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In the Shooting with Wireless Flash series, award-winning photographer Jim Sugar demonstrates his approach to using off-camera flash in a variety of lighting scenarios, sharing practical tips along the way.
In this installment, Jim sets up and shoots a product shot. He demonstrates a variety of inexpensive lighting tools—clamps, gels, and other light modifiers—to light a product (in this course, a bicycle) in a way that accurately shows its color and other details. Next, he photographs the product using Adobe Lightroom's tethered shooting mode in order to be able to immediately assess his exposures on the computer screen. The course wraps up with a some tips that apply to product shots of all kinds. With its focus on lighting technique rather than specific strobe models and menu commands, these techniques are applicable to any brand of strobe and camera.
So we made a great product shot of a bicycle. Now you may never have to photograph a brand new bike, but there are certain techniques that apply no matter what kind of product you are shooting using Wireless Flash. Here are some tips to keep in mind. First tip: do your homework. Browse some magazines, catalogues, the web, and look at photos of other similar products. Study how other photographers approached the task. How do they position the product? How did they light it? Try to reverse engineer the shots.
Your goal is not to copy another photographer's style, but to get a feeling for how other photographers have approached similar jobs. Next tip: plan your shot. Choose a lens and a camera position that accommodates the product you're shooting, and the space where you're shooting it. The size of your working space, and the size of the product, will determine the focal length of the lens you can use. For large items like a bicycle, you'll need to make sure that your working space is large enough that you can shoot the product without having to use a wide-angle lens that might introduce distortion.
If you're shooting using Seamless Background Paper, you'll also want to make sure that the background is wide enough to include the entire product from left to right. For the bicycle product shot, I worked in a TV studio that has large wrap around cove walls and a high ceiling. It was perfect for shooting a large item like a bicycle, and because of the curved walls, we didn't need seamless background paper. Now a space like this is a luxury that I don't usually have, and it was a great place to work.
But it presented its own challenge: bright video lights. I had to make sure that my strobes could light the bicycle, and overpower the ambient light created by the TV lights. To do that, I measured the ambient light using the light meter in the camera. Then I set up the strobes and cranked up their power, so that their output was at least one or two F-stops brighter than the video lights. Now you may never have to shoot in a brightly lit TV studio, but you might have to shoot a product in a space that has bright ambient window light.
If you don't have the luxury of finding a darker location, you still have a couple of options. One option is to move the strobes closer to the subject to increase the relative brightness. Another option is to reduce the window light. Cover the window with something: a dark cloth, a piece of seamless background paper, a window blind, a bed sheet, or even a shower curtain stolen from the bathroom. At one time or another, I've done all of these things.
The bottom line is that lowering the ambient light in the space reduces the need to crank up the power of the strobes. Because remember, asking small strobes to fire at full power, or even close to it, increases the recycling time, and drains the battery's faster. Next tip: use a tripod. Take advantage of the fact that you're shooting something that doesn't move. Put your camera on a tripod. This makes it easier to compose your shot with more precision, and make adjustments to your lighting.
No need to put down and pick up your camera, and recompose your shot over and over again. Also think about shooting in Tethered mode. As I described when we did the bicycle shot, this lets you view your photos on a big screen instead of your camera's tiny LCD screen. The large view can make it much easier to adjust lighting and exposure settings since you can really see the details of your photo. Next tip: compose your shot carefully.
In product photography, your goal is to create good-looking photos that show the item accurately. To get that accuracy, make sure you compose the shot in a way that doesn't distort parts of the product. For example, you might get unwanted distortion if you use a wide-angle lens, and get too close to the product. For the bicycle shot, it was important that the wheels appeared perfectly round, because it turns out that it's hard to sell a bicycle that has warped wheels.
The solution was to suspend the bicycle using fishing line. This allowed me to shoot straight on, and eliminate distortion and shadows that would've taken a long time to fix in Photoshop. And finally, one last tip. Estimate how many lights you will need, and estimate where to place those lights. Your goal is to light the product evenly, and in a way that shows details, and avoids unwanted reflections or hotspots. Often, adding just a single strobe to the ambient light can make a big change in the look and feel of the image.
But if you think you'll need a lot of artificial light sources, then by all means use them. Bring every strobe you own, and borrow or rent additional ones if you need to. And, ultimately, this is why it's important to do your homework. Get to know the space where you are working. A logical, consistent approach will help you minimize problems, and shoot better photos. Thank you so much for watching!
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