Seller Handbook

Advice and inspiration for successfully running your Etsy shop

Improving Your Product Photos With Backgrounds, Color and Lighting

Straightforward tips for mastering product photography with a simple point and shoot camera.

By Heidi Adnum Jun 7, 2010
Photo by Kolorize

In this article we’ll look at some excellent product photographs and talk about colour, light, backgrounds and reflection. I’ll offer tips and advice to help solve what seem to be the most common and specific product photography problems. My suggestions are straightforward and the great news is that you certainly don’t have to have a fancy camera or a huge budget to make them work for you.

Know Your Camera

The first and the most important thing you can do to help your product photography is to read the camera manual. Boring, I know, but it’s worth it, as you need to know what your camera will and won’t do. There are lots of settings and terms, which can be confusing, but your manual will help with this. Visit the website of the manufacturer and also YouTube, as many manufacturers and photographers offer free online tutorials. This is great if, like me, you learn by seeing and doing after reading about it.

Colour

Problems with colour are almost always the result of an incorrect exposure or white balance setting.

Exposure To fix over or under-exposure you need to experiment with the features that your camera offers. Step away from the “automatic” setting! If your camera allows, the features you will need to use to manually alter exposure levels are shutter speed, depth of field/aperture, and ISO — these are the three elements that make up exposure. If your camera doesn’t allow for manual setting adjustment, then you can still try the other automatic settings, such as landscape, macro, etc. Also look for a feature called “exposure compensation,” as this will allow you to tell the camera to expose more or less than it normally would.

As a general rule, I suggest placing your product in a well-lit area, such as under a window or outside, and aim to shoot it using only natural light. This means turning off the flash and other lights, which is the best way to achieve a photograph that shows the true colour of your product. Flash is great for product lighting, but small flashes (those on most digital compact cameras) can cause harsh shadows. I understand shooting with natural light alone is easier said than done, so more tips on lighting are coming right up…

White Balance This setting tells the camera what is pure white. If the camera gets white right, then all the other colours follow.

One way to confuse the camera completely is to use two or more sources of light. For example, if you have turned on a household lamp (orange) and also use the camera flash (white) to take your photograph, you are mixing colours and probably casting a murky tint over your images. No matter how many times you change the white balance, the colour will never be quite right. Avoid this by using only one light source. For example, leave the lamp on but turn off the flash and set the white balance to “lamp” (or tungsten). Alternatively, turn off the lamp, leave the flash on and set the white balance to “flash.” The camera flash is daylight-balanced, so combining flash and natural light is also OK. If you cannot change the white balance setting in your camera, then ensure you use a single light source to avoid that murky colour cast.

Light

Given the choice between natural and artificial light, I recommend natural light. Natural light is unreliable, I know, but the good news is that there are simple techniques that will help you get the most out of whatever nature has sent. If you cannot use natural light, however, don’t worry, as there are more ways to improve product photos using flash and artificial light. Low-light or dull days don’t have to equal dull photographs. Excellent photography doesn’t have to be bright.

Photo by Ruby Wren Cards

If you have increased your exposure time to let in more light, you need to keep the camera perfectly still to avoid blur. Can’t afford a tripod or a beanbag? Just use a pile of books or a bag of rice. Pop on the timer for an even sharper result.

Look closely at many excellent product photos and you may see a window in the reflection. This often means that whatever came through that window was the only source of light used to get that lovely image.

Rain can restrict outdoor photography, but don’t let it put you off as rainy days can still provide plenty of light. Invest in a sheet of clear plastic and rig it up outside (before the rain!). Allow enough room for you and your table to fit underneath. Reflect light onto your product by making your own reflector using a piece of card wrapped in tin foil. Allow the light to fall on your reflector and tilt it towards the unlit side of your product. White card will do the same thing but with a softer effect. This works for both natural light and flash photography.

If you need to use the flash but are finding it too strong or harsh, soften it by taking a sheet of white facial tissue and placing it over the flash. You may have to tape or tack the tissue to your camera if you don’t have a “pop-up” flash.

Bright, sunny days can hinder your photograph as much as low-light, because sunlight is very harsh and casts dark shadows. You can soften sunlight using a piece of sheer fabric. For indoor near-the-window- shots, hang the fabric over your window or, for outdoor shots, hang it on the clothesline between the sun and your product. Depending on the thickness of your fabric, you will have diffused the light and created softer highlights and shadows.

When positioning your item outside in direct sunlight, soften the effect by shooting towards the sun, so that the sun is behind your product. Often this will create a warm glow around the edges. If the background is well-lit but the product is still too dark, try adding the flash. Remember, you can diffuse the flash if its effect is too strong.

Reflection and Translucence

Reflection Reflection can be a good thing, as it can add lustre and dimension to inanimate objects, such as food or jewellery. It can also be a pain, though, when you’re photographing a print in a frame and you can’t see the print due to the bright glow from the flash! An easy solution is to remove the glass or plastic cover, where possible. For other reflective surfaces try shooting from an angle. This might be slightly below or beside the object and also works for prints in frames when the glass can not be removed. Reflection will be reduced if you turn off the flash.

Too much light with your photographs of shiny products, most notably metals, will lack detail. Too little light and the lustre will fade. Achieve the right balance of light naturally using the tips above and add in a dark reflector. This can simply be piece of black or dark card held near one or both sides of the object. You will see the dark reflection on one edge of the product. This creates depth and contrast nicely with high-shine. Once again, turn off the flash and the texture and detail will show through perfectly.

The photographer’s reflection is a tricky one. If you take a closer look at the eyes of the model on any magazine cover, you’ll see a reflection of the photographer and lights. Any shiny/reflective surface that is square-on to the camera will reflect the lens/lighting/photographer, and this is difficult to avoid without digital editing. If it bothers you, consider zooming in so that the camera/lens is farther away. Use the timer so you can walk out of shot. Rest assured, though, that if your potential buyers are looking at a sharp, detailed and well-lit image, your reflection in the item would not be a problem.

Translucence For shiny or semi-translucent items, such as gemstones, glass and metal, try to light them from behind. Get up close and keep the flash turned off. This technique is also handy to show depth and detail.

Backgrounds

Natural, neutral and simple “everyday” backgrounds work best. You probably have more suitable backgrounds in and around your home, garden, or local park than you realise. These include floorboards, decking, walls, wooden tables and chairs, laminate, firm flat fabric, tiles, bricks, stones and plants…the list goes on.

If you can’t find anything around the house, then make your own. Rescue an old piece of wood from a friend’s house, or even a builder’s skip!

Bright white and jet black might sound like the perfect neutral backgrounds but they are very harsh and the high-contrast can be unflattering. The best way to use white as a background is to either shoot from a distance or put distance between your product and the background. This will make the white background look slightly grey. Light grey is easier on the eye than bright white and will be more flattering on your product.

Make your own white studio background using a sheet of thick white paper or matte white linoleum taped to the wall and draped down onto the floor. This creates a “runway” for a seamless effect. White fabric can also be used: however it is very important that the fabric is kept perfectly still and is free from any creases. The purpose of a plain, white background is to keep all focus on the item and not the background at all, so creases or marks are distracting and can look unprofessional.

Find more photography tips here.

Author

Heidi Adnum from HeidiAdnum

Australian expat Heidi Adnum lives and works in London as a photographer of children and families, though she takes any opportunity to photograph food. She has two shops on Etsy — heidiadnum and hellodarlingvintage. She also runs a photography and inspiration blog, La Isla Blogita.

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