When people go to a shop, they like to look at product photography before they buy them. The pick them up, turn them over, and get a “feel” for them before they hand over their money.On the Internet, you can’t do that. Instead, you look at the photos and make your decision based on whether you like what you see.
Today, I’m going to show you how you can take great Product Photography yourself. We’re going to take a look at 3 subjects that scare the daylights out of most camera owners – Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed. I’m going to show you there’s nothing to worry about – it’s actually quite simple when you understand what these terms mean and how they work together.
Understanding aperture, ISO and shutter speed is the first step towards becoming a good photographer. Now, you don’t have to go all the way and become a pro before you can take great pictures. But you need to understand these ideas to take great pictures. It’s not enough to “point and shoot”.
By the way, you’ll get more out of this article if you read it with your camera by your side. That way you can play around with the settings and take some pictures. You’ll get a better understanding of how these ideas translate into actual photos. It’s probably worth getting the manual, too. Different cameras have different controls, and the manual will show you how to change the settings on your camera.
So, let’s start with the basics. What is a camera?
Most people think of a camera as a magic picture box with buttons on it. In reality, it’s more like a bucket. A camera is really a light bucket. Instead of holding water, it holds light. Light is quite different from water, but there are a lot of similarities. Because light moves so fast, it seems to appear instantly. In reality, it flows from a light source to fill space. Just like water flowing out of a spout. Unlike water, light changes color when it bounces off of objects. To take a picture, you have to capture some of that light with your camera. Just like a bucket, your camera has to let the water in through a hole – a bucket without a hole wouldn’t be much use, right?
Now, a bucket can have too much water or too little. If you were collecting water, you wouldn’t want to fill the bucket so it was overflowing. And you wouldn’t want to get too little, either. It’s the same with a camera. If you capture too much light, your photo will be too bright and washed-out. If you didn’t get enough light, the image would be really dark.
So we need to capture just enough light for our Product Photography
When we talk about buckets, we use words like “full” and “empty” to describe how much water is collected. With cameras, we talk about “exposure”. Exposure means how much light was captured. And just like water, you can have too much exposure, or too little. A photo that is too bright is “overexposed”. A photo that’s too dark is “underexposed”. To get a nice photo, you have to control the exposure.
Now, if you were filling a bucket from a water spout, you could control the speed of water with a tap. But when we talk about light, it’s much harder to control the flow of light. You can’t “switch off” the sun to get a better picture. Even with artificial light, it’s hard to control the flow so precisely. Instead, you change the settings on the camera to make sure it captures the right amount of light. To translate this into bucket terms, let’s imagine you’re using a bucket to collect rainwater. You put the bucket outside, and let the rain fill it up for you. How do you stop the bucket from overfilling?
You can’t control the speed of the rain. So you have to do something with the bucket, instead.
One way would be to wait until the bucket has enough water, and then put a cover over it. You could decide to leave the bucket for 5 minutes and then go out and cover it. Cameras work the same way. They have a shutter that closes the hole and stops light from coming in. When you take a picture, the shutter opens to let the light in. Then it waits for some time. Then it closes. You can control how long the shutter stays open with the “shutter speed” setting.
Light moves faster than water, so you wouldn’t want to wait 5 minutes
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. 1/10 means that the shutter stays open for a tenth of a second. 1/100 means it only stays open for a hundredth of a second. The bigger the number at the bottom of the fraction, the faster the shutter speed. If the shutter stays open for a very short period of time, less light will get into the camera. If it’s open for a long time, more light will get in. You can experiment with shutter speed to see how it alters your pictures. Get your camera, and take a photo of an object near you. Now change the shutter speed (make it faster). Take another picture. Is it darker, or lighter? Change the shutter speed so the number at the bottom of the fraction is smaller. Take another picture. Can you see the difference? You should see that a faster shutter speed makes the image darker. If you take a photo with a slower shutter speed, it will be brighter. So, shutter speed is one way to control the brightness of your photo. But it’s only one of the ways you can control the exposure. You can also control the aperture size.
The aperture is the hole that lets light into the camera. When you make the hole bigger, light gets in faster. It’s just like the bucket. If you covered your bucket with a board that had a small hole in it, the water would go in slowly. If you make the hole bigger, water will fill more quickly. Let’s talk about f-stops. The way you change the aperture setting on your camera is with the f-stop setting. Now, I’m not going to get into how these numbers are calculated (it involves math). All you need to know is that a smaller number means a bigger aperture. So, you can increase the size of the hole by choosing a smaller number.Smaller f-stops allow more light into a camera. Let’s do another experiment. Get your camera, and take a photo of a nearby object using the regular settings. Now change the f-stop setting – make it smaller. Did the photo get brighter or darker?Smaller f-stops make brighter photos, and bigger f-stops make darker ones. OK, at this point, you might be thinking “why do I need two ways to control the light flow?” After all, the bucket cover was perfect!
Well, changing the aperture alters the “depth of field”, which I will explain in a minute. Basically, you can use it to create artistic effects. But changing the aperture setting alters the amount of light flow. It’s no use creating a nice artistic effect if the photo is too dark or too bright. That’s why you use the aperture and shutter speed together. You adjust the aperture to get the effect you want, and then you adjust the shutter speed to control the exposure.
Depth of field is a natural blurry effect. You’ve seen photos where one object is in focus, and the things in front of it and behind it are blurry. This effect is a result of the way light is focused on the film. When the aperture is big, the blurriness is greater. A small aperture reduces the blur.
Blur can be good or bad. If you want to make an object stand out, you can use depth of field to blur the background. If you want to show all the details, you have to get rid of that depth of field, with a smaller aperture. You can also create artistic effects with the shutter speed. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of traffic, where every car looked like a blur of light. That effect was created using a slow shutter speed – if objects are moving while the shutter is open, they’ll blur. We call this effect “motion blur”. Motion blur also happens when the camera is moving, and that’s one reason why it’s a good idea to use a tripod, to keep the camera still.
Motion blur is a nice effect, but you probably won’t use it so much when you’re taking pictures of products. But there’s a simple rule – when you change one setting, to create an effect, you usually have to change the other one, too. So far, we’ve covered aperture and shutter speed. But I haven’t told you what ISO is yet. ISO refers to the sensitivity of the film. When film is sensitive, it takes less light to make a decent picture. When cameras were new, the film wasn’t very sensitive at all. It took lots of light to take a picture, and that meant the camera aperture had to stay open for much longer. Posing for a portrait was very awkward because you had to stand very still. But it was certainly faster than posing for a painting! Going back to the bucket concept, sensitivity is like the size of the bucket. Sensitive film is like a small bucket – it fills up faster. Less sensitive film is like a bigger bucket – it takes longer to fill.
Photographers found the early film hard to work with. Chemists worked hard to make more sensitive photographic film, and they improved the sensitivity a lot. This gave photographers more choice.ISO is a number that measures the sensitivity of the film. It’s also used with digital cameras, to measure the sensitivity of the light sensors at the back of the camera. A higher ISO means more sensitive – lower means less. I’ve already told you about how modern photographers use different shutter speeds and aperture sizes to create artistic effects. Changing aperture creates certain effects, and changing shutter speeds creates others.
To get a decent exposure, you change both at the same time. But there’s a danger of creating unwanted effects. Let’s say you want to reduce the depth of field blur, for a sharper image. You would have to reduce the aperture size. But a smaller aperture means darker pictures. You can brighten up the pictures by choosing a slow shutter speed. But there’s a potential problem – slow shutter speeds increase motion blur. If there are moving objects in your shot, they can appear blurry.
And if there’s any camera shake, it will look worse. A traditional photographer could solve the problem by using more sensitive film. Just like a smaller bucket in the rain, it takes less time to expose a nice picture. So you can reduce the shutter speed, and get rid of the motion blur.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons why digital cameras are so awesome. You see, changing film is messy and wasteful, and it’s sometimes just impossible. And you might accidentally spoil all your photos by getting light on them.
With a digital camera, you don’t have to change the film. You can change the ISO setting. This changes the sensitivity of the photosensors inside the camera – it’s the same thing as changing film, without the mess.So, why not use a high sensitivity all the time? Wouldn’t that make life easier? Well, no.
When you increase the sensitivity of your camera, you also increase the noise. Noise is the unwanted “blotches” that appear in the image, making it look messy. It’s caused by little pieces of random light hitting the light sensors. The same thing happens with film, too. Professional photographers juggle the ISO, aperture and shutter speed to get the artistic effect they want without unwanted side effects. They have to be prepared for any situation, and it takes skill and judgment.
Sometimes, they have to shoot under very bad light conditions, and it takes experience to get decent images they can use. Even then, they often have to use Photoshop to clean up the image.
Product photography is usually much easier because you can control the environment. You can turn lights on and off, keep the camera still with a tripod, and make sure the product isn’t moving. Once you set up your environment, you can use the same settings for most of your photos. Of course, if you’re using natural light, you’ll have to make changes if it gets brighter or darker. The weather might change. As it gets later, the sky will get darker. And so on. Most product photographers want a little “depth of field” blur because it makes the product pop out from the background. They start with an aperture setting of f/8.5 to f/15. If you want to increase the blur, you can go lower, to f/5.8 or more.
Most of the time you’ll use an ISO between 50- 500 – this will give a nice image without noise. If you’re shooting outdoors, you need to get the right setting for the time of day. Before 4pm, an ISO setting of 50-400 works well. Later, when it gets darker, you should increase it to compensate, maybe as high as 800. It all depends on the available light. Finally, you can adjust the shutter speed to get a nice picture – remember, longer shutter speeds mean brighter pictures. You should try to make the shutter speed as fast as possible, to eliminate any blur caused by camera shake or vibrations. Play around with these settings until you are happy with the picture.
Take some test shots with different settings, and keep adjusting until you are happy with what you see. At the end of the day, there is no “absolute” correct setting, it all depends on the look you are going for. You may want your images to look dark and moody – this would be a good look if you’re selling high-end video game accessories. Or you might want a bright and happy look. It’s up to you. As long as you capture enough detail, that is. Images that are too bright or too dark have less detail. And that’s not practical for e-commerce.
So remember to balance your artistic vision with the practicalities of selling stuff online. Now you understand how these settings work, you’ll have a much easier time taking great photos!