There are many, many ways to photograph products for online shopping sites where typically the vendors want a pure white background. Over a number of years of doing this type of work for clients I have found a method that is super efficient and doesn’t involve Photoshop editing at all. The photo on the right has been shot using the method described below and in Lightroom the editing involved adjusting 5 sliders.
With this method I work exclusively in Lightroom and I only use 2 strobes and one bounce reflector (if needed). I can vary lighting for pack shots in a thousand different ways, but generally the 2 light, 1 reflector setup I use is good for most products and gives me a quick and easy means of doing what isn’t particularly stimulating work.
Here’s a breakdown of the gear I use for my product shots:
Camera - I use the original 2013 Olympus E-M1
Lens - Sigma 60mm f/2.8 DN or Olympus 12-40/2.8 PRO
Key light - Godox AD200 with X Pro transmitter on the camera
Table light - Menik 500W a/c strobe bounced off my ceiling
Modifiers - 70cm pop-up octo beauty dish (some nondescript Chinese brand), white polyboard for fill
Portable light stand for the key light
Boom arm stand for the table light
Cable release (optional)
For a shooting table you can use any flat surface and a white sweep made out of fabric or paper. I happen to have a proper product shooting table but for years I used an old mobile kitchen island made out of Oregon pine with a roll of white vinyl normally used to cover baby mattresses. The results are the same, regardless of what I use. Actually, the smaller the footprint of a shooting table, the easier it will be to work around.
Lighting can be done with speedlights instead of powered strobes. This was my only method when I first began doing this some 12 years ago when I used two Nikon SB-800 units. The drawbacks are obviously much less light output and if you are using AA batteries for power you will have to keep charged spares on hand.
SETTING IT UP
As mentioned in the introduction, most of the time I use only two lights and with standard, non-reflective, non-white products this is enough.
The key light I have recently begun using is the Godox AD200 which is a powerful 200W unit that runs on a high capacity rechargeable lithium ion battery and has a number of handy features, including built in 2.4Ghz wireless control and swappable heads (it comes with a fresnel head and a bare bulb, but you can also purchase a round head and other accessories like snoots and barn doors separately).
I bought a Bowens mount adapter for mine that lets me use a variety of cheap Chinese made modifiers. My most recent modifier purchase is the 70cm pop-up beauty dish with a front diffuser that gives off similar light to my much bigger and more unwieldy 100x70cm pop-up softboxes. Because the Godox AD200 is relatively small and cordless, it is easy to move around the product shooting table on a smaller stand with that octobox beauty dish. If I was to use my other a/c strobes as the key light with my second 100x70cm softbox I’d have to be extra cautious to avoid tripping over the power cable. Also, with that strobe being quite large it requires a heavy duty stand with a much bigger footprint, which in turn reduces the amount of space I have to work in. Less space = more frustration and a higher likelihood of knocking things over.
The position of my key light is typically at 45˚ to the subject, either side of the camera. I can vary this depending on how I want the light to strike the subject. I usually play around and see what looks best for any given product.
The other light I use is an a/c powered 500W studio strobe that I either fire directly downwards towards the product table through a large modifier (such as a softbox), or if I am feeling kind of lazy I dispense with the softbox and angle the strobe up to the ceiling, using that as a big diffuser instead.
Using the latter method is easier because if I have to adjust the power of the light I can reach it without having to climb on a stool to make adjustments. At some point in the near future I will probably purchase additional Godox AD units and then I’ll be able to control everything from the X Pro trigger unit without having to physically touch any of the lights once they are on.
The purpose of the top light is to light the white shooting surface and eliminate shadows cast by the key light. I try to get as even a spread of light on the table top as possible so that I have less editing to do. Editing sucks, especially when there are lots of images to shoot.
When I am shooting with off camera strobes, be they speedlights or proper studio strobes, I need to trigger them somehow. The easiest way to do this is with a radio trigger, so I use the one that fits with the Godox system, the X-Pro O (O is for Olympus or Panasonic, they also make them for Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm and Canon). Before I invested in radio triggers I used the pop up flash on my camera to trigger my other lights which have built in optical slaves.
The trick to this method is to make sure that the pop-up flash is set to fire manually (not in TTL) and that it is set to its lowest possible power setting. The reason for this low power setting is because I don’t want that light from the pop-up to affect the subject in any way, but I do need it to be powerful enough to trigger the slaves on the remote lights. If it isn’t set to fire manually the TTL pre-flashes will trigger the remote strobes out of sync and exposure will be all over the place.
For all of my off camera flash work I shoot only in manual mode and there are three settings that I need to lock in before I begin:
ISO needs to be fixed at the camera’s native setting. For my old E-M1 that is ISO 200. If you have a lower native ISO setting on your camera, this might be a bonus for you.
Aperture set to provide enough depth of field as I don’t want to be focus stacking for product shots because that adds a very time consuming additional editing step to the process. I typically shoot between f/11 and f/14 on the E-M1. My smaller MFT sensor has an advantage here because it offers greater D.O.F. than a 35mm camera does at the same exposure apertures.
Shutter speed; for my camera I can sync with flash at 1/320s but I normally use 1/250s on the E-M1 because the faster speed is really on the edge and sometimes I do notice a bit of a black band appearing at 1/320. Most consumer grade cameras will probably have slower X-sync speeds.
So why do I need such a fast shutter speed for a stationary subject?
In flash photography ambient light exposure is controlled by the camera’s shutter speed. The faster you are able to sync your shutter speed with the flash pop, the less chance there is of any ambient light from your set up being able to affect your subject. This can include reflections of bright windows in the studio, lights with horrible colour casts, and so on.
To test if I am getting any ambient light “contamination” I take a shot with all the strobes turned off. If I get a perfectly dark frame all is well, but if I see any light on the subject at maximum sync speed I will need to darken the shooting environment by drawing the curtains and turning off any ambient light sources in the room. This is where having a lower ISO native setting (like ISO100 or lower) would be useful.
In the old days I would use a flash meter to get my exposure values, but honestly, in this digital age it’s really not necessary. I use the shadow/highlight indicators of my camera when reviewing the shot to see if I have any clipping. I only shoot in RAW and will therefore be able to recover a lot of image detail without clipping. The histogram isn’t that all that useful in this situation because it will show huge towers of exposure on the highlights side from the shooting surface (which is normal since I want that to blow out if possible).
Having worked in the same studio space for over a decade I know from experience exactly what my camera settings need to be given my setup, so I change the power of my lights rather than the camera settings.
I don’t usually do this myself, but if you are able to shoot tethered you should. This will give you a lot better indication of what your image is going to look like on a computer, plus you will be skipping the ingesting portion of working in Lightroom by shooting directly into your working catalog.
It is possible to tether with an Olympus camera using their own tethering software and a dynamic folder in Lightroom. What happens is the Olympus Capture software will save all the shots taken into a specified folder. That same folder can then be added to Lightroom as a dynamic folder and as soon as new images are seen in there they are imported to the catalog. Pretty useful, albeit a little clunky.
Composing pack shots is dead simple. It’s usually a single product, positioned at an angle to the camera, however, because these images are going to be used online, uniformity across the range is important as they will show on shopping page grids. I don’t want them looking different so keeping the same angle is very important.
Top tip: I place rulers in front of the product whenever I swap it out and then line up the next product to the ruler. I could draw a line on the surface but then I’d have to edit it out. That’s more work for an already tedious job. Blech! Use a ruler.
Sometimes I will need to provide more than one angle of the same product. What I do in this situation is photograph all the products in a batch at the same angle and then swap to the next angle, running through all the items again. This is just a more efficient way of doing it when there are many of the same item to shoot.
The shooting height is usually customer driven, so what I have begun doing in recent times is to take a few different angles and heights, then send the unedited shots through to the customer for approval by Whatsapp. I have to be pretty clear about the fact that these aren’t the final edits though, otherwise they are likely to think they have hired a palooka!
And that’s really it as far as the shooting process is concerned. This process works for most products. If a client wants me to photograph anything that is highly reflective, glass, white or translucent, I have to shoot it a different way and that gives me an opportunity to charge more (usually double).
In part 2 of this tutorial I will go into the editing process in Lightroom.