The idea of a “professional” product photo shoot might sound intimidating and expensive. I can assure you it is neither.
Let me walk you through the way I photograph my wood bowls, and you will see it’s very straightforward and simple. And to make this process even easier, I’ve put together a complete product photo shoot set-up equipment list for under $100.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the process of how to construct the product photo shoot set-up, adjust lighting, position your product (in this case wood bowls), make the photos, and how to process those photos to end up with great final product shots.
Why A Product Photo Shoot
Let’s face it, we live in a world that wants to see the goods and they have standards. We’re simply used to seeing stuff, products, displayed in nice clean environments.
Making clean, crisp product shots isn’t all about conforming, however. There are significant advantages for us as woodturners when we take the time to create great images of our work.
Shooting on a plain neutral background allows our art to take center stage. A beautiful wood bowl, well lit on a white backdrop forces the viewer to pause and see just that creation. With no other distractions, the bowl’s features are free to shine.
Candid shots of a wooden bowl on the lathe or in a home setting are nice, but the control and detail available when doing a product photo shoot is rarely matched for quality.
Wood-turned bowls are each one-of-a-kind. When we send a wood bowl out into the world as a gift or a sale, we may never see it again.
Producing quality images of the art you’ve created is vital for your records, tracking creative progress, and for general posterity. Who knows what you might be creating 10 or 20 years from now. Wouldn’t it be nice to compare images of works side by side?
Affordable Set Up
Like most of us, I didn’t start my career in woodturning, however, I am an artist. I’m a graphic designer and photographer.
Yes, I use professional photo gear to make most of my images. As a professional photographer, I can tell you great photos are not about owning an expensive camera. The best pictures are made first and foremost with great light. After all, photography literally means drawing with light.
So, I’m going to throw a whole bunch of ideas out the window right now. The phrase product photo shoot might seem intimidating, but you do not need an expensive camera, elaborate photography lighting, and a huge budget to make beautiful product images.
If you haven’t had a chance to read my article about setting up a product photograph set-up for under $100, please do so now. Here’s a link to the list of recommended products as well. We will be using this equipment from here on out, with your smartphone.
Yes, your smartphone is a great option to make fantastic product images, and the best thing is, you already have it. There’s no need to purchase an expensive camera and watch it collect dust most of the time.
Now, if you do have pro camera gear, that’s great, and you should use that equipment. The only point I want to get across is that you can make stunningly good photos without much money or hassle. You can even make mind-blowing images with a beer can, if you’re so inclined…seriously!
Set Up Options
Let’s start by finding a good location to set up our product photo shoot. If you’re fortunate enough to have a luxuriously large workspace, perhaps you can even set up a dedicated area to make your product shots. For the rest of us, a cleared kitchen table top with some space to move around will do.
We will be setting up and working around the table area, and we will also be adjusting the camera and lights up and down. So, cleared space around and above the table will make this process work smoothly.
Also, we will be getting down flush with the table surface so a regular height or even taller table will work better than a short table. Unless you’re twelve and very flexible, I will discourage using the floor as your shooting surface, unless you have no other options and enjoy yoga.
The backdrop is pretty basic but critically important. Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting up the backdrop.
To prevent shadow lines and to make smooth light transitions, the backdrop needs to gracefully curved from the horizontal table top up to the vertical back wall. And the backdrop should be large enough to cover the entire area, in the camera’s view, around the wood bowl.
The size of the backdrop depends on the size of your turned objects. If you turn very small bowls that fit in the palm of your hand, you might be able to use just one sheet of poster board. However, if you turn “ten-gallon” bowls, a seamless roll of background paper will work much better.
If your bowls are small to medium-sized and you’d prefer to not purchase a roll of seamless paper, you can use a couple sheets of poster board. Place one sheet on the table surface and the other on the back wall, but allow the bottom edge to gently curve forward on the table top. Slip the flat poster board on the table under the one taped or tacked to the wall.
The backdrop paper roll or poster board can be attached to the wall with tape, staples, or tacks. If you don’t have a set up with a convenient wall, a backdrop support system works excellent. This system isn’t as cheap as taping the paper to the wall but it can straddle the table and will allow the backdrop paper roll to be set up almost anywhere. And, when you’re done shooting, you can save paper by just rolling it back up on the tube to be reused again later.
Wood Bowl Position
Another factor regarding the backdrop is the distance behind the wood bowl. The wood bowl should be forward of the backdrop enough that the background fades off and is not even considered. We don’t want the back edge of the bowl touching or even close to touching the back vertical portion of the curve of the backdrop.
Most of the time the wood bowl will be positioned at the middle of the table. A small amount of white paper needs to be in front of the bowl to fill the frame in the camera.
For this product photography set-up, we’re going to use two regular LED lights with basic clamping shop fixtures, that’s it. See the recommended photography set-up list for product details.
The two lights work best when they are movable and easily adjustable. I shoot with the light fixtures clamped to light stands. The light stands allow quick, easy adjustments to the lights location.
If you don’t have light stands, you can clamp the lights to the back of a chair. Or, you can make a wood frame that goes over the product shoot area where the lights can be attached.
Moving the lights around is essential in determining where they will work best. Typically the lights are positioned on opposite sides of each other. One of the two lights should appear brighter than the other. This light is considered the main or “key” light.
The second light is considered the “fill” light. The secondary light is used to offset the shadow areas from the primary light and does not need to appear as bright.
Because we are using fixed 100-watt equivalent bulbs with a simple on/off switch, you may be wondering how to reduce the light. Just move the light back and away from the wood bowl a bit, and the light will be reduced. Yes, it is that simple.
Experiment with the position of the lights. You may find that the lights illuminate the bowl well when they are evenly balanced on each side of the bowl.
Your first thought might be that the lights look good all on their own, why would I need diffusion? Well, diffusion is one of the major ingredients in the quality product photo shoot secret sauce.
Raw light bulb rays are direct and intense. While they light an object or scene well, they do so very harshly. The downside of this harsh light is literally the dark side. The shadow area of our wood bowl will appear very dark under this harsh direct light. See the with and without diffusion images below for a comparison of the light qualities.
Diffusion takes those harsh rays and scatters them in various directions. When the light is distributed throughout the area, it will soften on the highlights and illuminate the shadow areas just a bit more. This is precisely what we need for our product photo shoot.
You can use commercial light diffusers. I have several, and most of them are very portable. However, you can also use a frosted shower curtain. Yes, I just said a frosted shower curtain.
Open up the curtain and attach two corners to the top back edges of the backdrop. Let the material drape down over the set and rig the front to corners of the lights stands, chairs, or some other area to hold them secure.
With the diffuser in place, we’ve mostly created a sandwiched space, or tunnel with a backdrop on the bottom and back and a diffuser above. Our wood bowl will be the main subject or the meat of this sandwich.
Play with the position of the diffuser as well as the lights. The diffuser can be lowered so that it is barely out of the camera’s view. This will assure that light is scattered throughout the scene.
Wood Bowl Angles
The best way to position and photograph a product is to think through the potential viewers’ eyes. Think about what they will want to see. This is best done by asking yourself, what do you want to see in a wood bowl? Shape, color, detail, curves, different views, etc.
When doing a product photo shoot, I like to start with an average shot looking down on the wood bowl at about a 30 to 45-degree angle, much like you would if standing next to the table. This is the angle that most people will initially approach a wood bowl on a tabletop.
Centering up the bowl in the camera frame works well, but adding a small amount of extra white space on the bottom of the image is also visually pleasing.
I may rotate the bowl and shoot a few different shots of the bowl and rim. This is very important if you have an irregular rimmed bowl like a natural or live edge bowl. It will appear much different from various angles.
Once the “normal” angle shots are done, I will look for different less ordinary angles. Raising or lowering the camera will help to find these different views.
Always use a tripod or support system to hold your camera or smartphone. The stability of a supported camera will make sharper images, but the process of adjusting and framing your subject is slowed down and most precisely controlled with a tripod or support system compared to hand-holding a camera.
An all-important shot to capture is the straight on shot or the flush with the tabletop shot. This low angle shot, with the camera lens down to the table top looking straight on, will show in precise detail the curve profile of the wood bowl and the shape of the foot of the wood bowl and its relationship to the table.
Texture and Details
Once you have shot a variety of images of the product, move in closer and make some detail shots. These can be tight shots of the wood grain, patterns, details, accents, natural flaws, etc.
Lens Angle And Camera Location
The objective is to show the wood bowl the way it truly appears, as best as possible. Various camera lens focal lengths can be fun to play with, but might not make an accurate representation of the product on hand.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR and a fisheye lens, the images are going to be interesting but not really look much like the wood bowl being photographed.
When shooting with a DSLR, a 55mm to 85mm focal length lens will work great. This range of focal length most closely matches the way our eyes see.
If you’re shooting with your smartphone, it’s better to position the camera back a bit and zoom in just a touch. If the camera is placed too close to the wood bowl, the small smartphone lens might stretch and distort the bowl’s appearance.
Moving the Wood Bowl
Most of the wood bowl product shots can be made by having the wood bowl just sit still like a wood bowl does. However, it is nice to have a few shots that require the bowl being tilted or even positioned completely upright.
Small blocks of wood can be used to lift one side, usually the backside, of the bowl to better show off the bowl’s interior. If the tilting process causes the bowl to slide forward, cut off a small piece of non-slip pad material and position it under the area of the bowl that is sliding. Another option is to ball up a small piece of a kneadable eraser and place it under the front area that is slipping.
Larger blocks, with a bit of weight to them, are needed to keep a wood bowl upright and vertical. I use a chunk of scrap wood that is about 3” wide by 8” high and 6” deep. Utilizing this chunk of wood behind the bowl, you can balance the bowl with the interior facing forward, or the bowl bottom facing forward. Again, use a small piece of non-slip material or a bit of the kneaded eraser to keep the bottom edge of the bowl from sliding out.
Product Photo Shoot Processing
Once the photos have been made, the product photo shoot isn’t over quite yet, it’s time to process the photos. Not to worry, this step to is simple and straightforward.
If you are using a DSLR or other digital camera and can capture images in a RAW format, I’d recommend using Adobe Lightroom to process the final images.
If you are using a smartphone that captures .jpg images, I use the Google Snapseed app to process my images. Here are the steps I use to put the final touches on my product photography images using the Snapseed app:
- Open the photo to be edited
- Click Tools > Tune Image
- Touch, hold and drag up and down on the screen to access options.
- Select Warmth
- Touch, hold, and drag left and right to adjust the setting
- Adjust until the white background looks white and not warm or cool
- Select > Ambiance and add a small amount
- Select > Saturation and add a small amount
- Select > Shadows and increase (drag to the right) until detail is evident in shadows. Might not need much.
- Touch Checkmark in the lower right corner
- Select Tools > Details
- Select > Structure and add a small amount
- Select > Sharpen and add enough to make the bowl detail look sharp
- Touch Checkmark in the lower right corner
- In the bottom right corner select Export
- Choose to Save a copy, and the final image is now in with your photos.
Whether you’re preparing images of your wood bowls to make sales or share them with friends via email, taking quality professional product shots, don’t need to be overwhelming or expensive.
Please let me know if you try shooting product shots of your wood bowls this way. Leave a comment below. And send me an image of your set up.
Happy Turning (and Shooting)!