Creative product lighting using minimal equipment

Lighting workarounds depending on the kit you own

Est. reading time: 3 minutes

One of the most common challenges many photographers face when it comes to product photography is having sufficient lighting. Not having enough lights can make things challenging, to say the least, but the good news is that there are a few ways you can overcome this problem.

I recently shot an antique-style image of a saddle for one of our sports equipment product photography classes and in this class I showed three creative ways to light product photographs.

I shot the original image using about eight studio flash lights, making small pockets of light to create a more moody feel, but if you don’t have that many lights I also showed two different lighting techniques that use far less equipment.

Moody photo of a saddle

Antique-style saddle shoot

Learn how to create moody lighting for products

Karl photographs an antique leather saddle using a more moody style as he demonstrates three different ways to light the same product.
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1. Studio flash lighting for product photography

Although I do occasionally use continuous light, I prefer to use studio flash for the majority of my commercial work. The reason for this is simple: studio flash gives me the most amount of precision and control over my lighting.

Using individual lights allows me to carefully and precisely position each light, modify it, and get everything as close to perfect in camera as I possibly can.

This particular way of working has a number of other advantages too: it allows you to get a feel for the image during the shoot, you can instantly see the results of any changes and how these affect the image as a whole, and it can also save you time in Photoshop later. If you’re working in front of clients it also allows them to more easily get an accurate sense of the image, rather than trying to imagine any changes that will be made during post-production.

As I’ve said before though, good photography doesn’t come down to the equipment you own. If you don’t have enough equipment to light a product, think about how you can use what you do have and make it work.

Antique-style saddle photo
The final image captured during the antique-style saddle shoot. © Karl Taylor

2. Long exposure with multiple flash bursts

The second technique I demonstrated in the saddle shoot used a total of three lights: two fixed lights and one other light that we moved around and fired multiple times during a long exposure.

I kept the two backlights fixed in position and used a long exposure of about a minute as my assistant moved the third light to pop little patches of light into key areas of the product.

This technique can be a great way to work if you don’t have enough lights and it’s one I’ve demonstrated in other classes too, including my ‘One light challenge product shoot’ live show.

The downside to this approach is that it often results in inconsistent exposures because you don’t have the same level of control as you would if you were using fixed studio lights. It’s also a slower way of working; you may need to take a few shots to get the right exposure time and the correct power and position of the lights. Due to the unpredictable nature of this method it’s also likely that you’ll need to spend more time during the post-production stage to get things right.

Both this saddle shoot and my one light challenge product shoot prove that a lack of equipment isn’t an excuse.

Images from saddle shoot in Phocus software
The straight-out-of-camera result using multiple flash bursts during a long exposure.

3. Light painting with continuous lighting

The final technique I showed during the shoot used only one light as I painted the whole subject with light.

Using a shutter speed of about one minute, I used a continuous LED light (although the modeling light of a studio flash or even a powerful torch could also work) to light the product.

This method can work really well for fixed products, but it does require some patience. As you’ll see in the video, my initial attempt at light painting was overexposed by about two-stops and it took a couple of further attempts to get something better.

The result from this technique was still pretty reasonable and a bit of burning and dodging it would have improved it even further.

This technique may take longer compared to the other two methods of lighting, but it’s definitely a good option if you only have one light.

Images from saddle shoot in Phocus software
The straight-out-of-camera result using light painting.

This class just shows you what’s possible, even if you’ve only got one, two, or three studio lights. So next time you’re photographing products and find yourself short on lights, keep these techniques in mind.

If you’d like to learn more about how to photograph products, take a look at our extensive selection of product photography classes.

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To learn more about product photography, make sure to take a look at our product photography classes. These cover important lighting concepts and photographic theories that will help you learn how to light and photograph a multitude of items.

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