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Product Photography Tips
Avoiding dark images when shooting against light backgrounds
An interactive demonstration

Cameras tend to underexpose images when capturing subjects with white or very light backgrounds. The easiest way to prevent dark, underexposed images is to use exposure compensation.

Most digital cameras have fairly easy-to-access exposure compensation controls (labeled as "EV" for Exposure Value). If your images are too dark, try adjusting the exposure compensation. A setting of +1 is a good place to start. If you end up setting the EV too high, the image will appear "washed out". Simply go back step or two until the exposure  looks right.

Clicking on the different EV settings below demonstrates how changing a camera's exposure compensation setting can avoid exposure problems. In this example shot against a white background, the standard setting of 0 is too dark. An EV setting of  +1.3 seems best for this shot.

An underexposed image

EV = -2 EV = -1  EV = 0 EV = +1 EV = +1.3   EV = +1.6    EV = +2

(Move your cursor over on an EV setting to see the effect it had on the image).

Five Simple Steps to Better Product Photography

1) In order to ensure your images are sharp, make sure you know how to focus your camera.   Digital cameras with auto focus are often difficult to focus precisely, especially when shooting small objects.  Read your owner's manual and be sure you understand how your camera's auto focus operates. Most digital cameras are designed to easily focus on large objects but have difficulty on small subjects. It is often useful to put your camera in spot focus mode.  Spot focus will give you more control over what part of a scene the camera is actually focusing on.

2) Use a tripod, even the slightest movement while taking a picture will cause motion blur.  The closer you get to an object the more obvious the motion blur becomes. Even an inexpensive tripod will make a big difference in the sharpness of your images. For really sharp images it makes sense to invest in a good, sturdy tripod. If your camera has a remote shutter release then use it, if not then use the camera's built-in timer to minimize camera shake.

3) To get the largest area of your subject in focus put your camera in aperture priority mode and set the aperture to the highest number possible. The closer you get to your subject the more important this becomes.

4) Use soft lighting.  Your camera's built-in flash will rarely give good results for product photography. For soft lighting either shoot outside on an overcast day or use a light tent  like the EZcube®, or use  a soft box.

5) Use image editing software. Even inexpensive software like Photoshop Elements™ can make your product photography much easier. It may seem like it's faster to use an image exactly as it was shot.  But in reality, it is difficult to shoot an image precisely how you would like it to appear in it's final form.  Image editing software allows you to crop an image, adjust it's exposure, sharpen the image and then resize it, often in less than 60 seconds. 

The biggest difference between an amateur's product snapshot and a professional's product image are sharpness and lighting. Steps 1,2, and 3, will improve the sharpness of your images while Step 4 will improve your lighting.  A minute spent editing an image will improve it further.  Because these few steps seem so basic, it's tempting to ignore them.  However, if you take the time to follow them, you will see a huge improvement in the quality of your images.

An easy way to determine if lighting is soft or hard

You will often read that soft lighting is the best type of lighting for product photography, and that is true.  However, unless you have a lot of experience with lighting, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if lighting is soft or hard.  Here's a simple way to check to see if you have soft or hard lighting.  This method works well both  indoors or outdoors and the only equipment it requires is your hands.

Hold your left hand out, keep it flat and slightly in front of you.  Now hold a finger from your right hand a few inches above your left hand.  Take a look at the shadow cast by your finger.  A hard shadow indicates you have hard light conditions, a soft shadow means that the lighting is soft.

Soft shadow

Soft shadow

Direct sunlight produces a hard shadow

 Soft light inside a light tent produces a soft shadow


Once you have tried this a few times you will see that you can even tell how soft or hard the light is.  And if you look carefully you will even be able to tell if the light is actually coming from multiple sources. 


Digital images contain important information about how they were taken

Sometimes you look at a series of images of the same subject and you wonder what were the conditions that made one image in the series look better than the others.  You might wish that you had been taking notes on what the camera settings were for this particular image. Fortunately, your camera was taking notes for you and it is very easy to access this information.  Most  images taken by a digital camera contain lots of information about the camera and how it was set at the time the image was taken. Lets see how easy it is to see this information.

While viewing an image on your computer  hold the cursor over the image and click the RIGHT mouse button.  A popup menu will open and the bottom item in the menu list should be Properties. Click on Properties and the Properties window will open.  Select  the Summary tab and then select Advanced.  You should now see a long list of information about that image.  Image size and other general information will be near the top.  Lower down in the list will be the exact settings of the camera at the time the image was taken. 


Here's what we see when we look at the Advanced Properties Summary of  this image.


Famous nature photographer Dennis Curtin gets up close and personal with a turtle

 Summary of the  image's Properties contains important information about how the image was taken

This detailed information, known as EXIF data,  will not be found in all digital images.  But you should be able to find it for any image taken by a recent vintage digital camera so long as the image format has not been changed from the original. The steps above show how to access this EXIF information from Windows.  You can also get to the same information from most imaging programs like Photoshop™ or Photoshop Elements™.


 Use a "pre-flight checklist" or photography log

Use a formal digital photography log or create your own checklist on a pad of paper.

This checklist, or log, will help you to improve your photography. The purpose is to help you to recall the lighting conditions, equipment, and settings used for a particular image. This information is invaluable when recreating a certain image at a later date or when reproducing an effect long after the original shot was taken. Use it to review the conditions that led to “good” or “bad” images. Even if you don’t fill in a log for every shot, a log is useful as a pre-flight checklist to ensure that you’re paying attention to everything that will have an impact on your shot.

The settings and conditions listed have a significant effect on the quality of an image.

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