6 Critical Tips For Great Product Photography
Product Photography is unique in that it is an art and it requires an immense aptitude for technical understanding. It’s truly a right and left-brain activity. Because of this, many details can become lost or forgotten in the midst of a product shoot. This article explores a few of the most important things that make great product photography happen.
Focus is arguably the most important facet of product photography. There is nothing worse than an out of focus product shot. Product photography that is out of focus isn’t interesting, isn’t precise, and tells the customer that the product wasn’t made with precision either. Presentation is everything when it comes to product photography and poor presentation will lead to lost sales.
Furthermore, product photography that is out of focus is just plain lazy. Try photographing a 3 year old if you want an excuse for blurry photos. Product doesn’t move, so it should be sharp as a tack.
Focus should carry from the front of the product, to the rear. This can be achieved a few ways. First, maximum depth of field should be attempted. That means, shooting with the smallest aperture (largest number) your lens allows. Most lenses reach F22, but top of the line lenses will hit F32 and beyond. Ansel Adams was part of a group of photographers known as F64. They were called such because they always shot at F64 in an attempt to achieve the maximum depth of field.
Another way focus is achieved is called focus stacking. This happens when a product, for whatever reason, requires a composition that puts the back of it much further away from the lens than the front. Several exposures must be made in order to capture each “segment” of the product. Then, the commercial photographer will use a photo-editing program to combine the photos in a single composite image, emphasizing the sharp parts of the images in the final image.
A third way to carry focus in product photography is by using a large format camera. Large format cameras have different planes – a lens plane and a film plane – that can be used to align the front and back of a product with the film plane. This technique is challenging and takes experience in order to achieve. Converting a large format camera to digital is quite expensive, but can be done. This conversion allows for extensive previewing of images before they are shot, and give photographers maximum control over the image making process.
When looking over a photographer’s portfolio, it is essential to check if their photos are in sharp focus. If they aren’t, it’s likely your photos won’t be in focus either.
Arguably the other most important part of product photography is exposure. Poorly exposed product photography fails to properly duplicate the product. Now, there are times when creative professionals will take liberties in creating art, however rendering the product as it looks in real life should always be the goal. Underexposure and overexposure have their places in other types of photography.
Good product photography aims to expose the product as it is seen with the human eye – not as it is seen in camera. Camera sensors are unable to capture as wide a range of tones as human eyes are able to see. Thus, all photos generally have higher contrast (more shadow and highlights, with a narrower range of tones in between) than what our eyes see. In studio photography, strobe lights (large flashes) are used to achieve the proper contrast.
To understand proper contrast, you should try to imagine a cube. On a 2 dimensional plane, you can only capture 3 sides of the cube. The goal in product photography is to give each side of the cube a different brightness. If any 2 sides have the same brightness, the viewer won’t be able to differentiate between them. Achieving this alone requires an educated and experienced product photographer eye.
Now, combine that challenge with different colors and the brightness (is it white, gray, or black?) of each product, and you’ve thrown another twist in the mix. When looking over your photographer’s portfolio, make sure that you can see the dimensions of objects. If you can’t, chances are the photographer either doesn’t have that skill set, or doesn’t know that’s important.
When photographers compose an image in the camera, consideration must be given to the end use of the photo. Where is it going? What will it be used for? Is there going to be text surrounding the product? Will the product be cut out and put on a colored background? Without this information, a photographer is essentially composing the image in the dark.
At what resolution will the photo be displayed? This is a HUGE factor in determining how to shoot and post process a particular product photo. It also determines what camera your photographer will choose to use. If you need very high resolution photographs for a billboard, you’re photographer may need to rent a camera and lens to accommodate your needs. If your needs are merely web display, megapixels are not as much a concern. Ask your photographer what they are shooting with. You never know if you’ll want to use your photo for something big later.
Every professional photographer should be shooting in some kind of Raw format. Raw refers to the data captured by the camera’s sensor. Raw photos contain vastly huge amounts of data compared to Jpegs. Why? Raw capture can occur in 12, 14 or 16 bit depending on the equipment your photographer uses, while Jpeg files are limited to 8 bit. To read more about bits, go here. Basically, the more bits the better.
Furthermore, Raw images don’t undergo any processing, as do Jpeg files. Even more important, the color space for Jpeg files is much smaller than a Raw file can be when a camera is properly set up. So, capturing Raw in color space Adobe 1998 records more color data and combinations than Jpeg, which can only us S-RGB. Ask your photographer and make sure they are shooting Raw. If they aren’t, find another photographer. Seriously.
What file type does your photographer save their work in? Again, working primarily with Jpegs is a very bad idea. Professional commercial photographers should work in “lossless” file types such as TIFF, PSD, or PSB. Other file types require compression upon saving. When a file is compressed, a shortcut is made in order to reduce the file size. When the file size is reduced, it isn’t saved exactly how it is written when uncompressed. When compressed files are opened, they are never uncompressed in the same manner each time. This creates what is known as “artifacts.” Artifacts are remnants of multiple compress-uncompress cycles where a particular part of an image was repeatedly “lost.” Artifacts reduce the sharpness of images, and over multiple save-close-open cycles, will destroy the integrity of an image.
Monitor Calibration and Color Management
If your photographer is editing on an uncalibrated monitor, ask them why. This is a huge problem, especially when it comes to printing photos of your product! Ever see a photo or video and the color just looks off? Here’s why: Each device (camera, computer, monitor, printer, television, smart phone, 3-d printer, VCR, Beta-Max, etc) that renders an image comes with a different profile specific to that piece of technology. Devices that display color information (photos and videos) use color profiles to interpret color and contrast information and display is in RGB for our eyes to view. Color management and calibration aims to match each device to the primary mode of display – a monitor. Your photographer should be very familiar with color profiles, calibrating, and sending profiles to your printer if you have one and they request it.