Top Tips for Small Product Photography

October 03, 2016

If you’ve ever made an online purchase, you know images matter! Strong, impactful photography is super important to make your products stand out to buyers. It differentiates you from the competition, it shows the condition of the product along with its unique details and it can tell a story – a picture is worth a thousand words and maybe a thousand dollars!

In this multi-part series of articles, I’m going to start by sharing some quick tips to help you get the quality of your photography to a higher level so your products look their best. Then, I’ll share several techniques to get you started VERY inexpensively. Finally, I’ll progress into other techniques that require some investment – but are totally worth it to make your product photos truly stand out to potential buyers.

1. Use a macro lens or extension tube

Sometimes the items you need to photograph are very small; or perhaps you want to highlight isolated areas of the item to show its details.

In these situations it might be best to use the right tool for the job.  Macro lenses are specifically designed to focus closer than a traditional lens, thereby giving you the up-close perspective and fine details that other lenses simply can’t produce.

While there are several macro lenses in the Canon system, the EF 100mm 2.8 Macro USM is one of the most popular, not only for its image quality but price as well.

You may also achieve similar results with the lenses you already own by adding an extension tube.  These devices mount between your lens and the camera body but have no optics.  Their only job is to allow for closer focusing by pulling the lens away from the camera body slightly while still maintaining communication between the camera and lens.  While there is some light loss associated with using extension tubes, the camera accounts for this fact and adjusts exposure information accordingly.  Extension tubes are a very reasonably priced alternative to purchasing true macro lenses.  Canon produces two versions of these extension tubes – the EF 12 II and the EF 25 II with the only difference between the two being that the EF 25 II allows for closer focusing than the EF 12 II.

EF 12 II Extension Tube - EF 25 II also available for even closer focus.
2. Give your item a sense of scale

When photographing apparel, having a sense of scale is really important. Without scale, the item could appear to be inaccurate in size and may fool the buyer. For wearable items, it’s nice to see them on a model.  It gives context to the product and helps tell a story all while showing it off. It’s also a good idea to take additional photographs with a ruler next to the item, which provides valuable information to the buyer regarding its size, especially with smaller items.

To show a sense of scale, photograph your small item next to a ruler or, if the item is wearable, photograph it on someone.
3. Photograph highly reflective objects in a light tent

Jewelry is probably the most common product to consider photographing under a light tent. The reasoning is to reduce the amount of reflections on the item by surrounding it with white translucent fabric or plastic. Then by adding light from the exterior, such as Speedlites or some sort of constant light source, reflections are significantly reduced to showcase the product's details beautifully with a more polished professional look. Premade light tents are available at photo retailers or you can make your own with a shower curtain, as shown here.

An example of a light tent to considerably cut down reflections on shiny item such as jewelry.
Reflections almost completely disappear on this locket.
4. Reflectors – Store bought or homemade

Invest in a silver/white reflector to use on the opposite side of the light source to help fill in shadows and provide a more polished look to your product photography.

Photo reflector – one side silver and the other side white

White foam core and tin foil also are nice alternatives to use as reflectors for smaller tabletop products.  Insert wire into the foam core to help the reflector to stand on its own as shown.

Homemade reflector using a piece of white foam core wrapped in tin foil (use the dull side)
Use wire poked into the foam core to help the reflector stand on its own.
5. Backdrops and textures

Find interesting complimentary fabric or textured upholstery to use as backdrops while photographing your products.  Photographic roll paper (seamless) also works well when you're looking for a very clean surface to photograph on. A clear sheet of acrylic is nice to use underneath the product to add a professional looking reflection.

A variety of complimentary items and textures purchased at a craft store will serve as your backdrop.
A simple piece of clear acrylic placed on top of the fabric or paper adds a professional looking reflection under your product.
6. Window light

Simple window light (without direct sun) is an easy light source to use for photographing products.  Reflectors will more than likely be needed on the opposite side of the subject to fill in shadows but it’s the best light out there . . . FREE!

Window light is available to just about everyone and gives you similar results to a softbox.
7. Shower curtain

Use an inexpensive white shower curtain to shoot light - one of the easiest and least expensive ways to create beautiful, soft light on your product. Simply hang the curtain on a rod or a boom arm and shoot light through it.  If your windows don’t let much light through, you can always take your “studio” outside and shoot on a porch or under the cover of a tree.  The idea here is that you may not necessarily want the light coming from overhead -- by shooting with the overhead view of the sun obstructed, you force the light to travel in to your product from the side and through the shower curtain.  Now you can control the shadows with reflectors.  One key here is to make sure there is sun striking the shower curtain as shown in the images below. Whether it’s natural light or a flash, the result is the same…the best darned $2.99 you can spend for DIY photography!

A simple $2.99 white shower curtain works amazingly well as a light modifier for softening harsh light.
8. Steady your camera

Use a tripod to steady your camera when shooting your products to help avoid blurry pictures.

A sturdy tripod is a very useful tool when photographing small products.

Using Live View and a two-second timer delay will also aid in achieving super sharp images.  

Activating Live View allows you to use the magnify tool on the back of your camera to see areas you want to critically focus on.

Why Live View? Inside your camera there is a mirror that flips up and out of the way allowing light to pass through to the camera’s sensor during the exposure.  The simple act of the mirror slapping up can cause slight amounts of blur at slower shutter speeds even while on a tripod.

The two-second timer delay is a very useful tool to allow the camera vibrations to subside from pushing the shutter button before the picture is taken.

Why a two-second delay?  The act of pushing down the shutter on the camera can cause additional blur, again during the use of slow shutter speeds.  The delay allows the camera to settle down and stabilize before it takes the picture.  For more details about these techniques, read my blog posting here.

9. Use aperture to control focus depth (or depth of field)

Focus and depth of field play a huge role in where you look while viewing an image. Do you want to draw the eye to a specific detail or show off the entire piece?  Your eye will naturally gravitate to the area of sharpest focus. Changing your lens aperture to a larger number like f/11 or f/16 will show more of your product in focus from front to back. Choosing a small aperture number like f/2.8 or f/4 will showcase one particular area of your product, leaving the foreground and background out of focus. This technique is used in the movies constantly.

Shallow depth of field on the left (f/2.8) and deep depth of field on the right (f/16)

So there are your quick tips!  Of course there are more and I will follow this article up with a “deeper dive” into this world of photographing small items in the weeks to come, so stay tuned for more.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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