Product Photography, Part 3: Artificial Lighting Basics

Quality product photography has less to do with a camera and lenses and more with lighting and its use. Thus if you’re looking to improve product photos, learn about proper lighting.

This is the third post in my series on helping ecommerce merchants take better product photos. “Part 1” addressed the importance of backdrops. “Part 2” explained tripods, including how to choose based on the item and setting. In this installment, I’ll explain the fundamentals of artificial lighting.

There are three main types of studio (interior) lights to photograph products: fluorescent, light-emitting diodes (LED), and tungsten. Each has positives and negatives.

Studio Lights

Fluorescent lighting is energy-efficient, affordable, and produces a bright, diffused light compared to the other options. Unfortunately, diffused light can reduce the contrast of images. This matters when shoppers want to examine fine details.

To overcome, use the fluorescent white balance setting on your camera or manually adjust its color temperature.

Choose 60 to 100-watt bulbs for the best lighting of products. LimoStudios 85-watt 6500k Daylight Balanced Light Bulb is my favorite. It costs about $47 for four at Amazon and matches natural light well, which is handy when you don’t control all light sources.

For an entire fluorescent lighting setup, consider CLAR’s continuous fluorescent lighting kit at Adorama. It comes with dual fluorescent lamps with 5500k bulbs and a carrying case. It costs roughly $135.

CLAR’s continuous fluorescent lighting kit comes with dual fluorescent lamps with 5500k bulbs and a carrying case. Image: Adorama.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are energy-efficient and produce little to no heat. LED lights for photos produce realistic shots that online consumers need when scrutinizing a product. The drawbacks of LEDs are that they often don’t capture true and accurate colors and can make post-production editing more difficult due to the so-called “digital noise,” slight imperfections in the images.

Bescor makes a compelling pair of budget LED light panels which are available at Adorama for $139.99. A more portable and professional option is FotodioX’s SF50 SkyFiller 1×1′ 50w Bi-Color Powerful & Ultra-Portable 2 LED Light Kit, also at Adorama. At $679.95, it is more expensive than most options, but its benefits include a control box to connect to battery power on location and lights that are flicker-free and dimmable from 2800k to 6500k.

Image from Adorama of Fotodiox’s SF50 SkyFiller 1x1' 50w Bi-Color Powerful & Ultra-Portable 2 LED Light Kit

Fotodiox’s SF50 SkyFiller LED Light Kit is portable and preferred by many professionals. Image: Adorama.

Tungsten halogen lights produce an even spectrum similar to natural daylight, whereas fluorescent and LED tend to have spikes. Consider tungsten lighting for more accurate colors since it doesn’t amplify the blue color channel of your camera. A drawback of tungsten lights is they generate a lot of heat. Strobes mitigate this problem although they are not suited for continuous light, such as for product shots.

My choice for tungsten lighting is Interfit’s Stellar Tungsten Two Light Twin Softbox Kit because of its durability, and the bulbs themselves are 500-watt and color balanced to 3200k.

Image from B&H Photo of the Interfit’s Stellar Tungsten Two Light Twin Softbox Kit

For tungsten lighting, Interfit’s Stellar Tungsten Two Light Twin Softbox Kit is durable, and the bulbs are 500-watt and color balanced to 3200k. Image: B&H Photo.

Diffusers, Softboxes, Lighting Tents

Diffusers spread out and scatter light so that it isn’t harshly focused on the subject. Diffusers also help illuminate an entire scene to be more appealing.

Softboxes are a type of diffuser to increase the size of smaller light sources. Many lighting kits come with their own softboxes. Umbrellas and scrims are the two other light diffusers used by professionals.

However, in most cases a lighting tent is the best option for small and medium-sized products. FotodioX, Neewer, Interfit, and Impact offer various kits ranging from $109.95 to $385.75.

Image from B&H Photo of FotodioX LED Studio-In-a-Box

Lighting tents, such as this example from FotodioX, work well with small and medium-sized products. Image: B&H Photo.

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