Shooting Product Photography and Video on the Cheap

You’ve all seen them: websites chock full of stock photography. Low resolution product photos straight from the manufacturer, customer service girl in the top right. . . is this even a real company?! Would it kill them to take a picture of their team or some of their most popular products? Realistically, it can take a little bit of setup and preparation to take good quality photos. The below instructions are for companies out there looking to do product photography or video on a shoestring budget.

Photo straight from my phone
Photo straight from my phone, not very appealing. Think of this as the “before” photo.

Camera equipment and accessories for product photography

camera equipment

There are 2 main factors to getting great product photography: Bright, diffused light and a good lens. A 2 or 3 year old camera body is fine so long as you have it paired with a nice sharp lens. For Canon DSLRs, the EF 50mm f1.8 is a ton of optical quality for just $100. It’s not great if you’re taking pictures of large objects with limited space since it can’t zoom out like your kit lens, but it’s very sharp. Nikon has an equivalent 1.8 lens as well.

The other thing we’d like to do, if you can’t shoot with natural light, is to get the flash off-camera and behind a light modifier like an umbrella, soft box, or light tent.

  • If you’re typically taking photos of smaller objects, a light tent offers quick setup, even light, and a great backdrop. You can do a lot with an inexpensive table top set, but keep in mind that a solution like this won’t have as much power as one that uses flashes and you may still need to use your camera on a tripod. Off brand flashes can be had from eBay for $40-$70, and remote triggers to trigger the flashes from your camera can be had for $20-$40. These units aren’t as durable as name-brand equipment, but are a great way to get started.
  • If you’re taking photos of larger objects, you’ll need more flexible lighting and backdrops. Flashes with white, “shoot-through” umbrellas, or softboxes will give you lots of nice, soft light. Backdrops can be as simple as an ironed white bedsheet.


Camera settings for product photography

Remember that bedsheet we used as our backdrop and the manual flashes we used? Those are going to doom any attempts at using auto mode on your camera. The white bedsheets are going to trick your camera into taking product shots that are too dark, and your camera won’t have any idea about what those manual flashes are up to. That’s OK though, because with a few tweaks, we’re going to have beautiful, sharp pictures. Although you can use one of the program modes and exposure adjust until it works properly, you’ll find it easier over the long run to jump straight to manual mode.

  • The first thing we’ll adjust is aperture. The lower the number, the brighter the image. . .and the shallower the field of focus. Most lenses perform best at F3-F6, and F5.6 is a pretty safe setting. If you want that nice, artsy blur of the background, like if you’re doing staff photos, you’ll need to go with a lower F-stop such as F2 or F2.8. If you’re taking a product shot of a long product and need lots of distance in focus, use a higher F-stop like F8.
  • Shutter speed depends mostly on how you’re shooting. If you’re on a tripod with a timer, you can use much longer shutter times to get your necessary light and not get too much blur. If I’m shooting off-hand, and I do most of the time, I shoot faster at 1/160 or 1/200 so that I don’t get any motion blur.
  • Our last variable in the trio is ISO. A higher ISO will get a brighter image at the cost of image quality. If you’re shooting with a sub-$2000 DSLR, you’ll probably want to stick to under ISO 800. I try to stick around ISO 400.
  • We can adjust power output on our manual flash(es).

Those are our 4 main variables for taking shots with manual flashes. Notice how brightness is often a tradeoff for quality? That’s why natural light or an off-camera flash helps; they add in a ton of light and give you some flexibility in those settings. The last setting you may need to tweak is to use an appropriate white balance. Select “Flash” if you’re using off-camera flashes.

What’s possible?

Remember that wallet photo from the top that was sitting on a piece of printer paper with that ugly, wrinkly backdrop?

Click for full image
“After”. No photoshopping, straight from camera. Click for larger image

Good lighting can make up for a lot! I now have a perfect white under the wallet, to the back, and a hint of drop shadow to the right. The wallet’s not much to look at, but this shows what you can do with product photography once you have the right lighting setup and a bit of time to play with camera settings.

Camera equipment and accessories for product video

don't mind the wrinkly sheet
I think it’s time to iron this sheet again

So, you’ve got great product photos, but some of your products would really benefit from video content as well. Unfortunately, our instant-lighting flashes from product photography aren’t very useful at video. For video, unless we’re using natural light, we need continuous lighting. This used to mean hot, expensive lights, but luckily, there are now some great LED and CFL-based lights that do the trick for cheap. Personally, I like to use 2 reflective umbrellas with (4) 45 Watt daylight balanced CFL bulbs. The light could be a bit softer, but it’s not too bad and I prefer the room that I get with the reflective umbrellas vs shoot-throughs. You still need to move and use the product in a video, and that means you need room. This setup also cranks out a lot of white light, and that’s necessary for good product video.

For the camera setup itself, you’ll want to either fix the focus and keep the action at a set distance, or use a quiet focusing camera/lens combo. The latest generation of Canon DSLR’s with STM lenses are quiet and fast to focus, unlike past generations that just had video as an after-thought.

2 cfl bulbs per head

So there you have it, two example setups to handle product and video. Either of these are achievable for under $800 in investment, and if you want to do both photography and video, you could buy in for less than $1000. It won’t give you studio quality results but you’ll get good, real imagery to add to your website instead of the smiling family, customer service girl backed websites like everyone else out there.

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