In this business, few jobs take more imagination than product photography. Bringing an inanimate object to life through still photography takes skill, patience and a keen eye for detail. Making a customer’s product look both desirable and valuable is part science and part art and in its own way, is every bit as difficult as portrait photography. Especially if the product being photographed is not in and of itself “beautiful” or spectacular.
In the industries where I work, few products are “high tech”, shiny or sexy. Most are functional, utilitarian and quite honestly, lifeless. Most are made from forged or cast metal which is generally dark gray or black and soaks up light like a sponge or from machined metals which are bright and highly reflective which masks any detail when lit. What many think of as “industrial machinery” is often the the most difficult thing to photograph effectively.
So when the folks from The Truth About Guns (TTAG) asked me to photograph firearms for their online magazine I was both intrigued by the challenge and thankful for work that didn’t require miles and miles of driving with gasoline at $4.00 per gallon. Little did I know at the beginning just how detailed this work would become and how much I would have to learn about these “products” to be able to photograph them safely and effectively.
Kimber Custom II Series 1911 Pistol – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. Lighting was provided by natural light through a 1-stop diffuser and with a single 580EX II with a soft-box for fill and highlight. Post capture processing was done n Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.
One Big Light and One Small Light
The first big decision I made was to abandon my normal studio lighting setup and to photograph these firearms outside, using a combination of diffused natural light and fill flash. I did this for safety reasons and for convenience, since my studio space is limited and some of the rifles I would be photographing would be too large to light properly inside.
When working with any firearm, safety is always rule number one. My training had taught me to treat every firearm as loaded and ready to fire and since I would be using “props” including loaded magazines and live ammunition, working outside seemed a safer approach. From a lighting perspective, I knew I needed an area that was both large and open but somewhat sheltered from the elements.
I wanted to keep my setup simple and portable so I created a shooting table from a piece of particle-board on top of two saw horses. I taped down some white background paper for a work surface and setup a Lastolite Skylite Kit using the diffused sunlight as my main light. For fill and highlight I used a single Canon 580EX II speedlite shot through a 24″ Lastolite EzyBox Hotshoe. Since I would be working very close to the strobe I used a Canon OC-E3 TTL sync cord but shot everything in manual, controlling the flash from the camera’s LCD screen.
Making it All Look Good
The biggest challenge in photographing small products is in setting up the scene to look interesting without it becoming too “crowded”. To accomplish the this I went to my local sporting goods store and bought the latest issue of every firearm and hunting magazine I could find. I wasn’t “cheating” here folks, I was doing research to see what types of images and lighting technique other photographers had used. I was also looking for ideas on background colors, textures and associated objects that could be used. I settled on a simple 16″ x 16″ tile ($2.99 at Home Depot) made to look like textured marble for the background or base. I chose a gun case made from “Cordura” nylon and a box of live ammunition for my “props” in the scene as shown below.
Keeping it Clean
The second biggest challenge is in making sure the product being photographed is absolutely spotless with no fingerprints, no dust and no hair in the image. This becomes a real chore with firearms which are always lubricated with oil so that they function properly. Rather than keep wiping off each new fingerprint I decided to field strip the gun and clean each piece separately which is how I came up with the idea for this next shot. I had to learn the proper disassembly techniques for this handgun (the included instructions were horrible) but thankfully the Internet is a wonderful resource to have these days.
After I had all the parts oil-free, clean and dry I reassembled the firearm with no lubricant and took several different shots from various angles using different props. I used a clean microfiber cloth and an old lens brush to remove any dirt, lint or dust from the weapon as I “posed” it for each shot. I also decided that the “exploded view” of the disassembled gun looked very cool in B&W and adopted this as one of my signature shots for each firearm I photograph.
Soft But Hard Light
I had a certain “look” that I wanted for these shots and knew that this would require very soft, diffused lighting with clean and crisp highlights. Using diffused sunlight along with fill flash was a perfect combination to create an almost “high key” (portrait style) lighting on the scene. My fill flash settings were usually in the 1/8 to 1/4 power range, just enough to add some highlights without loosing too much contrast in the shadows.
Post Capture Processing
Every product shot requires significant post capture processing and photographing firearms is no exception. Luckily, between Adobe Lightroom 3’s develop module and Photoshop CS5’s content-aware retouching tools, this doesn’t have to take hours and hours.
- My first step is to choose an image that is tack sharp and well exposed and to set the proper white balance for the overall scene. A gray card is the best tool use for this.
- My next step is to increase the images contrast using Lightroom’s ToneCurve settings and by adding significant sharpness using the Detail settings. The goal is to add definition to the handgun’s lines and highlights without creating digital noise in the background.
- My next step is to export the image to Adobe Photoshop CS5 and to use the Content Aware Spot Healing Brush to clean up the surfaces of the objects, removing any dust, dirt or fingerprints.
- The final step is to clone the background layer and sharpen it using the High-Pass Filter settings and then blend the layer into the background by selecting the Overlay mode. This adds an “edgy” quality to the images and brings out much of the texture and details in the firearm.
I’m fairly pleased with these results and with the overall look these techniques brought out in the Kimber Custom II Series 1911 pistol. For you gun enthusiasts out there please visit the TTAG web site for more information on this gun or for gun related news. For those of you interested in product photography I hope post this gives you a small feel for what’s involved in creating a nice product shot without spending a fortune.