Product Photography Lighting – Groups vs Individual Shots

If your product photography lighting challenge includes subjects that need to be displayed together, you’ll be glad to take a few minutes to consider whether to shoot them together in the first place, or separately and grouped later in post-production. Let’s look at some considerations for each:

Photographing Individual Items

Product shots often require groupings, but what if one of those items becomes unavailable, changes color, or otherwise makes a reshoot necessary?  Will it be the same lighting, setting or even the same photographer?  If each item in the group was shot separately, then the solution can take as little as ten minutes in Photoshop.  Sometimes the nature of the items makes the decision for you.   A group that consists of nothing but bottles that stand upright and have labels that need to be read is one thing.  You might not be that lucky though.  Introduce draping garments or rolled-up wash towels, and shooting the group begins to make more sense.

When you can shoot individual items, it’s important to keep the lighting, shooting angle and distance consistent between shots.  Ideally you’ll be using the same camera with the same lens for each.

Photographing Grouped Items

Best practices include being sure that you’ve got good focus, white balance and lighting for any shot before moving on to the next setup, but that becomes doubly important when shooting a group of items.  I’ve taken as long as a half hour just adjusting items for a single group exposure, even then not sure whether or not the client will agree with my choices.  If the decision-maker is nearby that’s not a problem of course, but when they’re not, I’ve learned to get singles when practical, just in case.  Once it came in handy to repair a shadowed area in a single bottle within a group.

About Shadows

Shadows are as much a part of our images as light is, but what about the “255-255-255” standard for all white backgrounds?  My approach is to shoot for minimum shadows at capture:  I use continuous light umbrellas positioned at about 45 degrees:  Key high left and fill lower right.  I adjust the key to eliminate reflections, and the fill to eliminate dark areas caused by the key – turning it slightly to “feather” it down a bit.  The object is to not have any noticeable shadows, while still conveying a hint of depth.  If you select (i.e. cut out) your subject from the background in post, and your subject has a dark shadowed side that suddenly ends at its edge, that’s not good.  Drop shadows can mitigate that somewhat, but the rule there is “less is better”.  If you’re a Photoshop person, be sure to see our “Drop Shadow” tutorial under our Editing tab.




Recipe for a Product Shoot

The assumptions for this shoot are that the subjects aren’t moving, that you’re shooting from a tripod, and that you have control of the lighting – more or less.

Lens:  Best glass you have in the 75-200mm range.  Research minimum distance from subject requirement and set your tripod accordingly.

Shooting mode:  APERTURE PRIORITY (Av on Canon cameras)

Aperture setting:  F8-F16

ISO:  100  (If neither the camera nor the subject are moving, why not choose the most noise-free setting?)

Shutter:  Any    (Let the camera decide, but remember that even road traffic can shake a floor sometimes.)

Exposure Bracketing:  Product shots like these are the perfect time to use AEB.  I routinely bracket everything when on a tripod and shooting still subjects.

Background details:  Pure white sweep if trying to avoid editing.  Otherwise various shades of white or gray if planning to cut out the background in post.  NEVER use colors unless required to.

Misc Notes:  Remember to check the website or other location where the shots will appear.  Be sure a decision-maker is on-site or available via email to approve shots.  Zoom to check focus before going to the next shot.  Use a gray card when colors are involved, and consider post-it notes to yourself in the frame when compositing multiple shots.


White Background Photographs

white background photographThe standard today for online product photography includes backgrounds that are pure 255-255-255 (RGB) white.  Creating white background photographs of products isn’t easy!   Place a pure white background behind your subject and take the shot.  You’ll find that your white background will be a disappointing dingy gray because cameras are programmed to produce an average overall exposure known as “18% gray”, which works well in most photos, but struggles with images that have dominant brights (highlights) and darks (shadows).  So now try again by pointing your lights at the background, rather than the subject.  This time the background is better, but now you find that your subject is underexposed, and the background lighting more often than not is uneven.   What to do? Well, you have two choices:   One is to become a lighting expert with specialized equipment like white fabric tents, umbrellas and plexiglass.  The other way is to become very good at cutting out imperfect backgrounds and replacing them with pure white in a program like Photoshop.  We’ll cover both in this section, but for now just keep in mind that trying to get it right in the camera alone is so difficult that Amazon actually patented a procedure a few years ago for doing just that!