When shooting products in the studio, many photographers would naturally gravitate to strobes. After all, you have complete control over the light, and that is very important in product shots. So why would you consider using natural light instead of strobes for product photography? There are some excellent reasons to leave the strobes off and grab some window light.
I have always used strobes for tabletop product shots. That is until a few months ago; I had to shoot a series of cut glass bowls, candy jars, and vases. What a nightmare! Glare, reflections, and hot spots; Oh my!
Finally, I remembered my food photography. I quit using strobes on my food shots years ago, opting for the soft, indirect, wrap-around quality of window light. So, I took a piece of glass over to my food table by the window and got to work. With a few tweaks, the difference was amazing.
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It as then that I changed my product photography setup forever, and here are three reasons why.
Directionality and Quality of Light
As any food photographers can tell you, the directionality of light is essential. Every great food photograph you have ever seen has either side or back-lighting. This creates both texture and depth that can’t be arrived at when bathing the subject with hot strobes. Of course, you could use a single strobe for whatever direction you need, but that doesn’t address the quality of light. There is nothing more flattering to any subject than warm, indirect, diffused, window light.
For some of my shots of glass in that session, I used side-lighting. But I found that back-lighting the glass from the window and using a reflector, I got a beautiful white background, and excellent lighting on the front of the glass with no hot spots. In some cases, my reflector was a board covered in tinfoil if I needed a stronger balance.
Depth of Field
When shooting products, you are often using a macro lens, or at least pulling in close with a long prime. This is necessary to isolate the subject and give the most flattering perspective. The problem is getting sufficient depth of field so that the entire subject is in focus front to back. This was especially true with glass, where you could see through the glass and need everything in focus.
With studio strobes, a small aperture like f16 or f22 may require dumping way too much light on the subject to achieve the proper effect. With natural sunlight, coupled with a reflector, it was easy to stop down to f16 for the best depth of field. When you eliminate the strobes, you bring shutter speed back into the equation and can balance the exposure any way you need.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If you do need a narrow depth of field to highlight one aspect of the product, open the aperture up to f2.8 and shoot at slower shutter speed. You are no longer at the mercy of the sync-speed of the flash units.
Achieving a solid white background is, of course, doable with strobes. I’ve done it quite often. But getting a solid white background that can be used in a cutout with no shadows isn’t easy. Using window light and reflectors, you can quickly wrap the object in soft light eliminating all shadows. Again, being able to use both shutter speed and aperture to balance the light gives you much more flexibility.
The next time you head into the studio for product photography, leave the strobes off and open up a window. You may be surprised at the results.
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