The 3 most important things for product photography to know are Light, Exposure and Composition. If you master these you have mastered photography.
But don’t worry mastering these areas is not as hard as it sounds, nor does it take as long as you might think. But knowing where to start and have a direction to ensure you are actually developing your skills is a challenge.
So go grab your coffee, and keep reading. I am going to give you the 3 key tips for each of these 3 areas so you can start in a good place and have a direction to go so your product photography continues to improve.
So the first area to begin to learn about is Light. Photography is light, everything we do with photography is about light, reducing it, increasing it, manipulating it in some way. So understanding how light works, how the camera interacts with light and how you can control light is so important to mastering photography.
With photography we talk about natural light aka the sun and artificial or sometimes studio lights. This is the first decision you will need to make with your light - its source!
Do you want to work with natural light or have a more controllable studio set up?
Then you will need to consider
Direction will impact shadows. Will the light come in from the side, above or mulit-directions. This will alter not only the shadows if any, but how the texture and depth is captured in the image.
Intensity will impact brightness. We often talk about the other side of this coin - diffusion. Like direction, this will impact shadows, but also depth and textures too. Both direction and intensity work together and interplay with each other to create the final result.
Then finally you need to think about temperature. All light has a temperature often measured in kelvin. If you have a new light bulb lying around check the box and you will see a numeric value eg 4000K. This is the temperature. This is also what controls how white, yellow, blue etc the light appears. This colour casting is the white balance of the image and we often want a light that will result in an accurate representation of white but of course for creative reasons this may not always be the case.
Exposure is the term we use to convey the final result of all the light used or not used. We control exposure with our camera settings. The 3 areas I would focus on to master exposure is the
1. Exposure Triangle
2. Exposure Compensation
3. Semi-Auto Modes
The 3 most basic settings are shutter speed, aperture and ISO. These three are often refered to as the exposure triangle. These are the first thing you need to master to master exposure. But once you have mastered these three there are many more ways we can fine tune how we set our exposure. I written extensively about these 3 settings (Tv here, Av here and ISO here).
I would spend some time getting really comfortable with each of these settings and how they interact.
Exposure compensation overrides the camera default to always aim for a ‘middle’ or ‘average’ exposure. Instead we can tell the camera to deliberately under or overexpose an image to achieve one of two aims:
1. To actually under/over expose the image
2. To compensate for an extreme scene that would confuse the camera and correct for the camera mistake to actually achieve an accurate middle exposure.
We often talk about exposure in ‘stops’ so we can underexpose by 2 stops or over expose by ½ a stop etc.
Exposure Compensation can be a useful tool when you don't have the confidence or time to play with your base settings (shutter, aperture and ISO) and still achieve amazing exposure in the end photo.
Though I always recommend trying to get those 3 settings as close to spot on as possible for best results.
Semi Auto Modes:
Your camera has different modes that range from the camera having full control, to you having full control. But in between these two extremes are two modes Shutter Mode and Aperture Mode.
When you shoot on these modes you control the shutter speed or aperture value respectively. The camera then determines the rest to give you an exposure. This is the best way to learn the interplay between these settings and to learn the effect of aperture and shutter speed on your final image.
I would strongly encourage you to begin using these modes asap as they will build up your confidence and skills in determing the exposure for yourself and you will start to trust yourself more than the camera which is critical to mastering exposure and photography in general.
Finally you need to consider your composition. Composition is all about how you arrange the elements in the photo to create a narrative or story. Whether or not you think about it, every image tells a story so you need to be careful you are telling the right story to your customers.
Again I have written a lot on composition here and here but if i had to recommend my top 3 compositional tools that I believe work best in product photography I would have to say, start with
Rule of thirds (the most universal rule in all visual mediums) and
Framing is a very easy and effective tool for highlighting which is the item in the shot you want people to focus on - in this case your products! Rule of thirds is some crazy phenomenon that I can not fully explain the why of but as far back as visual mediums have been explored it has been acknowledged that this layout is majority of the time the best and most visually appealing. It states that you should split an image in to 3X3 grid and place the items of importance on the lines either at ⅓ or ⅔ up or down your image.
Rule of thirds:
Composition is such a bottomless area of learning, playing around with props and experimenting so don’t be afraid to try lots of different things but it is always useful to elarn rules and best practices first since these are the tried and tested tools of the experts gone before us.
Finally patterns - again these are just something the brain enjoys seeing and if you can create a pattern with a “mistake” or odd one out - the eye will catch on to it and notice it! Which is exactly what you want people to do with your products!
Product photography and photography in general is such a diverse and creative endeavour but there can be a lot to learn that it can become overwhelming very quickly. So I hope this overview helps give you at least a place to start and perhaps some structure to the information you are leanring. Is this helping you think light, exposure or your composition.
There is so much more I could say on each of these topics but as an overview I hope this helps you feel more in control of your product photography, have a starting place to improve your photography and perhaps inspire you to practice more techniques and experiment more with your camera.
The Camera & Coffee Community:
If you want to continue on this journey of product photography have you heard about my Cameras & Coffee Community?
It is free community of small business owners kicking ass and making moves. You get a couple emails from me monthly, as well early bird access and discounts to new courses and workshops, a mini how to product photography booklet and so much more.
Join now and lets develop your photography together in a supportive, caffeinated community.
If you find this blog, or multiple blogs helpful or you just want to support my addiction to coffee, as well as have some spare change I would be so grateful if you brought me a Ko-Fi. No pressure and certainly no guilt, but I run this community for free, and it does take a lot of caffeine to keep up this blog and all the free resources I provide.