Q&A with Spencer Cobby on product photography basics
Product photography can be intimidating for beginners. There’s a whole plethora of terms to get your head around before you start snapping, and plenty of decisions to make about which camera settings to use. Whether you’re new to the world of product photography and eager to master the basics, or you’re simply curious about the techniques used by professional product photographers, you’re in the right place. Here we present a Q&A with our very own Spencer Cobby on the basics of product photography …
What camera do you typically use?
I use a Nikon D850 for my product photography projects.
Do you use the same lens for all your product photography work?
The lens I use varies depending on the subject of my photos. For images that require sharp, accurate edges, I use a 50mm f1.4 Nikon lens. This produces very little distortion on edges, so any lines are straight and sharp. Any little distortions are fixed when editing in Capture One and Photoshop.
For white background shots with a close focused subject, I use a different lens. I find that a 105mm f2.8 Nikon works best for these types of photographs. I also use this lens for many of the lifestyle projects I work on, as a popular trend is to have your subject slightly in focus whilst the background is blurred, and this lens helps me achieve this look.
What is your favourite lens to use?
For me, the Nikon D850 camera paired with the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 is hard to beat. This lens is very sharp and has in-lens stabilisation, making it really useful for almost all the work I do.
What’s your go-to aperture when photographing products?
Again, my choice of aperture depends on what I am photographing and what the final image is going to be used for. Aperture can affect many different variables of an image, so it’s important to understand what size aperture is going to work for your shot. A large aperture lets more light in through the lens and therefore reduces the focus, whereas a small aperture keeps more of the image sharp.
When producing white background images, it’s important that the product looks sharp all over. So, I use a smaller aperture, usually f8, to help keep the entire product crisp and in focus. I then use the program Helicon Focus to further enhance the sharpness.
Here’s a breakdown of the process I follow to produce sharp product photos:
- First off, I photograph the focus segments.
- My camera is linked to my iMac, which means the images are instantly displayed on a larger screen. I use a program called Capture Oneto view and edit RAW files.
- I export the files into Helicon Focus.
- The Focus Stack function is really useful – it allows me to combine anywhere between five and 25 in-focus image segments to form a focus map of the overall image.
- I export the focus map back to Capture One.
- Don’t forget to the check the focus is correct!
- Then, it’s time for any edits to be made, such as colour correcting, removing artefacts etc.
- The resulting image is sharp from front to back, perfect for product photos.
Do you use the same aperture for lifestyle product photography?
Just like with white background product shots, the aperture I use depends on the subject of the lifestyle product image. I usually start at f8 and then adjust accordingly.
What ISO do you use?
ISO can have a dramatic effect on an image, so again it’s important to find the right value for the particular project you’re working on. For product photography, ideally you want to use the lowest ISO possible, as a high ISO can reduce the amount of detail in an image. When it comes to white background shots, I typically use ISO 64 on the Nikon D850. This creates little to no digital noise, which is great for producing highly accurate product photos.
For other shots, I tend to start at ISO 400. Increasing the ISO can sometimes produce a grainy image, so I balance it with aperture and shutter speed to get a suitable overall exposure. The Nikon D850 has a really useful Auto ISO function, so when work is pressured and time is tight, I use this.
What types of lighting do you use for product photography?
I use Bowens Gemini Flash Heads whilst working in the studio. For white background shots, I use 4-6 strobe lights. Often, I use flash lighting on location too, specifically my Bowen Gemini Travelpak kits. Flash lights don’t get too hot and are often more practical to work with than other types of lighting because of this. There is less risk of burning yourself or setting things on fire due to the heat from the bulbs!
From time to time, I might need to hire HMI lights. HMI stands for Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide. These use an arc lamp to produce light instead of an incandescent bulb. They are useful for daylight shooting, and very popular with film and TV production companies.
Occasionally I need to hire in Tungsten lamps as well. These artificial light sources emit heat and produce a warm reddish colour.
It all depends on the lighting required for that particular shot, and the overall look I am trying to achieve for my client.
What camera settings do you use most frequently?
If I look through all of the metadata from the photographs I have taken over the years, I would say that I use aperture f8, shutter speed 1/125th of a second, with the camera set to Auto ISO most often. Usually it is a case of trial and error until I find exactly what I’m after. I start at this aperture and shutter speed, and then see how I get on.
We hope you’ve found this insight into Spencer’s go-to product photography settings useful. If you’re eager to get to grips with some more photography basics, check out our glossary. It covers some key photography expressions to help you tackle tricky technical jargon. And to find out more about some of the different types of photography we specialise in, take a look around our website.