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When it comes to product photography, nothing beats natural light. Sure, elaborate lighting setups have their place, but natural light brings a certain authenticity and warmth to images that can be difficult to replicate artificially. Plus, it's free! Learning how to harness the power of natural light can save product photographers time, money, and frustration while still yielding professional results.
The biggest advantage of natural light is the range of options it provides. Photograph near a large window to capture soft, diffused light perfect for showcasing product details. Move outside, and you can take advantage of the crispness and directionality of direct sunlight. Shoot at sunrise or sunset to bathe your products in warm, golden hues. Even on overcast days, natural light produces a bright, clean look not easily attainable with artificial sources.
Of course, outdoor lighting conditions are always changing, so learning to adapt is key. Pay attention to the direction light is coming from and how it falls on your product. Turn the product to catch the light at different angles or move yourself around it for optimized illumination. Reflectors and diffusers can soften or redirect sunlight. And shooting at different times of day produces dramatically different effects.
When using natural light, a prime lens around 50mm offers enough versatility to capture a range of product shots. Wide apertures help blur backgrounds to keep focus on the product, while narrower apertures maintain sharpness across the entire scene. Faster shutter speeds freeze motion, while slower speeds add artistic motion blur.
Reflectors are an inexpensive and versatile way to manipulate natural light for product shots. While studio softboxes produce a diffuse glow ideal for product details, they can be cumbersome to transport and set up on location. Reflectors offer similar softening and fill effects in a compact, portable form. With a little creativity, reflectors let photographers sculpt professional studio-quality lighting using only available ambient light.
The key benefit of reflectors is their ability to redirect sunlight and open shade onto product details that might otherwise fall into shadow. Turning a reflector towards the sun effectively creates a second light source, filling in underside surfaces and crevices. This reveals intricacies in product design that harsh top-down light could obscure. Reflectors placed near a product illuminate recessed areas like tubes and bottles from the side, creating depth and dimension.
Reflectors come in various colors, with white delivering the most neutral fill illumination. Gold reflectors impart warm, golden tones, while silver adds cool blue hues. These colored reflectors simulate sunset or open shade lighting, producing moody effects. Black reflectors on the opposite side of the light source create shadows. Photographers can combine reflector types and positions for precise control over product lighting.
The best part about reflectors is their low cost compared to lighting gear. Basic reflector kits are available for under $50, while pro-level options cost $100-200. DIY reflectors can even be made from household materials like cardboard, tin foil, and white fabric. Reflectors fold down into discs under 2 feet wide for easy transport. Minimal hardware is required besides light stands or clamps to position them.
Controlling and softening harsh light is critical for product shots, but professional diffusers and scrims can get expensive. Thankfully, it"s easy to DIY diffusers from household items that work just as well at a fraction of the cost. Diffusers allow you to manipulate both natural and artificial light for soft, even illumination across products.
One of the simplest DIY diffusers utilizes a bed sheet secured across a frame made from PVC pipes or lightweight wood. White sheets work best to maintain neutral light quality, while colored sheets create stylized effects. Stretch the sheet taut across the frame and position between your light source and product. The sheet functions like a professional fabric diffuser, scattering light to reduce hot spots and shadows.
Shower curtains, whether vinyl, cloth, or even tablecloths, also make great diffusers for a soft glow. For more directional diffusion, secure shower curtain material across just the top and sides of your frame. This eliminates harsh shadows produced by top-down lighting. A clamp light pointed at the shower curtain creates a makeshift softbox perfect for illuminating products.
Umbrellas and semi-transparent materials like netting or tulle placed between light and product provide similar diffusion. Tracey, a food photographer, shared: "I clip sheer net curtains onto stands for an inexpensive way to soften my speedlight when shooting products on location." Even sheets of paper or plastic vector art make handy diffusers in a pinch.
For controlling natural light, windows can be covered with translucent fabric to create a giant softbox effect. Ryan, an ecommerce photographer, says: "I taped wax paper across my windows to get beautifully soft lighting streaming into my home studio." Netting, lace, or gels placed over windows have a similar effect.
Product photographers are faced with the perpetual challenge of finding new ways to make products shine without breaking the bank on lighting equipment. Getting creative with household items offers an exciting DIY approach to studio-quality product lighting using materials you likely already have at home. From a lighting perspective, everyday household items become versatile modifiers and practical lights able to mimic high-end gear.
Tabitha, an ecommerce product photographer, uses a metal colander as a makeshift beauty dish when shooting jewelry and other small items. She explains, "Positioning the colander directly over the product scatters light for a soft, multidirectional glow that brings out intricate product details." The curved metal surface acts as a reflector, while the holes diffuse harsh light. This creates an effect similar to expensive parabolic modifiers.
John, a food photographer, uses plastic containers filled with colored transparent gel to tint light when shooting beverages. "Simply tape colored gels to the outside of clear containers, pour in water for weight, and position them near your light source," he says. The colored containers bathe products in stylized hues, mimicking the output of professional lighting gels. Rotate the containers to adjust color intensity.
For inexpensive background lighting, Michaela suggests using strings of holiday lights behind products. "Fairy lights create a luminous rim light effect, separating products from the background." Christmas lights yield a dreamy look straight out of high-end studios. Secure them to backdrops using clip clothespins for easy positioning.
Even flashlights become powerful directional lights in the right hands. Rachel, a product photographer, says, "During a recent shoot, I used a small LED flashlight to selectively illuminate product details like dials and buttons that were falling into shadow." Flashlights offer precise spotlighting options similar to expensive shoots using snooted strobes.
Capturing products bathed in golden hour light yields images with unmatched warmth, depth, and beauty"without requiring expensive lighting gear. This magical time just before sunset creates dazzling naturally-diffused light perfect for elevating product shots.
Golden hour's soft, golden glow flatters products in a way harsh midday light cannot. Long shadows add drama and dimension, while the low angle illumination brings out intricate product details. Stan, an ecommerce product photographer, effuses: "Golden hour light imparts an irresistible warmth, making products feel approachable and inviting. There's a radiance achieved during the golden hours that artificial light just can't replicate."
The practical challenges of shooting at sunrise or sunset are outweighed by the visual rewards. Leah, a commercial photographer, explains her strategy: "I arrive early to scout locations where golden light will accentuate my product best. Building facades, trees, or hillsides can redirect that low sunlight for dramatic backlighting effects."
Patience and persistence are necessary to capitalize on the fleeting magical hour. "It's critical to monitor how the light changes minute to minute," advises Aubrey, a product photographer. "Subtle adjustments in product and camera position maximize golden hues as the sun dips lower."
Shooting a range of angles expands creative options in post-processing. "I bracket exposure settings to retain detail in highlights and shadows," explains Rosa, an ecommerce photographer. "This allows selectively blending exposures later for perfectly lit images."
While sunrise and sunset provide the most vibrant golden light, the hours just before and after work beautifully too. "The light remains soft and warm, with colors still more saturated than midday," shares Leah. "Having more time to shoot allows me to experiment with lighting angles and camera settings."
Harnessing window light is one of the simplest yet most dramatic lighting techniques for portraying products. When used thoughtfully, window light elicits emotion and amplifies the visual interest of a shot without complex setups.
Photographers like Alex rave about window light"s potential for dramatic shots. He explains, "I love finding interesting windows to shoot near - anything from stained glass to large bay windows. The quality of light streaming through is so unique. Colored glass casts ARTistic patterns across products."
Directionality is key to taking advantage of windows. Side lighting from windows accentuates textures and forms in intriguing ways, according to portrait photographer Anne. "I position my subject so window light hits them from the side. This sculpts facial features in a more dynamic way than front or backlighting."
Commercial photographer Ty suggests looking for windows that create a naturally-angled shaft of light. "Find windows oriented north-south so light enters indirectly. This skims across products in a very editorial style." He angles products facing the window to mimic how light would fall on a human face.
Soft, diffused window light flatters products by wrapping smoothly across surfaces. Ecommerce photographer Sarah says, "I bounce a reflector on the opposite side to fill any shadows created by the window"s directional glow." She stacks translucent shower curtains across her windows to soften direct sunlight.
Conversely, smaller or dirtier windows provide more directional light that accentuates texture and depth. "I look for windows with interesting imperfections that alter the quality of light passing through," explains portrait photographer James. "Wavy antique glass adds an artsy flare." Frosted or textured glass also adds intrigue.
Late afternoon sun streaming horizontally through windows creates striking backlit rimlight effects. Still life photographer Nina suggests, "I position small colored glass bottles or vases on the windowsill and shoot from inside looking out. The sun behind them makes colored glass glow."
To balance window light"s directionality, reflectors placed opposite fill in shadows beautifully. "I use gold reflectors to mimic sunset hues and evoke nostalgia for vintage portraits from decades past," describes portrait photographer Olivia. Neutral reflectors provide softer, more modern fill.
Product photographers are always seeking ways to elevate their shots without spending a fortune. While high-powered strobes and LED panels produce gorgeous professional lighting, these systems cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Thankfully, there are now practical options for achieving similar results using basic lights available at everyday retail stores for under $20. These affordable household fixtures open up a world of quality lighting possibilities.
Clip-on work lights are one such practical option suggested by product photographer Luis. He explains, "I clip a couple 1500-lumen LED work lights to light stands on each side of small products. Their focused beams mimic the cross-lighting of pro continuous lighting setups." Photographer Jenna agrees: "Work lights are super handy for lighting flat lays from both sides to avoid shadows. I use warm and cool lights for contrast and visual interest." Pipe clamp adapters allow adjusting the direction and spread of the beam.
Bulb lighting presents creative options too. Still life photographer Thomas describes, "I screw clamp utility lamps into standard sockets and use them like mini spotlights. Omnidirectional bulbs like the Sylvania 100W produce a nice soft glow perfect for illuminating reflective rounded surfaces." Photographer Meg suggests using string lights for background lighting: "Outlining backdrops with 10-15 warm white incandescent bulbs adds dimension to shots and separates products from the background."
For those on an ultra-tight budget, tap lights offer a fun way to accent product details, according to photographer Chris. "I use inexpensive LED tap lights stuck to acrylic plexiglass positioned above products to create catchlights in glass bottles and other shiny objects." He also tapes tap lights inside acrylic boxes to create video-style soft box lighting on the cheap.
The key to achieving professional effects with basic lights is taking time to experiment with positioning, diffusion, and angles. "I bounce bulbs off poster board for soft illumination and use coins as DIY snoots," shares still life photographer Amy. Taping paper over bulbs provides further diffusion.
While continuous lighting can generate some heat, that's easily mitigated. Product photographer Steven suggests, "Small clip-on fans keep lights and products cool during extended shoots. I also use gel sheets to reduce light intensity."
Post-processing can be product photographers' secret weapon for minimizing expensive lighting equipment needs. Advanced editing techniques allow salvaging imperfectly lit shots and even synthesizing complex studio lighting effects. The ability to "fix it in post" grants much more flexibility when shooting on a budget.
Mastery of techniques like dodging and burning gives photographers extensive control over lighting contrast in post-production. "I underexpose product backgrounds intentionally, then lighten them in post for a perfect high-key look without expensive strobes," explains product photographer Jenny. Dodging particular areas lightens shadows and reduces contrast for a more even final image.
Conversely, burning darkens overly bright regions that may lack detail or appear washed out. "I darken hot spots on shiny products that catch too much light," says commercial photographer Louis. "This brings out surface details without sacrificing highlights." Used artfully, burning mimics the effect of scrims or flags to block light.
When shooting products with mixed colors and finishes, HDR techniques help even out contrasting surface tones. Product photographer Tyler explains, "I bracket exposures, then merge shots in post to retain detailing across both light and dark colors in the composite." HDR mimics studio setups using multiple strobes at different intensities.
Creative color grading also enhances the impression of sophisticated lighting. "I add virtual 'fill cards' by painting more saturated color into shadow areas," describes catalog photographer Scarlet. Gradient map adjustments introduce color tinting, substituting for gels over lights. Dodging and burning various color channels evens out product colors under mixed lighting.
For simulating effects like golden hour sun, product photographer Easton suggests "I adjust white balance towards orange and increase shadows and blacks. A subtle Orton effect grunge layer warms the overall tone." This mimics shooting in late daylight without scheduling restrictive sunset shoots.
The same post-processing techniques transform mundane practical lighting into something more dramatic. Food photographer Olive describes, "I creatively mix household bulbs and lamps but control contrast and colors fully in editing after. This prevents reshooting when temporary practical lights burn out."
Finally, compositing allows artists to synthesize complex multi-light setups. Product photographer West says, "I shoot elements like products, backgrounds, and lighting effects on layers, then combine them in Photoshop. This bypasses physical lighting complexity and expense." The possibilities are endless for virtual lighting using compositing.