2 Light “Basic” Product Photography

 When I started working at my current 9 to 5 product photography job 10 years ago I was blown away at how complicated management made my job.  When I started I was about 80% a film photographer and Photoshop was for heretics.  In a few short weeks I was cutting out products down to the pixel level with the pen tool and creating fake drop shadows.  I went as far as shooting 15 to 20 images of a product in motion or lights flashing on remotes and created animated Gif files.  I got very good at it and within six months I was able to copy the image style of most major electronics companies.

I hated this notion but I made the best of it, I always look for the silver lining.  One day my New Manager came to me and asked if we could go back to shooting product old school.  And he asked if I thought that it would be faster that way.  I wasn’t sure if the other photographer was up to it but of course I said yes, I knew I could do it faster anyway.  The other benefit would be that we would have a more realistic looking drop shadow.

I very quickly remembered the basics of 3D light that I learned as a kid from watching Dean Collins videos; I was such a photo nerd.  I started trying to explain the 3 values of light to my co-photographer; “Diffused Value” (true density value), “Shadow” (No light from primary source), lastly “Specular Highlights” (Mirror image of light source).  You want to expose for the diffused value, this will give you the balance between the shadow and the specular highlights.  This is where I lost him, in his defense he wasn’t ever a photographer he is a graphic designer.

This being too complicated for him made me realize that I need a simple way to explain this process to him so I don’t have to watch every shot that he takes.  I came up with a simple way to explain this process so the images can all have a solid and consistent shadow.

  • Fill the frame and focus on the Logo

  • One Light directly over the top of the product.
  • Light the foreground and background

  • Spot meter the center of the product. (not on the bright spots directly)

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

The company I work for is convinced that I can do anything with 2 lights so they won’t get me 2 more; this is all done with a 2 light setup.  The grand total for the kit was less than $500; the lights are Photo grade compact fluorescent light bulbs.  I use big soft boxes to “diffuse” the specular highlights, this allows for a smooth creamy look in the details.

No adjustments: Right out of the camera

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

Are there better ways? Sure, I have since developed a process that is 100x better.  But when you only have 2 lights and some paper, and need to kick out 3 to 4 images per product and you are expected to shoot 20 to 30 products in a day you have to cut the fat.  This style allows for a few fast Photoshop adjustments.  I use the curves and the Levels adjustment layers.

I use the curves white eye dropper tool on the outer edge of the shadows.  This sets the white background to a perfect “255 white.”

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

Merge the curves layer with the background layer. Add and adjust the mid tone or gray slider all the way to the right on the levels adjustment layer.  This will allow you to see those pesky spots, when you see them just brush them out with pure white.  The key to this is selecting the right area when you apply the curves layer.

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

You now have a well balanced image with a great drop shadow that is right under the product.  You can adjust the angle of the product and the perspective of the camera and you will still be able to get the same effect.  You just need to get creative on how you prop up your products.

These are a few of the final images from this product.

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

Photography by: Douglas Lee Coon

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