How to Photograph Products Without Expensive Lighting

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Light is the Key Ingredient to Great Photography

You know that photography requires light. And if you’ve ever tried taking a picture of an object on a table in your home, you know it needs a lot of light. Most professional products or food photographers shoot in a studio with two, three, or more strobes. This type of setup can be quite expensive. In this blog, we’ll dive into how to photograph products without expensive lighting.

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”

– John Berger

Planning Around Your Light Sources

Whether it’s something you want to sell on eBay or want to shoot your dinner to share on social media, you need to light the subject. One source of light we all have every day is the sun. But you can’t just take the object outside and put it on a table and shoot it in direct sunlight. This will be very harshly lit, with overblown highlights and dark shadows. It would be best if you had a way to emulate the even light of a studio softbox.

You can achieve this through the proper use of window light. If you have a choice, you want to use a north-facing window if you are in the northern hemisphere or a south-facing window in the southern hemisphere. This will provide soft, indirect light all day long.

If all you have are east- or west-facing windows, you will want to avoid shooting in the early morning or late afternoon respectfully. If all you have are windows that face the sun all day, you need to cover them with heavy sheers or place some sort of diffusor between it and the subject.

Testing Your Product Placement in the Light

Now that you have your main light, it’s time to take a test shot. Place your object on a table in front of the window and your camera on a tripod. You may choose sidelighting or backlighting depending on the subject.

A tripod is necessary because even though it seems like a lot of light, it will still take a relatively long shutter speed to give you the depth of field you need. Start with an aperture of at least f8 and experiment with the aperture and shutter speed until you have a well-lit scene with the entire object in focus.

Once you take your first shot, you can see that while the object is well lit, there are still harsh shadows facing away from the window. For this, you need to fill light, and since we aren’t using strobes, this will be in the form of reflectors.

Mimicking expensive lighting setups

Here is where you will need to spend the only money for this setup. Buy a couple of sheets of white poster board. Fold one in half and cut the other into smaller pieces, folding each of them in half.

Stand the largest piece of poster board on the shadow side of the object, using your fold to create a V casting reflected light back into the object. If you look at the subject as you place and remove the board, you can see the shadows being filled in.

Now take another shot and look carefully at the image. Figure out where you might need more fill light, and use your smaller pieces of poster board around the object to fill in these last shadows.

Your final image should be completely lit on all sides with nice, even light, and no dark shadows.

Experiment with the camera angle and placement of the reflectors, and you can get several different and dramatic looks from the same setup. This technique is advantageous with backlit food images. Try this inexpensive yet effective method the next time you need to do product photography.

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