Product photography is a profitable, fun, and in-demand photography niche. Using a studio for product photography means you’re in full control of the lighting, not limited to daylight.
You’re not chasing the sun, so you’ve got limitless lighting options.
Here is our guide to product photography lighting in a studio!
What Makes Product Photography Lighting so Difficult
Many of the most common products in product photography happen to be very reflective. Jewelry, bottles, glass, and more are hard to photograph. Reflective surfaces will bounce light around in annoying ways, mess with your lighting setup, and cause reflections.
You don’t want a reflection of your gear or lights as a distraction! Nothing looks worse than a gorgeous emerald ring with a camera lens reflection right in the centre.
Pay attention to reflections and prepare to move lights around a hundred ways until you find the perfect configuration. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting in the editing room removing all those pesky reflections.
Another issue is ensuring that the colors of your product are true. Accurate colours are extremely important in any type of product photography. Many customers purchase products based on the colours showcased by your product photography.
You don’t want disappointed clients if the product(s) they receive don’t match up. Everyone’s screen (whether it be phone, computer, television, etc.) are all colour calibrated differently. But there is still a baseline to follow.
Make sure that you use bulbs and flashes / strobes that have a true white light exuding from them.
Usually this is labeled as ‘photography toned bulb’. True white light will not cause any sort of colour cast, such as the blue or green of a fluorescent or the orange of a warm light. The result will be more correct colours.
What Studio Lights to Use
Lighting has the potential to make or break your jewelry photography. There are three main types of studio lights: Florescent, LED and Tungsten.
Florescent lights are energy efficient but give off a relatively low output of light. It’s usually around 60-100 watts. The bulbs are readily available, cheap and easy to replace. But they can be tinted in ways you may not favor.
LED lights are very energy efficient and produce very little heat. They are composed of lots of small “light emitting diodes” (LEDs) and generally last a long time. My ring light is comprised of LEDs.
Tungsten (or “tungsten halogen”) lights offer the highest output levels but also generate a lot of heat. The bulbs are fairly inexpensive to replace but can change color temperature if brightness levels are adjusted. All of my continuous light softboxes are tungsten.
I personally prefer a ring light or a continuous light soft box for e-commerce photography. This is because I like seeing the lighting as I set it up rather than having to continuously flash. You can also figure out how to eliminate reflections easier this way.
If you’re looking for more than just a ring light, you’ll want an average of three soft box lights. One overhead light and two lights you can use on the side, as a minimum!
My favorite shapes include square or rectangles for lights that will hit the subject at the subject’s height level and an octagonal light for overhead arrangements.
You’re always going to want to diffuse your studio lighting. This ensures that the lighting spreads across and around your product evenly, rather than casting hot spots (overexposed spots in an image).
Hot spots are unflattering and a pain to retouch. As well as that, diffused lighting works better for white balance than a spot light.
The brands that are very popular for product studio lighting are Westcott Lighting and Neewer. There is a price discrepancy between the two, with Westcott being higher end than Neewer.
Neewer has broken more times than not in my experience. But they’re so inexpensive I tend to buy several in bulk. Westcott is more durable, but can be a bit bulkier to handle.
The key to product studio lighting is making sure that the product is removed from the background and is properly lit.
Depending upon the intention of the studio shot (whether it be for eCommerce like Amazon or eBay, or as an editorial for a website) the parameters of the lighting will be different.
The general consensus is the same. Here are several common lighting arrangements for product photography (that also work well on human models!).
Ring Light (One Light)
Ring lights expose every part of the subject while still separating them from the background.
The go to for most photographers is to set up lights in front of their subject. This always seems like the obvious choice!
For the most part, it is. But you have to remember that ring lights are very bright and tend to not have a diffuser.
The best way to set up the in-front lighting arrangement is to place your ring light a good distance away from your subject.
The further back you go, the softer the light will become. It’ll be significantly less like a harsh spotlight. You then shoot through the center of the ring light.
Keep in mind that light coloured products will have a bit of a harder time being photographed by the lights. This is because it can cause lots of blown out highlights. Try to underexpose by a few notches.
If you’re finding that the ring light isn’t enough, you can add an overhead light for extra fill.
Overhead Light (One Light)
Quite a few octagonal softboxes come with an adjustable head that allows you to tilt the light downwards. Pair that with a tall tripod and you have the overhead lighting arrangement.
This is great for moody shots of darker products, creating an edgy and maybe even ambiguous look. I often see this lighting arrangement used for high-end wine bottles.
Direct Front Light (One Light)
Front lighting is the one light setup almost everyone goes to immediately. It can be very flattering when done right. But there are several things to keep in mind about front lighting:
There will be little separation between your subject and the background. Make sure that your background isn’t too cluttered.
If you have little control of your backdrop, try using a fast lens and dropping it to a very low aperture number. I personally love the 1.8 aperture for this type of lighting.
When you set up the front light, try to keep it eye level to the subject you’re photographing. The lighting may be a bit bright. Try dimming it and raising your exposure (ISO + shutter speed combination) up a notch or two.
If your product is reflective, this setup will not work for you unless you are interested in removing the light reflection when post processing.
A good solution for reflective products is the following arrangement.
Even Light Setup for Reflective Products (Two Lights)
The center is where you are most likely going to be saddled with reflections. Taking two lights and putting them at a front angle to your subject can fix this.
By using two lights, you are getting even lighting coverage of your subject. By placing them at an angle to the sides, you can eliminate pesky reflections.
This setup may require some tweaking here and there based on product size and shape. That is easy to do with continuous lighting in which you can see how movement affects your frame.
Full Coverage (Three Lights)
If you have a non-reflective product that needs to be lit up evenly from all sides, you’ll likely gravitate towards the full coverage arrangement. This is a very logical use of three lights, essentially ensuring that all angles of your photography subject are nicely lit.
Be careful with this setup, however. Some products can look very flat. Depending on the shape of your product, you’ll either want your lights positioned all in the front or two at the side.
The Triangle Setup (Three Lights)
Like the name implies, the triangle setup is arranged in the shape of a triangle. This arrangement is very popular among portrait studio photographers, but bodes well for product and still life photographers as well!
You are lighting your product up evenly in the front. Allow for a bit of backlight from the back angles to help isolate the subject from its background.
This creates a very beautiful and prominent three dimensional look, ensuring the product doesn’t look flat in any capacity. A very editorial arrangement, you’ll find this look applied to products of all kinds.
The Separation Setup (Three Lights)
If you want a flatter lighting look on your subject but still finding that the subject is blending in with the background too much, you can do a twist on the triangle setup and move into the separation set up.
The only difference between the triangle and the separation is that the back lights are aimed at the wall rather than the back of your product!
This creates a nice lighting cast that will instantly bounce your subject to the front.
Bonus: Natural Light
No studio light? No problem! Sometimes just a window can do just as well. Use light curtains to diffuse the light, and enjoy the softness that window light produces.
If you are planning on going this route, try not to shoot when the sun is too high, such as noon. Aim to photograph when the sun is lower or beginning to descend down, as you’ll find that the lighting is much more even that way.
More Tips for Studio Product Photography
- You can also use white plasterboard or cardboard to defuse some of the light and further soften shadows.
- No diffuser? A white sheet works just as well.
- Need to make a studio light on a tight deadline or budget? Just take a regular lamp, add a tungsten bulb, and throw a sheet over the tip to diffuse!
- Tripods aren’t just for lights – use one for your camera as well. This makes it easier to adjust both the lighting setup and ensure that your photographs are always straight.
- You don’t need a fancy studio in order to shoot with studio lights. Just a plain wall, a table top, or even paper clamped to a bar can all yield surprisingly professional results.
To be frank with you, much of product lighting is really experimentation. Nab some studio lights, even just two, and start playing around with different arrangements and seeing what works for your scenario.