One type of product photography that seem to have a growing demand in the photography market is the clean and simple packshot. Usually shot on white background with soft shadows and very even lighting. Easy to use for the clients both in their web shops and printed material.
Even if it seems to be easy to achieve decent looking product photos with a cheap camera and a light tent, many clients of mine have already tried that and wants something a little more professional looking.
My latest assignment in this field was a product shot for a company that sells pills of different kinds, they needed a photo for a magazine ad.
The Brief from my Client
I was in contact with the Art Director who also was in the photo studio during the shot to help me getting the shot exactly as she and the client wanted it. Most of the time I work alone, but having the client or someone from the ad agency assisting helps a lot to avoid any misunderstandings.
In short, they wanted a very open photo, with lots of space around the products, and the background should no be completely white, rather a light grey with some shadows/reflections from the products.
The Studio Lighting Setup
Before the Art Director had arrived with the products, I had prepared a lighting setup using three monolights, all Profoto Compacts.
I didn’t know if we were going to shot the products from an angle, slightly from above maybe, or straight on, so I set up the lights for a setting that allowed either to work.
From the beginning I worked with the post production in mind, I knew I was going to fake the even background in Photoshop so the lighting didn’t need to be perfectly even, as long as it was light enough. I did some test shots with a color correction card to use as a reference later when setting the correct white balance and adjust the colors.
Light 1 – Main Light
The products I shot was quite small, maybe 15 cm (7-8 inches) high, so I used a Profoto Softbox 60 x 90 cm (2 x 3 feet) as my main light from above the table. The light is very large in comparison to the products so the light should be even enough.
I angled the softbox a little towards the products from the camera, but not more than that so I still would have a small shadow directly under the products. If the light comes from a lower position, there will be no shadow and the products would seem to be floating on the background. Not exactly what I or the client wanted.
Light 2 – Side Light and Fill
The idea with a little light from the side was to define the round or cylindrical shape of the plastic bottles. I used a Profoto Strip Softbox 30 x 120 cm (1 x 4 feet) for that. To get the small light on the side even smaller, I added a mask to the softbox that makes opening only 7 centimeters wide (2-3 inches).
The resulting test shots from this setups showed that the side lighting was a little bit too hard. The white plastic material in the bottles was very easy to blow out so I added a reflector with diffusion material to soften the light a bit, between the softbox and the products.
Light 3 – Background Light
As I mentioned earlier, the final image would need a lot of post processing to get the background light grey all around, so this background light was mostly to minimize the risk of getting the edges on the products too dark. A Profoto Softbox Octa 150 cm in diameter (5 feet) did the trick.
When the right products were in place, the image felt a little flat. The main light together with the light from the side needed a little more shadow (on the other side) to define the shapes of the bottles better.
The easiest way to add shadows in table top photography is just to place something dark close to the product just outside the frame to remove spill light and reflected light.
By some strange reason I didn’t have any black paper or board to use, but I had a black bag that worked just as well. I just placed it on the table near the products and a soft shadow appeared on the left side (as seen from the camera), just enough to make the bottles look like bottles, and not like flat objects.
Shiny transparent pills, and slippery too
The client wanted not only plastic bottles in the picture, but also the small Omega-3 pills. In real life, they look almost golden and very tasty in a way. But as they are transparent they are quite hard to light. Especially if they lie together and the light shines through them in strange ways.
We tried a lot of ways to make them look natural, both as pills and as a whole, but when we tried to make a small pile, they almost looked like fish eggs and that was not at all what we wanted. It was not extremely large caviar we wanted to sell.
Finally we settled for three pills to lie in front of the bottles, but to get them to stay in the right place was not that easy. The pills are quite slippery and I didn’t have any rubber glue or stuff like that, to fix them in one position. After some experimenting we found out that the shell could be made sticky if we just licked on the pills, after that if was just a matter of placing them right.
Separate lighting for separate parts
Now we had the three bottles in their right places, and the three pills as we wanted them. The problem was that the lighting that made the bottles look good almost blew out the semi-transparent pills.
They didn’t look golden or tasty at all. Next time I think I will try to set up the lights in two different ways and then combine the photos into one.
The solution this time was to take two different photos, but I just blocked some light with a orange/yellow piece (which also added some more color and saturation) from one of my camera bags for the pill shot to have a better starting point for the retouching of the final image.
In the end, I almost painted the pills in Photoshop as I wanted them, but it made it a lot easier when a had a photo without a lot of blown out highlights to work with.
Retouching, Before & After
This is the final image we shot, unedited directly from the camera.
And this is the final image after post processing but before I enlarged the canvas in Photoshop to make a really big image that made it easy for the client to use it either in portrait or landscape, they would just need to crop it.
I adjusted the colors, removed some dirt from the bottles, added a little shadow on the bottle to the right and painted the pills so they looked like we wanted them to. Moved them a bit down as well.
The background was removed with a clipping path and then added back in with a layer mask to use some of the shadow and reflection on the surface in front of/below the products.
A final note
This is not how I use to work. I usually like to set up the lights and take pictures that needs a little post processing as possible. Working this way on ten or thirty or a hundred product images would never work for me. It would take too much time and cost too much.
But for one image, it’s fun to see how something as simple as three bottles & three pills could be so hard to create and look so easy in the end.
And the client is happy, so I am happy too.
Ah, dina guider Ã¤r verkligen bra!
Tack, detta inlÃ¤gg finns pÃ¥ svenska ocksÃ¥;
This was so much helpful. Thank you. You kept thinking about even the tiniest shadows like a painter.
I have recently been taking interests in product photography. It is much more creative and difficult than it seems from the end results, and this is the beauty of it. Any one can take snapshots of a beautiful landscape, but bringing these tiny objects to life is wonderful in product photography.
I am bookmarking your blog, please keep posting stuff like this to help us beginners learn from your amazing skills.
it is indeed a lot of work in the details, but that is what makes it so much fun. And this is nothing compared to what some still life photographers do, I wouldn’t have the patience to spend a day on one image. Not so very often at least.
Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences regarding your product photography assignment. I think your last statement was the most revealing; “This is not how I’m used to working. I usually like to set up the lights and take pictures that needs a little post processing as possible. Working this way on ten or thirty or a hundred product images would never work for me. It would take too much time and cost too much”.
I found this to be true. I love being able to create an EXCEPTIONAL photo of one product or a group of products, using my own judgment. But when a company hires you to shoot their entire line of 247 small cosmetics in glass containers you begin to know what hell is. Glass with a pure white background? How do you see the glass? To see glass you have to add reflections. White and chrome colored bottles are equally difficult.
Now my belief is that all great makeup shots resulting from high-budget campaigns, (L’Oriel, Clinique, MAC) use TREMENDOUS amounts of post production, the sort of which I am not capable of producing.
best wishes – robert marcos
I would love to photograph 27 products of handbags and travel bags and would be glad if I get an appointment and prices.
The shooting will cover interior, exterior and bottom of all the bags. Only a few products (1 or 2) would have four side shootings.
Would be glad to hear from you soon
Thanks and kind regards,
NB: The website is still under construction
Hi, great blog Stefan, i discovered it yesterday and i’ve been reading for hours. Congratulations for your work.
One question. Why you didn’t take another exposure with a flag on the right to get that cool black gradient defining the edge. It is better on the left side right?
Thanks for your time
I did this quite a long time ago, but I think my idea was to have it only on one side. There is a main light coming from the right side, and I think having a dark edge on both sides might have made it look a bit strange.
But if I would have done it today, I might have tried your way. Many times, products like these looks best with light coming straight on. But, as with everything, it is a matter of taste.
i just found your website yesterday and it’s been really quite informative. I need to re-read it a few times but it’s given me a few ideas for my current project.
I’m currently having to shoot small 8cm tall x 4cm wide, round, glossy white plastic bottles, with a white label (with black text), against a white background. The bottle top is also white. I’m doing it to help a family member set up a website so unpaid. The only camera I have is a Fuji X-100 and a few flashguns.
To say it’s a challenge is an understatement as there are 24 different worded labels so 24 different photographs to be done. Thank you though, your article has given me some interesting thoughts about how to do my project. By the way, I’m an amateur photographer who does street photography so this is a whole new world to me.
Cheers – Ian
and thanks for the comment.
Here is a late tip that might be helpful: https://www.stefantell.se/blog/2013/06/product-photography-white-background/
Other than black flags (stiff black board or thick paper will do) you will probably be helped with diffusion film. That will make the light a lot more even and the light source bigger. Search YouTube for wine bottle photography and you will find good guides using just that.
This tips is simply amazing. Thank you for sharing it with us, I’ll definitely be using it in the future.