DIY solutions for small product photography – part three, the final prodcut

Lighting, Photography Education Comments Off on DIY solutions for small product photography – part three, the final prodcut

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.

At this point – I was ready to rumble!  My stage and background were set, it’s time to get to the photography – and herewith the theory of light.  In part one I made the following statement:  “getting two lights that are *exactly* the same, makes the challenge more difficult, not easier, as I shall explain”  This is the explaining part.

We want a white background shot, and as photographers, we should know that white is not a colour, but a brightness.  Read that again, and let it sink in….  White is not a colour, it’s a brightness!  Because a photo cannot “shine”, it represents a bright bit, as a white bit.  Herewith the theory in getting white background products:  your background needs to be brighter than your object!

And this is the principle many people shooting white backgrounds do not get:  to get a white background, you simply need to over-expose your background!  If you background is brighter than your object you are photographing, you will always get a pure white background!  It’s literally as simple as that.

What I needed to do here, was to make sure that the two lights I used gave me differing outputs.  Which is why using two lights with the exact same output made the challenge more difficult.  If I had two lights, one brighter than the other, putting the brighter one as my background light, and the dimmer one as my object light, would be easy.  But I’m a glutton for punishment, and who wants things to be easy?  The solution in getting two lights of the same output to give differing results, came in distance.

Again, the principle is really simple: light loses energy really fast, so to get “more” light on something, move the light closer, to get “less” light on something, move it further away!   So by putting my background light really close to the backdrop, and moving my object light a distance away, I could make sure that my object got less light than my background.  Expose for the object, and ta-dah!  The object is beautifully exposed, and the background is a pure white.

Well, that is the theory, anyway.  But there is a spanner in the works here…  as I demonstrated in this post, moving a light further away, makes shadows harder, and hard shadows can be unpleasant.  A hard shadows can make images look “stark”, soft shadows are generally more pleasing.  So, how do i fix this then?  Answer: diffusion.  This is why I hung up two sheets of wax paper.  This helped soften the light in two ways.  Firstly, it took the “directional” light and scattered it, making the light not “linear” but “random” – this randomisation of light gives a soft edge to shadows, and secondly, another photographic principle: a bigger light gives a softer light – the wax paper effectively made my light source about 50 times bigger than it was!  From the small golf-ball sized bulb, to the large surface area of the wax paper, the size of the light softened my main light significantly.

Now you know!

Well, that handles light, but now for the camera…

First up: the bottle

This is the trick I used – in the studio, I simply would have used a flash meter, but, that darn “no pro stuff” rule defenestrated that option!  I have to use what I had.  Mounted the camera on a tripod, and got my framing right.  I set the camera to aperture priority (AV mode), and spot-metering.  I knew I wanted a deep depth of field, so I used a small aperture of  f/8 to start with (this later on proved too shallow, so I ended up repeating the process with  f/16).  My camera gave me a reading on what the exposure on the background will be.  And because a camera always want to expose for 18% grey (301: Exposure part IV: 18% GREY & METERING MODES in my book), I knew that whatever reading the meter gave me, was NOT going to give me a white background – so I noted the reading, and saw that it gave me an exposure time of half a second.  So I need to over-expose to get the background white, and so I needed to go more than half a second!


The camera metered image – it’s technically correct, bringing down the white to 18% grey, but it is so not what we wanted!

To go longer than half a second, I clicked away from AV mode, and went full manual.  A bit of trial and error, and I got lucky at a two second exposure.  After two seconds, I managed a pure white background, but the bottle looked like crap!  (Highlights here highlighted in red – the red bits are the pure white parts of the image)


Good background, bad product

So I had to play with my main light until I got the exposure and “feel” of the bottle right.  Once I had this, I clicked the shutter, and I nailed the image!

Something to note: see how the right edge of the neck of the bottle has a nice shadow on it?  That’s thanks to the CD folder camera-right – it provided the “negative fill” that allows us to get the edge definition.

As said previously, this is not a campaign quality image – it was never going to be, I can tear this image apart, critically – but it is a perfectly acceptable result for the budget and equipment we had to work with! And oh, bottle shots are notoriously difficult – in my experience, probably the most technical object to shoot!  Want to see what a master bottle-shooter looks like? Check out Graham Richardson’s website.  Bite-the-back-of-your-hand-beautiful bottle-shots!

Next – Snoopy.

I worship at the church of Schulz, okay?  I’m obsessed by Peanuts.  Where “Normal” people have their cultural references in Marvel & DC universes, Star Wars and Star Trek, My life revolves around the characters of Peanuts.  Charlie Brown is my spirit-animal. I’ve actually been to the Charles M Schulz Museum – not bad for a boy from the western edges of Johannesburg to travel halfway around the world to visit this shrine of modern philosophical literature, huh?

The very interesting challenge of Snoopy here, is that he is white.  Shooting white on white… difficult!  But again, the lighting theory holds.  I want to over-expose my background, but I want to *under* expose Snoopy, just a bit!  This slight under exposure will give me enough contrast to get a white-on-white image on Snoopy.  That’s the theory, anyway!  And, if you read this blog, you will see point to that light gives dimension. Snoopy is three-dimensional, he is “round” – I cannot have him flat now, can I?  The challenge here was to get him to look fat and happy, as Snoopy, and I, are inclined to be.

Using the exact same lighting setup as I used for the bottle – simply changed one object for another – I took a pic of the World War I Flying ace.  Yeah – that “nice edge definition” I mentioned above on the bottle?  Well, it killed Snoopy.  Made him look dull.  So I removed the right-hand “black thing”, and re took the shot, and ta-dah!  Snoopy was now fat and happy!  There was enough “laws of physics” around to still give Snoopy a nice edge on the right, without the need for the flag.

This is important:  the recipe is not absolute.  Mathematics are absolute, but the physical world messes with the beauty of numbers – and because the recipe works with one thing, it will not necessarily work with another.  The good photographer has the eye, and the knowledge, to see when the physical world is interfering with the theory, and needs to be agile enough to overcome these challenges.


The final setup for Snoopy

This is my SOOC image, with the highlights – the pure white bit  – highlighted in red.  (SOOC: Straight Out Of Camera – IE, no editing)


The final was just a matter of clean up, crop, and using levels and curves to get rid of the yellowy floor.  Which reminds me:  Photoshop, post-processing, is as much part of photography as lighting and cameras are.  It’s not a cheat to finalise an image in Photoshop.  And as stated in my initial challenge: there was no fancy masking or deep etching here, nothing that changed my exposure – just levels and curves.  I wanted a pure white background, and I got that right with lights alone, straight out of the camera.


Lastly, the doorstop.

I decided to change my initial challenge from the slinky because the slinky is not that different in composition and principle than any of the other two.  But the doorstop is not an upright object, but a flat one.

My first challenge was camera angle…  I needed to shoot “from above”, and because I was “set up”, I could not really move my getup without spending half an hour moving my expertly MacGyvered wax-paper armature!  So… move the camera.  So for giggles: I collapsed two tripod legs and put them on the table, and had one leg dangling down to the floor – stable as the Zimbabwean Dollar, I tell you!  Was my nerves shot you betcha!

But, using the exact same lighting getup as snoopy, well, it looked crap!


Crap, I tell ye!

And this was unintended, i never intended to use flag, no flag, reflector in this, but it worked out beautifully!  I used a flag (the “something black” CD folder) for the bottle to get definition.  Snoopy looked well without it.  But the doorstop looked crap without it, and because the benefit of my backlight was not largely negated because I had a flat object and not an upright one, it looked horrible!  (in an ideal world I’d light this from below, but we don’t have that luxury now, do we? ).  I so needed more light…. but I did not have more light.  And this is where my freshly-washed piece of aluminium foil came to the rescue.  I simply put the piece of foil where the CD folder used to be, slightly curved over the top of the doorstop – this gave me enough light reflection to get me an end result I could use.

This was my final setup – along with rickety, nerve-wrecking, tripod-on-table getup!


Look at the left leg and how close it is to the proximity to the edge of the table. I need a shot of Whisky just looking at this!


The out-of-camera image was slightly over exposed – I had to, to get the background as white as possible – but I managed to draw the blacks back in on Photoshop.


A wee bit bright, Jimmy!


Paint number 8?  Reminds me of this classic! 

A last word:

Something I TOTALLY forgot about here was my white balance.  I forgot to check my white balance before the shots, and they all came out quite yellow.  This is a rookie mistake – check your white balance in camera – I could fix it in post, but if I got it right in camera, I would not have needed to fix it in post.

And there you have it, folks – an easy DIY solution for small product photography!

The bottom line:

Photography is not necessarily about equipment.  A good carpenter never blames his tools, but a  good carpenter still needs tools.  I could have used professional studio equipment and have gotten these images *perfect* out of camera, but that would not have proven a thing.  What this exercise has proven is that you do not need professional equipment to get a pure white background product shot in the comfort of your own kitchen counter.    What you do need though is knowledge and imagination.  Knowledge of how light works, and why it does what it does, is much more important than having the right gear.  The right gear makes the process easier, more controllable, more predictable, more consistent. And if you click shutters for a living, that ease of use, that consistency and predictability, is vital.

So, before you get money burning a hole in your pocket telling you “I can get product shots if I have a light tent and fancy studio flashes”, know that this not true, you don’t.

You do not need to upgrade your equipment.  You need to upgrade your skill-set.

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On Tuesday September 13 2016
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