Tabletop Product Photography on a Budget: Part 1

Hi Friends,

I posted recently on my typical setup for tabletop product photography using a light table, a pair of hotshoe flash units, and an octagonal softbox. It works really well for me, and since I usually leave it set up, it’s quick to arrange a couple of items on the set, shoot, process, and upload to web.

I received a number of questions and requests for suggestions for a less technical (read – “less expensive”) alternative to my strobe / light table configuration. To that end, this is the first of a two-part series on professional tabletop photography on the cheap (or at least, the “not expensive”).

Quick and Portable:
The simplest setup is a piece of white posterboard and a pair of continuous lights: in this case, a floor lamp and a gooseneck clamp light that I happened to have in the garage. No diffusion…just straight, unfiltered light.   I keep a selection of colored background papers that I’ve picked up at our local craft supply store in a hardboard artist’s portfolio, and when opened to about 90-degrees, the portfolio makes a great tabletop studio.  Simply tape one end of the posterboard to the vertical side of the portfolio, and leave a gentle curve at the back of the set so the horizon disappears (i.e., no visible corners). Set it up on a table or chair, et voila: instant studio!  If you don’t want to monkey with lights, you can setup your “studio” outside in bright shade and have beautiful soft light.

For a little reflection, use either shiny posterboard, or lay a thin (~1/8 inch) piece of clear acrylic, plexiglas, or lexan over the “floor” of your tabletop set, and shoot from a low camera angle:

The nice thing about continuous lighting is that you can see exactly where the shadows and hotspots are before you shoot, and move the lights or your subject matter accordingly.  When you’re first starting out with auxiliary lighting, continuous lights just make it a little easier to see what you’re doing.  One note of caution, however.  Continuous lighting is sometimes referred to as “hot lighting,” and for good reason.  If you’re using halogen or household tungsten bulbs, they can get pretty hot, and even burn your background if they come in contact. So, be careful with the proximity of the lights to your set.  If possible, you might consider compact florescent (CFL) bulbs.  They’re usually not as bright, but they’re much cooler:

Speaking of “not as bright”… Since you’ll want to turn your camera’s built in flash off, and given that continuous lighting is not as bright or intense as flash, you’ll probably find yourself shooting at slower shutter speeds.  For that reason, you’ll want to shoot with your camera on a tripod and use your self-timer to avoid touching the camera during the exposure and the resultant blurred images due to camera shake.

There’s no magic formula for successful product photography.  Each subject will dictate the lighting scheme that produces the best look. Experiment with the number and positions of your lights.  One of the greatest things about digital photography is that you can shoot, evaluate the result and adjust right away until you get the look you want.  When you find a setup that works for you, stick with it, and tweak it a little each time until you consistently get the results you want.

Hope this gets you started!  Feel free to comment or email me if I can offer specific suggestions.

Thanks for dropping by!

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