Tabletop Photography Walkthrough or How to Create an Eye-Catching Product Shot – Digital …

A Guest Post by Alex Koloskov

In this article I am going to show a common routine I use as a product photographer or at least that’s how I see it. Being completely self-taught, I’ve always taken a step-by step approach to any and all of my photography assignments. Learning photography based on the trail and error method. For this shot, I’ve made more steps then I would usually would for a shot like this as I wanted to make it specifically for this tutorial.

However, my approach remained the same. Since this is how I learn and this is how I would shoot something I’ve never done before. I started from the simplest lighting setup and built the composition step by step, analyzing the outcome with every change I make.

Self-assignment: Motorola Droid X2 phone in a multimedia docking station. Create eye-catching yet simple image of the product.

Few notes about the shot and gear used:

I used Elinchrom and Paul C Buff strobe lighting with various modifiers to create this image. Please keep in mind that similar results can be relatively easily repeated with ordinary tungsten lights, DIY diffusers and snoots. The key to success is not solely the lighting itself, but the positioning and control of lighting direction.

So don’t make excuses for yourself if don’t have the professional lighting. Experiment with the lights you already own. This same shot can be done with the lights you already have in your home. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example of two shots I did with and without pro lighting: How to get complete white background out from a camera and The follow-up shot: does the equipment really matter?

The composition for this shot was simple. I placed the phone in its docking station then placed on the black glossy surface, rotated about 30 degree to a camera.

Let the shooting begin!

First part. Lighting the subject

I started out by placing two large soft boxes on both sides of the subject: Light #1 is a large square at about 45 degrees on the right, light #2 is a strip box at about 20 degrees on the left:


I then placed the phone on a black glossy glass (regular mineral glass painted black from the other side).  I used black foamcore board as the background, placing it about 6 feet away (~2 meters) from a subject.

This was the result (Two light setup):


As you can see, the strobe from the right had more power then one on the left. I never use a flashmeter when working with products, as I use the luminance histogram and my eyes to judge the lighting.  I prefer to shoot tethered to my laptop computer and view the image on an external monitor. There is no reason to remember ratio between the lights, because I don’t shoot large quantities of the similar products. Its too boring for me:-), instead I work on individual shots where the lighting is set specifically for the individual product.

This basic lighting setup is fine, but I want to add more light to the top edge of the phone. I want this to edge to be more pronounced and separate it from the background.

A third light was added to a scene:


Strobe #3: PCB E-640 monolight through a stripbox was positioned above and about 2 feet behind of the subject. The stripbox was aimed the to only highlight the top edge of the phone.

This was the result (Three light setup):


Second part. Lighting the background.

Now after I’ve got my subject lit the way I want it, its time to start working on lighting the background. I know how appealing gradients can be to the eye (in terms of making an image look more interesting) and I like to use them any time I want to add some drama to relatively plain image. (Read more about this in another article of mine: “How to add drama to a plain picture“).

I wanted to have gradient on both the shooting table and on the background. But first I need to fix the reflection we’re seeing on the glass. Its supposed to be 100% black, but if you look at the image above there is a clearly a visible gray cast on the table.

How we work with reflections on the glossy surfaces is easy. Simply flag the light or in this case, the reflection at the appropriate place in order to block the light from which the reflection came from. In my setup, it was coming form the white ceiling and wall behind the subject. Please look at the image below, the red highlighted screen was added to block the unwanted reflection.

Screen to block reflection from the wall:


The result was exactly as we expected.  We now have a completely black table surface.


Now that I’ve got everything ready, its time to add a gradient to the background. A PCB E-640 (light #4) was added to the composition.


Strobe #4 was flagged with black (other side is white) foamcore board to prevent spilling the light and to make highlighted area on the background even more narrow. Side view of the setup is below.


The resulted image was this:


Much more interesting, wouldn’t you agree? This is why I like to use gradients:-)

Before we go further, a few words about the background:

Ideally I would use a white background to create the same effect as I did on black one, but I would have had to put background at a greater distance than was available in my studio. White can expose completely black with no light on it and it would require less power to create the same effect on the background.

However, if your room is limited its easier to use a black background and highlight it with an intense enough strobe to make the desired gray-to-black gradient.

Now, the next step. Since I want a gradient on the glass table as well, I added another PCB E-640 (light #5) to the scene. I used a 10 degree honeycomb grid on it in order to get the small spot we see on the foamcore. It was positioned to cast a reflection on the left bottom corner on the glossy surface behind the phone.


I decided to use a circular gradient on the background as well. So I changed the modifier on light #4 from a stripbox to 20 degree honeycomb grid, focused on the right, so that it appears at the right corner of the subject. This created a very interesting effect to the overall image. Take a look at the resulting image below.

The composition with 2 circular gradients:


Highlighted area on the table (right from the phone) was created by the reflection from light #5, and left side of the background was lit by light #4. As you see, I’ve positioned both spots to be divided by a shooting table by half.

Third Part. Composing the final image

At this point I considred the main setup to be done, and was ready to tweak the lighting a little, as I usually do at the end of the shot. I was slighly changing lights position and modifying a power ratio between the lights. The shot I’ve liked the most was this:


Here’s what I’ve done so far:

The power of the background light was increased, and both main lights (#1 and #2) were moved more towards the sides of the subject. This gave me the more edgy and dramatic look of the phone I wanted. A darker subject with nice “hairlight” (the edges) and an even brighter gradient-filled background.

The next step was to add a color. I wanted to have phone’s blue screen to be ON for the final image, so two blue gels were added to the strobes #4 and #5.

The result of this change is below:


The final step.

In order to capture both the phone’s screen and still use high-intensity strobe lighting, I needed to get sort of “double exposure” in one shot. I use this technique every time I need to capture subject’s own light without actually making 2 exposures and combining them during the post-production. There is an example and detailed explanation of such technique on my another article, “Lighting the lights“, you may wan to check it to get better idea of what I am talking here:-)

The idea of this technique is simple. Because required exposures are very different, 1/200 sec. at F 16 for the strobe and 8 second F16 for the phone’s LCD screen, I’ve shot an 8 second exposure in complete darkness in the studio. Turning off all of the lights, including the strobes modeling lights and turning “on” the phone’s screen. I took an 8 second exposure at F/16 to capture the desired image. I call it a “double exposure” because there’s an exposure from the strobes was around 1/1000 sec. (duration of a strobe impulse) and the rest of 7.999 seconds of the exposure captures phone’s LCD screen.

Pretty simple, yet powerful technique that allows me to get the image below. This is “as-is” from the camera RAW:


The only thing we have left to do now is a dust cleaning, some color management and other minor adjustments in Photoshop.

The final image:


The only regret I have from this shot is that I’ve used a non-standard Droid docking application. The original one probably looks nicer, but my phone is deeply rooted and there is not much left on it of the stock applications:-)

I hope this was interesting for you to read and as it was for me to shoot. Studio product, liquid and jewelry photography is my true passion and if you’re interested in learning about my photography, you can visit my blog: There you’ll find that I have most of my assignments dissected similar to the way I have presented this one here. My goal is to show you practical, useful things that you won’t be able to find in a college textbook or any other photography book. I share real-world, everyday experience of successful commercial photographer.

Thank you, Alex Koloskov

P.S. Many thanks to Evan Tantum for his great assistance during the shoot.

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