Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Too Scared to Ask: Product Photography

Table of Contents

In our biggest FAQ about product photography yet, we discuss some of the most common questions a photographer at any skill level might have, from simple ones about settings to complex ones about the type of reflection a leather surface produces under hard light. This article was created to help you create better product images.

For me, product photography has always been one of the most fascinating genres, as it combines excellent technical ability with post-production and style. Perhaps it is the essence of commercial photography: selling a product. Working in fashion, I am no stranger to photographing products, albeit in a different setting. But at the end of the day, some of the skills are transferable. In fact, if you are working as a photographer, it is more than likely that you will be asked to photograph a product at one point or another. You need to know a lot about such a genre of photography to be able to execute it well. 

Gear and Cameras

Do I Need Expensive Gear to Produce Stunning Product Photography?

Product photography can be done with an iPhone and some $50 lights. It is so not about the camera you use; it is so much more about the aesthetic of the final photograph. A well-styled scene photographed on your phone will bring more paid clients than a bad photo made with the most expensive gear. The requirements to make money as a product photographer haven’t changed for a decade, but the camera marketing industry still leads you to believe that you need the upgrade. Keep this in mind when you consider what to buy next. If you are motivated by owning the most expensive camera you can’t afford, buy good education, become better, land higher-paying jobs, and then go out and buy that expensive camera. Hopefully, by that point, you would’ve realized that it is not about the image-capturing box. 

What Cameras Should I Use for Product Photography?

There are plenty of camera choices for product photography. You can take photos with anything from a simple phone to a medium format camera and get stunning results. As product photography is a lot more about styling and lighting, you can use a fairly “old” camera to get great pictures. Product photographer Scott Chouchino used a 5D Mark II for the longest time before switching to the 5DS. According to him, the 5D Mark II is plenty for great product photography. The specs of this camera are nothing special in 2023, but it sure is a great image-capturing device for studio work. If you are not using autofocus, which you should not be, this camera is more than enough to get started and land your first billboard campaign. 

What Lenses Should I Use for Product Photography?

The lens that you pick will play a much more important role in the image you will get at the end. For example, while you can use a zoom lens for macro photography, it will certainly be less consistent when compared to a prime lens. This is especially true for top-down shots that require composites. A loose zoom ring can be a large cause of trouble for photographers. Therefore, one of the best specialty lenses you can get for product photography is the 100mm macro. Again, act on this advice only if you are looking to buy a new lens. If you are only starting, use what you have and focus on learning the craft. For example, Bryan Rogers Jr. shoots using a Canon 24-105mm f/4 adapted to a Sony body.  

Do I Need a Macro Lens for Product Photography?

Yes and no. Macro lenses are very helpful in getting that much closer to the subject, but that said, there are a lot of things you can shoot that don’t require a macro lens. For example, our The Hero Shot tutorial features products such as speakers, drill, bottle, controller, cutlery, and a microphone. All of those were shot on a 24-105mm f/4 lens. Therefore, this really depends on what sort of object and shot you are working with. For most situations, you can make do with a regular lens. That said, a macro will be sharper and more consistent, and there will come a point where you will shoot pretty much only on macro. 

Do I Need a Tripod for Product Photography?

I can’t stand using tripods for fashion and portrait work. I find it restrictive. However, every time I get to photograph a stationary scene, I get the tripod out. Product photography is less about capturing the image than it is about creating it. Therefore, you are moving lights, props, and everything else, but not the camera. So, to answer the question, yes, you need a tripod for product photography. A Manfrotto 058 bought on the used market will set you back a few hundred dollars but will last a few decades. 

What Are Some Must-haves for Product Photography?

There are a lot of things you need to have, and eventually, your stockpile will build up. To start, get a shooting table to place your products on, black and white plexiglass to use as surfaces under the products, a can of compressed air to blow the dust off, hot glue and Plexi rods to create “floating” objects, and, last but not least, a few c-stands with grip arms to help with rigging the setup. 

What Focal Length Should I Use for Product Photography?

Focal length is a creative decision that you have to take on your own. There are a few rules to keep in mind, though. The focal length will dictate the number of things you can and can’t keep in focus. Another thing focal length will control is your perspective. For example, if you want to isolate the subject from the surroundings, you will have a hard time with a wide lens. At the same time, if you want to show a lot of objects in one image, going for a telephoto lens will be counterproductive.

What Is Focus Peaking?

Focus peaking is a feature on a camera that highlights the area of the image which is in focus. This is particularly useful when working with focus-staking or when you need to nail the focus. Using autofocus for product photography is highly discouraged, as it is still not as accurate and consistent as a camera that is locked in manual mode. Again, product photography is about precision, which is highest if nothing moves. Hence, use manual focus combined with focus peaking. As a bonus, if you are using Capture One, you can control your lens’ focus without ever touching it. 

What Is the Step-by-step Method to Make a Successful Product Image?

A step-by-step method that has worked for me so far is the following. First, place the product on the surface. Second, compose the image in the camera without introducing any artificial light. Third, fire a blank frame and ensure that there is no unwanted light in the shot. Fourth, light the image by slowly adding, removing, and sculpting light. Lastly, as step number five, adjust the styling of the image, introduce props, and make it the best you can in the camera.

What Lights Should I Use for Product Photography? 

Light is light, and you can take great product images with nothing more than a desk lamp and a lot of time. But, let’s be frank, no one is doing that in the long-term. Usually, a good starting point for any sort of product photography is a single speedlight. This rather inexpensive option will allow you to experiment with different characteristics of light and give a good introduction to studio lighting. 

Afterward, you may want to invest in some strobes. If all you want to do is studio product photography, look no further than used Broncolor Grafit or Pulso packs. They provide an excellent entry point into the world of high-end professional flash that you will use as you get further in your career. Alternatively, you can opt for Profoto or Godox lights. In The Hero Shot tutorial, Bryan uses Profoto D1 lights, which have been around for 10 years and are still going strong. In fact, I use them myself.  

What Modifiers Should I Use for Product Photography?

As a starting point, invest in a few soft modifiers and a few hard ones. One of the most common ones you will use a lot is a grid. A grid simply restricts the light spill to a certain degree. This is helpful when lighting small areas on objects. Another use for grids is in composite work. Just with one light with a grid, you can light various parts of the image, composite them together, and get a never-seen-before result. This all is also broken down in The Hero Shot tutorial. 

Other than that, get some tracing paper, as it will become one of the most versatile materials which can be used as a background and as a light diffuser. Depending on light placement, you can create incredible light gradients using some tracing paper. Between a softbox and tracing paper, I would go with tracing paper. 

How Do I Use Grids for Product Photography?

Grids are some of the most used tools in product photography. All grids do is reduce the light spread. For example, a Profoto Zoom reflector on position 10 will spread the light 105 degrees. If you place a 5-degree grid on it, the light spread will immediately become 5 degrees. Some sources will have you believe that a grid also increases the contrast in the light. However, that is only partially true. Long story short: grids reduce light spread to the respective degree specified on the grid. They also absorb some light. 

How Do I Use Softboxes for Product Photography?

Softboxes are commonly found in portrait and fashion studios. A common shape of softboxes for product photography is strip softboxes. They enable the photographer to light a long and thin area, bringing out the shape of the object. A softbox creates soft and diffused light, which is easy to use for gradients. It is not uncommon to see product photographers using a softbox over the object, or at an unusual angle to create the ideal light falloff pattern. If you are planning to use a softbox for product photography, experiment with overhead placement, not only with direct frontal. A much better replacement for a softbox is tracing paper. You can use multiple light sources to light up individual areas on tracing paper, which will allow you to get more precise and accurate with your lighting. 

Why Use Black and White Cards in Product Photography?

These are your best friends when you want to control shadows, create highlights, or otherwise modify the lighting in the image. A black card will remove light, which will deepen shadows or create an outline in a white-on-white scenario. A white card, on the contrary, will fill in shadows and create a highlight on a black-on-black scenario. A common use for white cards is also managing reflections.

Should I Use Soft or Hard Light for Product Photography? 

This is a style choice rather than a rule. At the same time, some surfaces work better with soft light and others work better with hard light. For example, a shiny, reflective surface lit with a hard light source will make the object appear cheap. This is because the reflections will only appear on a small spectrum of angles. To increase such a spectrum, a soft, diffused light source is preferred. It will make a shiny surface appear smooth and expensive. Hard light is commonly used to bring out detail in objects. If you are photographing a speaker and want to show the detail in the grid, use hard, specular light.

How Do I Create Gradients on Backgrounds?

This can be done in a lot of ways, but the simplest one is to use tracing paper. Essentially all a gradient is is a smooth falloff of light. This can be created using the inverse square law. Place your light in a way that makes it hit the background unevenly. Another way to do this is to use a grid and light a spot on tracing paper. As tracing paper acts like diffusion material, while also making the light softer due to its large size, it will create a smooth falloff, which will result in a gradient. Gradients of light are one of the techniques experts use to draw attention to the product. An effective gradient can form a vignette around the object, which will make the viewer more drawn to the picture.  

How Do I Use Color Gels in Product Photography? 

Color gels are a popular creative tool in product photography. They can be used to add a splash of color, highlight a certain shade, or bring out something completely different in the object. Color gels work on one simple principle: they fill in shadows. For example, if you place two lights, blue and yellow, and shine them at the object, blue will appear in the shadows as it is “darker” than yellow. When working with gels, it is best to consult the color wheel to find the best combinations. You can use knowledge of gradients to create color gradients. I use this technique on a larger scale in fashion work. Lastly, flags, v-flats, and cinefoil are your best friends when working with gels. They make lighting specific areas much easier.  

What Software Is the Best for Editing Product Images?

Traditionally, photographers use Photoshop to edit such work. Photoshop is the most advanced piece of software you can use to composite and work on individual photos. Not too many people argue over Photoshop as it doesn’t really have a counterpart. 

Disagreements happen in Capture One versus Lightroom land. Many photographers who work with products have switched to Capture One because it allows for greater control. Given that you’ve tethered in your camera, you can basically control everything from Capture One. For an extra fee, you can even do the same from your phone. Capture One provides better speed and connectivity. Therefore, you will get a much smoother experience using Capture One. 

How Do I Retouch Imperfections Out of Product Images? 

Retouching imperfections is easiest in post-production software such as Photoshop. One of the most powerful and commonly used tools for such work is the clone stamp. This tool works on the principle of replacing a bad area with a sample from a good one. Another one you can try using is frequency separation. There are two options for frequency separation: via Gaussian blur and via the median Personally, I prefer working with the median, as it creates a much nicer result that doesn’t look as fake. Another idea is to use the mixer brush tool. This is best for editing out small dust particles. Remember that the mixer brush will not only blend the colour but also the texture. This is why you need to be careful about where you use such a tool. It will work best on uniform surfaces that don’t have too much texture — a plexiglass sheet, for example. It won’t work on something like a plank of wood. If you’re missing dimension from the picture, it is advisable to add grain to make the photo that bit more textured.  

What Software Should I Use for Focus Stacking?

Focus stacking is one of the most common ways of getting impossible subjects in focus. Just imagine you’re shooting a toothbrush at a crazy angle: there is no way you can get it perfectly sharp. Therefore, you have to take a bunch of frames, each at a slightly different focusing distance to get the whole object in focus. Compositing these frames together in the post will allow you to get an image that would not be possible in a camera. The best software to use for such tasks is Helicon; it is the most common one for professionals. Another option is Photoshop; however, it is not as good as Helicon in some select use cases. That said, if you already use Photoshop, stick with it and don’t spend extra money. Switch to Helicon only when you clearly see that Photoshop can’t do what you need.  

What Workflow Is the Best for Product Photography?

Product photography is primarily something done in a studio while tethering the camera in. Therefore, it is strongly suggested to use the following workflow:

Capture images on two separate hard drives, with one going into the cloud. This way, at the end of the day, you are left with three copies of the files and peace of mind. Then it’s on to editing. This can be done in the same Capture One session that you used to capture the images. I tend to use a system of stars and color tags for my images. Every image I like gets a five-star rating. Then, I compare all the photos and pick the best ones using the green color tag. From there, a PSD file is created, which has a red color tag to differentiate easier. All post-production in Photoshop is done on that PSD file. When the file is too big, I save it in PSB, I always make a copy of all layers and save that on top of the PSD. This way, the red/green color tag system is not broken.  

How and Why Should I Calibrate My Monitor Before Editing Product Images?

Calibration is rather insignificant when you’re starting. Frankly, all most photographers care about is the image and what’s on it. Few people will look at a photo and think that the magenta is off. At the same time, color matters as soon as you start working commercially. For example, a lot of my clients want the color of their clothes to look exactly like it does in real life. When they come back to me and say that it does not look like it should, I simply tell them to look at the image on something that is calibrated. At the end of the day, monitor calibration allows me to send off images in which I have full confidence. Frankly, without calibration, my work would not be possible sometimes.   

How and Should I Use a Color Checker for Product Images?

A calibrated monitor will only do so much. It will show you the right color, but it won’t help you color-match the colors in the image to the real world. Suppose a product has a specific shade of red that is copyrighted by the company. The best way to achieve this is by using a color checker. The colors on it are industry-calibrated, which means that the white you see on the color checker is the correct white.  

How Important Is Photoshop for Product Photography?

Product photography is perhaps one of the most post-production-intensive genres. It is a lot about creating the image rather than taking it. Think about the process of wedding photography: you are there to capture the event — take images. On a commercial set, you are there to create a photograph that will sell the product. Hence, you are in charge of everything that is happening in the image down to the finest detail. An imperfection in a wedding photo can be written off, but an imperfection on the logo in a product image can’t. It is simply not professional. Post-production allows you to take your images to the next level. Even with minimal equipment: a camera, a light, and a grid, you can make the most incredible composites in post-production. It would take less time with 18 lights, but I can’t think of anyone who has access to such gear at the start. I certainly didn’t. Therefore, learning Photoshop will give a big edge over the competition. 

What Are Some Useful Photoshop Shortcuts for Product Photography?

  • Unlock your background layer: Double-click your background layer and hit the “enter” key or simply click on the lock icon on your background layer.
  • Rulers: Command/Ctrl + R
  • Create Guides: Click and drag from the rulers while they are visible. This works both on the vertical and horizontal axis.
  • Hide/Show Guides: Command/Ctrl + H.
  • Undo: Command/Ctrl + Z (quick tip: use this keyboard shortcut over and over again to toggle your last history state).
  • Brush: Hit the letter B on your keyboard.

  • Make brush tool bigger: Hit the ] key on your keyboard (right bracket key).

  • Make brush tool smaller: Hit the [ key on your keyboard (left bracket key).

  • Magic Wand Tool: Hit the letter W on your keyboard.

  • Add to Selection: Hold the Shift key while using a selection tool.

  • Marquee Selection Tool: Hit the letter M on your keyboard.

  • Deselect: Command/Ctrl + D.

How Do I Create Shape and Form With Light in Product Photography?

Each object is designed with some shapes and lines in mind — so much so, some designers focus solely on shape. Being able to highlight this shape as a photographer and artist will help you create images that resonate not only with the audience but also with the designer and client themselves. One of the most commonly used tools for shaping products is a strip softbox. Due to its narrow and long light stamp, it is perfect for shaping objects and highlighting edges. For example, a classic setup for photographing bottles includes two strip boxes on either side to create a shape. Another method is, of course, using flags, white cards, tracing paper, and other materials.

Let’s break them down one by one. A flag will cut light, with a flag you can make any shadow pattern on your object. For example, when I work in the studio, I often use flags to make fine adjustments to the image. Cutting unnecessary light can be done with either a flag or a black card. If you need to lift the shadows in a dark area, simply use a white surface. This can be anything. I tend to use such white cards whenever I want to fill in shadows and reduce contrast in my image. Lastly, scrims will cut a portion of light. For example, if you have a light source that is close to the subject and it is creating overexposed highlights on a part of an image, you can use a scrim to cut out that light and even out the exposure. All of these techniques will help you to shape light in a way that highlights the subject and brings out the wanted detail.  

How Do I Shoot White Products on White Backgrounds?

White on white may seem like a confusing scenario. Yet, we see it all the time — a seemingly white object shot on a white background. How is it possible that the two don’t mix or blend? The secret is in the relative perception of white and white. If your subject is exposed at the same level as the background, it will appear gray. At the same time, if your background is then slightly underexposed, it will appear gray. So, how do we keep the same exposure on the background and subject, while also telling the eye to differentiate between two identical colors? The secret is in the edges. Suppose you’re shooting a round vase. That vase, while being white, can absolutely have darker edges. These edges will guide the eye. The end goal should be to create a clear outline of the object and show the lines it has. As long as there is a clear outline, the eye will do the rest. This is usually created using black cards on the edges.  

How Do I Shoot Black Products on Black Backgrounds?

Another common scenario in product photography is black on black. In essence, it is the same as white on white, the secret is to guide the eye using outlines. The techniques are reversed, however. Instead of using shadows to create outlines, we will be using highlights. No matter how black your object is, it will still have an outline that you can light in a way that would make it gray if not white. Simply use strip softboxes to create a visible outline, while not forgetting to use a general fill light to brighten up even the darkest of the spots on your image. Remember that human vision is subjective, and a fully black surface will simply not register as well as a surface with some light on it. This is why it is strongly suggested to avoid pitch-black areas in your photography.  

How Do I Shoot Reflective and Shiny Surfaces?

Managing reflections is one more skill you will learn when doing product photography. It is crucial to be able to do this efficiently, as the way you manage reflections will help you shoot even the most challenging surfaces. First, you need to understand that you are working with direct reflections. These are the hardest to manage and control. Not only will a poorly managed direct reflection look bad, but it will also say a lot about your skill level as a photographer. Luckily, there are a few easy ways to take care of reflections. The first one is to use the softest light possible. In essence, what this does is increase the size of the reflection and turn it from a nasty small highlight into a large, smooth highlight. This can be done in one of two ways, either by using tracing paper and softboxes or by placing the object in the Karl Taylor Light Cone. You can, of course, take the tracing paper and make it into a cone to achieve the same result. A cone will essentially flood the object with soft light, so you’re basically creating the best conditions to shoot any reflective surface. As the cone takes care of reflections on all sides of the object, it will be easy to shoot any reflective shape as all angles of direct reflection are covered.  

How Do I Shoot Matte Surfaces?

Matte surfaces are easier to work with, as the reflection they produce is called diffuse reflection. Let’s track back and remind ourselves that direct reflection is a type of reflection that only occurs at a certain angle. Diffuse reflection is the opposite of this, and it occurs under a large number of angles. It is much easier to create gradients of exposure on such surfaces. Such surfaces include wood, cotton, paper, and so on. The way to test for the type of reflection is simply by taking a flashlight and shining it on the surface. When lighting a matte surface, you have more flexibility in what light you choose to use. A hard light won’t make the surface look cheap. On the contrary, it will bring out detail if used correctly. A soft light will be much more useful when you want to create gradients. Simply angle the light source in a way that makes one end closer to the product. The larger the light source you use, the better.  

How Do I Control Reflections and Use Polarization in Product Images?

Controlling reflections can also be done by using something called polarization. This is a somewhat complex technique that requires you to use polarizing filters on both the light and the lens. This way, you can shoot the shiniest metallic surface with the hardest light and still manage to get a nice, reflection-free image. The reason polarization is so effective is that it basically cuts out a large portion of direct reflection. So, why do photographers not use it all that often? The problem with polarization is that a polarizing filter will cut not only direct reflection but also decrease the overall exposure by half a stop or so. This is why it is preferred by many photographers to simply change the quality of light rather than polarize it. 

How Do I Create Smooth Highlights on Bottles?

Smooth highlights are a rather overused look, but popular. Essentially, this is done via two strip-softboxes. Simply place one behind each side of the bottle and angle them in a way that will only light the edges. Another option is to make a custom modifier from tracing paper and black paper. In essence, it will act like a strip mask. 

How Do I Create Dynamic Advertising Shots?

Dynamic images are very popular in advertising nowadays. If you look at ads for places such as Burger King, it becomes evident that they use color, angle, and light to create motion in the image. Despite the product being stationary, the image still strikes the viewer as dynamic. The dynamic feeling can be easily created by using contrasting saturated colors. Another one is making the product appear like a hero. Float your object, or place the lens under it so that it appears larger-than-life. Using color gels can also increase the dynamics of the image. Lastly, why not introduce real motion and splash the product with water?  

How Do I Shoot Watches? 

Shooting watches is regarded as one of the most challenging aspects of product photography. You need to get a lot of things perfect on a small object: shiny elements, leather straps, a watch face, metallic reflections, and so much more. It is easy to feel discouraged if you never did this before. The first step to a successful watch image is, of course, correct lens choice. It is more likely than not that you will need to focus stack the image if you choose to shoot at a macro focal length. In our The Hero Shot tutorial, Bryan opts for a 100mm macro lens. This particular lens allows you to still get enough depth of field to capture good detail, but also close enough to allow for 1:1 macro reproduction. It is best to place your watch on an even and uniform surface such as a sheet of plexiglass. Don’t forget to clean the watch of any dust. Place the camera on a tripod and ensure that it doesn’t move, especially if you will be focus-stacking. Lighting-wise, it is best to opt for tracing paper as the light source. Place it over the watch, behind the watch, or wherever you see fit. Then, you can use spotlights to light small areas on the tracing paper and on the watch itself to get the final result. Here, light-shaping tools such as grids, fresnel spots, and optical snoots are your best friends.  

How Do I Shoot Leather Surfaces? 

Leather surfaces produce neither direct nor diffuse reflection. It produces what is called direct polarized reflection. This means that the light hitting the surface is not polarized, but the light reflection is already polarized. Shooting such surfaces requires patience and a good polarizing filter. Here, it doesn’t matter if you use hard or soft light. You will still get the nasty reflection from leather. Hence, place a polarizing filter on your camera and turn it until the reflections are cut. 

What Settings Should I Use for Product Photography? 

If you are shooting product images in the studio, opt for the standard combination of ISO 100, 1/160 s shutter speed, and f/8-f/13. Keeping ISO to a minimum will ensure the best image quality and minimum noise, and the shutter speed must be kept at a value that enables flash sync. If you go above the sync speed, a part of your image will be left underexposed. 

How Do I Make Levitating Product Images? 

Levitating products is a very effective technique that allows you to get even more creative with the composition that you use. One of the easiest ways to create such images is simply by using plexiglass rods and hot glue. The benefit of hot glue is that while it sticks very well, it doesn’t actually damage the object. This works with most objects, so I would not worry about using hot glue and Plexi rods with most things. 

A high-contrast and hard look can help bring out detail. Known for his use of hard light, Scott Choucino uses it to bring dimension and detail to his food and product work. 

How Do I Shoot Multiple Products in One Setting? 

Shooting multiple products in one setting is yet another skill that you need to master. One of the secrets to such work is in compositing images. 

How Do I Capture Detail in Product Photography? 

Capturing detail is down to a lot of factors. A lot of people tend to think that capturing detail has a lot to do with the camera they use. There is some truth to that, but there are many more significant factors. The first one is the light you use. Think back to how hard light works: it creates defined shadows and highlights. Therefore, almost any object will appear more textured than it is. Another factor is the aperture. It is unlikely that you are capturing good detail if you don’t stop down to f/8 or more. It is best if you find out the aperture that your lens is sharpest at and shoot at that value for maximum detail. For some lenses, it is f/8, while others tend to be around f/13. Another trick to use is in post-production. If you are not adding clarity to your images, don’t expect them to appear incredibly sharp. On top of that, there are different sharpening procedures for screen and paper. As a rule of thumb, it is better to add some sharpness to your photos at the end. So, before you go and buy a new camera, check what type of light you are using, how you are processing your images, and if there is anything you can change about the way you shoot without spending money. 

Closing Thoughts 

These are only some of the most common questions. There are hundreds, if not thousands more. If you’d like to learn how to take professional-level product images of any kind of object, the best instructor to learn from is Brian Rogers Jr. in his The Hero Shot tutorial. The tutorial dives into these and so many more questions that will be of use to you, no matter your skill level.