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Low key product shots

As photographers we are bound to love light and its way of unfolding onto objects. There is hard light, soft light and all kinds in between, color temperature, highlight and shadows… and we can make use of all of them, when taking a photograph. Light has the power to make an object (or person) look very aesthetic and interesting. Unfortunately, it can make things look unappealing and ugly, too.

I predict that more than 99% of you find the left picture less appealing than the right one. Why is this? Both pictures were made with the same lens & camera and the object was positioned in the same way. The difference is not only the quality of the light source, of course. It is much more the way in which it was used to create the desired effect.

This shows the before and after of a low-key product shot

I hate ugly product shots!

I really do! That’s why I want to shed some light on how to make more appealing product shots, in this case with low key lighting. I didn’t even use any expensive accessories. As a matter of fact, this was a very spontaneous session in my living room without any preparation whatsoever. I was inspired by some really nice low key product shots I saw online, so I decided to quickly reproduce a similar look. It ended up being not so difficult at all! What I hope to communicate is:

It’s not about fancy gear or a fancy studio. It’s about knowing what you need, what you want and what you don’t want!

So, first we should define what makes product shots usually NOT look good. Then, this is the list of things we will try to avoid.

  • boring lighting
  • unnatural white balance
  • distracting background
  • too little or strong contrast
  • strong distortion
  • weird perspective
This is what you shouldn't do, when taking product pictures

from left to right, top to bottom: incorrect white balance, little contrast, high contrast, weird perspective & distracting background

If we phrase it positively, we want…

  • interesting lighting by using a moveable light source
  • to shoot RAW, to be able to chose a natural white balance
  • to make the background ‘disappear’, so we have a very clean image with no distraction
  • a good amount of contrast that is created by our light setup, NOT by pushing the contrast slider in LR or Photoshop
  • a distortion free image by using a lens from 35mm or longer, so we don’t have to get too close to the object

My concept was to have as much black in the lower- and background as possible. I wanted the lighting to be somewhat soft, but also directed on the object only. Usually, this is the perfect scenario for a soft box. I didn’t have a soft box at hand, though, so I decided to go with a normal shoot-through-umbrella (I call it STU for now). Unfortunately, a STU spreads light very widely, so I had to block out the areas that I wanted to stay dark manually.

A low key product shot of an old Takumar lens

What is a low key image?

Usually, a low key image contains lots of shade, which turns out black or at least very dark. If 1) a scene or object is lighted only partially, 2) the contrast between the light and dark parts is large and 3) the image is correctly exposed for the light areas, then the outcome will usually be a low key image. Check wikipedia or google ‘low key’ to read more about it.

For my images, I used a…

  • a Canon 17-40 lens as the photographed object
  • full-frame DSLR (but any other digital SLR will get the job done)
  • 50mm lens
  • tripod (not necessary, but very helpful)
  • manual flash
  • wireless flash trigger
  • shoot-through-umbrella (STU)
  • umbrella bracket
  • light stand (microphone stands work great, too!)
  • black t-shirt
  • black side of reflector
  • black umbrella
  • chair

 

Let’s get started!

1. I put the black t-shirt on top of the chair’s cushion, but of course you can use whatever creates an even black lower surface. Make sure it is as even as possible, because an uneven surface creates lighter areas.

2. I placed the lens on the chair, so that from the camera’s viewpoint I could see the front as well as one side. This creates more depth and looks less plain than looking at one side only.

This is how I set up the product

3. I didn’t have a big black blanket or anything similar, so I used the black side of my reflector as a background area. Try to have your background as far away as possible, but still covering the frame. This way you make sure it is out of focus and not lit up by your flash.

This shows the overall setup for the product shot

4. Usually a camera position that is on eye-level with the object looks better than taking a picture from above, especially if the whole object fits in the frame. After finding the right position, I set my camera on the tripod, focused and switched the lens to manual focus. I set my camera to manual mode, chose the shortest exposure time for flash synchronization (1/200 for the 5D), set the aperture to 4 and the ISO to 100. This way I made sure that the available light (it was 1pm) wasn’t influencing the scene. If you try it yourself, make a test shot without the flash and your picture should be black. If it’s not, try to further darken your room. If it’s still not dark enough, use a smaller aperture (like 8 or 11).

5. After setting up the stand with the flash and STU, I made some test shots. It’s important to find the flash setting that exposes the object correctly, maybe slightly under. Make sure there are no blown highlights, but also don’t underexpose too much or you will have a noisy image after pushing the exposure up in post. Don’t worry about the reflecting under- or background for now. Start experimenting. Shoot from the same perspective and move the light source. Try to see the different ways of how the light plays with the object, when coming from different directions. In my example shot, I ended up having the STU on the right side, very close to the camera and roughly at the same height. This created nice reflections in the glass of the lens and gently highlighted the red ring. Decide on a position that looks attractive to you!

6. In my case, the flash was lighting up my background and made it look rather grey. I needed something to block the part of the STU that was facing my background and found a black umbrella that did the job. Of course, I also could have used a dark pair of jeans, blanket or jacket.

On the way to the full low key shot

The black umbrella blocks the light that is directed to the background. Without the umbrella the background would also look as grey-ish as the foreground.

7. The center of the STU was roughly at the same height as the lens, so half of it was above the chair’s surface and lit up the lower surface. It was possible for me to find a position of the black umbrella that blocked both the light falling on the background and most of the light falling on the lower surface from above. I basically only had the bottom half of the STU light the picture.

This is the final shot before editing in photoshop

In this position the foreground is nicely dark. The background is slightly visible, but easy to darken in Lightroom or Photoshop.

If your STU is positioned above the chair, there is logically no way to block the light from falling on your underground without also darkening your object. Therefore a low position of your light source might be helpful. Again, I highly recommend experimenting a lot! Tiny moves make a big difference, so be patient and have a steady hand! If nothing helps, you can still use Lightroom or Photoshop to further darken the grey parts.

 

Post-editing

I only used Lightroom’s brush tool (big and soft) to darken parts of the underground and background, so it looked nice and even. A slight s-shape for the tone curve and that was it. I hope you are successful, too! Feel free to leave comments with questions or feedback.

 

Final low key product shot after some enhancements in Photoshop

Final low key product shot after some enhancements in Photoshop

Final low key product shot after some enhancements in Photoshop