Blog Tips: Product Photography and Lightbox Alternatives

12:02 AM

From time to time I'm asked how I shoot the photos on this blog. Figured I would share what I know in one big post! I've tried to keep it as simple as possible, but feel free to ask me for details.

For any product shot, all you need are three things:
  1. background
  2. light source
  3. camera


You can probably tell I'm partial to plain backgrounds ;) but you can have a lot of fun with patterns as well. It depends on the mood you're going for, playful or srs bzns. Compare the contrasting backgrounds below, and check out Jas of The Happy Sloths, who uses patterned backgrounds a lot.

White cartolina for a plain background

Fun with patterns

Light Source

Ah, THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of any type of photography, and arguably the most fun (and frustrating!) to play with. Not just with how bright it is, but also where it's coming from, what's the color temperature of the bulb, how spread out is the beam. Who wants a landscape with flat lighting, or a portrait with flash all up in their face?


For product photos you generally want nice, even lighting. The best way to get this is by using a lightbox, which you can make yourself using very few materials. While traveling I obviously had to make do without one, so below I'll show you a few alternatives and their resulting photos.

A cheap, simple homemade lightbox. Follow the 4-step tutorial here!

Lightbox Alternatives: Shooting at Night

After some odd months abroad, my lightbox is all bent and can hardly stand on its own. I'm too lazy to make another one so I am employing The Lazy Man's Lightbox: white walls, white cartolina, and fluorescent ceiling bulb.

Light from both the ceiling lamp and the flash bounce off the white walls, illuminating all sides of the subject. Lighting isn't as even as when using a lightbox (you have some shadowing), but it's good enough. This is great for shooting bird's eye view photos.

And if you want to take photos full frontal, just prop up half the sheet on the wall or shoot on a chair. Let's pretend it's not painfully obvious that this was shot inside a bathroom. (The tiles reflect light beautifully!)

When traveling I didn't even have a large piece of white paper, so here I used a plain blanket for the backdrop, positioned a lamp directly above the subject, and shot away (with flash). The room's white walls acted as reflectors, intensifying the light.

Lightbox Alternatives: Shooting with Daylight

Here I again used a plain blanket, but this time the sun was bright enough for me to use purely ambient (natural) light. The room's cream-colored walls lent the shots a warm yellowish tone.

This was shot on a window sill that was painted a beautifully plain white. The pink tints in the photo come from the design fragrance bottle.

A Word About Flash

Your camera's flash is an additional light source, one you'll almost always use. But you'll almost never use your camera's built-in flash. Why? It's pointing in the wrong direction. It will brighten only the front of your subject and cast everything else in shadow, or worse, reflect off the subject itself (the product photo equivalent of red-eye). For even lighting you generally want an indirect source of light. This is where equipment comes in:


My old reliables: Canon EOS 450D with kit lens, Quantaray QBSZ-370 external flash, and sometimes Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens.


Yes, your camera plays a part in the quality of your photos. But only a small part. Majority of the photos in this blog were shot with a Canon EOS 450D (Digital Rebel XSi in the USA), which I've been using for about 5 years. Before that I used my trusty film-driven Nikon FM10, which incidentally was used to shoot the Instax camera and photos against the patterned background above. I also use a Canon IXUS 115 HS, which delivers lovely portrait shots.

And let's not forget mobile devices. Cameraphones have come a long way from the pixelly selfies of old. I sometimes use an iPhone 4 or iPad mini to shoot product photos, for example the J.R. Watkins stuff against the patterned duvet above. These mobile devices can be used with any of the lighting techniques mentioned above, but a little more post-processing is needed, for example with an app such as Snapseed.

Photos taken with an iPhone 4 and iPad mini, respectively. Lightbox only, no flash.

External Flash

An external flash points upward or to the side, thus lighting your subject indirectly. This results in a more accurate representative of the product. I use a Quantaray QBSZ-370, a model a know nothing about but that has been with me since high school (10 years!). All I know is that it swivels, has 3 light intensities, and runs on 4 AA batteries. Let me be clear: an external flash is definitely nice to have, but is optional equipment. With balanced lighting, or shooting in daylight, you can do without flash totally:

Ambient daylight gives lovely lighting.


This may be too advanced, but since I mentioned it, aside from my Canon's kit lens (i.e. the lens that came with the camera body), I sometimes use the "Nifty Fifty," a.k.a. the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, a prime or fixed focal length lens, i.e. you can't zoom. It takes great portraits, maintaining focus on the subject while blurring the distracting background. But you can't really see the difference in product photos. I often use it in low light conditions, because the wide aperture lets in more light.

Playing with It

It can get boring shooting the same style every time. And I love seeing how people style their photos. Those by Bea of The Dalaga Project and Carina of Softly Sometimes have a lovely lived-in feel, like they really know these products. Paris of My Women Stuff often shoots products in their element. The fine artist in Julia of Bless My Bag shows in the way she composes her shots. Shari of The Misty Mom also styles her shots in a whimsically feminine way. Here are a few of my examples:

And that's it! Hope at least one of you found this useful. :)

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Majority of the products you see here are purchased by me. Products that are provided by companies for consideration will contain a footnote indicating that fact, as will affiliate links. Rest assured that all reviews are written with my honest opinion.

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