The Business of Basic Product Photography

First published on: Thursday, 4 October 2007

I had the good fortune of bumping into ThomasMiller, TM for short, on DPReview, and he shared some insights into product photography of the “mundane” kind.

It was the case of the right place and the right time, because we are among many who were waiting rather impatiently for the arrival of the New Nikon D300 digital SLR camera, and I noticed form his posts that he seemed to be doing rather well in his product photography business. I happened to be at the point where I wanted to make a serious move into photography as a source of income, and TM’s methods appealed to me.

Because I tend to easily relegate good advice to the back of my mind and not do anything about it, writing this post ensures that I have understood the main points in TM’s advice on the business of “mundane” (as he termed it) product photography.

The following is a summary of learning points and tips I gathered from the posts of TM and other contributors:

  1. If I am serious about photographing still life, I need to start listing down exactly what type of subjects I would like to shoot.
  2. Food photography is not as easy as it looks, since a lot of effort needs to go into setting up the shot to make the food or beverage look as appetizing and appealing as possible. In other words, the services of someone specializing in food styling is needed.
  3. TM shoots “real life still photography”, that is, he tries to get the print looking as close to the product as possible. The photographs are mainly of items that people want to bid on, so the photograph needs to be as accurate as possible to the real thing. There isn’t a real need for fancy lighting, shadows or pretty backgrounds for this type of photography.
  4. Being able to do well in this business (just like in any other), interpersonal relations is the key. TM attributes a lot of his success to good luck and being courteous towards fellow photographers.
  5. Another avenue to pursue is to be an assistant to an in-house studio photographer. The pay is usually poor, but this opens up doors of opportunity and it is highly probably that you will land your own assignments soon enough.
  6. TM stresses that there is a lot of work out there, but people have to get to know you somehow, and that is the hardest part.
  7. I need to be confident in my abilities, practice and keep practicing because sooner or later, someone might just take a chance on me and I had better be ready to deliver the expected results.
  8. Selling and marketing my work is as (if not more) important as my technical skills in photography.

Equipment and Lighting

Thanks to Ole Thorsen who, in this post, pointed to an article at Strobist on how to build your own $10 Macro Photo Studio (also known as a light tent).
Do it yourself Macro Photo Studio by The Strobist

The idea of using a cardbox to act as a light tent is illustrated very well at the Reverb blog. I found the article explains what needs to be done as well, if not better, than the Strobist post.
Make your own cardboard lightbox, by Reverb has an extensive review article on using Lowel Ego products for tabletop photography, and a Cloud Dome for photographing jewelry. Lots of photos and examples of the setups are provided in easy to understand language. A page at the Cloud Dome site offers more ideas on lighting products.

Review of Lowel Ego and Cloud Dome lighting products at

There’s quite a bit more to add to this post. It’s work in progress, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here’s a reference to the related discussions:

  • This post by TM is what motivated me to ask for his advice, since I’m currently not at the level where I can do high-impact commercial photography yet, and shooting “far less dynamic” still life photographs is where I personally wanted to start out at.
  • Here’s where I asked ThomasMiller for advice.
  • This is where TM replies to my question.

On the subject of product photography, Graphic Breizh contributed a fantastic idea of contacting my local Chamber of Commerce to get leads on what type of goods are manufactured in my locale. There is also some advice there on how to start the process of building up the business, and the type of equipment that’s required at the very basic level.

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