Common Mishaps in Product Photography Lighting

We’re going to give it away right up front: lighting is probably the most important element to shooting solid product photography. When isn’t it in photography? But because getting the nitty-gritty details is often so important, there’s a lot more involved in planning and setting up your product shots.

For some product photography lighting tips and advice on getting those miraculously detailed images, we talked to product photographer Lucas Zarebinski. Lucas is routinely sought out by editorial and advertising clients for his food photography and unique concepts for fashion and electronic products. His edgy work has appeared in magazines such as Men’s Health, Prevention, Bicycling, and Details.

Here is Lucas’ list of some of the most common mishaps he’s seen (or experienced) and how he keeps clients coming back for more:

Unlike photographing a person or group of people, “It’s entirely up to you to create the photograph – there is no active collaboration between you and the object,” says Lucas. “Product photography requires a greater attention to detail and critical lighting skills since you find yourself a lot closer to the subject than most cases.” While getting into someone’s personal space during a shoot might be inappropriate for a living subject, it’s encouraged in product photography. “It’s all about styling your subject prior to shooting and coming up with the right approach,” notes Lucas, who carefully studies all the product’s details before even setting up lights.

Familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the product, and you’ll be better prepared to light it.

Creating a “scene” on set

Lucas points out that the product should be the center of attention. That means the setting should be clean-cut. “I try to work with as little distractions as possible,” says Lucas. “That way I can just emphasize the object without worrying to much about props.”

Avoid harsh shadows and aim for softer lighting (try using a light tent or softbox), which helps the viewer focus on the details. You can start by aiming two lights down on the product, and then adjust the brightness and angle to bring out the right texture.

In most cases, you’ll also want to remove all distractions from the shot and create a simple composition. This is particularly important for editorial clients who will likely want to add text or position several products on the same page.

Approaching it from an expected angle

There’s a simple approach to product photography lighting – don’t take that one. Coming up with new ideas is what makes you stand out and leaves clients wanting more. So, what about lighting from underneath using a lightbox? This is one of Lucas’ favorite techniques, and the result is often a much more interesting image with shadows and texture details that you wouldn’t normally see. “I ended up setting up on a lightbox to give the product a fresh and airy feel,” says Lucas of the above shot. “I was paying close attention to the shapes and texture in the subject to give them colorful and strong impressions.”

Acting like a know-it-all

Remember: you’re the photographer on set. So just as you wouldn’t want the stylist or art director on set to interfere with your shooting, be sure to return the favor. Sure, it’s fine to collaborate with them, but don’t step on their toes. Trust their expert and leave it to them to do what they’ve been trained to do.

Though most clients will likely bring along their own people, you should also consider befriending a few good stylists. “I almost always work with a prop or food stylist,” says Lucas. “Concepts are developed as the photographer, client, and stylist all talk about a particular assignment and come up with the best visual solution to the problem at hand.”

For the above shots, Lucas let the food stylist pick out and arrange the best looking. “As much as you try to figure out everything before the shoot, you still need to leave room for changes – things might look better or worse from what you planned,” he says.

You still want to maintain your personal style and put your own stamp on the shot. For example, Lucas is known for his stop-motion photos. “I just love freezing motion and capturing moments that you don’t really see in everyday life,” he says. “It’s like magic to me. In a sense it’s like I have the wand and I can stop time.”

Demanding that you get everything in camera

Lucas reminds us that it’s okay to do some extra work in post-production. There are always corrections to be made, no matter how good your product photography lighting might be. You might even find that you spend as much time post-processing as you do shooting. “Sometimes it’s just a simple clean-up of dust and scratches, but in most cases things need to be layered, enhanced, and re-positioned,” says Lucas.

Other techniques often include color boost, contrast change, and sharpening. Or you might simply want to create a concept that’s impossible to get in real life. “I think these days all commercial photography is retouched to some level,” Lucas says.

If you’ve worked in product photography before, what do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about lighting objects vs. people? Share your expertise in the comments.

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