Product Photography: What It Is and How to Get Started

Product photography is one of the most lucrative genres of photography, but it often requires a good selection of equipment and a thorough understanding of light.

By the end of this article you'll know exactly what you need to get started as a successful product photographer, what equipment you'll need, what critical skills will come in handy, and much more.

Fully equipped studios and in-depth lighting know-how don’t happen overnight. It’s taken me more than 25-years to develop my knowledge and get to where I am today. So how does one actually get started with product photography?

Flat lay product photography image of Hugo Boss glasses on a white background
Image showing Karl explaining studio lighting

Getting Started In Product Photography

Free Introductory Class

In this FREE introductory chapter of our ‘Getting started in product photography’ course Karl shares some of the knowledge and tips he’s learnt over the past 20 years as he provides an overview of everything you need to get started in product photography.

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Why product photography

Many of you will know that I work as a commercial photographer, but it may come as a surprise to some that I started my career as a photojournalist, shooting in far-flung places. So how did I end up photographing products instead of people and their cultures?

If I’m being honest, product photography is something I kind of fell into after I started assisting at different photography studios in Australia. The challenge and variety were really appealing, and after doing it for a few years I built up the skills I needed and the confidence to open my own studio.

Although product photography can be a challenging genre, there are distinct perks too. Besides being one of the highest-earning types of photography, product photography allows you to work on some very interesting campaigns with highly creative people.

It’s a genre that tests your problem-solving abilities on a day-today-basis, which means there’s never a dull moment! Whether it’s figuring out how to create an invisible man, or simply working towards the best lighting on a difficult product, the challenge of product photography is really what appeals to me.

If creative freedom and flexibility is what you’re after, then product photography may not necessarily be the best fit for you. More often than not, product photography involves working to a very strict brief. It’s more about the client’s vision than your own creativity.

The work available for product photographers varies in complexity. One day I might be shooting a fairly straightforward bottle of gin, the next a complex fireman’s safety harness.

Packshot cosmetics product photography on a white background

How to get started with product photography

One of the biggest mistakes many photographers make when it comes to photography is focusing too much on gear. Now I'm not saying that gear isn't important, but I am saying that's not the only important thing.

The key thing, if you want to truly master product photography, is not the best camera, latest lens, or top of the range studio lights. The most important thing you can have is a good understanding of light. This will serve you better than any piece of equipment you can buy.

Now that might not have been exactly what you were expecting to hear, but it's the best advice I can give anyone who wants to make a career as a photographer. Once you understand light and how it works, you'll be able to control it to create almost any desired result.

You can learn about light in our ‘Introduction and understanding light' class, and you'll also see how I apply that knowledge in many of our photography classes.

Equipment to get you started

Image of a camera and filters for product photography

If you’re just starting your photography career, you can develop your knowledge and build your skills with minimal equipment.

Initially, at the very least, you’ll need a camera, a good-quality lens (or two) and a tripod. Other useful studio photography accessories include materials to use for backgrounds or base surfaces, diffusion material (this could even be tracing paper), reflectors and flags, and a good laptop or computer for editing the images.

As you develop your skills you may find yourself wanting to invest in further equipment, such as speedlites, studio lights, specialist lighting modifiers, or better lenses.

Lenses for product photography

A question that comes up a lot is “What is the best lens for product photography?” I usually use my 80mm or 100mm lens (equivalent to about 60mm or 73mm in 35mm format). This is because these focal lengths offer the most accurate representation of the product with minimal distortion.

If you don’t have the budget for all the kit you want right now, you could also consider renting. When I first started out, I used to rent more specialist equipment as and when I needed it, before I made the decision to switch lighting systems.

Natural light product photography

If you’re only just starting your photography journey and aren’t sure if you want to commit to studio lights, or even speedlites, you can practice product photography with natural light. Although it isn’t the most efficient method, it can be done.

As I demonstrated in a recent live show, it is perfectly possible to achieve professional results using little more than a camera, natural light, some diffusion material, and a reflector.

You can read more about the shoot in this case study, where you’ll see how I applied my knowledge of lighting to recreate a previous wine bottle image (taken using studio lights) using just natural light coming through a window. This just shows how important it is to understand light, and proves my earlier point.

Setup of a natural light wine bottle shoot

Natural light product photography

Case study: Photographing products with no lights

Karl demonstrates how he managed to create a close replica of a previous wine bottle studio shot using only natural light.

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Product photography using speedlites

Exploding paint pot splash product photography

There’s no doubt that artificial light, whether it be speedlites or studio lights, will allow you a much greater level of control than if you’re using natural light. Unlike with natural light, you can control the amount of power of a speedlite, work at any time of day, and change the light to get different results. 

If you’re serious about progressing your product photography but aren’t yet ready to commit to studio lighting, the next step is to invest in a couple of speedlites (I say a couple, because having more than one will allow you to get really creative).

The image above was taken using speedlites (their fast flash duration makes them ideal for freezing motion), but I had to group many speedlites together to get enough power to light the subject. You can see how I shot this image in our product photography course.

While speedlites do offer a good stepping stone from natural light to studio light, they do have their limitations, especially when it comes to product photography lighting.

They are often considered to be a cheaper alternative to studio lights, but once you start to add up the costs of buying multiple speedlites, triggers, batteries, stands, etc, you’ll find the cost of buying a studio light actually isn’t that different.

A second disadvantage is that the modifiers that are available for speedlites are far more limited than what you’d get with studio lights. Although some lighting brands do offer adapters for speedlites, you still won’t have the variety you do when using studio flash lights.

Professional product photography

Product photography:  a Dior watch on wood

If you do want to make a career out of product photography, the reality is that you will have to (eventually) invest in proper studio lighting.

You don’t necessarily need endless amounts of kit — it’s perfectly possible to achieve great results with one light, as I demonstrated in my one light challenge product shoot. As I’ve been saying, it’s all about lighting control, rather than how much or what equipment you have.

If you look at photos by professional photographers such as Jonathan Knowles or Barry Makariou, each of their images has been carefully controlled and the lighting deliberately crafted.

To get to their kind of level requires a lot of hard work and practice. Each are specialists in the field, and the hours they’ve put into honing their craft shows. But they didn’t get there overnight either.

Ideas for product shoots

To start, set yourself challenges or tasks shooting different types of products. For example, why not try photographing a white product on a white background, or shoot a product with reflective surfaces to see how different light sources interact with it and how diffusion material can help. Only by challenging yourself and trying new things will you learn new skills.

I’d recommend watching our one light luxury watch tutorial, one light lipstick product shoot, and even some of our food photography classes to start. Each of these use only one light, but if you’re ready to learn more advanced techniques, take a look at our product section for all our classes.

If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: the best investment you can make as a professional product photographer is to take the time to understand light. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a good knowledge of light will serve you better than any camera, lens or other piece of equipment, because it’s light that really makes an image great.

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