How to Light Product Photography

By Lisa McGrimmon | Published March 23, 2021
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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.

How to Light 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:

  1. Natural lighting indoors using window light
  2. Natural lighting outdoors in open shade
  3. Artificial lighting with your product in a light box

But first, let's look at how to light product photography with some principles you can apply no matter what light source you choose.  

Product Photography Lighting Setup Basics

A simple product photography lighting setup consists of two or three primary components:

  1. A light source
  2. A reflector to increase and direct the light
  3. A diffuser may be needed to scatter the light, soften shadows and reduce unwanted reflections

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.

1. Light Sources

Woman holding DSLR cameraHow to light product photography.

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

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.

Artificial Light

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

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,

"If you need to use artificial light, invest in cheap household or garden lights, such as desk lamps with adjustable heads — just make sure that their bulbs are white in color and that you defuse the light."

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.

2. reflectors

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.

Foam Board Reflectors

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.

Commercial Photography Reflectors

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.

How to Use a Photography Reflector

Set up the reflector so it faces your light source with your product between the light source and the reflector.

Diagram showing how to use a photography 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.

3. diffusers

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.

A Couple of Definitions for Clarity:

Translucent: We say something is translucent when light passing through the object is diffused. For example, a sheer curtain is translucent.

Diffuse: Diffuse means to take something concentrated (light a beam of light) and cause it to become spread out or scattered. 

Diffuser setup for product photography

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.

How to Light Product Photography Using Natural Light

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:

  1. Create a tabletop photography setup inside beside a bright window. Use the diagram above as a guide.
  2. Set up outdoors. You'll find good lighting for outdoor product photography in open shade, during the golden hour (just after sunrise or before sunset), and on overcast days. 

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.

How to Light Product Photography Using a Light Box

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.

Product Photography Lighting Setup

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.

How to Set Up Side Lighting

  • Place your light source to one side of the object you want to photograph.
  • Position a reflector on the other side to balance out shadows.
  • If shadows are too heavy, add a diffuser between the light source and the object you're photographing.
Product photography side lighting diagram

If you're photographing something translucent like glass, give backlighting a try.

How to Set Up Backlighting

  • Place your light source behind the object you want to photograph.
  • Place a diffuser in front of the light source (behind the object you're photographing).
  • Try positioning two reflectors in front of the object you're photographing. Place one on each side of the camera, just out of the camera's view.
Product photography backlighting setup diagram

You can learn more about these popular product photography lighting setups here.

More Craft Photography Tips

  • Product Photography Backgrounds

    Product photography backgrounds. Ready-made & easy DIY backdrop ideas you can use to style product images in your home photography studio.

  • Camera Settings for Product Photography

    Key camera settings for product photography show beginner photographers the basic DSLR camera functions you need to master to take great photos of your crafts.

  • Equipment Needed for Product Photography

    All the equipment needed for product photography. 9 essential items you need to start photographing your products — 8 are free or cost under ten dollars. Plus, some extra gear you don't need immediately but may want to add to your future product photography setup.

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