“What gear do you really need for…” articles have proven to be some of my most popular. We all like to read something which challenges the norm, and many of us love a good debate. I also enjoy the challenge of pushing the boundaries, thinking about what the bare minimum gear needed for different genres of photography. This will be my latest “what gear do you really need for…” article and I feel it’s going to be the most challenging. Product photography is potentially the most gear hungry form of photography that I have ventured into. By all means, feel free to rip apart my suggestions; I encourage you to do so.
Important Considerations Before We Get Going
It’s always important to think about the final product with anything we shoot. With product photography, are you attempting to fill a gigantic billboard and therefore, need a megapixel monster of a camera? Or will your images be used on a website and be no larger than 1000px?
As well as the final output of your images, it’s essential with product photography to think about what you are shooting. More specifically, I am referring to the surface; is it reflective or matte? For example, if one was only to be shooting clothing, you could use a very different setup as opposed to someone who was constantly shooting jewelry. Before you spend your hard-earned cash on any piece of equipment, try and think about exactly what you will be photographing. If the answer to that question is potentially anything, then you will need a lot of stuff. If the answer is clothing for e-commerce on a pure white background, then you could get away with very little. I know large companies that use just one light to shoot all of their clothing in a conveyor belt style fashion.
For our purposes today, we’ll focus on someone who wants to shoot a range of items. They’ll differ in size, from jewelry to kitchen appliances, and also have varying surfaces, reflective and matte.
The Bread And Butter (AKA Camera Lenses And Tripod)
As we all know, there are a ton of options here. I’m not going to take you through every option of camera/lenses and cover the positives and negatives of each. It would take far too long and is quite unnecessary. It boils down to this: for a camera you’ll need a decent number of megapixels (20ish is good) and an ability to trigger external flashes. That covers almost every camera on the market today. Unless you are shooting billboards, you don’t need a huge number of megapixels. Our subjects are generally stationary; therefore, you don’t need an amazing focusing system. As much as possible, you’ll be shooting at ISO 100 and thus do not need fantastic high ISO abilities. My recommendation would be something like a Nikon d750 or Sony A7R. Neither are too expensive (especially 2nd hand), and both would be more than adequate. Could you get away with something cheaper? Definitely. But, like I said, I’m not here to cover every camera possible.
When it comes to lenses, you could purchase loads. God knows, I’d like to. If we’re sticking to the bare minimum, though, I would say get one telephoto macro and maybe one wider lens but that’s not essential. A lens like the Tamron 90mm f2.8 Macro is both inexpensive and high quality. It will allow you to shoot anything from jewelry to large-ish sized objects, depending on how far you can stand back. At times, you may begin to crave a tilt-shift lens but for the most part, a telephoto macro will do just fine. Tamron just released a new version of their 90mm macro which I am certain is fantastic; however, the older versions are still great lenses. I’d get whatever suits your budget. Click here to take a look.
All you need from a tripod for product photography is stability. We’re not travelling around, so portability isn’t absolutely necessary. Unless, of course, you’ll be running a business which is mobile. Get whatever you can afford that does not break the bank. It’s useful that the tripod has an adjustable central column which will allow you to shoot bird’s eye; other than this, go for whatever is cheap and has good reviews. Click here to take a look on B&H.
What Is The Minimum Lighting Necessary For Product Photography?
Firstly, what do we need from our lights? We need the power to be able to shoot at small apertures while retaining the maximum quality that ISO 100 provides. I am regularly shooting at ISO 100 and f11 for example. That requires a lot of light. The second most important requirement is reliability but this depends on what you are using them for (i.e. professional or personal). Every other factor is a want, not a need. We would want consistent power output, consistent color, and a very fast flash duration (t.1 time). With regards to quantity, I’d say you could get away with three but five would be better.
My recommendations for the budget-conscious person would be Speedlights. The problems with Speedlights are a lack of modeling light, which will be very annoying, and a lack of power. Power you can get around by raising your ISO but that would require a camera which can handle higher ISO’s very well. Quality is of the utmost importance with product photography and hence, if raising your ISO becomes necessary, your camera MUST be good (one of the reasons I love the D750). The benefits of Speedlights are price and having a very fast flash duration which is capable of freezing fast moving subjects. I would suggest Yongnuo’s for those that are seeking the ultimate in budget-friendly items.
If you’re a pro, however, then reliability may be top of your list. As such, Youngnuo Speedlights may just sound like a joke. For you, I’d say Einstein’s if you’re in the US or Lencarta Superfasts if you are elsewhere. It may be worth waiting a little while to purchase, though; Godox may be bringing something good to the market soon with the latest version of their QT 600. (Many of you will likely not have heard of Lencarta. The reason I recommend their Superfast line of strobes is, in my opinion, it is the closest to a European Einstein currently available. Feel free to debate that in the comments).
For Einstein’s, click here.
For Lencarta, click here.
Grip And Modifiers
As you can hopefully see from the BTS photo above, I have rather a lot of grip equipment. This is the difficult section of the “what gear do you really need” premise. I have 7 or 8 lights stands, 4 or 5 extension arms and knuckles, flexible arms, clamps, background supports, reflectors, softboxes, grids, scrims. The list goes on and on. When it comes to the bare minimum that you’ll need, remember to drill down into exactly what you’re shooting. Here are some essentials:
- 3-8 Light Stands to cover all lights plus scrims, flags etc. (more would be nice!) Expensive = C-stands, click here; Affordable = Regular Light Stand, click here
- 2 Strip Boxes – roughly 2 foot in length and 1 foot wide. These are by far the most useful modifiers I have for product photography. In combination with a scrim, there is so much you can do with a strip box. Click here to find one that suits you.
- Scrims – being able to modify the light you produce is so important. No more so than with product photography. For scrims, I tend to use the Westcott Fast Flag with a diffusion gel. You can also use a 5-in-1 reflector but I prefer the fast flag for its versatility. Click here to buy one yourself.
- Grip arms – these are very handy. I use them to place lights in awkward positions, hang backdrops, place flags, scrims, anything I can think of. They’re not cheap, but they are so worthwhile. Click here to take a look at some for yourself.
- Wall plate – coupled with a light stand and some MDF, this makes the perfect shooting table. Click here to purchase one.
- sandbags – safety first! Click here and grab a few. It’s not only about safety, when adding certain items to booms, sandbags are necessary.
There are so many other things that you may need depending on what it is you are shooting. With the items listed above, as well as a few others I’ll list below, you should be able to shoot most subjects.
Essential But Mercifully affordable Equipment
Many things are very expensive. However, there are loads which are inexpensive as well. A lot of product photography is about your creativity. As such, you’ll often be using odd items which you may even put together yourself. Here are a few of my essential but thankfully affordable solutions which will come in extremely handy.
- Foam Board – this is great for flagging light as well as using as a fill and negative fill. I normally buy big boards and then cut them down to size for whatever I need. I’ve even made mini V-flats with them. Click here to buy it yourself.
- Cinefoil – this stuff is amazing. It’s basically just black foil but you can use it to shape your lights however you see fit. I often use it in combination with a decent reflector to create cheap barn doors or a very precise spot. Click here to buy it.
- A Clamps – Get a range of sizes but steer clear of the colored ones; get black. If you put colored ones too close to your subjects, you may end up with a funky color cast. I use these to prop up foam boards, hang scrims, and more. Click here to buy it.
- 5-in-1 reflector – these are so useful, and not just for product photography. Take off the outer cover and you’ll be left with a very cheap scrim. The only annoying thing is it will be difficult to position it in awkward places. For that, I use the Westcott Fast Flag. Click here to buy a 5-in-1 and here for the Westcott Fast Flag.
I could go and on with this section, but I have to stop somewhere. As best as I can figure, those are the items I use the most. They’re cheap and very useful. Without hesitation, I would recommend getting every one of them.
Most Important Of All, Your Imagination
I feel ridiculously corny having written that. However, it could not be more true. As I delve further into this product photography rabbit hole, I am finding that to separate oneself from the onslaught of mediocrity; one must get creative. Hopefully, as I have demonstrated, all you really need is a basic camera, a macro lens, some Speedlights and some simple grip equipment. The real skill is in being creative.
One of my latest attempts to add something special to my photos has involved a fish tank, syringes, evaporated milk and food coloring. Plus, a whole lot of experimenting. I’ve not managed to edit the resulting photos yet but I think it’s going to be something quite unique.
There is such a breadth of equipment that could be necessary for product photography. I can’t really think of anything that would require more in the way of gear. That being said, you can still get going on very little. Chances are, you already have a camera capable of capturing good enough photos, all you need is the lighting, grip and maybe a new lens. If you’re trying to start on a budget, the most important thing is to think about what it is you will be shooting and use that as the basis for your decisions.
One of the best ways to know what you will be shooting, and how you will be shooting it, is to get some education. Many of you will have heard me sing the praises of Photigy before. They are fantastic when it comes to learning product photography; click here to head to their website. However, I highly advise you to know your basics before jumping into product photography; it is quite a complex form of photography. SLR Lounge has a great course for that called Photography 101. We also have loads of other stuff in the SLR Lounge Store, which you may find useful. Check it all out by clicking here.
Now, feel free to pick apart everything I have said and tell me how wrong I am in the comments below.