How to Take Great Photos

submitted by Curtis Durham

how to improve your product photos

Here are some simple steps to immediately improve your product photos…

1. This first step is the most important step. If you complete this first step, you will improve your photography by leaps and bounds. Are you ready to discover what this “magic bullet” can do? Yes? Here it is: Sit down with your camera and read the manual that came with it from front to back while trying everything on every page with your camera. If you have to, do this a couple of times until you get a good understanding of how your camera works and how to navigate through the menus. This one step will familiarize you with how your camera works and will eliminate a lot of stress from the whole process.

2. Learn to set a custom White Balance. This is the second most important step and should be done for every “photo session” you perform. The instructions for setting a custom white balance will be found in the manual. It usually involves taking a photo of a white surface, like a white sheet of paper and then going through the menu on your camera to set the white balance to the image you just shot. When you photograph the white surface it should be located where you will be photographing your products in the same lighting conditions you plan on shooting in.

Doing this ensures that the colors you see with your eyes match the photo more closely. If you have seen photos with a nasty orange or blue tint, this is because the white balance setting on the camera was incorrect for the type of light in the area. Your manual will explain things in more detail. When you are done with your session, be sure to set your white balance back to Auto or your snapshots of little Johnnie might have terrible color. Why not use auto when shooting your products? Because it is not consistent. You want a consistent look to all of your photos in that session and setting the white balance is what achieves this.

3. Understand how your camera focuses. The manual will be very clear about how your camera focuses on the subjects. Most modern cameras have “focus points” that can be set to focus on certain portions of the frame. When your camera is set up in the right position and your products are in front of it, you may have to adjust the focus point so that you focus on your product and not on the background.

4. Turn off your camera’s on-board flash. Never use this thing for product shots. Never! It will make your beautiful soaps and other goodies look like they are being sold out of the back of a dirty white van in the parking lot of a seedy strip mall. Unless that’s your thing, of course. ;o)

5. Set your camera to take the largest file-sized JPGs that it can. If your camera is capable of shooting in a mode called RAW, don’t, unless you know exactly what you are getting and doing with the RAW files. RAW files need to be processed by professional software in order to be usable. If your camera has various “look” settings like Portrait, or Landscape, try experimenting with various settings to see what you like best. Again, your manual will explain what your camera can do and what these settings will yield.

6. Get a tripod and use it. They are cheap. Sometimes you can find one on eBay or Craig’s List. There might even be one hiding in the back of your closet, or possibly a friend’s or relative’s. Another good place to check is a local thrift store. Having your camera on a tripod reduces hand-shake which causes blurry images. You want your images to be as sharp as possible.

7. Use your camera’s self timer. Read the manual and learn how to use the self-timer. Using this in conjunction with a tripod virtually eliminates any shaking of the camera when your photo is actually snapped. By using the timer and then pushing the button, you give the camera a few seconds to settle down from any movement you caused by pushing the shutter button. If your camera comes with some kind of remote, even better! Learn how to use it.

8. Go to a store that sells large sheets of paper, poster board, and even better, foam core board. Use various colored papers for your background. Do not use towels or terry cloth. If you use a bed sheet as your background, well, let’s just say there is a certain place reserved for you that is very hot. I’m not talking about Phoenix, Arizona, either.

Get a large sheet of paper that can be pulled up on one side to create a curved surface. You might have to get creative with clamps or clips to hold it up, but what you want is the front part of the paper flat on a table (tape the corners to the table to keep the paper still). This where you put your products. Behind that, you want the paper to curve up so it looks nice and seamless. Try different colored papers. Also, see if you can find an art supply store near you. They usually have very neat and interesting papers that you can’t find at your local Wal-Mart or drug store. They usually have larger sheets of foam core too.

Use white foam core sheets as a reflective surface (poster board can be used in a pinch). Again, you’ll have to get creative on how to hold it, or prop it up. What you want to do with the foam core is use it as a light reflector. I’ll explain more in the following example:

You have just created the world’s most mind-blowingly beautiful soaps and if you can get a good photo, the Queen of England would be sure to buy 500 of them for her servants in Buckingham Palace as holiday gifts.

But how can you take a photo good enough to make her want to practically eat your soap?
Read on to learn how!

1. On a nice, sunny day, find a nice, large window where it’s bright, but the sun is not shining directly through. If you have very light, white gauzy curtains, draw them across the window. This creates a nice, large, soft light source similar to those large “soft boxes” that you may have seen photographers or videographers use. That’s what we want, a nice, large, diffused light source and windows are great for this. If you don’t have gauzy curtains, see if you can find some white gauzy fabric at a local store to hang in front of the window.

2. Set up a table right next to the window so the surface gets good light. Set up your curved back drop paper mentioned in step 6. Set up your soap or products on the flat surface. Now, put your camera on the tripod and manipulate the tripod and angle of camera to get the right angle of your products. This is a trial and error process. The settings on your camera don’t really matter at this point. You are just trying to make the angles look good. Some cameras have little screens on the back showing you what it can “see.” This is great. use this to your advantage to eliminate the need for having to take lots of test shots.

3. Once you have your camera and products in place, clip or clamp up your paper so that it takes up the whole background in relation to your products. In other words, you don’t want to see your shop-vac in the background and neither does the Queen of England. Take another test shot to make sure you are just getting your product and the background.

Note on Zoom: While it is okay to use the zoom on your camera, try moving the tripod in and out to frame your products as much as you can. Sometimes using your zoom is useful to minimize the amount of background you can see. However, that said, NEVER NEVER NEVER use the camera’s “digital zoom”. Only use the optical zoom range your camera is capable of. If you did your homework and read your manual, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

4. Next to your products on the opposite side of the window, set up a white piece of foam core to bounce some of that window light back onto the products. You might have to do a little trial and error here too. Sometimes it looks good with the foam core away a bit from the products, sometimes it looks better with the foam core so close to your products that it is just out of the frame of what the camera takes a picture of. What you are going for is a nice even light on your products with a hint of shadows on the foam core side. You can also play with the distance of the foam core to get the right amount of shadow too. This is where creativity and imagination come into play. Your photos need to speak to people. They tell the story of your products and manipulating the light is one of the ways to tell the story.

5. Once you have taken a few more test shots to get the light and shadows looking nice on your products, it’s time to create and set that custom white balance mentioned earlier. Use a white piece of paper and put it in front of your products. Follow the instructions in your camera’s manual to set the white balance.

6. Now you are ready to shoot your actual photos! As long as the light remains pretty consistent, you can keep using the white balance you just set. After a hour or so, you might want to re-do your white balance because the sun might be in a different location and the window-light might have changed.

7. Experiment with different colored backdrops and product positioning. Product photography is about controlling the light, shadows, and reflections on your products. It is a task best approached with logical and methodical steps. If your goal is scrumptious looking photos, learn and practice the technical stuff and then, let your creativity flow with how you arrange your products. Throw in some props, change the backdrop, move the reflector around.

8. When you have shot all the products and angles that you want, you’ll need to load the image files on your computer. Since we aren’t covering specific platforms (Windows or Mac), I’ll leave it to you or your design person to properly size the images for use on the web or in printed materials.

This has been a short primer on how to use your camera and set up a product shot. Following these steps will help you generate very nice photos of your stuff. Of course, I didn’t even touch on using software like Photoshop to improve and enhance your photos even more. That’s called Post Processing and believe it or not, it can be even more complicated than using the using the camera. Another lesson for another time.

Curtis Durham, Pegboard Media

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