Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Four C's of Making Great Product Photos

I have not posted in quite a while - combination of being quite busy and a bit lazy. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make great photos. For me, I’ve come up with the Four C’s - Color, Composition, Contrast and Content. I believe these four elements apply to any photo, but since this is a product photography blog, we'll use that as the context for our discussion.

1. Color

What is color and why is it important? Before we can understand color, we need a quick refresher on light. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, most people think so-called “white” light represents the absence of all color. However, in reality, it is the inclusion of all colors. This is important because everything we are able to see, we are able to see because it reflects light. (If it didn’t reflect light, we wouldn’t be able to see it.) What this means is, the color of an object is the result of all other colors being absorbed by surface of that object. So, for instance, something that we see as “red” means that that object is absorbing all colors other than red.

Equally important to the discussion of color is the understanding that people have emotional responses to color. (Google "emotional responses to color".) Warm tones for instance evoke one type of emotional response, whereas cooler tones elicit another. It is also important to note that humans have learned responses to certain colors. For instance, red or yellow are often associated with danger, whereas green and blue often communicate safe conditions. 

A yellow background adds emotion to the image. Just remember that when this is done in-camera, the background can reflect color back on to the product changing its appearance. Try to light the product separately from the background whenever possible.
The last thing to say about color is that sometimes the most compelling images don’t have any color at all. We all know the power of black & white images. It’s hard to say why, but monochrome photos can be a very impactful way to reach your audience.


2. Composition

When discussing photography, composition refers to what we include - and exclude - from the frame. It also refers to camera angles, focal length and how we arrange our subject.

For instance, when shooting product shots I sometimes like to shoot from slightly below to give the product a larger than life appearance. (Shooting close-up with a wide angle lens can also give the same effect.) At the other extreme, we sometimes see images where the product appears quite small since there is a lot of "negative" (empty) space in the frame. This creates a feeling of emptiness or isolation (not typically what we are trying to achieve with a commercial product shot, but hey, whatever floats your boat.)

Another common example of using compositions creatively is to show only a small portion of the product. This is useful in creating interest by withholding from the audience (excluding from the frame) something of importance.

Compared to the shot above, this was done with a wide angle lens from a lower angle. This makes the product look more imposing.

Finally, composition can also include playing with balance within an image. When posing group of products for example, I often place taller items in the center of the frame to create symmetry and an overall feeling of harmony when viewing the image.


3. Contrast

Contrast describes the interplay between dark and light areas of a photo. In terms of product photography, contrast can be used to highlight or distinguish certain product features. It can also increase the overall impact of the photo.

An example of highlighting an important feature is the use of contrast to define the product's shape. It sounds pretty obvious to say the edges of the product define its shape. Yet I get a calls all the time from people wanting me to photograph white objects on a white background. This means little or no contrast between the product and the background. So it is my job to make the product - literally - stand out.

One way I do this is to place black cards along the sides of the product just outside view of the camera. This reduces the amount of light on the edges of the product (the black absorbs rather than reflects the light). It can be very subtle, but this is often enough to create the needed contrast.

Notice the lack of contrast between the edges of the product and the background in the shot on the left. In the shot on the right, I placed black cards just outside of the camera's view to darken the edges of the bottle.

Sometimes it's fun to do the opposite - instead of darkening the edges, I'll use so-called “rim” lighting to brighten the edges of the product. At its extreme, this creates a halo of light around the subject, giving the product an other-worldly glow (much to my clients' delight).

4. Content

It almost goes without saying that in the making of any great photo, content is king. The problem is, what is compelling to one person may not be compelling to another. (Just spend few minutes noticing what grabs your attention on Facebook tonight: is that person's cat photo adorable? Or a reason to unfriend them...)

As commercial product photographer, the issue of subject matter is easy for me: when I am hired to shoot a product, clearly the client thinks that product is compelling - and of course, my clients are always right. Their customers will also likely find these photos of interest: they give the customers valuable information about the product and (hopefully) heighten desire and reaffirm the customers' interest in making a purchase. So in these cases at least, the issue of content is not in doubt.

There you go - a cute cat and baby photo in one :-)

What about your own photos? All I can say is, when picking subject matter, be true to yourself. Shoot what speaks to you and let others get on board - unless of course you're being hired by someone else. In that case, shoot what speaks to them, and you'll both be happy.

There you have it - the Four C's to making great photos. Keep each of these in mind the next time you take any kind of photo and see if your work doesn't got to the next level.

Until next time, please visit my website: or email me at

Happy shooting!