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I try to shoot some pictures of apparel, lingerie, cometics on a white fluffy rag or a white paper board with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i + a Canon - Speedlite 270EX II External Flash on a tripod in day light in a mostly white room. I want not shadow-less pictures but with little shadows, natural colors similar to enter image description here from http://www.photigy.com/how-to-photograph-textured-subject-like-shoes/ or enter image description here

Time to laugh: I spent 3 days taking hundreds of pictures, my back and legs hurt of continuous folding/unfolding. My photos - worthless piece of crap, the camera - crap.

First, with the flash. If it's pointed directly at the object, there no shadows at all, all of them are eliminated, ugly crap. If it is cosmetic bottles, they have disgusting illuminated spots. If the flash is pointed at a ceiling, it is still crap, it doesn't help much. Colors are not natural but very grey, the focus is blurry. Cheap work.

Second, without the flash. Holly molly, absolute crap. I would draw by hand better than taking pictures like that. Colors - dull, no focus at all like in a cheap camera for $100. Only Photoshop helps, and I can resurrect photos.

I tried to make a diffuser of white paper for the flash - didn't help, a 5% improvement.

I tried to shoot under a fluorescent bulb - crap. I bought another $40 bulb of the 3M brand with 1000 lums - it didn't help, yellowish pictures, dull, grey, poor focus.

The camera's settings are auto, I tried manual, set all properties 100 times - the same result like in auto. The manual focus doesn't help, works the same like in auto focus.

Please help.

My masterpieces (not edited): enter image description here enter image description here

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    \$\begingroup\$ The camera definitely is not "crap". But only a single flash and especially daylight are less than ideal conditions for this kind of photos. Even in the link you posted it says "Start with 1-3 spot lights". \$\endgroup\$
    – his
    Dec 29, 2013 at 15:56

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This is a big subject, so any answer is going to be incomplete. Entire books have been written on lighting and product photography; if you're interested in a good one, "Light: Science and Magic" is in its third printing, with 234 out of its 277 combined reviews being 5-star on Amazon-dot-com. It's a text on principles, not a photographer's look-at-what-I-did portfolio, and covers a lot of ground. Well worth it if that style of learning appeals to you.

To create useful shadows the flash needs to be away from the camera. An off-camera TTL cable will let you do this; Canon has the OC-E3 cable, but much cheaper alternatives are not hard to find. This will let you move the flash four or five feet (1-1.5m) away from the camera, which will make a huge difference for tabletop photography. You can preview the effects of the flash placement by moving a flashlight beam across your subject, and the difference can be tremendous.

The 270EX and T2i has two exposure controls that you'll need to juggle, and you'll need to be out of Auto mode to do it.

The first is exposure compensation, marked by a +/- icon. A positive value makes the image brighter, and a negative one makes it darker. Use this when a white background or a dark subject dominates the frame, but keep an eye on the highlights and deep shadows when you use it. For example, there's some delicate highlights on the bottle of lube (excuse me, 'Enchanted Nights Ultra Lubricating Hand and Body Cream') that would become ugly if they were much brighter. If you're in Manual mode you set this more directly, by choosing a combination of shutter speed and aperture that's brighter or darker than the central meter position that the camera will encourage you to use.

The second control is flash exposure compensation. This tells the camera how much light the flash should add to the scene relative to the metered non-flash exposure – it makes the flash brighter or darker. A less powerful flash blast can fill in shadows when window/ambient is the main light source, and more power can make the flash be your key light and let ambient light be the fill. This is where you can really change how the photo looks.

Make sure that you have the camera on a tripod while you're doing all of this, and have the flash on a second tripod or on a stand as well. Having a consistent placement makes it much easier to see the effect of small changes and repeat what works. Also, don't do three days' worth of effort before looking at the results. :) I may take dozens of photos before I've dialled in my setup, look at them on the computer to confirm, and then wipe the card before taking the few 'good' photos that I did all of the work for – then repeat it all again for my next setup.

Finally, remember that what you're doing at the camera stage is simply creating the best possible raw material for digital editing. Removing the background, fine-tuning the lighting, and boosting the contrast and saturation is the next step in taking your lube bottle from its present 'American Apparel' advertisement state to a fully-groomed Victoria's Secret runway backdrop. After all, nothing in real life actually looks like it does in the magazines.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the book tip. I have ordered the current edition. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 15 at 15:34
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The reasons your having difficulty getting great color are different for each of these images.

1.) Exposure must be correct: No blown out highlights as in photo #1. So keep your highlights with detail under 242.
If your camera is profiled using the ColorChecker Passport system (recommended) then make sure your shooting that target and profiling your camera at a good usable range. (246-15) Both the first and second images have highlights that are too clean. Overexposure will wash out your colors.(RGB values)

Underexposure is also a killer as in the third and fourth images. The whites are no longer white and that gray's out the product colors. Remember: Light is color. The absence of light is...well dark and nobody sees color in the dark very well. So keep the lighting level in the proper range for the subject.

Exposure seems to be your main problem, so try that first and move to the other suggestions below.

2.) Shoot on manual. Because it's not possible for your camera and flash combo to give you the creativity that a photographer can provide. So if your not on manual, that's the best place to live.

3,) Use a light meter. Not the one that came with your camera. When doing flash photography, you need a incident light meter to balance flash and ambient light in a very accurate way. Your camera's light meter is a reflection meter and can only give you the combined exposure.

You can cheat and do a meter reading in camera without flash and dial in the flash until you have the look your going for. (this assumes your shooting manual).

You can do a good job with a single light source, but for product photography you may want to use fill cards or mirrors to get light where you need it for shape and detail. It can be done and done well, but it takes a bit to master, so take your time setting up.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I understand what you're referring to with the numbers (242 and 246-15). Could you elaborate on that or link to an explanation? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 29, 2013 at 18:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BartArondson RGB values. Live by the numbers. 0 is completely black and 255 is completely white. Details are important so the value you set your lightest tone at is critical to making sure your representing the product. Check out the zone system for what worked in the past. Same principal applies though. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 29, 2013 at 21:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Now it's clear. Maybe mention that the numbers are referring to RGB in your answer to make it more clear. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 29, 2013 at 22:36
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I can only underline the existing answers:

Your Camera is not crap

I had the very same camera, though under the european name designation Canon 550D. Yes it is outdated and the autofocus system is something I rather fought against than it helped me, but the image quality is still pretty decent. The only thing that could be a problem is the lens. If that does not produce any sharp images to begin with, it would the the one piece of equipment that should be replaced first. Any somewhat decent APS-C macro lens will carry your product photography quite a while..

Upgrading to a top notch camera with expensive glass, however, would not fix a single image problem, that I see here.

Lighting is the name of the game

Product photography is a vast topic. There are numerous books, online course etc about it, but they all boil down to the very same things:

  • Setting up the scene to make your products look interesting
  • Lighting the scene in line with what you wanted to achieve.

Having a decent camera and lens helps, but especially in product photography there is a lot of opportunity to cheat. You, however, cannot cheat on lighting.

Controlling light

The first thing that you absolutely need to master, is controlling the light. This begins with making sure you do not have any lights in your image, that do not have a purpose.

Ambient light is the first thing you will want to eliminate. As mixed light comes with different color temperature, which hard to uncorrectable in post production and will ruin any color rendition.

This means setting your camera manually to the needed aperture which will be usually on the somewhat closed side like f7 (if you go much more, you will introduce new problems with image quality), setting the shortest time your still can flash sync (1/125 sec if I remember correctly on that camera) and then see if an image taken with no flash is a more or less completely dark frame.

This means usually almost all studio shots have similar (manual) settings:

  • color balance for flash (or 5500-5600 kelvin)
  • Shutter at shortest practical flash sync speed - 1/125 sec in your case
  • Aperture at a point where you can get the best image quality from your glass and the most depth of field without compromising the image quality
  • ISO at 100 or as low as you lighting gear allows (longer shutter speed will not help, as the light intensity should come from the flash alone)

Do not even consider using any auto settings in studio. It will make your lighting collapse like a house of cards and hinder you to understand, what is happening.

Only then you will add more lights with purpose. You will usually need 3 or more lights. Very seldom you can make it work with a single light source and only in very simple setups (flat lays e.g.).

A bare speed light on camera will be of no real use for you. You will want to have either focussed lights for visible spot lights or diffused lights for ambient & key lighting.

Using a scrim (in bigger studios) or a softbox will add diffusion to your light which will do 2 things for you:

  • It will make the light source relatively bigger, which will create softer gradients in shadows
  • It will dampen the hotspots created by direct light and somewhat control the specular highlights on your products

Additionally you will need to learn some concepts in lighting. You might want to research these concepts:

  • Inverse Square law in Lighting
  • Hard and soft light and how to create both
  • Difference between key and ambient light

Building Lighting

You will build the lighting on what you want in the shot. Usually you will start with the key light. Its purpose is to illuminate the main features of you product. As soon as that is ok, you will add ambient light.

If needed you will now add ambient light. This can be done by using a big diffused indirect light source at a lower setting. Its purpose is to lift any shadows that are too dark. Note that too much ambient light will reduce color and contrast in your image.

At the last step you might want to set a light adding a halo on the background or a backlight. Any special purpose light is usually set at this stage.

While this still is a very simple lighting description it explains a bit the steps on setting up lighting. Note that you can switch off any flash during the setup to take a frame just to see what each light is doing on its own.

Equipment

What you will definitely need is a off camera flash system. Canon's speedlights are usually not the best solution. If you are getting into the game, buying 3 used manual Youngnuo speedlights and a wireless remote trigger for this system (must have at least 3 separate groups and be able to change flash settings from the trigger) is a good starting point. You absolutely don't need any TTL or High Speed Sync at that point. Note flash triggers usually only work within their brand, although the usually says they are all operating in the same frequencies.

Stay clear on buying a flash meter. It is tempting, and it might even help you to quickly set up the key light. However, it will also keep you from visually checking the images as the main reference. We are digital. Taking a test shot is basically free. Note: this is a bit my own point of view. But I am not alone on this.

You will need 3 ok-ish light stands, 3 brackets for holding the speedlights (Godox S-Bracket with bowens mount is good), probably 2 softboxes and 1-2 strip light soft boxes, a snoot with grid (all with bowens mount) to start.

You can invest more into better lights, but I would rather advise you to work with that and see when you really are sure that the gear is limiting you. All the stuff above can be bought used.

And I repeat, there will be a time where you begin to feel the limitations of the camera and the lens - but don't fall into gear acquisition syndrome before you see some solid steps into the right direction.

Also having one roll of background paper (white or neutral mid grey, whatever you will want), black and white cardboard for improvised reflectors and flags, some translucent diffusion material and various clamps etc help, too.

What else?

If you want your work to be somewhat correct on the colors, get a color checker. That is a color chart that you photograph with your product at the start so that you have a color reference later in editing. It also can be used for automatic calibrations, but that is an advanced topic. As long as you only need to hit the colors ok-ish, you can try to get one used. Professionals usually only use one for a time, as they age and then tend to shift colors a bit. They are still way better then, than having no reference material.

If you want really want to go into product photography, please consider tethering your camera and directly shooting into your raw developing program. This will give you a better and bigger preview of what you are doing and a decent screen. You can even setup the base processing, you that you see the colors already corrected.

You can also turn on highlight warning, so that you see any clipping highlights immediately.

It is a hassle to set up initially, but it will improve your work a lot. Plus you can set your camera on a tripod and create the shots from you computer. Less back pain...

Also you might want to look into focus stacking. If the customer needs images where the whole product is sharp, you will usually need multiple shots to achieve this. For this reason it is also wise to use tethering and a tripod.

Can I work with constant lights?

You already tried to work with constant lights. Yes, they can work. Especially in product photography. However you then need to make extra sure you understand how to control light spill from outside. This means a completely darkened room, as the constant lights are usually not powerful enough to allow for camera settings where natural ambient light can be excluded just by overpowering it. Also some cameras might struggle with their auto focus with the amount of light from constant light sources.

A huge plus of constant lights is that you learn to see what you are doing more rapidly, because the scene will be shot as it can be seen during setup.

If you use constant lights (usually powerful LED lights, make sure they have good color quality: CRI value at 95+ or even higher) and are on the same color temperature. Also make sure you set this color temperature on your camera.

Any tips for how tos?

I am NOT a product photographer. But studio portraits are usually not completely different until you get into the very depths of the matter.

There is material by Karl Taylor that I find rather cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkkUqKvCf9U Note: I am not affiliated in any way - and apart from the free material, that photographer also has paid online courses.

What went wrong with the example images?

Note: These are just ideas. There are multiple roads leading to a successful image.

Image One

moisturizer

Good:

  • Overall exposure is almost right, just a bit a bit underexposed. This could still be fixed in post, but you still want to have the best you can get out of camera.
  • Without knowing the original colors, the colors look ok. The slight loss in contrast is due the underexposure.

Problematic:

  • You have an exposure gradient - more light on top and less on the bottom. Would be resolved by moving the flash a bit farther away and adding a bit power to the light to compensate, exploiting the inverse square law. Note that moving the lights farther away will also change the light ratio on the background. But it seems the background is directly behind the subject
  • The product is slanted and not upright. Of course it is ok to photograph products at an angle, but here it looks like a mishap. As you stated that these images are OOC, I trust you would have fixed that in post.
  • The texture of the container becomes very visible. Using a larger more diffused light a bit farther away would help solving this. You will need to play with the position of the light. There will be some reflection due to the form of the container, but some of that can be corrected in post. You can also use a polarizer filter to get rid of some reflections. However that will cost you some light. Another option would be to move the light a bit and take a second photo. Then only use the parts from that photo that do not exhibit the specular highlights. This needs the camera to be on a tripod, so your camera position stays the same.
  • Having the background directly behind the product can result in odd shadows. You can resolve that by moving the background farther away. However, this will lead to the background become darker and can result in a need for a separate light just for the background. You could also use diffusion material as the background and light that from behind. In that case be careful not to overdo brightness. Shining light directly into the lens can create lens flares that kill any contrast.
  • The product is no overall sharp. This is caused by potentially too open aperture and/or being too close. If using an aperture around 7-ish does not work, you will need to focus stack multiple images.

Just to show that the original image is not THAT bad - just some corrections in Photoshop can fix some of the issues (the texture problem is not easily fixable)

Example raw editing

  • some contrast tweaks
  • plus 0.6 ev exposure
  • rotation, a bit geometry fix
  • masked for background and lightened the background a lot.

Image Two

Star Fish

Good:

  • Overall composition and lighting ratio works.

Problematic:

  • The image is underexposed quite a bit at -2ev. This means it would have needed 4 times the light, it received. Either by setting ISO up 2 steps or aperture up 4 clicks (causing problems regarding sharpness) or adding much more flash.
  • If you wanted to have everything sharp: This is caused by potentially too open aperture and/or being too close. If using an aperture around 7-ish does not work, you will need to focus stack multiple images.
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  1. For shadows you will have to keep your flash at certain angle. head on flash will not result in flattering results.

  2. If you would like to try without flash, make sure you have enough light in room via Window or artificial light.

  3. You may not get 'bingo' image with straight out of camera, but you will surely get with descent shot + Light room (or Photoshop)

  4. Looking at your underexposed picture, I have a feeling your meeting is not spot-on! Try with different metering (Spot / Center-weight / Matrix). To start with Matrix may help.

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