What You Need for a Product Photography Toolkit
Product photography helped keep my business afloat during the extended Covid-19 lockdown, which also helped me develop my skills through the pandemic. And while this isn’t a typical article you might find on our blog – we focus on more of the technical aspects of lenses and camera sensors – I have found it to be an invaluable tool in my toolkit. And speaking of toolkits, I’ve also developed a little kit of tools I use with my product photography. So let’s talk about building out a product photography styling kit, in the event you don’t have access to a prop stylist.
What is a Prop Stylist?
Whenever I get hired for a product photography job, I immediately encourage that they also hire a prop stylist for the session, and if I encounter a person newer in the industry, I’m often met with “What is a Prop Stylist?” A prop stylist is someone who is cleaning, prepping, and placing the products to be photographed. Essentially, a prop stylist is a master of aesthetics and someone who can speed up the photography process considerably – especially when working with elements like smoke, water, or swatches.
Below is the kit I typically bring with me for all product photoshoots. I won’t cover everything in the kit (as some of it is self-explanatory, and no one wants a 3,000-word article on the topic), but will touch on some of the highlights and pieces of gear I use most often. I’m also not saying that this kit is complete, I’d argue that it’s barebones (especially when compared to a prop stylist’s expansive kit). It’s pretty common that after each product photography job, I’m refining my prop kit, and adding and subtracting pieces as needed – so I’d call this kit one that has been sitting at 50% done for years now. Okay, enough meandering…here is my recommendations on building out a product photography kit.
Tablet (iPad or something similar)
Perhaps the most important tool in a product photography kit is the tablet paired with a tethering setup. By using the live view options within Capture One (my preferred tethering software), you or a prop stylist can see changes done in real-time, and have a much stronger understanding of positioning, composition, and adjustments. Depending on the focal length, camera position, and other variables, it can be really difficult to position products so that they are square with the camera or to do grid work of products that is camera accurate. By live viewing to a tablet, you can make your adjustments and see what it will look like in real-time. It may feel like a novelty, but trust me, this is one of the most important tools for a prop stylist and can save hours on a single shoot.
White Gloves & Microfiber Cloth
We, as humans, are kind of oily creatures. And while it’s a reality that might go unnoticed for the bulk majority of your life, it becomes very apparent when shooting macro photography on various products. Everything you touch will leave a smudge or fingerprint, and it can become a huge pain in the neck when you’re retouching a bottle when it was handled without gloves. By using some simple white cotton gloves, you can minimize the number of smudges on your set, and make the retouching process far easier. What you might not see in person, you will definitely see in a 50-megapixel close-up macro shot, so I recommend everything is cleaned with a microfiber cloth, and only handled with gloves.
To follow up on the clean set argument, I also recommend having a couple of sets of tweezers with you at all times. Along with being oily creatures, we also shed hair and small fibers that may not be noticeable at first glance. Tweezers allow you to get in there, and remove any crumbs, hairs, or other things that may contaminate your set. You’ll never catch them all, but regardless, taking a few seconds to use some tweezers to remove a lost eyelash in-between products takes far less time than clone stamping it out in Photoshop.
Positioning Blocks and Fishing Line
One of the more technical aspects of product photography comes in the positioning of the product. Clients often want it to appear that the product is floating, or casting a shadow when shooting a lay-flat. One of the best ways to handle that is to have a few positioning blocks (that can help keep a product upright or in an otherwise impossible position) or a fishing line to help position the product for the best angle.
The positioning blocks I have are in two varieties, 1cm blocks, and 2cm blocks. From there, I can build small platforms that will sit hidden under products, and with the use of some puddy or clay, I can build support structures sitting behind products. Additionally, I have several blocks that are painted in matte black and matte white, so that I can better hide them in a scene. When it comes to the ‘floating effect’ fishing line tied to the product and then tied around a C-stand arm from above will help give a product the floating effect.
White & Black Cards
Reflective surfaces, a commonplace with product photography, can ruin the day for you if you’re not prepared to handle them. And sure, Photoshop has tools that can help rid you of these problematic reflections, but gradients never look quite right with their uniform design. So instead, I’ll often bring a couple of 12″x12″ black and white cards with me. With the use of these cards, I take a couple of different photos. First, the product as is, next, the white (or black depending on the reflection and your intention) card right next to the product, so the card is filling the reflection. I then can go into Photoshop, stack the two images, and reveal the clean reflection with a layer mask. But not only do these cards work great for reflections, but they also work well as bounce cards, to add micro highlights.
Mylar (Clear) Sheets
When working with any sort of liquid, I highly recommend the use of clear mylar sheets. These can be purchased for cheap at almost any craft store and allows you (or again, a prop stylist) to prep the work beforehand and bring it onto the set. Traditionally, most product photography is done on paper backgrounds, so any liquid will ruin the paper and change its color. Mylar allows you to position a swatch or wet product on the set, without it ruining the backdrop in the process. And while clear mylar will sometimes reflect light to the camera, those reflections can be taken care of pretty quickly with the help of the Separate Subject tool in the latest Photoshop.
Square Dowel (or Ruler)
And finally, the last piece of gear I want to discuss within my kit is a straight dowel or stick. A lot of product photography involves building out grids of products laid down stylistically, and getting the spacing right for that gridwork is nearly impossible without a keen eye and a few tools. And while I can’t keep a physical keen eye in my product photography tool kit, I can keep a few tools to help with gridding, and the one I seem to use most often is a little 1cmx1cmx40cm stick. When I’m gridding something, I will often place the stick on the set, and push all products up against the stick so they’re aligned. I can then pick up the stick, and shoot as needed. The added benefit is that I also have some positioning blocks that are 1cmx1cmx1cm, so for more complicated gridding patterns, I can use those in conjunction with the couple of sticks I have to make more complex grid patterns. By using the stick to handle the spacing on the y-axis, and the blocks on the x-axis, I can make accurate grid work in a fraction of the time. While it isn’t perfect (As the camera’s perspective can always be a little weird across the focal plane), it does speed up the process considerably.
Is there anything you think we missed in a product photography kit? Any other pieces of equipment that you have questions about? Feel free to chime in using the comments section below.
- Tips for Getting Started in Product Photography
- 5 Simple Product Photography Setups
- How to Use an X-Rite ColorChecker to Get Perfect Color
- How Your Camera and Image Processor Determine Colors