Photographing Small Products for Fun and Profit

Hey Everyone:

Spring cleaning has revealed a slew of small items lying around my home that either need documentation, or that need to be sold online. So, today I'll be sharing some experiences photographing small objects with the intent of documenting a collection, or selling things online. Well-photographed items not only look good, but the images can be sold to stock photography houses, and they definitely improve your sales success online.

Snapshot vs Photograph

I make this distinction often. A snapshot captures photons, but a photograph captures emotion and tells a story. This is especially important for sales, where you only get a few seconds to make that all-important first impression.

The vast majority of online images promoting an item for sale look like this image on the left. While this snapshot, taken with my trusty point-and-shoot camera, shows the product, it's flat and the background is somewhat distracting (I've seen worse, though). I deliberately used the in-camera flash, since this will be the natural tendency of folks when shooting in lower light situations. The image of each radio is very small, with too much space around the objects. The radios get “lost” in the scene. I could crop this tighter, which would improve the image dramatically, but the flatness and harsh lighting would still remain.

The image on the right completely changes the scene. There is no mistaking the subject, your eye is drawn immediately to the radios. The image is crisp and clean. The radios are well lit, and they are clearly three dimensional. There is no distracting background; the background is pure white, matching perfectly the standard white background on websites.

In addition, I have added some subtle shadows that enhance the three dimensional “feel” of the radios. The shadows are applied to give the illusion that the radios are floating just above the table. This adds to the three dimensional effect, letting the viewer get a better feel for the “depth” or “thickness” of the objects. This is especially important for the radio on the left, which is more face-on and lacks interesting extra structure (like a strap or antenna).

Making a Photograph Instead of a Snaphot

The key to producing a photograph of an object is lighting. While this is always the case for any photograph, it's critical for small objects. It's also important to have a very sharp picture. How many blurry pictures have you seen on eBay?

Large Depth of Field (DoF) is important to make sure that all parts of the object are in focus. But this typically means a large f/stop (small aperture), so you will need plenty of light to avoid high ISO Settings and the resultant high noise. (see my post on Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO Settings).

It is also crucial to shoot your subject against a clean background. While many people like colored or patterned backgrounds, it's always better to shoot against a “green screen” or better yet, a backlit white background. Green screens are great for video, or when you have items with pure white colors. But a white background produces a very clean look, and makes it easy to “knock out” any non-white color. A translucent white background is even better, because you can add a backlight (see below).

Here's an inexpensive way to achieve a white background. I purchased a white poster board for about dollar at a local hobby store. I clipped it to a fiber board, and propped it in a chair. The smooth slope of the poster board ensures that there is no shadow at a seam in the background. I used my trusty umbrella diffuser to provide a soft general light. I used an off-camera flash, triggered wirelessly, with a diffuser to provide a key light. These sources didn't produce the proper lighting, so I used my old Vivitar flash, with Peanut optical trigger, to provide hard fill light form the right side. [Please read my post about vintage flashes BEFORE you use your vintage flash in any situation with modern DSLR cameras.]

The image to the right was the best I could obtain with this setup. I like it, and it shows off two prize possessions from my youth, but it's not great. The background just wasn't smooth and clean, and the whole scene is too flat. I could have spent hours trying to isolate the objects with the lasso tool in Photoshop and then redo the background, but I didn't want to spend the effort. The flatness is somewhat mitigated by converting the image to B&W. While the figurines are Pewter and appear B&W anyway, the B&W conversion gets rid of many distracting color artifacts. In addition, these images are still fairly noisy, even with the two flashes and umbrella light.

Shooting Tents and Tables

After trying my cheap setup, and producing only mediocre results, I decided to look into a more professional solution. There are many options, but two are most common: shooting tents and tables.

A shooting tent surrounds the subject in a translucent box, and external lights are used to illuminate the box. This provides a very soft and uniform illumination of the subject. While this is great for objects with non-specular (diffusing) surfaces, sometimes you actually want hard reflections for specular (shiny) objects, and this is not easily achieved with a shooting tent.

Instead, I settled on a shooting table. There are many varieties, and you can make one yourself, but I settled on this relatively inexpensive kit. It's fairly easy to assemble and disassemble, and it's very study. And best of all, it can be backlit!

This shooting table comes with a stand, and a translucent plastic sheet that has a diffusive surface on one side. The sheet is quite thick, which makes it a bit difficult to manipulate, but that also means it's sturdy and resilient to stains. The sheet is clipped to the stand with spring-loaded hand-clips; the clips also enable other backgrounds to be attached. I have a small CFL light under the table to provide illumination for focusing and framing (basically a “modeling light”). My main strobe flash is on the floor under the table; there's also a bracket on the table stand to attach the flash, but I wanted the flash to be further away. The flash is attached to a radio remote that is triggered by a twin attached to the hot shoe on my camera. My slaved Vivitar flash is sitting on the bench and pointed at a silver reflector. This extra light source provides additional top and side fill light.

I did discover that my tripod is not sufficient for this type of photography. I had to adjust the legs to lean the camera over the table, but that made it unstable, hence the red bag of junk hanging from the balance hook. I will discuss my ultimate solution to this tripod problem in a future blog.

Here is the final image. I've done some minor post-processing in Photoshop to ensure a pure white background, and then I added shadows using this awesomely simple technique. In a future post, I'll show the processing steps in detail, which includes nine layers for the shadows; but note that it only took me about ten minutes using the aforementioned technique!

Well, that's it for today. I hope this helps your online selling. At the very least, these techniques will continue to transform your snapshots into photographs, even for everyday images. And, best of all, it's a lot fun!

Until next time, happy shooting!


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