Digital photography offers many career and moneymaking opportunities and just maybe you’ve been attracted to professional product photography. To be successful requires an eye for accuracy and attention to detail, the patience and perseverance to manage clients and make them happy and the right combination of technical skills to photograph inanimate objects creatively.
1. Because precise metering and a thorough understanding of light are two of the critical keys to excellent product photography, a wise step could be a formal photography education. The Brooks Institute, for example, located in Santa Barbara, California, offers Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees. Another option is the New York Institute of Photography where you can earn a Certificate as a graduate of its Professional Photography Course.
2. If you’re not yet ready to make such an educational commitment, then a better alternative may be a shorter course or even online courses and workshops. The Chicago Photography Academy’s Product & Tabletop Photography two-day class is scheduled during a weekend and focuses solely on product photography techniques.
For online courses and workshops, excellent choices are The Picture Perfect School of Photography and MyPhotoSchool. Both offer courses in lighting and composition that are essential skills of the successful product photographer as well as specific courses in food photography and related topics. You’ll love the convenience of learning, and practicing what you’ve learned, at home. Most courses occur during a number of weeks.
3. If you put in the time, then you can learn much about product photography on your own, or with the assistance of an online course. Essentially, you must learn how to display an object or series of objects; determine the best angle and view to tell its story and/or create a mood; and light an object precisely, as you’re also conscious of the shadows they create. Equally important is developing accurate exposure techniques to give product photos a well-balanced contrast.
The lighting techniques for studio and portrait photography are similar to those for product photography, just reduced in scale. If you have some studio lighting experience, then create a miniaturized tabletop studio. PhotographyTalk has a number of resources that will help you, including articles, reviews of lighting equipment and the Forum, where you can start a dialogue with others about how to build a tabletop studio.
With the right lighting equipment and a platform on which to shoot, consider starting with photographing basic three-dimensional shapes: a small sports ball as a sphere, child’s blocks as polygons of various three-dimensional forms, etc. Use these to learn how to compose and light a product photography image.
Then, experiment with common consumer products found throughout your home. Photographing them will require that you push your skills to the next level. Consumer products introduce a number of new elements that are challenging. Most of their shapes aren’t “basic,” which may make the lighting equation more complex. You must take into account product surfaces, their textures and reflections. Colors must be rendered precisely and a client’s request to reveal graphics or text on a product’s label will limit your camera angle and view, forcing you to be more creative about how you frame the product.
4. Throughout this learning process, take some time to research and study professional product photography; magazines and the Web are full of them. Notice how the type of product being displayed, marketed, dictates the composition and lighting choices. You should notice quite a difference between a high-end car or expensive jewelry and a car parts or nuts-and-bolts catalog.
5. You’ll also want to learn about product packaging, especially as it relates to the containers that hold liquid products and the board stocks from which boxes are made. Color, texture and reflective quality will all have some bearing on composition and lighting.
6. Ultimately, an aspiring product photographer needs a portfolio to attract the attention of prospective clients. Although “perfect” photos of the box of soap powder from your laundry room or an aspirin bottle from your nightstand may demonstrate your skills, it is, of course, much better to fill a portfolio with product images from actual client projects. It’s not important, however, if these were paying projects, but if you were able to deliver what the client wanted, on schedule, and work through the challenges and pressure of a deadline.
To give your first product photography portfolio some authenticity, look for some volunteer or small pro bono projects. Think of them as an investment in your career. In exchange, ask for a written endorsement or testimonial, speaking specifically to your professionalism and how well you satisfied the client’s requirements.
7. Learn all you can about the business of being a professional product photographer. If you expect to operate your own business, then basic business skills are just as important as product lighting skills. Again, PhotographyTalk articles present many of these topics and many of the online resources mentioned above also offer business photography courses and workshops.
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Photograph by Photography Talk member Gary Jones