Choose Your Lens: Wide vs. Standard
With a point-and-shoot, extend your lens as far as it can go optically for the basic shot of a stand-alone product. Be careful not to zoom in digitally, as that will do nothing but compromise the quality of your photo. Many point-and-shoots have a “macro” mode in-camera that can be great for capturing details and shrinking the depth of field so that your product stands out in the frame.
If you have a DSLR or a camera with an interchangeable-lens, you may have different lenses to choose from. The classic approach to product photography is to use a longer lens (50mm or over) to avoid any distortion of the product’s appearance, but online entrepreneurs are becoming more creative. Long lenses are ideal for product photography because they can provide a thinner plane of focus and cause very little distortion--perfect when you're taking the basic shot of a product.
But you'll also want to take secondary photos showing the product in a setting that suggests how it can be used. For these shots, a wide-angle lens can provide context since it allows more room for background objects and scenes. Be careful not to go too wide, though: Below about 24mm, you start to enter fish-eye territory.
If you have some cash to spare, you may want to splurge on a macro lens for your DSLR or interchangeable-lens camera. They’re top-notch for getting in extremely close to show the intricate details of your handiwork.
Choose Your Background: Natural vs. Studio
Aim to show your product in an environment in which it would be used, or on its own against a simple, blank backdrop. For my examples, I wanted to show off my cousin Lexie Fisher’s handmade dinosaur mugs.
For a naturally lit photo, push a table up against a window on a cloudy day, or cover the direct sunlight with sheer curtains. You want the light coming through the window to create a bright, natural, blank background. The curtain will create diffused light that won't cast harsh shadows or cause glare. Place your product on a surface with an interesting texture, such as natural wood for a rustic, handmade item.
One popular technique used in tech-product photography is to capture the product as well as a bit of its reflection in the surface it’s sitting on. This is an easy trick to pull off: Putting the product on any dull, reflective surface, such as a dark, glossy piece of paper, will work for this effect.
Turn off all the light fixtures in the room to prevent color contamination from lights, which normally cast a different color temperature than daylight does. Then, set up some mirrors and a large, white surface to shine the window light back onto your product. You could spend hundreds of dollars on professional reflectors; for most purposes, however, a white posterboard and some makeup mirrors are perfect. Light your product so that it appears slightly darker than the light coming through the window. Then, set the exposure for a medium-to-dark spot on the product, and shoot away.
For secondary photos, use a wider lens (between 24mm and 50mm) and pair your product with items that match the aesthetic you're trying to convey. For example, to shoot a handmade mug for sale, I placed a shiny red teapot out of focus in the background, and a crossword puzzle in the foreground. I poured hot water in the mug to create steam, and I made sure that the angles of my props led the viewer's eye toward the product.
To create a studio situation, you can make a backdrop out of any large, thick piece of paper and some duct tape. Place the paper so that it makes a soft angle, to avoid showing the hard edges of the paper in your shot. To create dynamic lighting, turn off all unwanted lights and black out your windows. Use two lamps with the same type of bulb, set at alternating angles. (I used two 20-watt fluorescent bulbs from my desk lamps.) You can use any bulbs available, just as long as they both give off the same color so that your camera can automatically adjust and portray your product in its true color. Therefore, don't have more than one type of bulbs, such as incandescent, fluorescent, or LED, in one shot.
To prevent glare and harsh shadows, you can diffuse the lights by placing a piece of 8.5-by-11-inch printer paper between the bulb and the product. Don't attach the paper directly to the bulb, which poses a fire hazard. Instead, ask an assistant to hold it, or prop it up with clamps between the bulb and your product. You can also “bounce” the light to make it appear softer: Simply direct the light toward a large, white, reflective surface, such as the posterboard I used in the natural-light example, and angle the reflection toward your product.
A long lens is best for studio situations because it will keep the shot tight enough to exclude the edges of the backdrop. If you have a large backdrop, you can include contextual objects for secondary photos.
Go Easy on the Editing
Any basic photo-editing software, such as the free Windows Live Photo Gallery or the $99 Photoshop Elements, can help you level out and color-correct your photos manually. Though it's fine to run your product images through Photoshop, keep your editing simple. Be careful with Auto-Fix, HDR, and retro filters that might manipulate the color of your product or darken the clean white background that you rearranged your furniture to create. And resist the temptation to cut and paste your product image into a celebrity's hands.