Super Natural Soap Photography Tips
Natural Light and the Study of Product Photography
Shooting in natural light is no different than controlled artificial lighting; its still a light source and still needs to be understood. Shooting with “natural light” is using a light source.
If natural light is your only light source than your photography is being controlled by the time of day. Using artificial light offers a bit more freedom and an opportunity to understand your light source, the big light bulb in the sky.
In the beginning I was so afraid of on-board flashes and external lights I only used natural light. I’ve over come that fear and now its all fair game! Oddly enough I understand natural light more by using artificial lighting.
Its time to go SUPER-natural!
Tip #1 While photographing soap, if you want to get rid of cracks, contours, blemishes – over expose. This is called “high key.” This can be done with flashes, camera settings or post editing in software. This is tricky because too much light is equally unappealing. Practice: blow out (over expose) your subject and then ratchet it back until you get the light/contrast you’re looking for.
Tip#2 Shadows show contrast. To photograph details in your soap throw light on the product to create shadows. Controlled shadow reveals areas next to the the shadow.
Tip#3 Avoid over prop use. Each photo tells a story and the story you want your audience to focus on is the object in the photo. Unless the props are essential to the story, avoid props. Its distracting. Caveat: putting a bowl of honey next to a soap made with honey can help to communicate the story of the soap. Most of us talk too much and we add things to images as a result. Over communication. Ask this question, “how can I tell my soap story effectively, with as few words/props as possible?”
Tip #4 A direct flash on your soap, unless controlled, is rarely appealing. The flash that pops up on your camera… Don’t use it. If the light isn’t right, (unless you are a journalist documenting a moment), find better light or create it.
Direct flash can create harsh, uncontrolled shadows, while over exposing the subject. A better use of light is to bounce the light at a bright surface above or around the soap and let the light fall on your subject. The light wraps around the subject, not blasts it into another color spectrum!
A light box can be helpful to wrap light. If you are just starting out, don’t worry about expensive lighting or a light box, just use what you have or pick up some inexpensive lights and set them around, bounce them, put them directly on the soap and see… Really see. There are lots of DIY light box tutorials, just line a cardboard box with white paper and wa-la! Light box. At least, this will get you started, and photography is all about practice.
Tip #5 Use your eyes! Look at the light. Look at the shadows. Look at your soap. Now look at the light and shadows and soap. Now SEE! Are the soaps stacked? Are they propped up and look staged? How does the background work with the soaps? Does the soap have swirls, is it competing with the background? Is there a pattern on in the background? How do they all work together? Take a photo and look at it on screen.
A plain bed sheet will work for a background. A towel has texture, and that becomes something other when its photographed and that simple texture can compete with complex soap swirls. Don’t you want to share those crazy wonderful swirls? Why let that silly towel take center stage?
Tip #6 Clean up each photo. When cutting soap little crumbs can appear that our eyes cannot see, but the camera can. Any soap blemish or specks will be focused on, and that will be what your viewer sees. Its a natural behavior to pattern-match and when something is out of sync the viewer will focus on that and the mind will continue to move to the mis-matched pattern, missing the glory of your soap, but only seeing the soap crumbs. Much of photography is controlling the viewers eye, showing them what to see.
Tip #7 Be mindful of whites. The whites of the soap and whites of the background – the other term, white balance. This means that white is white, and not reflected color of the colors around it, but really white. This can be corrected on board (in the camera) or in post editing. Example: use your “day light” setting and take a photo. Is it warm, meaning is it “orange” or is it cool, too much “blue”? Is there a color cast to the image?
- White in paint are void of color (or titanium dioxide).
- White in light (computer) are all colors.
Tip #8 Go Super Natural! Use natural light and fill light, and bounced light. Who cares where your light source is coming from if you can present your soap in a compelling way?
Tip #9 MOST IMPORTANT TIP, strive to SEE the information in the image. Say what you see out loud. Name the things you see… Soap, crumb, shadow, table, background… Hey wait, there’s the cat! This act will change you in ways other than just photography.
Tip #10 Fearless post editing! Photoshop or any other editing software is necessary. Did you know that Ansel Adams edited so extensively in the darkroom (photoshop back in the day) that he even added things that were not in the original image? Yup. A little trickery or artistic license? This is a fine line, but no one likes to see a red soap crumb on a white background. What to do when the image is exactly what you wanted except for that one soap crumb?
Caveat: We must tell the tale of our soaps! If our soaps are so edited that when the product arrives and the customer is disappointed, no one is happy… No matter how good the soap. The story must be told in some semblance of reality.
Understand what you see, not what you interpret, or the quick meaning you make. We take so much for granted that most information is just absorbed. This is a good practice in all areas, not just soap photography, to really see.
The first thing we look at when we view something, generally, are the white parts. So if the entire image is white, the eye will move toward the colors. That is a controlled use of white. Example: if the soap is colored (void of white) and is on a similar color background and small section of the background is white, eliminate that area. Believe it or not, that’s the first thing the viewer will look at, that small shape of white in the background.
Another example, the soap is colored, but then on a white background. Now the soap has center stage.
EXPERIMENT: squint your eyes next time you see an image, and ask, without judgment, what stands out. This is simply a contrast trick, (or uhm… photographic sorcery). Where is the high contrast? And that is where your viewer will look. It all happens in seconds, so breaking this down to the mundane seems extreme, however, there is truth in all I tell you.
The idea behind product photography, in my opinion, is not a journalistic style exactly. Journalistic style is to report facts, and some great photographic journalist (remember the image of the sailor kissing the nurse?), can tell a story as it is with complexity. (Another subject entirely.)
In person our eyes see differently, we imagine things, take in textures, can touch and smell the object. We experience the object. To convey this experience takes time and patience through photography.
And, always remember, a photo that makes you happy is better than just getting the job done. Soaping can be a happy process, even product photos of your soap can be fun. Every area is an opportunity for your creativity to flourish. Let photography be fun as well, leave the stress trolls at the door, and just have a sense of humor about it all. Take a ton of photos and then see them on your screen. Then take more.
When its all done and said, which photos make you happy without thinking about them? I’ve broken all these ideas down to words, but mostly, now that I’ve shot over half a million (literally) images I just shoot on feeling. I was told a long time ago by a famous photographer that photography is the study of light. I poo-pooed it and said “its all feeling” and now that I’ve been doing it awhile, I agree. No matter what your subject is, its seeing light and responding to it so quickly and naturally, it is a feeling.