Product photography is one of the most important fields in this industry. How many times have you bought a product because you were amazed by a beautiful product image? Picking the right photography equipment is key to starting. This article is intended to show you the minimum equipment needed to start shooting good product photography.
Keep in mind that there are tons of different products that need photos. Shooting a beer bottle is way different than shooting a car. Most of the time, bigger products need bigger lights. In this article, I’ll give you tabletop product photography tips and show you how to start with a simple setup.
The Triple Crown - Camera, Lenses, and Tripod
You can't go anywhere without these. You can start your photography on a budget and get just the right equipment to deliver clients with great product images. Spending a little more on camera, lenses, and a tripod will prevent you from buying again in the future.
Cameras - Millions of choices
A camera to start shooting product photos is simple: preferably it has the ability to change lenses, but it doesn’t matter if it's a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera. Both will do the job. Going through all possibilities here is not effective at all as all of them will have pros and cons.
Going for something around 20MP - 24MP is a good starting point. For many applications, the ability to trigger external flashes, either through a hot shoe or a sync port, is a must. Any modern camera will have the ability to shoot tethered (which you want to do as it’ll save you a lot of time) and make you see all the details on your product shots. You can find everything about tethering in this article.
There are plenty of different sensor sizes on the market, but as long as you keep the crop factor in mind when choosing your lenses, it won’t be a problem. You can make great photography with both. Cameras such as Canon T7i has a crop factor of 1.6x, so if you put a lens like the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens, it will work as a 96mm, which is pretty close to a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens mounted on a full-frame camera like Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Remember that every manufacturer has different lenses for its proprietary mounts. Canon has EF-S mount for cropped size sensors, EF mount for their full-frame DSLR line, and RF mount for their mirrorless system such as the Canon EOS R. All the other brands have similar systems.
Product photography demands sharpness. Your client wants to see their product as sharp and beautiful as possible. And believe me, lenses are the key here. I would spend most of my budget on lenses, and the good thing is that they will last a lifetime if you take care of them. I have a 15-year-old lens and it works like a charm.
Don’t be scared, you won’t need a bag full of lenses to start your photography business. And guess what? Not even a pro needs a bunch of them. Two or three lenses will cover pretty much everything you need.
The Best Lens For Product Photography
The 100mm Macro
This is the lens I use to shoot 85% of all my product photography work. If I had to choose only one to last in my bag, this would be the one. Sigma has options for all the various camera mounts and will be more affordable and but still excellent alternates to native glass.
I use a full-frame camera, so remember as mentioned above: if you use a cropped sensor camera…
The 60mm Macro
...or equivalent will suit you just as well. The 60mm will be good on a full-frame camera as well if you want to shoot from a tabletop view, enlarging the product for those hero shots. You can use it as a 50mm field of view as well.
You should have at least one macro lens in your product photography equipment list.
A Versatile ZOOM lens
Although prime lenses are sharper and more often used for product photography, it is never a bad idea to have a zoomable lens laying around your bag. You never know when you’ll need it. A good 24-105mm or equivalent on a crop sensor can come in handy in an unusual situation or whenever you’re feeling creative.
It’s all about stability. Forget anything you’ve read about travel tripods, lightweight tripods, or anything like that. For product photography, you want a solid tripod. Make sure it has a central column where you can hang some weight and make it even sturdier.
Just as important as the legs is a great head. I prefer to use a geared one, and because it gives precision control of all movements of my camera, it is VERY precise.
Photography Is All About Light And Shadow
What Is Light?
Light is what makes your photography look good. Or bad. But it doesn’t mean that you need to spend a huge amount of money on lights. As long as you understand what is going on, you can get away with one or two light sources.
Power is the driving force to have in mind most of the time, product photography needs to focus all over the item. You will probably be using a small aperture and low ISOs as you need to deliver the best quality image as possible.
For that, you need slightly powerful light sources such as a 400watt or 600watt mono-lights. If you’re on a budget go for two 400watts of those, but if money is not a problem, go wild.
There are plenty of options that run on battery, which is great if you’re shooting outdoors or on a client location. But they won’t give you a long time with the modeling lights powered on, and that is not good.
Modeling lights will help you see where the light is and is not only going to be visible when you hit the camera shutter. 9 time out of 10 you will be using modeling lamps when shooting product photography.
They are great, but not powerful enough. With smaller products and sets, you can use them combined with a short variety of light modifiers. If you’re on a budget, go for them, learn how to use them, and you will figure out your next move.
Having a sync cable running from your camera to the flashes is not a good idea: it’s only a matter of time before someone (including you) trips over the cable and ruins the photo or set.
Product photography is often about precision and stability, nothing moving on the whole set. Eliminating cables is a great way to ensure success. Having a radio trigger is the best way to do it. Depending on the flash brand you’re using, you will find a good option.
Some of them let you control all the settings of your light sources. This is very handy and lets you set up lights quickly and very precisely.
Stands, Grips, Filters, And Modifiers
Sometimes you will have to put a lot of things hanging together to shoot a product. It’s really hard to define a minimum gear list for this section, as you will discover as you spend some time shooting products in the studio. Imagination can bring you a long way.
Stands, extensions arms, flags, fingers, reflectors, softboxes, grids, and scrims are just a few of the items to be considered. Trust me, this could be endless. I’ll try to list as much as possible so you can include them in your product photography equipment bag:
Out of the gate: get a circular polarizer filter. Some reflections are really hard to work with and can ruin your photography. A polarizer filter will help you with that. Consideration must be given to the filter sucking at least one stop of light, and you’ll have some minor color shift, but it pretty much stops there.
C-stands are king, but they are expensive. Put them in your wishlist and start with some regular stands. Get a variety, bigger ones, smaller ones. A Light boom is a great purchase as it lets you put a light source above the product.
Adding to the stands, having a few grip arms is a must to hold lights on weird positions or hang a piece of diffusion material. They will look not familiar at first glance, but you get used to it.
2 strip boxes or softboxes are a good idea. A nice soft light is always a good approach when shooting product photography.
One roll of Rosco diffuser might not feel like the most important item on your list but the uses are nearly endless. Imagine a softbox as big as you want: you have it. Mix the diffuser with a scrim and/or softboxes with reflectors and you can make the light spread and be as soft as you want.
Scrims will help you make some products shine and define their shape better. If you’re able to control light, you will be more successful in your photography. Combine it with white diffusion and you can exercise complete control over the lighting.
A Few More Things…
These can’t be considered equipment or gear, but I’ll put them as essentials as well. You will find them in all kinds of stores, as they are not exactly related to photography.
- Plexiglass: Get a white and a black piece of plexiglass. They will help you so much on getting pure white or black backgrounds reflected into the surface of the product. You won’t believe how magical this stuff can work for you.
- Foam Board: Reflector, surface, v-flat, you name it. Endless options are available when you have some foam board to use. Black and white, they can be used for fill or negative fill.
- Cinefoil: This is a black, expensive foil, but you can use it in so many ways that it will be worth it. Cheap barn doors, a DIY snoot, a flag... get creative!
- Varnish: Get a matte and a glossy can of spray-on varnish. They are pretty cheap and can make a big difference when shooting highly reflective or translucent products, especially bottles. Spray some on a product in advance to enhance the shine or remove it completely. Put them in your kit, they are massively useful, but their use will generally need to be planned in advance.
- Clamps: Yes, please! Get as many as you can. You will find a use for them. Twelve is a good number to start with, but be careful you can get addicted to them.
Gear Won’t Make Your Images Better Alone
Even if you get all this gear, remember that practicing and studying is the fastest way to improve your images, get bigger clients, and be successful. PRO EDU has a lot of tutorials to offer you the best of the best in photography learning. If you find some time, please feel free to look at PRO EDU’s website and find which course will help you.
Along with education, also remember to keep yourself creative by exploring new techniques and not letting that procrastination monster get over you!
You can go as crazy as you would like with all the gear in the world, but don’t buy anything before trying with what you already have. Then you can start to figure out what would improve your current images from what was said above.
Keep in mind: sometimes expending money on budget-friendly equipment results in having to replace those items more than once.
Get good products, get a good education, and give yourself a lot of patience. You will fail a lot before starting to take some shots that you’ll be proud of, but you will get there!
This article was written by Tomás Arthuzzi
Tomas is a commercial and editorial photographer, based in São Paulo, Brazil. You can find his work and personal photos at https://www.arthuzzi.com.
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