How to Take Beautiful Product Photos

Eric Lieberman

The first thing that must be determined (in my experience) with taking a high-quality product photo is figuring out the best lighting source for your photo. Disclaimer: My products are mostly clear glass, which presents a very difficult task of taking a photo that shows how crystal clear the glass is, while also showing the product on a white background.

There are multiple options for lighting: side lighting, back lighting, front lighting, under lighting or a combination of any of the above. For front products that are not clear, side lighting or front lighting works great; but, for products that are clear, back lighting or under lighting are most successful (based on my experience). Once you determine your lighting preference for your product it is time to collect the equipment.

Equipment List (Not everything is required but in my experience, these items are important)

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Decent Camera — I am not a fan of camera phones or Point-and-shoot camera for product images. People are buying your product based on the image of the product and customer reviews (if you have any) so you want to make sure your images stand out and show the quality they are vs the competitor. For all my photos, I use a Nikon D3300 DSLR (an introductory level DSLR camera with some great features) and a 35-mm fixed lens. If you don’t have a 35-mm lens, an 18-55mm or other will work.

Tripod — After multiple attempts to take a quality photo by hand, I finally purchased a tripod and it made everything so much better. You don’t need a fancy “pivot-tilt-whatever” tripod but something of decent quality that is sturdy.

Remote control for your camera — These are very cheap, and if you have a Samsung Galaxy phone (or another compatible phone with an IR blaster) you don’t even need to purchase a remote (there are apps for that) if you have a compatible camera.

Light source Light source(s) — This is where things start to get tricky, you want something in the 4000 Kelvin or higher range. Stay away from anything that has the words “Soft” in the name “Soft White” for example. These tend to be “warmer” bulbs that contain more red light than “cooler” blue light and skew image colors more. For reference: Natural Sunlight at noon is between 4000 and 6500 Kelvin and Jewelry stores usually use lighting between 4200 and 5500 Kelvin to show off their products. Another option that is great for front lightning is 2 remote controlled flashes (compatible with most DSLR cameras) with diffuser lenses.

Grey card — A standard 18% grey card works great with Lightroom® and other photo editing software. It helps speed up white balancing (caused by the light source temperature).

Software — There is a reason Adobe® Lightroom™ and Photoshop™ are the industry standard for photo editing. There are plenty of alternate software options (Paint.net, GIMP, Darktable, etc.) that will work almost as well if you don’t feel like shelling out the money for Adobe® products (the rest of this entry will talk about Adobe® since that is what I use).

Materials for building your light box — A light box isn’t necessary; you can get great results by just using a large piece of white poster board, but a light box allows you to reproduce the same quality image with different products and minimal effort. I am not going to go into how to construct a light box, but here are some references I have used in the past for how I constructed mine (WARNING!!!! If you go with the cardboard box method DO NOT use a brown cardboard box… This will introduce those “soft” colors we talked about earlier):

  • Side and/or Top Light Boxes: view the video and the article
  • Backlit Light Boxes: view the article

Or you can just buy a premade one.

Using Your Camera

This entry is not going to go in-depth on how to use your camera but just give a couple tips:

  1. Use the remote control and tripod!

    Allows you to setup the perfect shot and minimizes the possibility of introducing noise into the photo due to motion. Pushing the shutter button may introduce just enough movement to mess up your focus and introduce noise, so use the remote to take the shot.

  2. Test out different light sources and distances

    Take a couple shots with the light sources in different positions and see which one works best for your product.

  3. Grey cards make everything better

    Grey cards make white balancing a breeze. Take a photo of just the grey card in your setup and use that to calibrate your software.

  4. Auto-Focus is NOT your friend

    Switch that camera to manual and take multiple photos.

  5. Take a lot of photos

    Take at least 5 shots (or more) of each product so you can sort through the photos and find the best.

  6. Time to Learn what that A mode on your camera means

    All your photos should be shot in “A” (Aperture priority) mode. You want at least f/11 (or smaller) to make sure you get that depth and detail. Smaller means f/12,f/13, etc.

  7. ISO 100

    Your camera may fight you on this, but luckily most cameras will allow you to lock your ISO mode. Lock it to ISO 100 (the reason you have a tripod and remote control).

  8. Shutter Speed

    Don’t even look at it. Once again, Tripod… Remote Control… If it wants to take a 1 second exposure, let it. Better to have a long exposure than to introduce noise by upping the ISO. You can always change the ISO to a higher number if the photos look blurry because the camera was moving during that long exposure (although with a decent tripod and using a remote it shouldn’t).

  9. What about the built-in flash on my camera?

    I wish Nikon, Canon, etc. would stop including that flash, it is worthless. Keep it closed and make sure your camera has flash turned off (unless you are using remote controlled photo strobes).

  10. Photo Output

    If your camera has the option (almost every DSLR does) this should be RAW. You want the most detail possible and you don’t want your camera to do any processing (that is your job after all).

Software

First we need to process the photos from RAW to a rough image that we will handle with a photo editing software. For this we will use Lightroom™ or another software.

Lightroom™

I barely use Lightroom™ for anything but color correct and maybe a little exposure manipulation. Go ahead and import all your images into Lightroom™. Your first image (if you did it based on this blog entry) should be a photo of your 18% grey card.

Open the grey card in the “Develop” tab in Lightroom™, click the eyedropper (image to the right) and move it over the grey card and click the mouse again.

Under “Presets” on the right side click the + to create a new preset. Select only “White Balance” and give it a preset name that you will remember and hit Create. This will allow you to apply the white balance to the rest of your images.

Now look thru all of your photos, find the best ones and apply your white balance preset and then export them as jpeg. As you get better and better with Lightroom™ you can start messing with the other settings (this is why we shoot raw) to get the most out of your photos.

Photoshop™

A couple warnings before we go any further

  1. There are very good reasons why there are professional services who charge a lot of money to do your product images. It is time consuming and frustrating (generally I spent about 20-30 minutes per photo and sometimes I trash everything and start over again).
  2. Magic Wand may not be your friend — Just like autofocus.
  3. Photoshop™ isn’t the easiest software to use if you have never used it before (there are plenty of tutorials on the web on how to use it. Google is a great resource so this won’t be a step by step on how to use photoshop).
  4. I have been doing this for a while and my photos aren’t as good as I wish they were. It is a learning experience and you get better and better as you do it.

Just because your background may look white, it doesn’t mean it is (and it should be removed). Almost every quality image you see on the web with a white background isn’t because the background in the photos is white, it is because they more than likely removed the background and allowed photoshop to make a perfect white background (all my photos with a white background are made with this method).

If you took the most amazing, clear, focused image then Magic Wand may be able to remove the background without any problems, but more likely your images have “fuzzy” edges and magic wand will start to “eat” into your product. Some of my photos you can see this at the base of the glass bottle where I gave up and just let Magic Wand mangle my image (although I have been doing this long enough that I have started to minimize this). Small aperture, Low ISO and a steady camera (TRIPOD AND REMOTE! I can’t stress this enough) is the primary way to minimize this noise and get those clear edges so the most important step so far has been taking the photo, Photoshop™ (or any postprocessing) can only try to correct the mistake you made earlier.

The first thing I do with any post processing is what I learned as “matting” the photo.

Select the ‘Selection’ tool and do a rough crop of your image. You can hold shift while dragging to force photoshop to take a perfect square. Don’t worry if the image includes things you don’t want in your photo, we will remove those later. Once you have your selection ‘copy’ and go ahead and create a new file in photoshop and paste your selection into that. If you didn’t select a perfect square (X-Cart likes perfect squares for product images) you can select ‘Image’ → ‘Canvas Size’ and adjust either the Width or Height so that they are both the same exact number. Don’t worry if a color fills in the extra space because we are removing it anyways.

Here is a picture of some corks that I took specifically for this example. I used an F/22 and ISO 100 on my 35 mm lens. This is after some rough use of the magic wand (I used the magic wand tool about 10 times with different tolerances each time zooming in to make sure it wasn’t eating into the image) I got a rough image on a white background. You can see some of the rough edges the magic wand created so now it is some clean up time with the eraser tool (this is a very slow process).

After doing some cleanup with the magic eraser (very slowly and going over every edge while zoomed in and trying to manually correct some fuzzy edges) you will finally get the image you shot on a white background. The image on the left is the original photo taken by my camera and the one on the right is after using photoshop to extract the image and do some cleanup.

When it comes to clear glass (what my business sells) magic wand works less and less. In these situations, I usually outline an image by going pixel by pixel with the eraser tool to outlining the image so that the magic wand only selects the background (the erased outline acts as a barrier that the magic wand can’t cross). Here are some of my earlier product photos using a Backlit Light Box with black sides and top with 3 5000K 100 watt equivalent CFLs using the method I have described in this blog article.

If anyone has any tips/suggestions/comments/critics, please leave them in the comments section.

About the author

Eric Lieberman is the Vice President of Operations at Glass Packaging Solutions, LLC https://glaspak.com — a leading supplier of Wholesale Italian Glass Bottles and Jars. Prior to joining Glass Packaging Solutions, he was one of the lead scientists of the Florida Nuclear Counterterrorism Task Force and a Health Physicists for the Florida Bureau of Radiation Control.

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