We get a lot of nice comments about our product photography on the Decorator’s Notebook Shop. It’s a huge compliment as we’ve produced all of our own product photography from our launch in 2013. Since then, I think the quality of the photography has improved as we’ve got to know our equipment and find our signature style.
If you search the internet for advice on product photography, more often than not you’ll be shown how to do “cut-out” photography with bright lighting and a plain white background. At Decorator’s Notebook, we’ve always wanted to do a little more with our photography, styling our products in a more inspirational way. Whether you have your own shop, sell on eBay or are just interested in still-life photography in general, here are a few of my top tips and lessons we’ve learned along the way.
It’s important to find a balance between your style and the substance of the shot. There is a reason that most online shops use simple brightly-lit product shots, aside from it being easier and cheaper, it shows the customer exactly what they are getting. Styled shots have the advantage of providing customers with ideas, but inserting too many props into a scenario will distract from what should be the focal point: the product itself.
We try to include enough elements to suggest how you might use a product whilst still allowing enough room for people to be able to imagine how they could fit with their own individual interior style.
When taking our photos for Decorator’s Notebook, we’ve found a balance by settling on a single, well-lit space to shoot most of our products, which allow us to add some simple styling to whilst maintaining clarity and consistency throughout the collection.
It isn’t overstating the fact to say that lighting is everything in photography! Identifying the source of the light, the direction and the relationship to the subject is key to photography in all forms, but has additional implications when shooting indoors. The size and number of windows you have and the space and colour of a room will dramatically impact on the results of your image. The cool grey walls in the room where we shoot keep the light neutral in tone.
The first consideration will be whether you can shoot in natural light or artificial light. There is no rule for which is better, it will depend on what you want to achieve, but it’s certainly not the case that you need expensive kit to take good photos. Sticking with natural light will often give a realism to your photos. The tone, highlights and shadows created by light streaming through a window can give a real sense of place to your image that is difficult to replicate with artificial lighting.
The downside of shooting in natural light is that you are at the mercy of your location, the weather and the solar system! Even if you find a space with the right proximity to a window, you’ll have to contend with the ever changing position of the sun in the sky and the arrival and departure of clouds. You can immediately see the appeal of shutting the curtains and bunkering down with some electric lighting, but there are a few things to consider. Firstly, your everyday ceiling light or lamp won’t cut it. Most give off a warm hue which will effect the tone of your picture and you’ll often be restricted by how and where you can position them. Fortunately, for as little as £65 on Amazon you can get a set of two continuous studio lights with stands, bulbs and soft boxes which can be really versatile in producing a variety of lighting effects.
If you are using lights of this kind, resist the temptation to “flood” the scene with bright light from both sides. It might be the advice of online tutorials for cut-out product photography, but if the light is coming from all directions with no shadows at all, you will end up losing all the definition and texture of your subject. In a naturally-lit room, you will often have one strong, directional light source with light bouncing back from the walls onto the subject. The simple way to replicate this with two studio lights is to have one light close to the subject shining directly onto it from one side. With the other light, experiment moving it around; from shining slightly to the side of the subject to completely away from the product at the walls or the ceiling. If you are trying to capture that natural look, a good experiment is to take a photo of a simple object (maybe a box or cube) using natural light with perfect weather and at the right time of day, then shut the curtains, turn on your lights and see if you can recreate the same lighting effect artificially.
Don’t feel bound within the walls of your house but resist the temptation to head outdoors just because you’re struggling with space or lighting. Product photographs taken in the garden can look a contextually confusing if the item isn’t specifically for outdoor use. When contemplating an outdoor setting, consider what it will add, in terms of showing how an item can be used or styled, like we have with these picnic blankets. Remember that very strong sunlight also means very strong shadows, so a slightly overcast day where the light is naturally diffused can make shooting easier.
I don’t want to get too technical here, but if you are thinking of doing your own product photography it might be worth spending a small amount of time learning about the focal length of your lens. It’s not necessary to have an expensive camera to take product shots, but it is worth being aware than many compact cameras and phone cameras have fairly wide-angle lenses. This is great for shooting holiday snaps and panoramas, but be aware that you have to get quite close up when shooting products and might start to see the shape of the product warping around the edges. If you don’t have the option of changing lens, one solution might be to take the picture from further away and crop the photo after you’ve taken it.
When taking pictures for fun or for art, there’s loads you can do to improve or manipulate an image to give it a different feel. The difficulty when shooting products is that the more you do in post-production, the greater the risk of you moving away from what the product actually looks like. Don’t forget that your customers should feel confident that the product they’ve seen in your picture is going to look the same as the one that’s delivered to their door! I stick to only minor adjustments, like slightly increasing the contrast to enhance definition and highlight natural textures. I also like to make sure I have the product with me when I do any post production work so I can check the colours are accurate.
Hopefully this gives some insight into how we do things here at Decorator’s Notebook. I’ve always found that in an age where photography is becoming increasingly accessible, skilled photographers have become protective over sharing “trade secrets”. We would rather share our knowledge, so if you have any questions about how the effects were achieved in any of our photos on the shop or the blog, please leave a message in the comments below and we’ll be happy to explain as best we can!