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The Digital Edge: Product Photography

by Gary Stafford, President, Lazer Incorporated

February 2006

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A picture is worth a thousand words. In marketing, a picture, specifically, a good product photograph is worth a thousand sales. Great photos sell more products – attracting shoppers to the store, persuading buyers to order from the catalog, and enticing web-surfers to place orders online.

Most forms of product promotion – catalogs, magazine and newspaper advertising, point-of-purchase displays, packaging, and e-commerce websites – all start with a photograph. Many elements help create an effective product photograph – composition, lighting, camera system, photographic technique, post-processing, and of course, creativity. A professional product photographer successfully combines all of these facets to produce a superior image for the client.

Composition Planning and composing the shot is the first step in producing a good image. Into what environment should the product be placed? How should the product be positioned? What accoutrements should be included in the composition to compliment the product and help enhance the marketing message? The composition is often dictated by the product and marketer’s message.

Product photography generally falls into two composition categories. Basic composition isolates the product from its surroundings, displaying it clearly and accurately to the viewer, without the distraction of props or elaborate backgrounds. Conversely, promotional photography, often used for print advertising, usually involves more complex composition. Staging and propping creates a particular mood, evoking desired emotions in the buyer.


According to many sources, the word photography comes from the Greek words meaning painting with light. Lighting also plays a critical role in creating an effective photograph shot.

A variety of lighting systems are commonly used by product photographers, including Tungsten, Halogen, Fluorescent, and Metal Halide Iodide (HMI). Each has different characteristics and capabilities.

Lighting has a dramatic impact on the overall look and feel of an image. It can be hard and dramatic, soft and delicate, clean and clinical, or it can produce a color cast used to enhance the mood of the image. The type of product and desired marketing message dictate the type of lighting system and light techniques.

Good basic product lighting should bring out details in the shadows, hold the subtle details of the highlights, maintain smooth tonal gradations through the midtones, and ensure overall color accuracy. Good lighting helps produce a clear, detailed, accurate rendition of the product. Professional lighting can overcome the limitations imposed by less than optimal camera equipment.

Camera System

The camera system includes the camera body, lenses, and either a digital or film-based camera back. There are a variety of camera systems available to product photographers. Like lighting, the product and composition best dictate the system.

Three primary camera formats used are by modern photographers – small format, medium format, and large format (view camera). Small format SLR/DSLR cameras are generally used for less critical image capture such as for websites or for fast moving action shots of products in use. Medium format cameras are frequently used for shooting on location, capturing products in their environment, or on a live model. Medium format balances portability with relatively high-quality. Large format systems are usually found in the photo studio. Though not easily transportable, large format cameras are capable of capturing a high level of detail and have the advantages of movements (tilts, swings, shifts, and rise/fall). These movements allow view cameras to eliminate convergence, and optimize depth of field and plane of focus, among other things.

Camera lenses come in all shapes and sizes, and vary in capabilities. Macro lenses capture the minute details of smaller items such as jewelry. Standard length lenses work well for average sized items such as electronics and food. Wider format lenses are useful for capturing large products and environments, such as automobiles or furniture.

Unlike smaller format SLR camera bodies with integrated CCD or CMOS chips, medium and large format systems use removable, interchangeable camera backs. Digital backs have almost entirely replaced film for product photography. Digital camera backs vary in technology, ease of portability, image capture size, and speed. A good camera system matches the camera body, lenses, and back, to optimize image quality.


A diamond ring, a sports car, a food product, a piece of fine furniture – each product requires a particular photographic technique to capture a successful image. Through trial and error, photographers develop a system of product preparation, studio configuration, image composition, lighting, and camera equipment to achieve consistently great results. Photographic techniques are often so particular that many photographers specialize in one particular type of product, such as jewelry, furniture, or automobiles.

Small products such as jewelry require experience with macro photography to capture the up-close details. Photographers must be meticulous, maintaining a clean work environment and eliminating the smallest flaws, which the macro lens will amplify. Photographing jewelry also requires a familiarity with the challenges of controlling the appearance of highly reflective materials, such as metallic and glass surfaces.

Photographing furniture often requires creating an entire room scene, propped with numerous complimentary accessories. Studios must have large spaces with seamless backgrounds, access to loading docks, and available labor to construct sets and arrange products. Their lighting must be capable of evenly illuminating a large space. Furniture photographers use cameras with wide-angle lenses and digital backs capable of capturing a very large file size. Studios specializing in furniture often employ an interior designer to assist in set construction and accessorizing.

A food stylist is often employed for photographing food products. Many specialized techniques are used to make the food look more appealing. Since speed is of the essence to photograph the food while it is still fresh, many professional food photographers have complete cooking and food prep areas in their studios. Good food photography tantalizes our senses of taste and smell.


Without Creativity, even the best products, captured using the finest lighting, camera equipment, and photographic techniques, will not convey the marketer’s message to the target audience. Photographers draw on their creativity to uniquely bring together the lighting, image composition, depth of field, focus, and angle of view to create an effective product shot. Photographers develop a distinct creative photographic style by which they become recognized. They orchestrate a visual synergy of product, background, props, and lighting. They choose just the right angle and select the best depth of field and focal point to pop the product off the page.

Photographers are artists, creatively using subject matter, light and composition, similar to a painter, to produce a picture worth a thousand words – and sales.


Composition – The combining of distinct parts or elements to form a whole. The spatial property resulting from the arrangement of parts in relation to each other and to the whole. (Source:

CMOS – Short for complementary metal oxide semiconductor. Pronounced see-moss, CMOS is a widely used type of semiconductor. (Source:

Digital Camera Back – A self-contained unit enclosing an electronic sensor to record the image as a piece of electronic data rather than as chemical changes on film. There are two main types of sensors, charge-coupled device (CCD) and CMOS semiconductor. (Source:

Macro Photography – Photographing objects at extreme close-ups with magnification ratios ranging from about 1:1 to about 10:1. (Source:

Marketing – In economics, the flow of goods and services from producer to consumer. In popular usage it is defined as the distribution and sale of goods. (Source: The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)

SLR or DSLR – SLR (Single Lens Reflex) or DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). A camera that uses the same lens for viewing and shooting. A mirror reflects the image from the lens to the viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips out of the way and the shutter opens to expose the film or image sensor. (Source:

View Camera – A light-tight assembly comprised of a flexible mid-section, or bellows, attached to a device that holds a film sheet, photo plate, or digital camera back at one end (the rear standard) and a similar one that holds the lens at the other end (the front standard). Sizes are typically standardized to large film formats (in inches): 4x5, 5x7, 4x10, 5x12, 8x10, 11x14, 7x17, 8x20, 12x20, 20x24, and 30x40.


There are many resources available to further your knowledge of product photography. Our recommendations include:

Gary Stafford is the President of Lazer Incorporated. As a premier graphic communications provider, Lazer specializes in digital imaging, design and mechanical layout, electronic prepress, catalog and packaging development, Digital Asset Management (DAM) and service, service, service.

Company Profile: Lazer Incorporated
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