You don't need a massive studio and an army of gear to shoot great product photos.
I’ve moved 3 times in the past 8 years and have created 5 in-home studios in that same amount of time. Every time I change up my studio I seem to find myself creating smaller, more compact and optimized spaces. The reason is simple – you don’t need a warehouse to take great product photos.
The first step to creating your space is taking inventory of your most used gear – this single step will let you know exactly what sort of space you need. For instance if you rely heavily on natural light then you’ll need windows and perhaps less space for things like studio flashes and light stands. The type of photographs you take will also help inform you decisions on what type of space you need. In my case, I do a lot of portraits and commercial work. I also use studio flash which are often mounted on large C-Stands so that definitely increases both my vertical and horizontal space requirements.
In the end, I utilized a room attached to my house that is 24 feet by 10 feet. This room also has high ceilings, which means I can position my lights above my subjects. After doing some searching online, it turns out that even a compact space like this is pretty large compared to some metropolitan studios out there. I found some studios that are only 8×8, which is impressive!
While my studio is still very much a work in progress (we’re still finishing the walls and ceiling) it was in good enough shape to get things started. When I was contracted to do some product photos we got some things set up in quick order and started taking pictures. Over here to the right you can see what the set up is for this shot. We’re using a basic, plastic, folding card table. These products are shot on white, but we also wanted a reflection, so I used a clean white card with sheet of glass on top of that to help catch reflections. We’re using a two light set up. The first light is above the product and pointed backwards towards the rear of the table. The reason for that is you can highlight the curves and contours of the product without producing the hot, specular highlights you would get if you had the light directly in front of the product. The second light is behind a collapsible diffuser. This adds a little highlight to the edge of the product, but mostly it’s just there to make sure the environment around the product is totally white. I am also using a black flag (the reverse side is shiny metallic in this photo) at the very front of the product to subject extra light from the front of the product to help make the reflections pop out a little more.
After tweaking the lighting and positioning a bit, we were very pleased with the resulting photos. It was nice to see that a little bit of planning could result in a studio space that was refined and streamlined and still produced the quality that we were looking for. You can see the results of our product photo shoot below.
A wonderful producer who I’ve worked with for years would often joke when we had to copy and paste items from one of our earlier projects into something we were currently working on, “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the greats!”
Now, before we get anything further into my reasoning here, I am just gonna say the following: Don’t steal, or infringe on someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. That’s just theft, and it’s pretty low. As a graphic designer of over 20 years, I’ve had numerous designs and concepts stolen from me and it’s a terrible feeling to see someone else benefiting from your hard work. As artists, our biggest billable asset is our ideas, innovation and process. So respect other artists’ work as you would like your own work to be respected.
With that out of the way, I do also believe that you can learn a lot by seeing how other people approach their craft. That is, at its very core, the essence of teaching. Recent generations of photographers have been inspired by people like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally and Jeremy Cowart, among others. Those photographers were, and still are, inspired by other photographers and so on and so forth. Being inspired by other artists is a beautiful thing and, as an artist, there is no higher compliment than having a contemporary seeing your work and being inspired by it.
I keep a folder on my computer of things I find inspiring. It can be anything from a color study, to a well designed website, brochure, a photo, a poem; it can be anything that catches my eye and stirs some emotion inside of me. In the case of photography, it could be an image that someone else has taken that intrigues me – the way they took it, the lighting, the pose, the setting. Whatever it is, it’s something that has inspired me.
I’ll also use these images as a challenge and a chance to learn. I’ll do my best to figure out what sort of visual trickery and craftsmanship went into the making of their photo and then I’ll set out to see if I can faithfully recreate what it is I think they’re doing. Such was the case for Post Malone’s Twitter profile picture seen here to the right. This photo was shot by Nabil and you can follow him on twitter here: https://twitter.com/nabildo.
I think it’s just a pretty awesome portrait. I like the simple, monotonistic color scheme, the pose, the shadows. Basically, the whole mood of this photo is pretty damn cool. Because of that, I decided I would do my best to try and recreate it armed with only my own working knowledge of cameras and studio lighting.
The first, and most obvious, aspect of this photo is the orange tone throughout. That’s a no-brainer that we’ll need to add some colored gels to the lights in order to achieve the same effect, however we need to figure out what sort of lighting we want to use first. Looking at this portrait a little more I suspected that the photographer was using a beauty dish, positioned directly above and pointing straight down at the subject. This would give the same deep shadows in the eyes we see here in the photo. There doesn’t seem to be any bounce light, so we’ll just move forward on the assumption that one one light was used to light Post Malone.
We will need a second light, however, to light the backdrop. I have a neutral gray seamless in my studio and I suspect that’s the same setup Nabil used in his photo. So, I’ll just take my second light, attached a 7 inch reflector dish so the light doesn’t spill off of the background and hit the subject, and then lastly we’ll put a gel on that to give our gray background an orange tone.
The gels I decided to use were one full cut of CTO on my main light and one theatrical orange gel on the background light. The theatrical orange gel is considerably more orange than the CTO gel. The reason for this choice is because skin tones are already warm-ish, so I don’t need to over drive the orange on our main light – just enough extra orange to kick the skin tones into the realm of our backdrop. The backdrop, which is gray under normal lighting conditions, does need a little more color oomph, so that’s where we use the theatrical orange gel to full effect. See the diagram to the right to see our final set up.
The next step is lighting ratios. I think I got kinda lucky on this one. My camera and lights were still set to whatever they were set for at my last photoshoot was and, as it turned out, they were dialed in pretty well for our first test shot here. In the end, I just had to tweak the main light at tad to get it into the correct range. My camera was set to f/8, 1/125 shutter, 100 iso. The main light was putting out light at f/11 and the background light was f/5.6. So basically, the key light was +1 stop over camera and the background was -1 stop under. Easy-peasey!
Must Have New Photography Gear: Umbrellas, Octaboxes and Simple Reflectors
I’ll admit it, I am a gear hound. It’s down right thrilling when the UPS guy rolls up with a box full of goodies. But perhaps even more exciting for me is the experimentation phase that ultimately comes when a new piece of equipment is dropped on my doorstep. Cameras, lights, modifiers, stands, doodads, and widgets – every new tool in your digital photography arsenal allows you to explore and expand your style, and finding out exactly how you’ll utilize these new apparatus is 90% of the fun (the other 10% obviously the joy of just opening the boxes and squealing with glee.)
Today’s New Gear: Digital Photography Light Modifiers
If you’ve read my blog in the past, then you know I am huge fan of Paul C. Buff and the gear he has engineered. His Einstein light and Cyber Commander wireless sync trigger play key roles in pretty much every commercial photo I take. But I also have a lot of other pieces from his catalog of products, and Paul C. Buff light modifiers comprise a large bulk of my inventory.
White PLM™ Umbrellas
My first product on this list is the 51″ White PLM Umbrella from PCB. I am a strong believer that you can do amazing photos with very little gear. One light, one reflector, one modifier, one camera; that’s a basic recipe for success, and if you don’t believe just look at what Annie Leibovitz has done with just such a setup.
What more gear does allow you, though, is more flexibility and control over your vision. My current stock of umbrellas is rather anemic. I have one 24 inch shoot-through white umbrella and one massive 7 foot reflective umbrella, that’s it. My 7 foot umbrella is a work horse and goes with me everywhere, but honestly, it’s just overkill a lot of the time. It’s also hard to work with in tight spaces. Because of this I decided to buy the 51 inch shoot through from PCB and, at $30, it’s sort of a steal.
Medium Foldable Octabox
Octaboxes are magic. They do all of the great things a traditional, rectangular softbox can do, only better. How so? At equivalent sizes, they give off a slightly wider spread of light. They also create amazing catch-lights in the eyes of your subjects.
They also come with two drawbacks. First, they are usually more expensive than a same-sized softbox. Secondly, they are a pain in the ass to set up. A tension-rod based octabox can drive any normal person to the cliffs of insanity. That is, unless, you spend a little more money and get a foldable octabox! And that’s just what I did. I already had an octabox in the same size range, but the time and effort needed to get it ready meant it spent a few opportune moments in it’s bag rather than on the end of a light stand – that’s a bad thing. Now I am looking forward to using this new foldable version in situations where I may have defaulted to a regular softbox out of the necessity of time and sanity.
7 inch Standard Reflector
Just as the name indicates, this is a pretty standard piece of light modifying gear. Just how standard? Well, one of these reflectors come with every Alien Bees flash head you buy, so it’s pretty ubiquitous with Paul C. Buff gear. However, my Einstein did not come with one. So, where I have one of these for each of my Alien Bees, my Einstein sits awkwardly bare of a reflector and, when it comes to basic light control, nothing quite does the job of blasting light in a particular direction better than a 7-inch reflector!
It’s pretty obvious from my work that how I work with light is more important than which camera I am using. The camera itself is just a tool to capture the information that’s put in front of it. It’s the job of your light, and the tools that shape and modify it, to make that information something that’s intriguing to the person looking at it.
Benjamin Lehman is a professional, commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio.
Well, this project was a lot of fun! Benjamin Lehman photography was asked by LA Gear to create some conceptual marketing photos showcasing their amazing line of shoes. I couldn’t have had more more fun working on these and they have turned into some of the most enjoyable photos I’ve ever had the pleasure to take!
Three point lighting can mean any lighting set up that uses, (you guessed it!), three lights. Somewhere in your camera or speedlite manual there is a hastily drawn diagram illustrating a simple 3 point lighting arrangement.
Word of caution though, those diagrams are terrible and will probably leave you in a lurch when photo-time arrives and you go to take your first picture only to realize that your lighting set-up isn’t gonna cut it.
The lighting scheme I am going to share with you today is an alternate set-up; and when done right it opens the doors to some pretty interesting possibilities. First, let’s discus what you’ll need:
2 strip light soft boxes
1 umbrella/medium soft box/octobox
The biggest difference between this set up and the ones you’ll more commonly find online is that two of our lights will be effectively behind and to the sides of our subject, rather than two lights in front.
Diagram of our 3 Point Lighting Technique.
I forgot to get a good production photo during the shoot. Which by the way, is a no no. You should always get a good production photo during the photo session so, if you have to come back and revisit the set for pick-ups, you’ll have a good visual reference to which you can match the lighting accurately. Luckily, I’m familiar with this set up, so not having a production photo isn’t too bad in this case.
This diagram to the left illustrates the basics of the set up. Two strip lights behind the subject, and one light in front of the subject. The lights in the back are positioned so that they are pointed at the subject’s shoulders. The vertical height of the lights depends on the height of your subject.
With strip lights, it’s important to know that even though they may be very tall, the ‘hot-spot’ of light is still centered in the middle of the box. That means I usually end up adjusting my strip lights so that the middle of the box is lined up with the top of my subject’s shoulders. If that isn’t giving you enough vertical coverage, then tip your strip lights so the top of the box is leaning towards your subject. Why does this work? A light source appears brighter the closer you are to it. Tipping the top of the strip light towards your subject will project more light onto their head, while the brighter middle area of the light will be a bit more dim because it’s slightly further away. Using the inverse-kinematic laws of light to your advantage, how cool is that!?
The light in front of our subject was a 22″ beauty dish. This doesn’t have to be a beauty dish, however. It can be an umbrella, a soft box, even a huge octobox. For our purposes, however, we were going for a slightly zappier, edgier light so a beauty dish was the perfect choice.
We placed the beauty dish on a C-Stand with a boom arm and leavered it over our subject. The light should be just high enough to be out of the frame of our picture. You don’t want it too high, or else you’ll fill your subjects eyes and cheeks with shadows. Keeping it just above the camera’s line of sight will render some nice shadows while still dishing some light into the eyes.
For this photo, we really want the edges of our subject to be defined. For this reason, I suggest you adjust the power output of your strip lights before you start fiddling with your main light. I know this is a little backwards from conventional lighting logic, but these strip lights are tasked with making our subject pop out of the background so this is where most of our lighting power will be coming from.
You can tell that you’ve done it right when you do a test shot and your subject is completely outlined in light, but the center of the subject’s face is in near-total darkness.
Next step is to dial in your main light. In our case, it’s the 22″ beauty dish from Paul C. Buff. Also, making it’s debut in my studio, is the PCB Einstein. I’ll get to the specifics of this light a little later on this post, but for now let me just say this: WOW, this light is awesome.
Okay, back to the Beauty dish. Once you have your strip lights producing the right amount of edge lighting on your subject, you are ready to introduce your main light. Start low, as in, power that light all of the way down. We’re trying to add just enough light to bring out the eyes and the features of the face. More precisely, you’re aiming for something like 1 stop under what would be considered optimal exposure. If your studio light doesn’t go low enough in power, just walk the light away from your subject until it looks right.
In my case, the light was about 2 feet away from the subject, with Einstein running at 1 stop above it’s minimum power. For my beauty dish, I am using a sock diffuser to help spread a little light into the shadows – but even with a diffuser on a beauty dish, your light will remain relatively sharp.
Compare the image to the left with the one earlier. You can see that the main light adds a subtle, but dramatic difference.
Using this lighting set-up gives you a very striking final frame. The edge lighting lifts the subject off the background and the main light adds a ton of mood to the portrait – but don’t stop there!
This lighting set-up can be used outside of the studio. It will work with nearly any suitably moody envorinment. It is, perhaps, a little too dramatic for corporate portraiture, but it works great on athletes, or theatrical personalities.
This technique also works particularly well if you are doing a composite image. So, how do we go about doing that? Well, let’s explore further!
I started this project knowing that it would ultimately end as a composite in Photoshop. I shot our subject on a gray seamless because the background doesn’t really matter. The gray just gives me a nice blank color to lift our subject off of in Photoshop later. So that leaves us with the question, “What is our background going to be?”
Well, it’s a sports themed shoot, so I went out scouting for sports themed locations. The locations don’t have to be specifically tied to sports either. Basketball, for instance, has a long history of being played in run-down inner-city courts. So go find a shabby court, or even an old alley way. You just need to tie the background to personality of the photo.
I decided to be a little more specific with my photo and I drove around town looking for a suitable series of locations that would match my pictures. I finally found a high school football field that would work perfectly for what I had in mind.
I walked around the field until I decided on a composition and then I began to shoot bracketed shots. The reason for the bracketed shots was because I knew I would be merging these into an HDR image. Why HDR? Well, the light on our subject is dramatic, so the background should be dramatic too!
The picture to the left represents the HDR we’ll be using in our final photo. I created this by merging 3 photos in Photomatix and then Tone Mapping the result in lightroom. You can use whatever process you are most comfortable with in terms of your own HDR images.
Once we’ve gotten our background prepped, and we’ve cut our subject free from his gray background it’s time to marry to the images into one composite.
How you put your photos together, and the visual treatments you apply are completely up to you. There’s no real step-by-step, and it all comes down to personal style. Since my vision was to have a gritty sports portrait, I spent a lot of time making sure the final image conveyed the attitude I wanted. I also spent a lot of time doing things we normally do with our portraits; retouching, dodging & burning, liquefying, etc…
Below is the final export.
Final Thoughts and little more about the Einstein Light.
I’ll be writing up a full review on the Einstein within the next day or so, but I just wanted to quickly add how impressed I am by it’s features and performance. It played a large part in allowing me to achieve the image I wanted.
In regards to the lighting scheme I’ve laid forth in this post, I just wanted to say it’s not something I came up with on my own. I’ve seen a lot of great work from great photographers, all of which have influenced the way I approached this particular project. I suggest you go out and get inspired too!
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.
Modern DSLRs are amazing devices. Not long after the 5D Mark II introduced the ability to shoot high quality video, the film world took notice and started to use it as an essential piece of equipment in movie making. Not only are DSLRs small, and therefore easy to work with, they are also relatively cheap, and you get the picture quality afforded to you from using your DSLR lenses.
Long before I started taking pictures as a professional photographer, I was (and still am) a graphic designer. One of the many hats I get to wear when I am working for my design clients is that of a creative director. At times this means I am on set, working with a film crew, to make sure the design vision translates seamlessly to video.
I’ve gotten a lot of valuable experience behind the motion picture lens from my time on these types of projects. This has in turn given me a great perspective on how to use my DLSR’s video mode. And now, with everything digitally integrated between a myriad of programs, there’s not much you can’t do with the video you take with your DSLR.
Over the holidays we worked on a little project that called for some video, lighting, visual effects and compositing. I love these types of jobs because they are a great way to extend your artistic vision into several mediums. Below are a couple of stills showing the before and after of the raw footage and final, composited video.
Step 2: Creating the Visual Effects.
Step 3: Compositing the video and effects together.
Step 1: Shooting the video on green screen
Here is a small, 3 second clip.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Wedding and Protrait Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio region.
I‘ve always been a studio strobe kind of guy. My feeling was that studio strobes offered me more flexibility. It gave me more power output when I needed it, it gave me better coverage when I needed and I felt, since they have external battery packs, that I could put them anywhere I would ever need to. It also seems like the best light shaping modifiers were always available for the larger lights. These, among other reasons, always made me feel like if I was going to drop a wad (<-super technical term) of cash on a lighting system that it would be safer spending it on a larger studio strobe. Basically, I thought I had all my bases covered.
But over the past few years I found that when I was setting up my lighting schemes I would often relegate my studio strobes to background tasks, like lighting the environment or using them as large light washes to bring up ambiance a stop or so. Meanwhile, my old, smaller 430ex and 285HV flashes were being used as focused key lights and kickers. Without realizing it I was relying on my smaller flashes for a lot of my precision work. As time progressed I started to use them more in the field and not long after that came an awareness that I had actually been limiting myself by relying so heavily on studio strobes in a lot of situations.
Studio strobes have their use, and that use is big light. When I say big light, I mean any situation where either coverage or sheer energy is needed. When I was working on my project for the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank, where I was often shooting in the noon-day sun, I needed their large power output to reign in the ambient sun so I could put more flattering light on my subjects.
But noon-day photo shoots don’t happen that often. The Foodbank job was very run-and-gun, but usually when you’re contracted to take photos you have a lot more control of your shooting schedule and thus you can take your portraits in more forgiving situations. It’s in these controlled situations where a set of speedlites can easily provide you with the power and flexibility that you need.
Where Can You Use Speedlites?
Canon’s new flagship speedlite, the 600ex-rt
Pretty much anywhere you could use any other type of light except for maybe the scenario I mentioned above (and even then a large bank of speedlites can do the job, as illustrated by Joe McNally). There are unique properties shared by all speedlites that make them a good, defacto go-to choice for photographs. Their full-featured; even a ‘simple’ speedlite like the vivitar 285HV Zoom Thyristor (who comes up with these names!?) has all the basic control that the more expensive speedlites offer. Another bonus is the size – these things are small. I can fit 3 or 4 of these speedlites into my camera bag and still have room for my two main cameras, gels, extra lenses, wireless triggers, and batteries.
Anyway, if you’ve used speedlites before none of this is news to you, and so this brings me to the point of this post: Canon’s newest speedlite, the 600ex-rt which I recently purchased.
No ceremonial unboxing for this light. I got it in the mail at 12, and by 1 o’clock I had it pressed into service. In case you’re unable to read between the lines here, that’s a testament to just how easy it is to use this speedlite. I was able to put it on my camera and start shooting, full featured right away, without having to read the 40,000 page manual that comes with it. I had an event I was contracted to shoot. It took place in a large outdoor venue and this meant my main issue was controlling the ambient light from the sun. Most of the event took place under a large, unwalled tent. The ceilings of the tent were anywhere between 12 and 40 feet tall. I found I was able to point the 600ex straight up, zoomed to 200mm at full power and fill the entire tent with soft, flattering light. More than that, I was able to slave my older 430ex II to the 600ex and use it as a kicker to give the event photos an aesthetic more usually found in wedding photos. Where event photos are usually flat, and rather mugshot/driver’s license looking, I was able to use the 600ex to take the quality light and thus the quality of the photos up to a much more professional level.
A little about the flash itself. It’s larger than it’s predecessor, nearly half again the size of the 430ex II. But that extra size means it’s more powerful and versatile. The back of the flash has a lot more in common with the 530ex II that it does with the stripped down 430ex II. However, users of either of these older flashes will still be able to pick up the new 600ex and put it to use without any frustration. The controls are laid out logically. The buttons feel responsive when you interact with them. With the old 430ex II, it often felt like you had to press the buttons nearly through the front of the flash in order to to get it to register, not so with the 600ex. Button presses are easy and precise. The dial is also very reactive, although it is a little hard to turn if your fingers are sweaty or wet during humid days.
Switching from ETTL to Manual (the two modes I use exclusively) is as easy as pressing the larger MODE button twice. Other modes included are Multi, for action/sports shots, and EXT.A and EXT.M for in flash metering.
The back of the 600ex-rt
Turning your 600ex into a master for group flash control is just as easy. Simply press the Wireless/Linked Shooting button to cycle through the modes that best fit your situation. The 600ex-rt has a radio transmitter built in (thus the ‘rt’ in 600ex-rt) for use with other 600ex-rts. Because I only have one 600ex-rt at the moment, I used the optical slave mode to control my 430ex II. From the menu you can control all of the functions of your master 600ex as well as the functions for your slaved speedlite, such as exposure compensation. While radio transmission would be the go-to option if you have multiple 600exs, the optical method worked fantastically, blowing away my expectation. When I had the 600ex pointing straight up into the ceiling, it was still able to control the 430ex II which was often all of the way across the room – some 40 to 60 feet away.
The 600ex II also comes with a nice plastic gel holder, although the flash only comes with tungsten balanced gels, no florescent gels – hrmmmm. I also noticed that the flash seems to have two little electric “eyes” under the area where the gels snap on – these are used to transmit color correction information to your camera based on the gel you are currently using. How cool is that?! No more dialing in kelvin numbers to get white balance!
In an effort to keep a long post from getting longer let me just sum this up by saying if you are a studio strobe purist, like I was, take a chance on a speedlite like the 600ex. You’ll find it has its uses in the studio and that it’s indispensable in the field.
Key Features Summary
Easy to use right out of the box
Great power output
Intuitive, if not a little clumsy at times, LCD interface
Good button and dial response
Slightly large, but very sturdy
Great master/slave functionality
Gel system with built in color correction technology
Optical and Radio Transmission master/slave modes
Flash zoom up to 200mm
Power range from 1/128 to 1/1
Produces a beautiful throw of light
Works just as good as a studio strobe in many situations.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait and Wedding Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.