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Book Review

Lighting for Product Photography: Step-by- Step Guide to Sculpting with Light

(Amherst Media, 2013) by Allison Earnest


Lighting for Product Photographers: Step by Step Guide to Sculpting with Light


Portrait photographers have gained invaluable lighting tips from Allison Earnest’s books—Sculpting with Light: Techniques for Portrait Photographers®, Amherst Media, 2008, and The Digital Photographer’s Guide to Light Modifiers: Techniques for Sculpting with Light®, Amherst Media, 2010. Now with her third book, Lighting for Product Photography: Step-by-Step Guide to Sculpting with Light, product or still life photographers—as well as portrait photographers looking to expand their skills and client services—can gain the same advantage. 


With hundreds of photographers competing for work today, pros and new entries alike, expanding and diversifying your skills is a must. 

But do you really need an entire book about lighting set ups if you’ve used lighting for years to take portraits at wedding parties, for actors’ portfolios or annual reports? The answer is yes. Designing a commercial/product image is entirely different from creating portraiture for a wedding album or mural—lighting being one of the primary differences. 


Fortunately, Lighting for Product Photography is a detailed but friendly guide. The illustrative photos are crystal clear, with detailed captions that explain exactly what you’re seeing. Because, as she explains, “good exposure alone does not equate to good lighting or make a good picture,” Allison created 24 case studies that reveal the dramatically different results when objects are poorly lit and when they are well lit—and how to produce the well-lit products all the time. 


The case studies cover the basic principles of lighting single objects, shiny to dull and everything in between, and explore techniques for combining products into “environmental” illustrations. Allison explains how to make these appealing, usable images right at the time of capture. To be the most instructive, the images were shot in manual mode, RAW format, and are shown as they were captured, with only standard dust spotting and color/contrast adjustments made in postproduction—no Photoshop® manipulation.


Here then, a taste of the creative lighting rescues she presents in her book.  .  .


1. Challenge of Glass. “Both pairs of glass bottles were exposed correctly and the same, but the image on the right is better lit,” says Allison. “The left image was lit with a softbox, which produced a reflection of the light source and a flatly lit image with no depth or dimension. The second image was created with two lights: a parabolic reflector positioned above and behind the glass, creating depth and separation of the bottles; and a light, behind a large, white translucent scrim at camera right and slightly behind the products, which made pleasing reflections on the bottles that emphasize their shapes.”


Lighting product photography       Product Photography Tips       

The left pair of glass bottles, lit poorly, lack depth and dimension. With the same exposure, when lit properly, the bottles at right have pleasant reflections that emphasize their shapes.


2. Shoes on a White Background. “I was commissioned to photograph products for a field-hockey company’s online store, creating a white background and a realistic depiction of the shoes’ attributes,” says Allison. “The lighting had to show the tread on the sole and the silver with black fabric at the top of the toe area. The first image is well exposed but flatly lit, so some fabric textures and characteristics are lost; the shoes look black, red and white but they are black, red and silver. The final image was shot with a single monolight and 7-inch parabolic reflector, high and angled down onto the back shoe, revealing texture and depth on the treads; a double net cutter in front of the monolight prevented additional light from falling on the shoe front or white surface; a monolight with barn doors aimed at the white seamless paper lit the background; a 7-inch parabolic was aimed at the background, 1 stop brighter than the main light to ensure a white background. The main light source, a small stripbox at camera right, was about 90 degrees from the product, creating shadows and highlights, and enhancing the black fabric. One small mirror bounced light onto the silver fabric while another added a highlight to the tip of one shoe and logo on the back of the other.”


Product photography lighting tips        Lighting for product photography

Proper lighting can turn a flatly lit photograph of a pair of field hockey shoes into a realistic depiction of the shoes and their features, thus increasing the likelihood of greater sales of a client’s product.


3. Mixed Textures. Matching the exposures of these images, Allison “accented every element within the composition. A Hensel head powered by a 1200W power pack was the main light. A large homemade scrim made of rip-stop nylon and PVC piping was placed over the set to light the reflective flatware. A second light source was set to record at the same exposure as the main light, with the lights positioned to evenly light the scrim and create a large, soft light source. A third light created depth. Square mirrors redirected the light back into the set and another created separation between the background and the plates. Two white cards added fill from the back of the light tent and the front of the set; another mirror reflected light back to the set for more separation and highlights on the pears.” A final touch: Allison hand-held a black card to create that black reflection on the silverware giving it shape and form. 


how to light product photography      How to light products in a studio

By adding a few well-placed lighting accessories to this mixed-textures table setting, Allison was able to accent each and every element in this composition.


This 153-page “Step-by-Step Guide to Sculpting with Light” is a timeless reference that successfully blends the technical and the artistic. Informative, clearly written, a fast read, easy to navigate, with well-photographed, clear samples, Lighting for Product Photography is a rugged lighting tool that will stand the test of time. 

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