Should You Do Some of Your Own Photography?

February 11, 2014

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned taking photos of some of the awards and other products you create. After writing that post, I wanted to cover more about photography in this post. I will go over some of the equipment you need to consider when shooting photos of your products. It is just as important to learn how to use the equipment properly if you want to get great product shots.

I’m not expecting any of you to become a professional photographer. If you decide to go in that direction, it is a fantastic side effect. The main goal is for you to have more quality pictures to use to promote your business. That could include photos on the wall of your business, printed advertising, online advertising, social media and more.

You can get those photos right now without any equipment or photography education, but you will need to hire someone to take the photos for you. It may be less expensive in the long run for you to invest in the equipment and education needed to take the majority of photos yourself. Heck, you might even find you enjoy photography a lot more once you have good equipment and knowledge.

The Camera

A good photographer is capable of taking a good photo with most anything. That said, you will be making the task a lot more difficult if you don’t have a good camera. Phones are great for taking snapshots of your friends and family because it is handy and takes decent photos. I take hundreds of pictures with my smartphone. But I know it isn’t the right tool for taking quality product photos.

Point and shoot cameras have improved greatly in the last few years. I carry mine quite often because it is better than my phone camera and yet still fits in my pocket. Again, it is great for convenience but isn’t the best tool for quality product shots.

Why can’t you just fix the pictures from a phone or point and shoot in software? A bad picture is a bad picture and there is not much anyone can do to fix it. Even when you get a “good” photo from these lesser cameras, there are limits to how much it can be improved with software. Even those limited improvements can take time. A good camera taking better pictures will save you a lot of editing time and is therefore a much better value for you.

Camera Aperture ExampleIdeally you should have a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera that allows for interchangeable lenses and control over the settings. Even in automatic mode, these cameras are a huge improvement over a phone or a point and shoot camera. Yet I want to encourage you to get out of the automated settings and learn about aperture, shutter speed, white balance and even using manual focus.

In Figure 1, you’ll see the same photo shot with different aperture settings. The top example uses F-16 (smaller lens opening) which means both the foreground and background are in focus. On the bottom is the same image shot with F-4 aperture (larger lens opening) which means the subject is in focus and the background is blurry.

Where to Learn

The good news about learning to use a DSLR and photography in general is that you have a lot of choices and it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive. There are a lot of good books, including the manual supplied with the camera, that can teach you many of the basics. Admittedly learning your camera and the art of photography is a lot more fun to learn by doing.

Product Shot ExampleCheck with local camera stores, photographers and even the local community college to see what classes are offered. I took a six week (3 hours on one night a week) course at my local community college that covered all the important settings. Each week we had “homework” where we had to shoot photos of something specific. As homework goes, this is about as fun as it gets.

One assignment I had was to take a still life image that you can see at right. It may not be the products you produce, but I hope you understand that there are many types of products that need to be photographed. What isn’t fun about an assignment like this?

Once you understand the basics, there are other classes and workshops on pretty much any specific subject you desire. If you return to the community college, these classes are probably relatively inexpensive. Other workshops can be pricey though they could also include travel, lodging or other add-ons. If any of the classes involve models, it will also cost more as the model needs to be hired to work with the class.

Now that I’ve said you should have a DSLR, I’m sure you want me to pick a specific camera. I won’t pick just one as there are probably more than 100 among which to choose. Let’s first look at manufacturers as there are two big players in Canon and Nikon. There are other big names like Sony who are working hard to gain a bigger share of the market.

Each of the cameras will have its pros and cons and I certainly haven’t reviewed them. There are a few things that may help you choose. First, do you have friends or colleagues who are already using a specific brand of DSLR? It could be wise to choose that same brand as they could help you learn to use your new camera or might be able to lend you an accessory. Solely for that reason, you may want to look mostly to Canon and Nikon. If you don’t care about that, the Sony cameras have been highly rated.

Most DSLR cameras are sold without any lenses at all or in a “kit” that includes a lens. Most often the lens supplied with the kit is a macro zoom meaning that it is good for shooting at close range as well as zooming in on something at a distance. Unless you already have lenses to use, it is best to get a kit with a macro zoom lens.

What is the camera kit going to cost? You aren’t really going to find new equipment for less than $500. You might be able to buy used equipment and get a good deal. Just be careful about a deal that may seem too good to be true as there are a number of scams online for cameras. Realistically a new camera is probably going to run anywhere from $800 to many thousands of dollars. For those just breaking in, you’ll probably want to start with a less expensive camera and move up to a better camera later if you really need more features and functionality.

Notice I’ve yet to mention anything about megapixels. The biggest number doesn’t mean the best pictures. If you get any of the current models of DSLRs, you will have more than enough megapixels. You’ll probably have a lot more megapixels than you’ll ever need!

A Lineup of Canon DSLRs for Doing Product Shots

Camera Accessories

While getting the right camera is important, there may be a few other things you’ll need to add to your shopping list. I already mentioned getting a lens as part of a camera kit and it is possible you’ll want to explore other lenses. In most cases, the kit macro zoom is just fine so I’ll save your wallet the expense of extra lenses in this discussion.

Tripod ExampleOne accessory that is vitally important is a quality tripod. I once had an instructor point out the crazy notion of putting thousands of dollars of camera equipment on a cheap tripod. If the tripod falls and the camera breaks, was that cheap tripod really such a great value? There were times I really hated assignments requiring a tripod because I was using a really crummy one. Once I got a top-notch tripod, I truly enjoy shots requiring it.

So why do you need a tripod in the first place? Try as we might, our hands aren’t as steady as needed in many situations. It could be we are zoomed in quite a bit so that even the tiniest movement will result in a blurry photo. Or the scene may have a limited amount of light which requires the camera shutter to remain open a bit longer. Often it is a combination of both of those scenarios. That will certainly be the case for many product shots.

At right is the tripod I chose. Note that it is sold without a “head” for connecting to the camera as multiple heads are available.

Even with the camera on a tripod, the action of pushing the button to snap a picture can cause enough shake to ruin some pictures. Therefore it is a good idea to get a remote trigger. In some cases it is more accurately called a cable release as it is a short cable attached to the camera with a button on the end for you to push. There are also wireless triggers that allow you to push a button from hundreds of feet away from the camera. Often a wired solution is just fine for a product shot.

Camera Remote Trigger ExampleRegardless of whether you go for a wired or wireless solution, it is important to get a remote trigger that is compatible with your camera. This is another example of why it could be important to choose the same brand of camera as other people you know as you may want to borrow their remote trigger in the beginning to save a few bucks.

At right is one example of a cable release.

The lower-end DSLRs include a built-in pop-up flash which may be all you need. More expensive DSLRs do not include a flash at all so you will need to purchase a separate flash. Of course the add-on flash can also be used on the cameras with a pop-up flash if you need a more powerful light source. The pop-up flashes are only good for subjects within 15 feet, while add-on flashes can extend that range a lot farther.

Add-on Flash ExampleAt right is an example of a flash. In this case it is mounted on a stand instead of the camera. For the product shots we are discussing, you probably won’t want to use a flash at all. Instead, you’ll probably want to use other accessories to light the product and we’ll discuss those in the next section. Yet you may want to use your camera for shooting images of something other than products and a flash may be required for those scenarios.

Lighting

Often the difference between a good picture and a great picture is the lighting. If you are taking pictures of products, you’ll want to light the scene to accentuate the product being shot. Sometimes this can be done with a single light and other times it will take a number of lights. Keep in mind that the best effect may be an absence of light in some parts of the picture. You’ll also have to carefully position the light(s) to avoid glare in the photo.

Now if you are thinking this can be done with a desk lamp, think again. At the very least you’ll want to purchase a few lights designed for photography. Sometimes you will point them directly at the product and other times you will bounce the light off something else.

Lighting Kit ExampleAt right is an example of a lighting kit with lights, umbrellas and a carrying case.

When you are dealing with smaller products, you should investigate getting a light box designed for shooting products. Sometimes these boxes are supplied with small lights and often they come with different colors of background materials. The background can be important whether you keep it in the photo or you cut out the solid color background in your image editor.

Below left is an example of a light box.

Hire a Pro

Shooting your own shots may be the right answer for you most of the time once you learn what you’re doing. Just don’t be afraid to hire a pro if it is important to get it just right. It wouldn’t hurt to hire a pro early in your learning process just to observe their process shooting your products.

Lightbox ExampleOf course if you are not interested in getting quality equipment and education, you’ll definitely have to hire a professional photographer each time you need product shots. As you look at the costs of the camera equipment and the time you’ll need to invest in learning, also look at the money you can potentially save by doing many of the shoots yourself. Also keep in mind that the camera equipment can be used to take some amazing photos outside of business purposes.

In Closing

I hope you will consider getting a good camera and learning how to use it. Why? Because I truly believe you will enjoy it. I also think it can save you money in the long run. I didn’t specifically name any products in this post, but have covered some of these areas in previous blog posts I’ve written. Below I’ve included links to the blog posts and their URLs if you would like to read them.

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