Photographing Products & Objects
Let’s talk a little bit about taking photos of products (stuff). Maybe you are trying to take a photo of an item you would like to sell on EBay or post an ad on Craigslist. You have probably seen the shots of products that seem to float on a seamless white or other color background. My wife has me take pictures for her website Vegantoo.com for which I alter the background color to match the webpage (more on that later).
There are many ways to achieve this type of shot; by using a light tent or white/colored poster board. I started product photography with a homemade light tent, since I could not find a light tent in the size I needed (at least not for a price I was willing to pay). It was made out of a large cardboard box, white poster board and opaque paper. Here is a link if this sounds like something you might like to try. The idea behind a light tent is to create an indirect light source thereby reducing shadows. I found this box cumbersome to work with, as I could not get the angles I wanted on certain sized objects. Secondly, it did not fold up, so storage was troublesome.
Here is my current setup for taking product photos, items for sale, web site pictures and microstock photos. I went to my local craft store and bought a 10 pack of 22” X 28” white poster board. I got the ten pack because you know how white is, it is impossible not to get marks and spots on it (which look awful in your photos).
I start by finding something to lean the poster board on, usually my camera bag as it is already there. If the table I am using is slick I will use a small piece of masking tape to hold the bottom of the sheet in place. The idea here is to curve the paper so that no sharp corners are formed (thus no shadows). I situate the table near a window that does not have direct sunlight coming through it. My most common location is an east facing window in the afternoon.
Next I position the poster board and object being photographed so they are facing the window (natural light source). A second (artificial) light source is placed to the side and slightly behind the object, facing the poster board. I am currently using an old Vivitar flash I got back in the early 80’s, attached to a hot shoe flash slave. The function of the slave is to trigger the flash when a second one mounted on my camera goes off. The one I have is like this Hot Shoe Flash Slave.
If you do not have a flash you could experiment with other light sources. The idea is to put enough light on the background to overexpose it (leaving you with a nice white background).
I usually bounce the main flash on my camera off the ceiling or a close wall. It is a good idea to take multiple shots of the same item from different angles, with different flash bounce angles and camera settings. As far as settings go, decide what aperture you need based on the depth of field you are looking for (see the topic Exposure – Aperture). First I decide how much depth I feel is appropriate for the subject. For example, if it is a flat object I will use a fairly fast aperture like F4 since the depth of field really doesn’t matter. For objects that have more depth I will go for F8 or higher. Remember the three sides of exposure; 1) Shutter Speed, 2) Aperture, and 3) ISO.
So let’s do a little refresher course, let’s say I choose F11 for my aperture and my meter is telling me I should use a 15th of a second as the shutter speed. Well, I know I can’t handhold at that speed and get the sharpness I want. So I change my ISO higher, let’s say from 100 to 400. Now, the meter is telling me I can get a proper exposure at a 60th of a second. I can handhold that, so I take the shot.
Now, let’s assume I had to take the ISO all the way to 3200 to get the proper shutter speed. I now have to decide if the noise created at 3200 is worth the depth of field I have chosen. Or maybe I can get by with F5.6 or F8 and reduce the ISO to acceptable levels. This bit takes you getting to know your camera and what levels of noise are produced at the different ISO levels.
Another camera setting I sometimes use is the spot metering mode. Which takes a meter reading off the center focus point instead of the overall frame. This seems to brighten (overexpose) the white background a little, as I am metering off the object and not taking the bright white background into consideration. Just remember if you are not getting the results you want, try different metering modes.
This next part is not basic, but I thought some of you might want a little more advanced information. I just wanted to talk a little about post production enhancements using a photo editing software (I am using Photoshop CS3). Look at the two photos above, they are the same photo, but the one on the right has been enhanced.
I used the levels adjustment in Photoshop to bring the white point to the right edge of the curve. I also used the dodge tool to overexpose the entire white background. In the shot of my computer screen above, notice how the small white arrow is not touching the black histogram to the left. If we slide this point to the left, the photo will brighten up.
Alternately, you can choose the eye dropper on the far right, then click on a spot in the photo that should be white and it will adjust the photo for you automatically.
To use the dodge tool (set it only to dodge highlights). First, I zoom to 200% on the photo and carefully dodge around the item to isolate about an inch from the object. When I have finished this, I zoom back out to about 25% and dodge the rest of the white background.
Other ways to isolate your product or change the background color are to follow the procedures above, but stop at the zoomed in dodging. Now go click Select on the upper menu bar, chose color range and click the eye dropper on the white dodged area. Adjust the fuzziness slider to the left until your item is all black and click OK. This will select only the white area, now you can paint it any color you want. I usually zoom back into 100 – 200% and clean up any edges that are still rough.
Another method I have used is to zoom into the photo and using the eraser tool, remove the entire background. I make a copy of the original layer, then I put a bright contrasting color layer between them, that way I can see the parts I am erasing easier. Then you just change the bright contrasting color layer to whatever color or texture you want as a background.
Again, have fun and experiment!