Long the nemesis of business owners with large products to sell, capturing perfect pictures of your items requires plenty of space and powerful kit.
A combination of that pesky inverse-square law (describing how light intensity degrades over distance... I just about remember that from Physics A-Level), sufficient framing space, bags of lighting room and strobes powerful enough to light your subject means that this milieu of photography is usually out of reach for most business owners looking to capture images of their larger items - but hopefully the below will give some tips if you’d like to have a go. Really, the same rules apply as photographing small products… everything just needs to be a bit bigger!
I was recently asked to capture some product images for an architectural salvage company in Herefordshire to use on their overhauled website. The client requested crisp, well-lit images presented on a white background with drop-shadow and/or reflections. This is how we got on…
Luckily we had plenty of room at the client's huge warehouse where an L-shaped plywood set gave us plenty of room for staging the products. The background was painted white to provide contrast between the product and background and also to make life easier in post-production. If you are planning to construct your own background for product photography, I would recommend using a matt, chalk-based paint or similar which provides a non-reflective finish. I’ve found in the past that Farrow & Ball paints work particularly well as they use a different kind of pigment (apparently) giving a lovely flat finish.
The client wanted a studio-look to the images - which was lucky as the warehouse had no natural light apart from a large barn door - and so I chose to light the subjects with a combination of off-camera flash and reflectors. To prevent ambient-light spill we closed the large barn doors (which was great fun for 6 hours on the hottest day of the year so far!) and we were ready to begin lighting our subject…
I wanted to start with a large overhead key light, so we experimented with strobes through light boxes and a large 8ft x 8ft trace (actually an old bed-sheet... a washed one!) until we got the diffused soft-quality of light we were after. Next, we set up a secondary light at 45deg to the camera to provide a highlight and shadow, giving the product some depth and three-dimensionality. I felt that the shadow-side was a little harsh for product photography and so set up a reflector on the opposite side to bounce light back to the subject and give a more detail. The products were placed close to the set so that I wouldn’t have to light the background independently to keep it white (that darned inverse-square law again)… not a huge concern though as I was going to extract the images in the editing stage. The camera was set to ISO 200 and F-stop 13 to give pin-sharp focus on larger items which required a broader depth of field.
After taking some meter readings, balancing the lights and shooting a white card we were ready to go...
I shot a selection of exposures, ensuring that the reflective surfaces of some of the products didn’t produce highlights from the flash. I also experimented with the reflector placement to give some choice when I came to edit.
As the selection of products to be photographed were large and varied, set up between each shot was always interesting! From forklifting-in heavy products such as carvings, statues and half-tonne doors, to piecing together 100-year old mosaics and back-lighting stained glass… each product needed care to present and light it in the best possible way. Probably the most fun was surrounding myself with 8ft x 4ft sheets of packing polystyrene - leaving just a tiny slit for the camera lens - so that I couldn't be seen in the reflection of a stainless steel fireplace. No one wants to see a sweaty bald bloke staring back at them in photos.
We had a long, hot day on location but it was definitely enjoyable.
The images had captured really well in-camera and so didn’t require a huge edit… just a tad of colour-correction using he white card, tweaking exposures and attention to curves was all that was required. Next, I just had to extract the products and pop them on a white background. As I’d lit the shoot from above I was able to utilise and beef-up the natural shadow from the shoot for the drop-shadow shots that had been requested. Finally, I created a set of reflections… and we were done!
Obviously it’s impossible to document every detail of the shoot but I hope that the above gives you the broad strokes of how to light and capture product images of large items. If it’s still giving you a headache then please feel free to get in touch or see my commercial rates.