The Challenge of Product Photography

Photography: Robert House

There’s a tension in professional photography. On the one hand, taking pictures is a creative profession. There’s no limit to the degree of artistry you can squeeze out of a camera, especially when you combine it with the power of Photoshop and a little imagination. There are few things more satisfying than looking at a perfectly-taken image, and thinking “I made that.”

On the other hand, photography is a job and like any job, the first thing you have to do is please the customer. Sometimes the best way to do that is forget about the creativity and shoot to a formula. If the traditional way of doing things — whether that’s the formals for a wedding, a portrait of a high schooler or a photo of a winning team — is exactly what the client wants, then however undemanding it might be for the photographer, that has to be the way to do it.

“A photo can be an unquestionable work of art, but if it’s out of line with what the client needs and was expecting to get, it’s not going to be useful to anyone,” Robert House, a specialist product photographer told us. “Conversely, a photo of good (but not award winning) quality will be successful provided that it’s in line with the client’s expectations.”

Two Years, 10,000 Products
In fact, product photography appears to be one area which offers the photographer very little room for creativity. If taking pictures of people provides the challenge of understanding the subject’s character and representing it on the screen, product photography often means little more than portraying an object well enough to persuade people to buy it. (Robert relates that a couple of photographers have told him that they could no longer offer this service because they got fed up shooting objects on white backgrounds all day.)

But to do anything well — and certainly well enough to make a living out of it — does involve some element of difficulty, and product photography is no different. Robert spent two years photographing over 10,000 different objects for a luxury home furnishings retailer in Vegas before he felt that had the experience to set up on his own and shoot nothing other than objects. Since then, he’s photographed everything from diamond earrings to all-terrain vehicles to literally the kitchen sink, he says. Some objects are more popular than others though: jewelry and bath products tend to turn up quite regularly.

The range of items that a product photographer can be asked to shoot is one of the things that can keep the job interesting. (Robert’s image at the top of the page shows a porcelain pomade jar that was recovered from the Titanic.) Another is the technique involved in displaying and shooting the items. Robert makes sure that he has a mental bank of lighting options that includes at least three different styles for each class of object he’s asked to shoot. If a client asks him to photograph wine bottles on a simple white background, for example, Robert can offer him four distinct lighting methods. And that’s for clients who are happy with a formulaic approach; there are plenty of other customers with special demands.

“Some clients look at photography as a business tool and don’t want to get too involved in the process — as long as the photos look great and sell products, they’re happy,” Robert explains. “Others are very particular about exactly how something should look and want to be more involved in the process — perhaps some fresh produce needs to be prepared and presented nicely. In either case, we make accommodations based on what the client needs.”

Shipping Diamonds
One of the ways in which Robert ensures that he always has a wide variety of products to shoot is by allowing clients to send him their items from anywhere. That means he’s not limited to clients in the Vegas area where he’s based, and clients are surprisingly open to the idea of shipping even valuable objects across the country. Businesses that are used to mailing valuable items — such as jewelry — are accustomed to the risks and are insured for loss. Others have little problem shipping samples of body lotion or the odd wine bottle.

Like any business, good communication between the service provider and the client is crucial, Robert recommends, even if that means telling them that their idea isn’t going to work or that you can’t take on a particular job. Experience is key too so that you can offer more than just one background and one lighting set-up.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to resist the urge to be too creative and end up with a product that’s too beautiful to use. When you feel that desire, it’s important to remember that photography offers all sorts of other artistic outlets to satisfy it — and some of them can make money too.

[tags] product photography [/tags]

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