Product or still-life photography includes food items, jewelry, electronics, beverages, and abstract images. In this article I will provide tips for creating a solid still-life portfolio. Everyone wants to shoot people, fashion, stock or weddings. Why compete in such a saturated market when food photography and other product work is relatively wide open. Shooting catalogs is not glamorous however it pays rather well in comparison to other work.
Thankfully product photography is somewhat easier. I say easier because for the most part you can style all this by yourself and the crew is smaller. Ideally I would use someone with a creative eye and more patience than I. Sometimes it takes hours to get the right composition for the product placement. I call this “organized chaos”.
I recommend that a product photographer have a variety of images in their portfolio. These do not have to be elaborate or expensive setups, instead the images should be creative, well lit, have great composition, and display the item to its best advantage. Use unusual items and surprise the viewer, don’t do another typical bagel or shoe shot, use your imagination and change the environment. Google “bagel images” to see what has been done before, now take a few of those image ideas and reinvent it and do it better.
Being a frugal photographer I like to borrow items from friends and family members. I know several people that have collections of antiques or just a beautifully styled home. My next favorite resource is the thrift store. The items have that authentic used look and they range in price from 25 cents to several dollars. Maybe a great vase and a simple flower bouquet. Better yet, lets create a theme assemblage. This is a series of items similar in theme to create a image that tells a story.
For food photography we can shoot finished recipes, the individual ingredients used, or vegetables and fruits as abstract images. Personally I love abstract food images. Farmers markets and especially foreign grocery stores have the most diversity. The produce section is filled with the most unusual variety of vegetables and fruits. Shoot the item whole or slice it in half. Shooting food on location, such as a restaurant table, looks great with a very shallow depth of field. Use window light and the afternoon sun.
Beverages are more challenging. Liquids do not always cooperate and many times we use substitutions such as white Elmer’s glue to represent milk as seen in cereal ads. Often the liquid is lit from behind to show the color. To create water droplets on a bottle I freeze the glass and then spray it with a fine spray it with a fine mist of water. Coffee in a cup looks dead unless we stir in a drop of liquid soap or better yet, Photo-Flow. This adds a small amount of bubbles on the rim and makes the coffee look just poured. These are just a few examples, there are so many tricks.
Photographing large items such as cars present other problem. Generally speaking, the glossy paint of a car is like a mirror, so I light what the car is seeing and not the car. Begin with small items such as common household electronics or appliances. I use long exposures to capture the LED’s and fire the strobe to get the overall image. High-end stores like Williams-Sonoma and Ikea have amazing utensil designs that photograph perfectly for abstract images. Jewelry can be shot on black glass, a body part, and in an environment.
Experiment with backgrounds and lighting. Don’t shoot everything with a softbox. Honeycomb grids on your lights will highlight texture. Use the softbox as the fill light and now add a second hard light light to create dimension. Take your time and create a concept and the items needed. Next spend a few hours arranging and tweaking image placement. Walk around with your camera and look at it from various angles. I like to use ladders to shoot from above, it is an unexpected view. Shooting from below will produce a feeling of grandeur. Shooting everything at eye level is boring, yawn.
I set aside two days for product portfolio work. One day to shop and gather items, and the second day to shoot. Put on some good music and organize the studio. Creating 2-3 fantastic images in one day is hard work, take a break every two hours. Don’t worry if each image does not happen right away, at times I walk away and come back to it an hour later. This should be fun not work. Product photography is a marriage of technical and artistic skill.