Following up on last week’s post (Product Photography, Part 1 – Cameras), today we’re taking a closer look at the lighting and background set-up needed to get those perfect product pictures.
In my opinion this is actually the most important post in this product photography series and it’s something most sellers completely overlook. But with just a little education on the subject, you’ll be able to create a mini photo studio that helps you create stunning product pictures! So without further ado, let’s get started.
To create beautiful product pictures, you need to use some sort of background. Why? Well to get rid of distractions and background ‘noise’ and allow your product to be the only feature of your pictures. Okay, if you’re selling something like a car, you won’t need to put it on a white background, lol, but in most cases you’ll want to use it – be it for small, medium or large products.
If you take a look on eBay, you’ll find plenty of amateurish looking pictures of products on wrinkled bed sheets and while this may be okay if you’re just selling some unwanted items from around your house, business sellers should really take more care in how they present their products. And the key to this is a good background set up!
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds are so called Lightboxes – you can get them on eBay and online shops in various sizes and settings – with the cheapest starting at just £20 or so and the most expensive, super-sized versions costing several hundred pounds.
Here’s the thing – You DON’T NEED THEM!
That’s right; you don’t need to purchase a lightbox to take outstanding product pictures. I’d actually recommend you stay away from them as they will only complicate your life, seriously! Theoretically they work ok BUT only if you have very powerful lights to get the box well exposed. And even then, I can’t see any reason why you would want to use a lightbox at all.
I have purchased several of them in the past and after some trial and error, haven’t touched them.
Have you ever seen any professional photo studio that uses lightboxes? I haven’t either and there must be a reason why professionals don’t use them – they’re more harm than good with the wrinkles and shadows they create.
To create a seamless background for your product photography set-up, all you need is a large sheet of paper or fabric. That’s it!
In most cases paper will work best as it has no wrinkles and is very cheap to buy + you can get any colour you want. Fabric can also be used but only if you want to create some sort of special effect, like a textured background.
For small to medium sized items, simply get as big a sheet of white paper as you can find. Most craft shops carry these in sizes up to A0 (118.9 cm x 84.1 cm) and if you’re lucky you can even find 2A0 or 4A0 sheets, which are gigantic. But for most people A0 is all you really need.
And here’s what you need to do to create a quick studio set-up – use a chair, table (surface) with something behind it (books, DVDs, boxes – whatever) so you can lay down half of the sheet on the surface and align the other half vertically to create a seamless transition from front to back. Secure the top side of the paper with paper clips or clamps.
It should look something like this:
There are special stands you can purchase online if you want but seriously, you don’t need them! If you put this little set-up together from stuff that’s already in your house, then you keep the cost down and most importantly; can then customise your set-up whenever it’s required.
That’s all there is to it really – this may look too simple to work well but trust me, you don’t need anything more to take superb product images for your eBay or eCommerce shop. The key elements are a pure white background, no hard corners/edges and a seamless transition behind the item.
For larger and bulkier items, when A0 size paper is too small, you will want to buy a larger paper roll. This is the same thing used by professional photographers in their studios and can be freely purchased online. Expect to pay £40-£50 for a roll that will last you decades. Various sizes and colours are available from online shops like Photography-Backgrounds.co.uk and many others.
You’ll also find stand systems there which will make your life much easier when handling such large backgrounds. Or just search for them on eBay as prices will be cheaper. If you can’t afford to buy a stand, simply create one yourself. All you really need is some way to attach the paper to your ceiling and then you can simply roll it out onto the floor to create that curved angle.
Expandable curtain bars can be used for this, as showed in this guide!
There are also vinyl and fabric rolls available but they will be more expensive and suitable more for people photography rather than products. And again, you don’t really need them unless you want to create a specific effect.
Colour wise, the rules are pretty simple:
- For white goods and see through goods (like glass / crystal) use a black background
- For everything else – pure white
This is a set-up you can’t go wrong with. Obviously, you’re not obligated to stick with this and if you really feel that you must use PINK instead of a white background, use it! Just be careful not to overdo it. White still works best in 99% of cases so maybe it’s best to stick with what works?
In some niches though you may want to experiment a little bit to create a unique look for your images. This can be especially worthwhile on eBay – for gallery images. Since no text and graphics are allowed in gallery images, the background is something you can use to stand out from the crowd.
For example, you sell widget X with 30 competing listings – all using a white background. You could use a different colour/material background to make your pictures stand out in the search results. But be careful – you definitely don’t want your item to get lost in the background – the product should still be clearly visible and the focus of your pictures.
Here are some alternate background materials you can use:
Wood is perfect for emphasising the organic/natural feature of a product. This could be organic food (like in the example below) or handmade jewellery.
Tiles are perfect for creating an interesting reflection effect. For example, black gloss/shiny tiles are perfect for jewellery, watches and other metallic products as it will create a reflection in the images. All you need to achieve this is one large floor tile, with a gloss finish.
An even more interesting effect can be achieved with stone materials or gloss tiles with stone designs. These would be perfect for bathroom accessories and similar products.
So while white and black paper is your number one choice, using other materials and colours can be great way to create unique product images that will stand out in eBay’s search results as well as feature your item in the environment which suits it best.
So that’s the camera and background sorted. What else is needed to create stunning product pictures?
LIGHT! The more you can get the better (up to a certain degree).
Lighting is that one thing most newbie sellers don’t pay attention to AT ALL and it’s the reason their product pictures turn out dull, blurry and with lots of shadows. Not anymore! By following this guide you’ll be able to set-up your home studio in the same way professionals do, just without the high price tag.
You’ll need to invest some money though as unless you’re ready to go for the FREE option (taking pictures outside, which we’ll cover later), without buying some sort of equipment, it will be very hard to achieve decent results.
Most cameras come with a built in Flash. The bad news however is that they are not suitable for product photography at all, particularly with smaller items. Built in flash systems simply don’t deliver as much light as you need in product photography + it distributes light un-evenly, creating shadows around your item – which is something you definitely want to avoid.
So what options are there?
That depends on your budget really so I’ll cover several solutions:
1) Flash/Strobe kit (£150-£200+)
This is the best option if you can afford it. These are similar systems to ones used by professional photographers. Obviously, they use more expensive and more powerful branded kits but for product photography even these cheaper China made sets are perfectly fine.
The way these flash kits work is that you attach a receiver to your cameras flash mount shoe and it will “communicate” with all strobes simultaneously and fire them when needed.
This set-up will only work if you have a DSLR camera though as compact cameras usually don’t have hot shoe connectors for external flash units and even if they do (some models); chances are they won’t be able to communicate with such a complex set-up.
The best place to buy such a kit is on eBay – you can get starter packs for as cheap as £150 and more advanced kits for around £200.
What to look for in such a kit?
* How powerful is the flash output, in watts? The more the better really… 200-300w PER flash head is ideal. Don’t worry – there’s no such thing as too much as these flash heads have variable power adjustment which lets you manually adjust the output power (for close up pictures for example).
* How many flash heads there are in the kit? You’ll need 3 (right, left and top).
* Soft boxes/umbrellas. These help distribute the light evenly so are a MUST HAVE accessory. I like umbrellas more than soft boxes as they tend to give more light.
* Stands. Ideally stands for the flash heads and soft boxes/umbrellas should be included so you don’t have to buy them separately.
So this would be the perfect set-up for any online seller. This is a one-time investment in your business so think twice before opting for a cheaper alternative.
Obviously, for some people; even £150 is too much to spend on a lighting kit right now, so what to do?
2) Use regular lighting fixtures with powerful daylight bulbs!
It can be a desk lamp or a clamp-on lamp – either will work just fine. The bigger the reflective area of the lamp and the more powerful the bulb, the better!
With bulbs be careful though – you need the “DAYLIGHT” type of bulbs that produce 5500K (white light). If you use traditional bulbs, they’ll produce a yellowish colour light and many LED bulbs will produce a slightly blue-ish tint. Just tell the sales person that you need daylight bulbs, as powerful as you can get (just read the label and make sure your fixtures can accommodate what you’re buying!).
If you’re buying these online, most sites will have the colour temperature in the product descriptions.
In total you’ll need 3 units – right, left and top. You’ll also need to figure out how to position them properly – so a cheap tripod or other stand is a must have. We’ll talk more about positioning of lights in next week’s article.
If you shop smart, you should be able to get all this done for less than 50 quid, maybe even 30 quid if you already have some light fixtures you can use for this purpose. It can’t get any cheaper, right? Wrong! There’s one more, totally FREE option to explore…
3) The SUN!
Yep, the last option would be to simply take your product pictures outside and use natural lighting. You don’t even need a sunny day for this (plenty of them in the UK, right?) – as even on cloudy days there’s usually enough light outside to take good pictures and with a little editing you can get pretty decent results this way.
The downside to this is that you obviously have no control over your set-up – if it rains, you can’t take pictures. I also wouldn’t want to do this in winter…. but for some people this may work, especially if you live somewhere else other than the UK.
You can actually use natural daylight WITHOUT leaving your house. What you do is simply position your photo studio nearby a window, so that you get plenty of light from it. This will work best on sunny days when it’s bright outside but unfortunately on cloudy days you just won’t get enough light coming into your room.
We’ll talk about this more in the Editing lesson (Part 4 of this series) but for now, just so you know, you don’t have to get your images looking perfect on your camera. Lots of things can be adjusted afterwards using photo editing software. For example, your lighting set-up may create a slightly greyish look – that’s not a problem as in most cases that can be adjusted afterwards using Levels and White Balance functions.
Whatever you do, get lighting right as it will then be super easy to get good pictures even with cheaper cameras (possibly even smartphones!). A good lighting set-up means that the item is evenly lit, with NO shadows around it (hence why we use three light units – right side, left side and top) as it will be difficult to remove shadows later on.
Next week we’ll take a closer look at the actual product photography process, how to allocate lighting units, what settings to use, how to handle your camera and much more!