Ready to up your game and improve your product photography skills? It’s time to stop scouring the internet and do what our guest blogger Mackenzie Kincaid did and take a class!
If I’ve learned one thing about myself over the years, it’s this: the point where I feel like I’ve gotten really good at a thing is usually, in reality, the point where I’ve just stopped being really terrible at it. Just for example: product photography. I’ve done a bit of it — it’s one of the lesser-known aspects of being an artist, apparently you sometimes have to sell things for money, which you can then exchange for food — and there’s a seriously cringe-worthy difference between my terrible product photos of yesteryear, and what I’m currently producing. Recognizing the difference is an important part of giving myself credit for personal growth and whatnot, but it’s also led me to the revelation that if I think my product photos are starting to look pretty good, I’ve probably just about reached the point of bland mediocrity. I needed to up my game, and to do that I needed help.
I tried the Internet first, because I like to think it’s one of my closest and most helpful friends. Mostly what I found were blogs and tutorials promising me glamorous product photo success, if only I lived in a million-dollar New York loft with floor to ceiling windows for that much-needed natural light, charmingly aged brick walls for a backdrop, and an assortment of expensive props just lying around waiting for their next photo opportunity. For the aesthetic. You understand.
Obviously that wasn’t going to work out very well for my first-level almost-a-basement dwelling and my generally inexpensive and unglamorous living situation. I guess my strategy of learning most of my skills through YouTube may not be entirely sound. (Guess I’ll put my dream of learning sword-swallowing on indefinite hold.) So for my final delightful expedition into Lifelong Learning, I decided to level up by attending an actual class with an actual expert to see what I could learn about taking actual high-quality photos, which is how I ended up in Product Photography – An Introduction.
The class hits on a broad array of topics, from the highly technical to the low-budget life-hack. A decent grasp of photography is required, but you won’t need to have a high level of technical skill with (or the money to afford) all of the equipment discussed. The principles covered in this class, from setting up and controlling lighting, to considerations of placement of the object being photographed, to techniques for speeding up or eliminating the post-production editing process, are ones that will help photographers at any level.
The style you’ll learn here is the beautiful, clean, sharp type of photographs used by online retailers, product manufacturers, auction houses, galleries, and others whose photos are aimed at showcasing an object by itself and revealing its qualities with no distractions. Want to know how to achieve a crisp white backdrop or a pure black one without spending a few hours clipping every background out in Photoshop? Care to learn the secrets of effortlessly suspending items in mid-air, or achieving a slick modern-looking reflection effect? Need to figure out how to control your lighting, fine-tune your lighting set-up, or shoot even the trickiest items? You’ve come to the right place.
Instructor Ben Kuhns seriously knows his stuff: aside from a varied and clearly passionate photography background, his day job is managing the photo studio for online outdoor retailer Backcountry.com. His extensive experience is definitely a plus for his students: there’s a very well-organized syllabus to cover, but there’s also plenty of room for students to steer the instruction with their own questions, from specifics on how to achieve a particular look to practical demonstrations of techniques.
The class is taught in four sessions, three of which are in the classroom, where you can see each shot as it’s taken and experiment as a group with many different ways to approach photographing an object. You’ll cover the use of budget equipment — like using hardware store clamp-on work lamps as light sources and plain old paper as a bounce — and then move up to instruction on working with flashes, light stands, diffusers, light boxes, lenses with qualities bordering on magic, and all sorts of other things I’m fascinated by but definitely can’t afford. (If you guessed that I’m the clamp-on work lamp sort of photographer, you’re absolutely right, and I’m so glad that we’ve gotten so close over the course of this delightful Lifelong Learning journey.)
The field trip session is a behind the scenes tour of the Backcountry.com photo studio, where Ben leads a whole team of photographers and support staff who photograph over 90,000 items each year. The mind-boggling scale of that task and the incredible efficiency of the studio shows in how each station is set up, the processes the photographers use, and every handy little hack you’ll pick up just from walking through the space.
The final classroom session is also a particularly helpful one: students are invited to bring a product or two of their own to be photographed, for some hands-on experience with tackling your own unique challenges. The small class size means everyone gets involved in throwing out ideas, considering placement, positioning bounces, and experimenting with lights. I was lucky enough to be the only one in my class to remember to bring an item (victory is mine!), and I brought along a few things I’d found particularly challenging to photograph on my own: a dog tag whose shiny surface was difficult to light and embossed text was even more difficult to make legible; and a little reindeer ornament I’d made from coiled wire, an item with very thin lines and another shiny metal surface. Watching Ben tackle both subjects, along with suggestions for experimentation from the group (we had a lot of “what would happen if we did this, though?” types of questions), gave me solid, simple, and easily executed experience on how to achieve quick, quality results when photographing items that previously had me completely stymied.
If you’re a handmade artist or Pinterest-addicted blogger and want to learn sweet styling skills for the sort of beautifully-cluttered lifestyle-heavy photos currently most popular on those platforms, you won’t learn that particular skill set here. If that is your interest, though, you can still learn a lot in this class that will help your own more heavily styled photos. (And you do, after all, have Pinterest itself, where you’ll find plenty of pins detailing how many of your favorite bloggers create their own images. Let’s not count the Internet out completely, here.)
There’s a lot to learn for anyone, and definitely skills that will be helpful for all sorts of photography projects, from putting together your artist portfolio to selling on eBay to snapping still life stock photos. And maybe most importantly, this class left me fired up to get to my own little home “studio” (an entire two square feet of desk space!) and dig into taking more and better photos of my own creations.
Ready to take this class yourself? Sign up here today: https://continue.utah.edu/lifelong/class/llart_282_product_photography___an_introduction