A solid understanding of how to light product photography is essential if you're going to take effective photos of items you make to sell. There's no way around it. Good lighting is fundamental to good product photography.
There are countless techniques you can use to create beautiful effects with your lighting.
For now, forget about learning all of those techniques. Start with a few basic lighting setups that are easy for a beginner photographer to get right and require minimal equipment.
With a basic lighting setup, you'll be able to quickly start practicing hands-on and build your skills. You can learn more advanced lighting techniques later if you like.
We'll cover three simple ways to light your product photos:
But first, let's look at how to light product photography with some principles you can apply no matter what light source you choose.
A simple product photography lighting setup consists of two or three primary components:
When you're setting up lighting for product photography, you're simply arranging these two or three components in specific ways to create a desired effect.
You can light your product photography with natural light or artificial light.
Avoid using both types of light at the same time to light the same photo. For example, don't set up to photograph your products in front of a window and then add an artificial light source into the mix.
Photographers call this scenario "mixed lighting." Working with mixed lighting is more difficult than working with a single type of light. There's no need to add extra complications to your product photography, so stick with a single type of light.
You can use more than once source of light without complicating the situation as long as they are they same type of light. For example, if you're using artificial light, you can use two or more lights to light your photo.
Natural light — sunlight — is an excellent option for product photography. It's free, and once you know some basics, natural light is easy to for a beginner photographer to work with.
There is a dizzying array of lighting equipment for product photography. You could easily get lost down a rabbit hole researching this topic.
In keeping with the "keep it simple" theme I've carried throughout the craft photography series, we'll focus on continuous lighting, which is a simple, budget-friendly lighting option for beginners.
Continuous lighting is exactly what it sounds like — light that is continuously on. This is in contrast to the other types of lights you may come across, such as strobes or speedlights, which provide a flash of light when you take a photo.
Continuous lighting is an excellent choice for beginner product photographers.
Since this type of light is always on, you can see the effect your lighting has on your scene. As you adjust your setup, you'll see and learn how shadows change when you move a light source or add a reflector.
Continuous lighting for product photography can be easy on your budget, too. In fact, Heidi Adnum, author of The Crafter's Guide to Taking Great Photos says,
You don't have to run out and buy a fancy, super-expensive photography light kit to get started.
You can pick up some clamp lights with aluminum reflectors and fluorescent light bulbs.
Next, find a couple of plain white t-shirts. Stretch them over the lights, secure them with elastic bands, and you'll have instant, free diffusers.
Keep in mind, continuous light is not as bright as light from strobes or speedlights. You'll need to consider the lower light conditions when you adjust your camera settings.
You'll also need to consider the size of the space you're photographing. Larger areas require more wattage to light. Tabletop photography for a small product, such as handmade soap, requires less wattage. Photographing a model wearing a dress would require more.
What does a photography reflector do?
A reflector is a tool that reflects light from your light source and bounces it back onto your product. It helps you manipulate the light coming from your light source. You can use a reflector to change the amount, direction, and color of light that falls on your product.
If you're looking for an inexpensive reflector, white foam boards will do the job beautifully.
For tabletop product photography, get two pieces of foam board. Tape the two boards together along the edge so they form a V shape. The boards will stand on their own, and you won't need to clamp them to anything to hold them in place.
This arrangement will keep your hands free for other tasks and makes it easy to move the reflector around as needed.
You can also buy reflectors made specifically for photography. They typically come with white, black, silver, and gold surfaces and can be used as a diffuser as well.
To keep this type of reflector in place, you'll need some way to secure the reflector in place, such as a reflector stand, or a helpful assistant who will hold the reflector for you.
Set up the reflector so it faces your light source with your product between the light source and the reflector.
This setup allows the reflector to bounce the light from your light source back onto your product. The reflector will increase the overall amount of light in your photos and balance out shadows.
You can move your reflector around to create different effects, but start here and then experiment with the placement of your reflector.
What is a diffuser?
A diffuser is a translucent panel that can be placed between your light source and the object you are photographing to make the light more scattered.
What is a diffuser used for in photography?
When light passes through the diffuser, it spreads out and becomes more even. If you're seeing stark shadows or distracting highlights in your photos, try using a diffuser. It will help soften shadows and reduce or eliminate distracting highlights.
Keep in mind, you won't always need to use a diffuser to get the light just right for your product photography. You may already have diffuse light. For example, if you're photographing outside with natural light on an overcast day, the sunlight will already be nice and even.
Lighting your product photos with sunlight is a particularly good choice for beginner photographers. It's easy to learn and you don't need a lot of equipment to get started.
If you want to try using natural light for your product photos, you have two options:
I've written more about using natural light in photography here. You can learn about how to light product photography using window light and outdoor light. You'll also find more diagrams for setting up to photograph in natural light inside and outside.
If you want to make the leap from using natural light to artificial light, and your products are small enough for a tabletop setup, consider light box product photography. It's an uncomplicated, affordable way to start lighting your product photography with artificial light.
What is light box product photography?
A light box (or light tent) is a box that has one open end. The other sides are covered with a translucent white material. Items are photographed inside the light box.
A light box helps you create diffuse lighting. It allows you to control the environment and avoid common problems, such as unexpected reflections or color cast from items in the larger environment.
If, for example, you were photographing your products in a room you had painted a strong color, the color on the walls would affect the color of your photos. If you placed your products inside a light tent to be photographed, you wouldn't have to worry about the color of the walls.
You can learn how to get started with light box product photography here.
There are countless ways you can set up your lighting for product photography.
Luckily, you don't need to know every fancy setup going. There are a few simple lighting arrangements that reliably produce great results.
Side lighting is a solid starting point to light your product photography.
If you're photographing something translucent like glass, give backlighting a try.
You can learn more about these popular product photography lighting setups here.