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.

Karl Taylor speedlights product photography
Setting up the speedlights for the headphones shoot

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.

Headphones photographed with speedlights

© Karl Taylor

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Earphones Product Shoot

In this live photoshoot, Karl demonstrates two different lighting setups — one with studio lights and one with speedlights.
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Now let’s boost your practical photography knowledge by taking a closer look at this popular light source. We'll focus on what speedlights are and how they work when you're in the process of photographing products. Mastering these lights is a great way to build quality into your photography.

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.

Canon Speedlite, Nikon Speedlight

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).

Getting the speedlights in position
Karl uses two speedlights simultaneously to light the headphones

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.

Speedlights used in conjunction with strobes
Six speedlights, positioned behind scrims, being used in conjunction with a beauty dish for our 'Model Throws Paint' class
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Model Throws Paint

This isn't a product shoot, but it IS a great example of how to use speedlights in conjunction with studio flash.
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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.

Karl Taylor speedlight photography
Karl using a speedlight in the studio
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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.

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Speedlights vs Studio Flash for Small Product Photography

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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!

Some speedlights have built-in modelling lights
Karl using the modelling lights on his speedlights during the live edition of the headphones shoot

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.

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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.

The final fashion image
Karl modifying a speedlight using a blue gel

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.

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Speedlite Product Photography

For this shot, Karl uses three speedlites: one behind the bottle, one to the right of the bottle, and one from the front.
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Hildon bottle photographed by Karl Taylor using speedlights
Karl shot this bottle using only speedlights (© Karl Taylor)

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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