Speedlights vs studio flash for small product photography

Recently I did a live show where I photographed a pair of earphones. During the show I used a simple three-light setup, but I also went on to show how the same results could be achieved using speedlites.

The main purpose of the live show was to demonstrate how to photograph earphones based on our fourth photography brief assignment, but there was another lesson I wanted members to take from the shoot: that it’s not about the brand or type of lights you use, but more about your knowledge and understanding of light.

You can see the process and results from the speedlite shoot in the video above, and as you’ll see from the results from the two different lighting setups (the live show and the speedlite shoot), both produced high-quality images that could easily be used for advertising purposes.

The products I was shooting were very, very small, and therefore quite challenging so before I get into the setups, there are a few important things to keep in mind when photographing small products.

Earphone product photo taken using speedlites
Final image shot using speedlites. © Karl Taylor

Tips for photographing small products

Photographing small objects requires a great amount of precision as well as patience.

There’s the challenge of getting close enough to focus on the product, lighting small, precise areas, and getting sufficient depth of field.

During the live show I used an 80mm lens with two extension tubes. These offer a cheaper alternative to using macro lenses and this is something I often use for my product photography if I don’t have a dedicated macro lens. You can read more about using extension tubes for macro photography here.

To get sufficient depth of field I had to use the technique of focus stacking to get the entire product in focus. This is a technique that involves taking a series of images, each with a different focus point, and blending them together using Photoshop.

When it comes to lighting setups for small products, you have to think about the lighting from the perspective of the subject. What we may consider a ‘small’ light source will actually appear very large to the subject, and this is important when it comes to controlling the hardness or softness and specularity of the light.

During the live show I used picolites, but if you don’t have these, then snoots, tight honeycomb grids or speedlites can be a good alternative. As you’ll see in the video, the speedlites I used were round and had modelling lamps, which made them ideal for this type of work.

Product photography by Karl Taylor Education members
Images taken by Visual Education members for Working to a Brief 4.

Earphones Product Shoot

Now available to watch on replay

Karl takes on our fourth ‘Working to a brief’ assignment as he photographs a pair of earphones, showing two lighting setups — one with studio lights and one with speedlites.
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Small product photography setup

Setup for small product photography

For this particular shoot the shot required the products to be rim lit on a black background.

Knowing that I needed to create a controllable rim lighting on such a tiny object I placed the earphones flat down on a piece of acrylic, shooting from above and lighting from underneath.

To create the black background with rim lighting the earphones were placed on a piece of black card cut to the rough shape of the product. This technique is a great way to create controlled lighting around the product, and it’s one that can even be used for rim lit portrait photography.

The advantages of this setup were that I could far more easily control my gradient and I could more easily position the items without the need to worry about fixing the earphones on rods or wires.

In the live show, I used two lights from underneath to get an even rim lighting around the product and then I used a small softbox to add a little bit of extra light in the speaker part of the earphones.

You can see the raw result from using the studio flash lights below.


The speedlite setup was very similar, using two speedlites from underneath to create the rim lighting and a third to add some light to the speaker area of the earphones. All of these were set to manual power so that I could control the power output as needed.

Both the studio flash setup and speedlite setup also made use of reflector panels to bounce some additional light back into the products and create controlled reflections to enhance the gloss look of the products.

You can see the raw result from using the speedlites below.


So what are the advantages of each of these different setups?

Using studio flash allows for far greater control thanks to the precise power adjustments. They also have a greater power output and greater options for modification. The modelling lamps also make it easy to instantly see the results of your adjustments and therefore speed up your workflow.

Speedlites, on the other hand, offer a cheaper alternative to studio flash lights. Although they don’t have as higher power output, for this particular shoot I wasn’t working at high powers anyway, so there was no great advantage to using flash over speedlites.

In this case, the speedlites I was using were perfect as they were round and even had a modelling lamp.

You can see from both of the raw shots that each setup produced great-quality results.

This just goes to show that it’s not so much about what lighting you use, but how you use your lighting.

When it comes to light, the physics is always the same so it’s up to us to apply the knowledge and use the right techniques to get the best results.

If you’d like to understand more about studio flash and light, take a look at our ‘Lighting Theory & Equipment’ course.

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