still one more key piece of information that you absolutely must know:
In other words, the quality and quantity of reflections can make a big difference in your product photography. After all, you don’t want to end up with unpleasant reflections that detract from the overall shot. And you don’t want to have to spend time in Photoshop removing unwanted reflections.
Plus, some reflections look good. They help sculpt your product. They make your product stand out.
And these are the types of reflections that you want.
That’s why you must pay careful attention to the direction of the light, and the reflections that appear as a result.
Whenever you shoot a product, especially a more reflective product, I recommend doing several test shots. Check the appearance of the reflections, and if you don’t like what you see, change the angle of your lighting.
While each product photography subject is different, note that it’s often desirable to have nice reflective highlights outlining your subject, like this:
And this often requires putting a light at an angle behind the product.
So do what you can to manage your reflections. And don’t be afraid to experiment with creative lighting angles–because sometimes a small adjustment can make a huge difference.
8. Use a Tripod to Maintain the Same Product Image Framing
As I mentioned above, if you’re going to be doing focus stacking, then a tripod is critical.
After all, you can’t focus stack if you have ten different frames that can never be aligned.
But a tripod is useful for product photography regardless of whether you’re focus stacking, which is why I recommend that every product photographer invest in a solid tripod.
What makes a tripod so important?
First, a tripod will help you maintain the same composition while you adjust your product setup. You can leave your camera on the tripod, go and tinker with the setup, come back to your camera to take a photo, go and tinker with the setup once more, and so on.
(Tinkering with your setup is something that you’ll need to do frequently, even once you have a lot of experience!)
If you tinker without a tripod, you might not be able to find the initial angle that you had in mind–the angle that compelled you to tinker in the first place!
So it’s always a good idea to work with a tripod when composing your product photography.
Second, a tripod will help you compose your shots more deliberately. There’s something powerful about placing your camera on a tripod; it forces you to take a deep breath, slow down, and really consider your framing before you shoot.
And third, a tripod will be a huge help if you’re shooting in natural light. Without a tripod, you’ll struggle to handhold at f/16, because the corresponding shutter speed will be so low that camera shake will become a huge issue.
This won’t be an issue with flash, because the flash burst is fast enough that shutter speed is basically irrelevant.
Note that you don’t have to pay for an expensive tripod, either. If you’re using a flash, then any cheap tripod that’ll hold your camera in place should do fine. If you’re shooting in natural light, you’ll want a tripod that’s sturdy–but it doesn’t need to be lightweight, assuming you don’t plan on doing product photography in the middle of the woods.
And it’s fairly easy to find stable tripods as long as you don’t care about weight. There are plenty of cheap aluminum tripods that’ll do the trick.
That way, you’ll be able to focus stack and carefully compose–without any issues!
9. Experiment With Different Compositions Within the Same Product Photography Setup
There are really three key elements to good product photography:
Technical details (like aperture and focus stacking).
I’ve covered the first two elements pretty extensively, so now it’s time to look at product photography composition.
Here, I’m referring to the way you set your products up–the way you arrange them on the table.
And I’m also talking about the way you choose to frame your products. As in, do you include the table? Do you include every item in full, or do you let some of them get cut off by the edge of the frame? What angle do you use to shoot your product photos? Do you shoot from overhead? Do you shoot on a level? Do you shoot from below?
While product photography composition is a topic that could probably fill an entire article (or perhaps an entire book), I’d like to focus on the tip that can quickly take your product compositions to the next level:
Shoot the same product arrangement with different framing.
In other words, set up your product. Set the scene. Maybe you’re photographing your product alone, or maybe you’ve included some other items alongside it.
Arrange the scene so it looks nice, but take care to keep things natural.
And then take multiple shots, changing up your angle and your perspective.
If your first shot is a standard eye-level photo, drop your tripod down to waist-level and get a shot from there. Then move 45 degrees to the right, 45 degrees from the left, even try a side view.
Because the truth is that good product photography arrangements often look even better from unexpected angles–you just have to take the time to realize it!
I also recommend you try shooting at different focal lengths (or different levels of magnification). Take some steps in, shoot, then move back out. Look at the broader scene, but also pay careful attention to the details. There may even be little scenes among your main scene that are worth paying attention to!
Ultimately, product photography composition is all about experimenting. So you shouldn’t be afraid to test out different options, even if you think they might turn out looking silly.
10. Use a Plexiglass Surface for Beautiful Product Photography Reflections
Here’s a quick tip for a very cool product photography look:
You see, product photography often looks very nice with a reflection; it gives a stately, professional quality to the photo.
But mirrors don’t work well for creating reflections, because they cause double reflections, plus they often just look a bit too real. After all, you want to make sure your viewer knows which is the product and which is the reflection!
So instead of using a mirror…
…you should use plexiglass.
You see, plexiglass is reflective enough to give you a beautiful reflection, but doesn’t come with the same problems as mirrors. It can give you photos like this:
Very cool, right?
Now, when you get plexiglass, you’re going to need to be careful. It’s very easily scratched, so you’ll want to store it very deliberately. You’ll also want to handle it delicately when taking it out and putting it away (and when shooting) for that same reason. Scratches definitely look bad–so keep your plexiglass in good condition!
Fortunately, plexiglass is pretty cheap, which means that you can pick up a square or two for under 20 dollars. I recommend black plexiglass for a darker, moodier look, and white plexiglass for a brighter product photo.
Black plexiglass will give you a photo like this:
Whereas white plexiglass is better for shots like this:
Both work great, so I recommend you buy a sheet of each and test them out!
11. Post-Process to Enhance Your Subject and Remove Flaws
Here’s your final product photography tip:
If you want to create professional-quality product photos…
…you’re going to need to do some post-processing.
Pretty much every product photo is post-processed these days–it’s the nature of digital photography, and it’s how great product photographers manage to really take their photos to the next level.
So what sort of processing does product photography require?
Every product photo should go through some basic adjusting, such as contrast, exposure, color, lens profile corrections, etc. These should be done to every photo you take (regardless of whether they’re product photos or not).
Then you’ll need to carefully go over your product, looking for flaws of any kind. I’m talking about dirt, dust, fingerprints, smudges, blemishes, cracks, chips, or anything else that makes the product look less than perfect.
Basic flaws can be removed via the Spot Healing brush in most post-processing programs. More complex flaws may require more involved work in a program like Photoshop–so I recommend you brush up on your cloning skills.
And if you find something that’s too complex to remove, make a mental note so that next time, you don’t pass over the flaw when prepping your products.
In fact, I recommend you note down every flaw you have to clean up, and think about what you could do to prevent it in the future. Because it’s far easier to fix most issues in advance!
Product Photography Tips: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about product photography–and about the ways you can quickly and easily take your product photos to the next level.
Because here’s the thing:
Product photography doesn’t have to be hard.
Yes, there are a lot of technical details to remember.
And you do need a bit of specialized equipment.
But anybody can learn to capture great product photos.
You just have to be willing to work at it.
So as long as you’re willing to put in the practice…
And as long as you remember these tips…
You’ll be taking stunning product shots in no time at all!
To capture an amazing product photo, you’re going to want to focus on a few things. First, you’ll need to make sure you have the right equipment–which includes a tripod, a telephoto lens, and some form of lighting. Then you’ll want to set up the scene carefully, making sure to position the light exactly as you want it. I recommend sidelight for dramatic product photos, though you can also experiment with toplight and backlight. Finally, you should compose your images, taking care to experiment with different angles.
Product photographers often use sidelight–that is, light that comes from the side of the produce. But you can also use 45-degree lighting, which is halfway between frontlight and sidelight, and will give your images some nice depth. If you have multiple flashes, you can mix these lighting angles: You can use one light placed at 45 degrees, then another placed off to the side of your subject.
When composing product photos, you’ll need to pay attention to two broad patterns: The rule of thirds, and symmetry. If you place your subject a third of the way into the frame, it can often give you a dynamic, balanced composition. But with product photos, you’ll want to be careful not to leave part of the photo empty, which is why a symmetrical composition can often work well. Put your product in the center of the image, and you’ll end up with a powerful, in-your-face shot.
You don’t have to have any special gear for product photography, but it helps to have a tripod (not necessarily a sturdy one, but just any sort of tripod that can maintain your framing). You’re also going to want some form of external lighting, be it LED lights or speedlights or strobes. While it’s possible to shoot using window light, artificial lights are going to give you a lot more flexibility.
Telephoto lenses tend to be best for product photography, because they add a nice compression effect and make the product look good. Personally, I’m a fan of using a 100mm macro lens, because–in addition to the perfect focal length–it allows you to get up close to the product for stunning detail shots.
Technically speaking, no, you don’t need a tripod for product photography. However, I recommend that every product photographer use a tripod, because it’ll keep your camera still while you play around with your product photography setup. Plus, if you’re shooting in natural light, you need a tripod to prevent camera shake. And many product photographers use focus-stacking to keep their whole subject sharp, which absolutely requires a tripod (or, at least, is nearly impossible to pull off without some form of image stabilization).
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.