Thursday, February 19, 2009

Product Photography - It's Beautiful

One of my favorite types of photography is the product "beauty shot." Instead of flat, even lighting of "catalog style" photography that clearly shows every detail of the product, there is a beautiful interplay of light and shadow. Shadow, a mysterious area of the picture where the product and props are suggested, but not clearly shown. Shadow, creating contrast to the highlighted areas and making them pop off the page. Shadow, making the product look more expensive and attractive, even if it is a $26 blender from Target. See examples at

In beauty style product photography, the light coming from behind the product is often more important than the light coming from the front. This "rim lighting" outlines the edge of the product and creates the glowing shape that separates it from the darker background. It is "hard light", meaning it is not softened or diffused with a soft box or umbrella. I often grab the hard light coming from behind the product, and bounce it back into the front or side of the product with a small, silver foil reflector.

A good illustration of the difference between hard light and soft light is as follows: soft light is like when the sun is covered with clouds. The shadows appearing on the ground have soft edges, and are not clearly defined. Hard light is like when the sun is shining in a blue sky with no clouds. The shadows are hard edged, clearly defined and are very dark.

During the early years of my photography career I, like most new photographers, used soft light almost exclusively for all my photography, portraits and products alike. It was safe, boring, and gave the impression that I was a professional. Light that is defused, directionless and shadow less is flat and lackluster. That’s one reason that overcast, cloudy days are not as cheerful as bright, sunny days. Back in the 80s I used umbrellas, moving to soft boxes in the 90s. For the past 10 years, I have used a mix of hard and soft light. The hard light defines the shape and texture of a product, while the soft light lightens the shadows caused by the hard light and allows the viewer to see details in the shadows. This mix of lighting styles causes my images to have more "punch", higher saturation, more texture, and more interesting defined shapes. Although some of my clients still ask for shadow-less "catalog style" image, I prefer shooting my own style with a mix of hard and soft light.

Most of my work is done with at least two and as many as eight lights. If you count the reflectors, there are sometimes as many as twelve light sources in my images. However, there is always one main or “key” light that has more power than any other light source. I always want to see the shadow cast by this light, regardless of how many lights fill those shadows. The correct placement of the key light can be determined by asking yourself the question “what is the most important feature of my subject, and what do I want to make sure people see? What is the main selling point I want to emphasize? Is it texture, shape or color?” That is the feature in the product the lighting must show off.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Advice to Young Photographers

What many photography programs in college seem to forget is that running a photography business is just that – a business. It does not matter how great your images are, how talented you are or how amazing your portfolio is, it no one sees your images and if you can’t negotiate a fair price with clients, your photography business will fail. A new photographer needs to spend about 80% of their time marketing and trying to find new clients, 10% shooting portfolio samples, 5% doing quotes and bidding on projects and 5% actually shooting the projects. So why are 95% of their classes on how to make and edit pictures?
Most photography programs in colleges just teach students how to make pretty pictures. Not necessarily pictures that clients will want to pay for, but just nice, artistic work. Although most photography programs have one business or marketing class, it is usually taught by someone who has not succeeded in the market place, and so the teacher is working part-time to pay the rent.
If you are still in school, take classes in the following areas:
Website Design
Marketing & Advertising
Starting a business

If you are already out of school, try to find a photographer who is financially successful, and become their intern even if you have to work for free. Learn how they find clients, sell to them, invoice them, shoot for them and keep them coming back for more.

Creating Your On-Line Portfolio

Your web presence is your window to the world. It must be professional, well designed, optimized for search engines so that it is on the first page of major search engines, and targeted at a particular client group. Do you want to land advertising agencies with food clients with your portfolio? Then why do you have out of focus black and white pictures of flowers and mountains on your website? Do you want to shoot corporate events for FedEx, Bank of America, and Sony? Then why do you have dark and moody nudes and still life images on your site?
Pick 5-10 companies you would love to work for. They can be companies that sell clothing, jewelry, car, food, electronics, it doesn’t matter. Then go to their website and look at all the images they show there. Find their magazine advertisements. Go to the library and see if you can look at their annual report. Contact them for free brochures. Study the type of images they use, and then show that type of images on your website. Then contact the advertising agency or marketing management of those companies and ask them to look at your work, hopefully in a face-to-face meeting. If you have images that you love, but they would not be purchased by these 5-10 companies, don’t include them, or put them on a page on your website called “personal.” That way your clients will see what you love, but understand that you know what they want to buy as well.