DIY solutions for small product photography – part one

Lighting Comments (6)

Oh boy, I’m in trouble.  Ever since I was a boy, my mouth could get me in trouble.  I’m sure my regular listeners will not be surprised by this statement.  And It would also not be surprising, nor contradictory, to find out that the same mouth that got me in trouble, also got me out of it.  When you’re a small guy who can’t run fast, you better learn to think fast!

So, how did I get myself into so much trouble?  Well, because I bit off more than I could chew this morning – current time just before 5:00 AM, the sun has not risen yet (for some reason I’m one of those guys who cannot sleep in.  I’m NOT a chirpy morning person, don’t worry.  But for some reason when its early morning, my body just goes “I’ve had enough, get up!”.  My brain swears at this something terrible, but here it is.  But this afternoon I’m going to have the mother of all naps!) . Where was I? Oh yes, just before 5:00 AM, and I have a lighting challenge that I need to figure out how to do.

Yesterday on a Facebook photographic forum, someone who is not a pro photographer, wanted to know how to take white background product shots for her website.  She does not have professional equipment, but she wants these products to look good, and to “pop”.  The sample shots she gave us were dull grey, not white, and yes, I can see why someone would not be happy to put them up on a website. Sorry Carla, grabbed an example of your shots.


Anyone who has ever been on a Facebook group won’t need much convincing to understand that what followed, were more opinions than people.  You need to deep etch.  You need to get flashes.  You need to do x, y and z.  And this is where I stepped into the poop – I made the claim that you don’t need pro equipment to get the right shot, you just need the right knowledge.

Insert some tragic piece of opera music here, and a slow-motion shot of the hero dying. Of a broken heart.  In the rain.

So, herewith the challenge:  This morning I’m going to shoot, and demonstrate, how to shoot white-background product shots, all without the use of professional equipment.  Important – and fun – to note, that I’m writing this BEFORE I’ve shot it.  Everything up until “the results” at the bottom of this post is written before I went out and did it.  Everything here is what I think I will need, not what I “have done”, because, well, I’ve not done it yet!  It’s thrilling!

The challenge:

Three shots, three products. They all need to be white on white, with crisp, pure, white backgrounds.  The random objects I chose are as follows:  One: A slinky, because, what else is there?*.  Two: a Snoopy USB drive (because Charlie Brown is my spirit animal, ). And three….  any photographer’s nemesis: A bottle-shot.  Okay, I’m deleting this document now and never speaking of this again!

*After I started shooting, I realised that the slinky is not going to add purpose to life here – Both the bottle and Snoopy are “up and down” objects, as is the slinky. So I used something else, a door-stop that looks like a spilled tube of paint, because it’s a “flat” object, and will add another dimension to the shoot.

The rules:

1) No pro equipment allowed.  No studio flashes, no fancy softboxes, nothing that the average hobbyist will not have.  Everything I use, should be available to anyone without the need to go to a speciality shop. Same goes for my environment – I’m not even going to use my garage – when I first started taking photos on a more-than-enthusiast level, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, Andrea, lived in a tiny one-bedroom little place, and she did not have a garage!  So, I’m going to rewind my clock seven years and say “what if the person reading this does not even have a garage to shoot in?”  So, the challenge here is I’m going to do this on my dining room table, which could just as easily have been the kitchen counter!

(The caveat here is my camera – the camera I’m going to use is my only camera! My older pieces of equipment were given to my brother, so I do not have access to them. Thus, I’m shooting this with my Nikon D810.  This is very much a professional piece of equipment, but the principles are the same, and if I had a Canon 1200D lying around, I’d use that.  The camera is irrelevant, because this is a lighting challenge, it’s about the light, not the camera.  Any imaging device that has a long exposure on it, will work! Heck, if my Blackberry had long exposure mode on it, I’d use that!  Why long exposure?  That will be revealed later in one of the follow-up posts.)

2) I’m not allowed to use anything obscure.  I am not allowed to use anything that I need to order online and wait a week to arrive, or something someone needs to go out of their way to get.  Everything I use, has to be stuff that is easily available.  This is going to be a very interesting obstacle to overcome later.

3) I’m not allowed to go out and buy anything.  I’m going to pretend it’s a public holiday, and all the shops are closed.  Everything I use, has to be stuff I can find lying around the house.  Tell me why I’m doing this again?

4) I have to get it right in camera as much as possible – Photoshop is allowed to clean up the image, and to pop the colours (All digital images need to be edited! See lesson 208: Film vs. Digital, in my book as to why).  I can use levels and curves to get the final result, crops, clean-ups, colour correction, but I cannot deep-etch the object – I cannot do anything that will alter the exposure, or the light.  Deal?

Damn! All these rules and restrictions! “I’m not allowed this, I have to do that….”. Feels as if I’m back in school! Or back in the hands of Mistress Morticia at the BDSM parties I went to in my late twenties…. Oh, sorry, where was I?

The idea:

The idea I want to convey is this:  a photographer is not someone who works with a camera, it is someone who works with light.  This is a lighting challenge.  I’m taking this on to demonstrate that you don’t need to have pro products to get acceptable results.  You don’t need a fancy camera, or fancy lights – but you need two things:  imagination and knowledge.  Knowledge will go further than equipment any day.  Note, I said “acceptable” results, not “campaign quality” results – to get campaign quality results, you need campaign quality equipment – but if you just need some white background stuff for your online shop, and you’re not shooting the latest commercial for Cartier, this will be perfect!  (If you could get campaign quality results from stuff lying around the house, all camera shops will be out of business – Professional equipment exists for a reason.  The shots that follow here are not campaign-quality, simply because its near as makes no difference to impossible to do without the right stuff.  This is not about how to get “perfect” with household items, this is about how a little bit of imagination and applied knowledge of light, can get you some pretty damn good shots!)

So…. In the words of Peter Pumpkinhead: Let’s begin!

The equipment:

  1. Two desk lamps. Stock, standard desk lamps.  I have a few of these around, and I purposefully chose these two because they are exactly the same.  The reason for this will become clear later – getting two lights that are *exactly* the same, makes the challenge more difficult, not easier, as I shall explain.   These desk lamps are fitted with identical 6 Watt, 160 lumens LED bulbs.
  2. Common, cheap, plain white copier/printer paper.
  3. “Something black”. In the studio I’d use the black edge of a 5-in-one reflector, but this violates the “no pro equipment” rule.  I found two old CD cases lying around, but don’t get too hung up on what I used – the “something black” could be anything that has a non-reflective black surface.  Cardboard, a curtain, whatever. Its not about what I used, it’s about the thinking applied.
  4. A beer-carton. Not that I drink beer, you see…
  5. Some wax paper – the same stuff your mum used to wrap your sandwiches in for school.
  6. Some aluminium foil – the same stuff your mum used to wrap your sandwiches in when the wax paper ran out. (And my foil ran out! I re-commissioned last night’s foil that I made dinner on for this purpose.  I think this is the first time in 42 years of existence that I washed foil!)
  7. A couple of bricks – purely to keep the beer-box upright! Along with other oddments just to keep things where they should be. In the studio, these will be light stands and reflector holders, but, there is that pesky “no professional equipment” rule again!
  8. Something to use as a floor, a base to photograph on. In the studio, I’d use a piece of black Perspex, but this violates the “nothing obscure” rule. So I’m going to cannibalise a DVD box and see what I can do! (Pro tip: this is the one piece of equipment I’m wishing I could use – black Perspex is invaluable in these circumstances. If you want to do this for real-sies, invest in a slab of black Perspex, before you invest in a “light box”.  Light boxes are a waste of money.)
  9. Glue, Scissors, craft knife…. you know, primary-school stationery.  And duct tape!  Next to tour camera, duct tape is the most important tool in your arsenal!
  10. Imagination, and a thought process somewhere between Mythbusters and McGyver!

I set out all these items on my dining room table, and got to work.


The Result:


Join me in part two where I explain how I did it!

» Lighting » DIY solutions for small product...
On Saturday September 10 2016
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6 Responses to DIY solutions for small product photography – part one

  1. Grant says:

    Love it and your writing style is awesome – Was there any Beer involved?

  2. […] the previous post I detailed a challenge on how I had to take white background shots using only stuff I had lying […]

  3. bernyce hollingworth says:

    Where do I find a beer crate?

  4. […] This is the third part in a series of DIY solutions for small products.  I explain how I set up the lighting in the previous post, here, but it ain’t gonna make no sense until you read the challenge in part one, here. […]

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