Advanced Lighting: Lamps and Speedlights

 

Any conversation about how to best photograph the products you intend to sell must inevitably come around to lighting. Lighting is what the photography of your products relies on to make a good impression. Poor lighting will fail to faithfully and professionally present your items to buyers and has an effect on a potential buyer’s impression of your professionalism. You have to give serious thought to getting your lighting right.

Lighting for photography doesn’t have to be a scary thing, however. You have different options, each with their own considerations, to choose. Finding one that fits your budget and needs can be pretty straightforward.

The three types of lighting to consider come down to window light, continuous lighting, and off-camera flash. Window light is exactly what you would expect: the light from any window diffused by curtains or other material. Continuous lighting is light from any source that is always on, like a desk lamp or dedicated photographic lighting. Speedlights are dedicated camera flashes that can be mounted to the hot shoe of a camera, however for this purpose they are placed off-camera which presents its own considerations.

WINDOW LIGHT

Window light has the advantage that it is available almost anywhere. Of course, that is offset by the fact that it is only at its best at times that might be inconvenient for you. The quality of window light is undeniable when diffused correctly. All of the other types of lighting we are going to discuss will be in their relation to the type of soft, even lighting provided by good natural light.

For all of the examples, a lightbox of the type discussed here was used to diffuse all the light in the same way.

CONTINUOUS LIGHTING

Continuous lighting is the second most easily available type of lighting. While you can purchase specific lighting for photography, a desk lamp our other type of lamp can often stand in provided you diffuse your light properly.

As you can see, the quality of light from the desk lamp is different from the window light. It is a harsher and more directional light with narrow specular highlights but still manages to show the item well. One drawback to using a desk or house lamp might be white balance. Lamps for home use can vary a lot in color (temperature). Some light bulbs are daylight balanced with others being warmer or cooler. A good tip is to use a camera that has the ability to choose white balance. Setting the white balance is as simple as setting up your lighting then placing a white piece of poster board or paper in front of your camera and adjusting white balance until it appears white. This is much preferred to trying to do this while editing later. While the light from lamps is strong it may not be strong enough to achieve shutter speeds higher than 1/60th of a second. A tripod will still need to be used.

  • More directional
  • Fairly strong light. Will probably still require a tripod to avoid blurry images
  • Lamps with flexible “necks” will allow you to direct light where you need it
  • Available. You probably have a lamp in your home that can be used
  • White balance may be an issue. Can be handled in-camera however.

If you use a lamp that has a dimmer you have the added advantage of being able to adjust the power of the lamp to suit your need. Continuous lighting can be the second-most budget friendly option next to window light.

SPEEDLIGHTS

Speedlights are the most professional option for lighting discussed here (we’ve left out studio strobes which are cost prohibitive for any but the most dedicated photographers). Speedlights are specifically designed to be used with cameras and offer the most versatility. You can adjust the power, angle, and zoom of speedlights for a wide range of uses.

There are some additional considerations for speedlights. You will not see the effect of your light set-up until you press the shutter button. Battery power might limit how many shots you can take (keep spares on hand). Lastly, they are probably the most costly of the lighting methods discussed so you will need to measure benefits against price.

For speedlights a transmitter or cable is required to be fired off-camera, and this must be kept in mind. However, there are many options for triggering speedlights off-camera from cables to extremely useful wireless transmitters.

  • Speedlights are often daylight balanced and can be used along with window light if needed but this requires experience
  • Very portable
  • Higher shutter speeds mean you can achieve sharp photos hand-held
  • Speedlights are adjustable in power from full strength (1/1) to as low as 1/128 power or less
  • Speedlights are portable and use widely available batteries. The quality of their light is what people often associate with professional product photography
  • Items like jewelry or metal-worked art look very professional under this type of lighting
  • A wireless transmitter/receiver or cable needed to fire flash
  • Can not see lighting effect unless picture is taken

Speedlights also offer the widest range of light modifiers of the lighting discussed here. Soft-boxes, shoot-through umbrellas, and more are all available depending on how involved your product photography needs to be.

Advanced lighting techniques can really take your product photography to an entirely different level, allowing you to present your buyers with professionally styled products that can be a deciding factor in clicking to add to cart.

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