Product photography might sound intimidating at first. However, it really is simple and straightforward once you know how. What we’re talking about is making dedicated clean images that showcase works of art, in this case, our wood bowls.
Sharing our wood bowls with the world is easier now than ever. And the way we share our work initially is most often through photographs.
Social media and online selling of wood bowls call for quality photography to let your turned wood bowls stand out from the crowd. Doesn’t it make sense to make those photos as great as possible?
A Little Background
Like most wood turners, I came to woodturning from another profession, I’m a graphic designer and photographer. And, yes, I use professional photography equipment to make my photos.
Before you might begin to think you don’t want to go down the slippery slope of buying a whole bunch of photography gear, I have great news. You don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment to make great images of wood bowls.
I will be showing you how to create excellent product photography using equipment you have on hand already and with a few additional items all under $100 total.
Product photography is an industry term used primarily when any product item is photographed, typically on a table with a simple backdrop. Sometimes it’s also called “table-top” photography. Usually, these types of images are used in catalogs or online product listings.
Why The Fuss
Why do we need clean, crisp images of our wood bowls? That’s a great question. After all, some of the quick shots on the lathe, or of a bowl sitting on the workbench can look fantastic. Regardless, we need to take the step and make clean, simple images of our bowls.
Have you ever gone to a store and witnessed a mother ignoring her screaming bratty child? The child is drawing your attention, but the mother seems to be oblivious and only occasionally even acknowledges the kid. She’s completely conditioned to the child’s fuss, but you are not.
Photos taken, for instance, on your workbench, may look great to you. However, others viewing those images might be distracted by all the things on your bench, the outlet, and cord behind the bowl, the tools, the clutter, etc.
Even if the background is a simple colored countertop, that too takes away from the potential of your created wood bowl. Color casts alter our perception of how something truly appears.
Neutralizing the surroundings of our beautiful wood bowls is essential to focus the viewers’ attention solely on our subject. Yes, we can also make images in settings that show the bowl in use, but for the most part, viewers are going to really “see” our bowls in clean neutral settings.
A simple, clean image of our bowl, without distractions, makes it much easier for a person to visualize that bowl in their environment.
Wood grain patterns and the color of the wood will be best showcased when they are not fighting for attention with other elements in the frame such as a competing color scheme. It really is a case of less equals more.
Product Photography Set Up
Let me explain how a professional photographer sets up a product shoot and then I will share with you how to do something similar for a fraction of the cost.
A typical product shoot requires a backdrop or sweep. The backdrop can be a simple roll of white seamless background paper or an entire wall that has a constructed sweep, or phyiscal curve that merges the wall to the floor.
Constructed sweeps, as you can imagine, are large, expensive, time consuming, and take up space. We don’t need a pre-constructed sweep thankfully. A tabletop is all we need and a much better option for photographing wood bowls.
I use a portable backdrop stand kit that consists of two stands and a connecting bar. The large roll of seamless background paper is loaded onto the bar like a giant roll of paper towels. When the paper is pulled down to the table, it naturally makes a smooth flowing curve from the back wall to tabletop, this way no seams show. Hence the name, seamless background paper.
Usually, a bit of gaffer tape is needed to hold the paper to the edge of the table. I use gaffers tape because it does not leave residue behind. When I remove the tape from the table’s edge, there’s no sticky mess later.
The next component for this professional shoot is the lights. There are endless options here, as you might imagine. I use two Nikon Speedlights that fire wirelessly and are signaled by my camera’s onboard flash. I use these for many other types of photography as well, and they are somewhat of an overkill for shooting wood bowls. But, I have them, so I use them.
Other professional options for lighting this wood bowl set up include using efficient LED photography lighting. These LED photo lights are straightforward, require no special camera connection and work perfectly.
The light coming from any light source is usually intense and bright. This is fine, except for one thing, strong light creates harsh shadows. How do we deal with harsh shadows? Like a bomb technician, we diffuse them, of course. Ha!
Diffusers take those harsh bright linear light rays and scatter them in multiple directions making the light softer and more pleasing. Think overcast day versus direct sunlight in the middle of the afternoon. The overcast sky merely is diffused light.
Diffusion is essential because we want people to be able to see the detail on the darker underside of the wood bowl, instead of a harsh black edge.
The diffusers I use are large round collapsing disk diffusers. Personally, I like that these disks collapse and can be easily stored when not in use.
Each diffuser is held in position with a light stand and a light stand extension arm. This setup gives me the best flexibility for positioning the diffusers right where they are needed.
Camera Stability and Flexibility
To make quality images a stationary camera is essential. The camera needs to be on a tripod or steady stand to assure crisp photos each time.
Flexibility is also necessary when making wood bowl images. Because we want to show the bowl in some different angles, we need a quality tripod with an adjustable tripod head to maneuver the camera where it’s needed.
As for the camera, I’m not going to go into great detail here. Making quality wood bowl images is not about the camera, its brand, size, nor style, etc.
Making quality images is all about the process, the lighting, and the preparation first and foremost. To prove my point, if you’re interested, I have an article on a different site showing how to make a spectacular image using only a beer can and a piece of photo paper.
You Already Have It
Use the camera you have. Technology today is amazing, and even the simplest cameras can make amazing images. Back in the day, I have used images from a 2mp camera in magazine print ads with excellent results. You would be hard-pressed to find a camera that makes a picture today that is under 2mp.
What about your smartphone? Yes! You don’t need to go buy an expensive camera that will most likely sit in a closet 360 days a year. You already have your camera. Well, unless you don’t have a smartphone or you still have a phone from the previous century. If that’s the case, then go get a simple digital camera to get yourself started.
Professional And Affordable
It doesn’t need to be expensive. Everything I’ve shared so far is what I use on a professional basis. Now, let’s take a look at how to achieve similar results more affordable.
Poster board is an easy, cheap alternative to a seamless white paper background. Although, the potential for a visible seam might occur compared to the seamless background paper roll.
The easiest way to use the poster board is to position a table against a wall. Then attach one sheet of poster board to the wall with the base of the board flexed out on the table. Position a second poster board on the table and slide it under the wall mounted board.
If the size of wood bowls you will be photographing is larger, you may want to consider purchasing the seamless paper background. The background stand is not always required. A section of paper can be cut from the roll and attached to the wall and draped over the table top.
We’ve all seen them, the simple shop lights that clamp onto most surfaces. Not only are they cheap, but they also work very well for what we need.
In the spirit of making this as cost-effective as possible and taking into account that you are most likely handy with wood, I’m not going to add in the cost of light stands. Creative options can be easily made of wood for attaching the light fixtures above the table area.
Light diffusion is still essential, no matter the light source. Believe it, or not a frosted shower curtain will do a fantastic job diffusing the light and improving our wood bowl images.
Again, the way this is attached can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like. You can make a formal wood frame to support the curtain material, or you can tape it to the wall. The only thing that matters is that it is diffusing light.
Affordable Stability and Flexibility
This one step might have you seeing photography in a new way, especially if you are using only a smartphone. Stabilization is the number one reason most images look soft and lack crispness. A camera must be stable when shooting to make a sharp image, even if that camera resides in a smartphone.
Yes, hand-holding the phone, as usual, will produce okay images, but it is hit or miss and in low light, we can not hold the camera steady enough to make clean images. This clamp and stand combination offers stable yet flexible support, which really does the trick.
Another critical reason to use this clamp stand combination is for creative control. When we can lock down the scene in front of the camera and clearly see it framed in the LCD monitor, we can make minute adjustments to angles, positions, crop, etc. These subtle adjustments aren’t easy to access when we are handholding the camera and the subject is floating around on the screen.
Photography Setup Under $100 Checklist
- poster board
- clamping shop light
- LED light bulbs
- frosted shower curtain diffuser
- smartphone spring clamp holder
- swivel mount bracket
- light stand (for the camera)
- seamless background paper roll
- light stands for lights
- light stand arm extends for added flexibility
- gaffers tape
The main list above is well under $100 and offers a complete product shoot solution. Yes, of course, you can substitute items you may already have on hand and possibly make this set up even more affordable.
There you have it! A simple and very affordable way to set up a photography product shoot to showcase your beautiful wood bowls.
Like many things in life, simple usually is the best way to go. Creating a simple background forces viewers to soak in your wood turned bowls and truly showcases all the details. Keeping the photography setup simple also helps from making a dent in your wallet as well. It’s a real win-win!
In the next article, I will explain how I use this wood bowl product photography set-up to capture and showcase my wood turned bowls.
Happy Turning (and Photographing),