Product Photography with Speedlights
When I assigned my members a headphones product shoot for one of our ‘Working to a Brief’ challenges, it was only fair that I tackle the product photography brief myself. To up the ante, I opted to do so using only speedlights – no studio flash!
Watch the video to find out how I did, and post a comment at the bottom to let me know what you think of the final image.
This relatively straightforward shoot – which required just two speedlights and some simple DIY modifiers, plus a basic background – serves as a great example of what you can achieve as a product photographer even if you don’t have access to lots of expensive equipment such as strobe lights.
In the video, you’ll watch me demonstrate more than one useful practical technique. For example, I use white tack to attach the headphones to small pieces of black card that I’ve cut out by hand with scissors. I then place one of them on top of a piece of semi-transparent 5mm white acrylic which I suspend across two blocks.
Once I’ve positioned the two speedlights beneath the acrylic, pointing upwards, I add a couple of basic reflectors made from white paper. One goes overhead while the other, a thin strip, lies just next to the headphone to enhance the glossy finish.
Having repositioned the lights to direct them at the speaker grills, it’s time to repeat the whole process for the other headphone. After that, some straightforward post-production is the last step to completing the image.
The high-quality final image, with its vivid detail and alluring gradient lighting, is a testament to what you can achieve as a product photographer working with low-cost speedlights and homemade modifiers and props – no strobes needed.
© Karl Taylor
Focus point: what are speedlights?
The word ‘speedlight’ refers to an off-camera flash unit, sometimes also called a flashgun. A Nikon-brand unit like this is called a Speedlight, while Canon calls its own version a Speedlite.
Whatever the brand, a speedlight is a battery-powered unit that can be attached to the hot-shoe mount on top of your camera. The mount also connects it to the camera’s power, which means the flash can be triggered by the shutter.
Attaching the speedlight is not a necessity, however. You can also position it away from the camera (attached to a light stand, for example) and trigger it remotely (wirelessly or not), enabling you to adjust the angle, direction and length of the lighting in your shot – as I do in the headphone shoot above.
Is a speedlight better than an on-camera flash unit for product photography?
In a word: yes. Why? Because you can position a speedlight wherever and however you need to. This key difference gives you greater control over your light source, which can be extremely helpful when you're photographing products. Even better, you can set up multiple speedlights and trigger all the flashes simultaneously using a master flash unit (typically called a Master Speedlight or Commander Mode).
When you’re using a speedlight in manual mode, you can adjust the power to suit your needs with much greater precision than you can with standard on-camera flash. You can also control the exposure level using flash compensation to make sure the focus point of your subject isn't overexposed.
Speedlight vs strobe light: which is better for product photography?
There’s no doubt that strobe lights are an essential piece of kit for any serious product photographer. But using strobes in conjunction with speedlights is sometimes the best way to create the image you’re looking for in your camera.
One of the main arguments in favour of speedlights is their small size, which naturally makes them easy to transport. It also enables you to fit them into awkward, tight spots when you’re shooting – an ability that can make all the difference on highly technical product shoots, when your subject might be very small, detailed, or unusually shaped.
Benefits of speedlights: natural light effect and more
Speedlights are also great for bouncing light off a nearby surface, as I demonstrate in the headphone shoot video above.
Like many photographers, I also love the strong shadows that speedlights create. These can be very useful for adding drama, depth and dimensionality to an image.
Shooting Liquid Bubbles with a Single Speedlight
Alternatively, you can create a less harsh, more ambient-feeling light by softening the flash (and the shadows its casts) from a speedlight by using a white flash diffuser cap. These are also known as bounce adapters and they enable you to evenly spread the light from the flash, making it feel more like natural light.
Cons of using speedlights for product photography: low power output and more
Of course, though it is definitely possible to produce high quality images for product photography with speedlights alone, they aren’t perfect. Much as I value them, and don't like to focus on negatives, there are a few factors that prevent off-camera flashes from being ideal all-rounders.
One is simply that a speedlight is a less powerful than a strobe light. While strobes usually start at around 500W, speedlights typically only offer a tenth of that at 50W. Sometimes, when you're shooting products, you just need more power.
While being battery-powered makes speedlights very mobile, batteries do inevitably run down. This is a big deal for product photographers.
Aside from being a source of worry, it means that after an extended spell of shooting, your speedlights may begin losing power. At that point, it’s no longer possible to create images with your camera without first charging the flashes back up.
No modelling light: a problem in product photography
Another major downside, particularly for product photographers, is the lack of a modelling light on some speedlights. If you can only catch a glimpse of your subject matter when the flash goes off, it’s very difficult to make tiny adjustments to your setup and composition.
You can overcome this problem by using an additional light (a torch, for example) as a modelling light – though you may already have your hands too full of camera to illuminate your subject in this way!
Alternatively, you can simply make sure the speedlights you buy DO have built in modelling lights!
Flashing from total darkness to bright light in short bursts, as will happen when you're taking photos in a dark studio with no modelling light, can be uncomfortable for your subject.
This flash of light makes speedlights good for freezing movement in your photos, as well as for creating powerful shadows.
Macro Photography at Home
Difficult to modify, hard to control
Speedlights have traditionally been quite difficult to modify, making them less adaptable and giving you less room for experimentation during a long shoot when you're taking product photos.
This, too, is kind of a big deal for product photographers, who need to be completely in control of their camera and lights – and whose technique often depends on using modifiers to achieve a difference in the image in the frame.
Fortunately, modifiers for speedlights are becoming more widely available. With gels, grids, reflectors, dome diffusers and more for speedlights now on the market, flashguns are becoming more versatile all the time.
Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that speedlights are not damage-proof. What you gain in low cost, you may lose in build quality. The premature conclusion of more than one product shoot has been signalled by the sound of a dropped speedlight hitting the floor and sustaining irreparable damage!
If this has happened to you while creating photos using one of these flashes, don't worry – you're not alone.
Speedlights: product photography will benefit from them
Despite these drawbacks, speedlights are undoubtedly powerful, portable, versatile pieces of low-cost equipment that most product photographers regard as an essential piece of gear. I'm always ready to mount a defence of them when someone makes a negative comment.
Sometimes, as in the headphone shoot at the top of this post, or in the Hildon bottle shoot below, speedlights are all you need to create high quality images with your camera.
If not, using speedlights in combination with strobe lights can help you produce lighting effects that will improve your product shots and help you wow potential clients and customers alike with your images.
Where do you stand on this subject? Do you have knowledge or experience of off-camera flashes you'd like to share? Feel free to post a comment in the comments section below.
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