PhotoFilter: How do I light and photograph furniture for retail use?
November 22, 2006 11:34 AM   Subscribe

PhotoFilter: How do I light and photograph furniture for retail use?

I need to take pictures that end up on tear sheets, ala this link. I'd been shooting things in the store, and Photochoping them out of the background, although I suspect that a roll of background paper might help. The company I work for doesn't have much in the way of lighting equipment but I feel I might be able to persuade them to buy some if I could explain reasonably what we need. So, mefites, what do I need?

They provided me with a Canon PowerShot Pro 1 and a Canon Speedlite 420EX flash, which has no sync connection and no manual dial down controls.

Any suggestions on lighting or camera settings will be helpful, thanks.
posted by idledebonair to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The paper would only help you if you have problems with other objects causing a color cast or you have issues masking the foreground object, which doesn't seem to be the case from your linked example.

I snagged two of these for product shots three years ago, they haven't let me down. I've shot products on tablesaws using only those lights and it was pretty reasonable. That'd be equivalent to a pretty large dinner table or something along those lines, if you're looking for a metric on the scale they could handle.

Sorry to say but there's not a lot you can do to "fake" or duplicate expensive lighting equipment without actually acquiring it. It is the alpha and the omega.

Personally, I don't bother with flashes and timers and all of that jazz, but I'm not really a professional photographer by trade. Just those lights and a tripod for stills off a 10D.
posted by prostyle at 11:50 AM on November 22, 2006

I'm a big fan of the 500W worklights you can get at your favorite hardware store for $10.

Get 'em with a stand if you need more versatility, they're still cheap.

I tend to bounce them most of the time, from either the walls or the ceiling. Does the trick beautifully. They are hot though, you can't put stuff too close.
posted by defcom1 at 12:32 PM on November 22, 2006

Also, search for "work light" on this page (, more about lighting using work lights.
posted by defcom1 at 12:38 PM on November 22, 2006

The lighting from those pics is from a decent diffuse light source like strobes in a Chimera bank. You can rent the equipment from a decent pro-camera store in town otherwise fake it by making your own fluorescent light bank. The ultra cheap solution is to take photos outside on a cloudy day but you should use reflectors to open up the shadows.

The pix are obviously photoshopped to make the backgrounds white. The biggest thing is to avoid shooting wide angle and pick some flat backgrounds to make photoshopping easier.
posted by JJ86 at 12:39 PM on November 22, 2006

Response by poster: @JJ86, actually those pictures are taken with the equipment listed above. If they look professional enough to work with, that's fine. Do you have any specific models of strobes or banks to use?
posted by idledebonair at 1:09 PM on November 22, 2006

Best answer: I don't think the lighting in those galleries is from expensive softbanks - look at the shadows cast by small sources from above.

You CAN achieve very professional results with very cheap lights, but the most important thing is to understand a bit about lighting. Small light sources create sharp shadows and abrupt highlights and shadows. They create bright specular highlights. Large light sources create soft shadows and gradual transitions from light to dark. They create broad swaths of highlight.

Small sources are obvious - lightbulbs, flash units, etc. Broad sources are (cheaply) lights bounced off surfaces. For furniture, that can be ceilings, walls or flat foam core panels.

Take two 4' X 8' 1/4" foam core sheets and tape them together along a long seam into a tall V that stands up by itself. You can move this anywhere you want. Place your light facing into the V and it will cast a broad light in whatever direction. The farther the light is away from the V, the broader and softer the light will be.

Use small light sources from the top and slightly behind (make sure the light doesn't point into the lens), taking care to light from a direction that prevents relective hot spots, and use the big V to fill in the light. Don't flatten out the light too much - make sure there is a discernable direction to the light or you will lose any sense of dimensionality. If each plane of the object has a slightly different tone that helps.

Don't shoot from too high up - it tends to flatten things out a bit. Chairs and couches should be shot from a height about half-way up the back.

I think you ought to get seamless background paper just to help you with "Photochopping." Also, the more photo crap you use, and the more of a production you make, the more impressed everyone will be and the more photo crap they'll be inclined to let you purchase!

If you want to use pro equipment, you'll end up spending a fair amount simply because shooting furniture requires BIG lights. For strobe systems, Norman is probably the cheapest of the main brands and words perfectly well. Chimera makes big soft boxes for the strobe head to fit into, but you'll also need a big boom stand to hold a big box over the furniture. You can also use tungsten lights since the furniture won't be moving. Lowell makes good lights, but again, you'll need boom stands to hold the lights and another to hold a reflector to bounce the light into.

I think many of the shots here give nice lighting, though many of them are shot by their (presumably amateur) makers.

PS, I spent many years shooting furniture for department store catalogues.
posted by johngumbo at 1:23 PM on November 22, 2006

I use one of these. They are cheap but put out an enormous amount of light. The umbrella gives you an incredibly soft even light that should look great on furniture.

They get really hot, so be careful where you set them down!
posted by advicepig at 1:51 PM on November 22, 2006

For pro quality strobes you could try white lightnings and use a Chimera soft box. The Alienbees might be able to be used with a softbox and are reasonably priced.
posted by JJ86 at 2:11 PM on November 22, 2006

We just finished up shooting photos for and publishing our catalog here. Everyone in our art department knows very little about photography, but with our shoestring budget we managed to get some lovely shots that I think were good enough for print.

What we had were two double-headed work lights like suggested above (AND YES, VERY HOT). We liked the effect a photo cube had and how it diffused the light and made it easier to control. It also seemed to yield more detail. So, against advice, we made a giant one. We bought enough 1-inch PVC pipe to make a 5' x 7' x 7' box-like frame and then hung cheap Walmart white sheets from the top pipes. We then stretched these taut and pinned them. With the double lights on each side, and enough experimenting, we were able to get fairly nice results!

We were shooting textiles, but when we put some sporting equipment in there to shoot, the shots still came out nice.
posted by bristolcat at 7:12 PM on November 22, 2006

tripod is always a good idea, and get to know the camera. canon pro 1.

if you can't get more lights work on getting the light from your 420ex diffused using a stofen omnibounce, lightsphere or one of the stobist's homemade diffusers. Other than that, follow johngumbo's advice.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:48 PM on November 22, 2006

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