Natural light product photography
Case study: Photographing products with no lights
In the past, I’ve proved that you don’t need lots of equipment to get good results and I demonstrated this again for our recent ‘Working to a brief challenge’ when I shot a product shot of a wine bottle using only natural light.
When you apply the knowledge of light, you can achieve similar results with little to no equipment. As you’ll see in the video above and the live show, I managed to create a close replica of a previous wine bottle studio shot using nothing more than natural light from a window, some diffusion material, a reflector, and two iPhones.
Wine bottle product shot taken using studio flash.
Wine bottle product shot taken using natural light.
The purpose of this shoot was to show our members exactly how they could achieve the brief I’d provided them with even if they didn’t have a studio or flash lights.
The brief I’d set our members was very exact — it specified everything from background and base surface to the lighting on the bottle. So when it came to replicating the shot myself I knew what I was aiming to achieve. The reference image they had to work to was one of my own previous photos that I had taken in the studio using flash, but to eliminate any excuses I demonstrated how you don’t need studio lights (or even a studio) to create high-quality images.
To start, I made sure I had the right background (a piece of MDF board painted grey) and base surface (an old tabletop we often use for product photography). I placed these by a south-facing window in the studio.
Next, I considered my lighting setup, or in this case my window. When using studio lights we can pick and choose from the most suitable modifiers, but a window is a window. Or is it?
Photography is mostly about problem-solving, so don’t ever feel you have to settle for what you’ve got. Think creatively about how you can make whatever you’ve got work for you.
The light from the window itself was too harsh down the left-hand side of the bottle, which meant I had to find a way to soften the light. For this type of product shoot, I’d usually use a softbox shining through some diffusion material, but instead, I used multiple sheets of diffusion to create the soft gradient light down the side of the bottle.
The light down the right-hand-side of the bottle was achieved using a piece of white foam board (though white paper or card would work just as well), while the light on the background was achieved using the torch function on two iPhones, which were hidden behind the bottle.
Product photography at home
This shoot is a perfect example of what you can achieve at home. Even without any studio lights, I was able to recreate a result similar to what I'd usually do for a commercial product image shot using professional lighting.
If you’re looking to start a career in product photography, the good news is that you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started. For this shoot, I only used the following:
- Camera with 100mm lens
- Base surface
- Diffusion material
- White reflector card
As you can see, the equipment list was pretty minimal (you can see my top 10 accessories for studio photography here).
Lenses for product photography
The next question you’re probably asking is “What lens is the best for product photography?” I used a 100mm lens for this shoot, though I also commonly use the 80mm lens (these are equivalent to about 73mm and 60mm respectively in 35mm format). You can learn more about which lenses are the best for different types of photography in my lens buying guide.
Cameras & settings for product photography
The next thing to think about is the camera settings for product photography. You’ll see the camera and camera settings I used for this shoot in the video, though you could use almost any DSLR for photographing products at home. The most important thing is that your camera offers the ability to shoot in Manual mode.
The best settings for product photography vary depending on the subject you’re shooting, but generally I use a small aperture to ensure the product is sharp throughout. Sometimes this isn’t always possible when shooting small objects, so you may have to use a technique called focus stacking to get sufficient depth of field.
Shutter speed is something to consider too if you’re using natural light (remember shutter speed has little impact when using studio flash), and this also can vary. If you have lots of light, a faster shutter speed is usually preferable; if you have a limited amount of light then a slower shutter speed and tripod may be necessary. When it comes to ISO, I try to keep mine as low as possible (generally around 100), but again if you’re working with limited natural light this may have to go higher.
Backgrounds for product photography
Backgrounds are an essential element of any shot, so it's vital that you choose the right one. This should complement, rather than distract from the product; you could use anything from a plain grey or white background to a textured wooden board.
For this wine bottle shoot, I used a tabletop as my base surface and a piece of MDF board as the background. You can also see in our food photography classes how we used the same dining room table as the setup for three different shots.
You'll see each of these points in practice in this natural light wine bottle shoot and you can also see them in our natural light food photography classes.
The key thing to keep in mind when photographing products at home is how you're going to control your light. Rather than get caught up in worrying about what equipment you ‘need', focus on what light you have available and how you're going to control it to get the results you want.