What is commercial photography? And how can you take stunning commercial photos?
In this article, I explain everything you need to know for top-notch commercial shots, including:
- The gear every commercial shooter should own
- How to light your commercial photos for amazing results
- Key steps for processing your files
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to become a commercial photography expert, then let’s dive right in!
What is commercial photography?
Commercial photography refers to photos taken for commercial use, including images for ad space, websites, product placement, and e-commerce listings. These photos generally feature products, but they can also include food, people, fashion models, street scenes, and even landscapes.
For instance, an insurance company might create an ad campaign that relies on images of the Appalachian mountains – and any images taken specifically for such a campaign would be considered commercial images.
These days, commercial photos are more in-demand than ever, thanks to the explosion of product listings on personal websites, Etsy stores, and eBay listings.
5 tips for stunning commercial photos
Below, I share my top five tips for nailing commercial work. I discuss lighting, gear, item preparation, and post-processing, starting with my first piece of advice:
1. Make sure you buy the right equipment
Commercial photography is a gear-heavy genre, and if you want to produce the best images in a reasonable amount of time, you need a few studio accessories to help you out. Fortunately, these aren’t too pricey!
First, make sure you grab some kind of artificial lighting kit. Many professional commercial photographers use studio strobes, but if you’re just starting out, or if you only need to create high-key e-commerce-type images, you can get away with a simple lightbox or light tent.
I like to use a lightbox, which folds and snaps together using magnets for easier setup, takedown, and travel. When you’re working, you’ll need to first assemble your lightbox. Then you’ll need to add in your second key accessory: a backdrop.
You can find backdrops all over the internet, some of them handpainted and very expensive. However, as a beginner, I’d recommend just grabbing a white and a black backdrop; these will be perfect for standard e-commerce setups as well as more advanced low-key images. Many lightboxes will come with a few backdrops, but if yours does not, or if you don’t like what your lightbox kit provides, then you can always grab standard posterboard from the store.
A sturdy tripod will also come in handy. It’ll help you maintain your composition from shot to shot, which is especially useful if you’re working with a high volume of products. And it’ll keep your photos sharp even if your lighting setup isn’t especially powerful.
Finally, consider grabbing a small stand. You can use it to prop up the product while you shoot (though be sure to remove it in post-processing or – better yet – hide it behind the product).
2. Use a close-focusing lens
The camera that you use for commercial photography isn’t especially important as long as it offers a manual exposure mode, interchangeable lenses, and plenty of resolution. However, the lens can make a huge difference.
If you plan to shoot small products – or even large products – grabbing a macro lens is a good idea. These lenses are super sharp, and they can focus up close for beautiful detail shots. I’d recommend working with a focal length of 90-110mm, though as long as you don’t go wider than 50mm, you’ll get solid results. (My all-time favorite lens for commercial work is the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Macro, which I used to capture all of the images in this article.)
If you can’t afford a macro lens, purchase a lens that can focus relatively close, such as a 50mm f/1.8.
Unfortunately, the closer you focus (and the sharper the lens), the more you’ll start to see unwanted details in your images. Dust, scratches, and fingerprints are all enemies of the commercial photographer, so you’ll need to spend extra time cleaning the product at the beginning, as well as extra time post-processing the product once the shoot is over.
3. Carefully light the subject for the best results
Lighting is a huge part of commercial photography, so if you want great shots, you must learn to manipulate the light.
As I mentioned in a previous tip, high-end commercial photographers use studio strobes. If you’re serious about becoming a well-rounded shooter, this is a skill worth learning. You can start by working with a single light, then add in a fill light or a reflector to deal with unwanted shadows. Make sure you modify your strobes with softboxes, stripboxes, scrims, or umbrellas to get a softer effect, as hard light is rarely flattering in commercial scenarios.
If you prefer to use a lightbox, then make sure to position the item you’re photographing so it’s lit in a flattering and dynamic way. Simply rotate the item and watch as the light changes. Then, when you find an angle you like, take your photos.
One tip: When positioning your items, be careful to avoid reflections and glare. You can deal with these problems in post-processing, but it’s a major headache; if possible, you should use your lighting skills to get a perfect (or near-perfect) result during the actual photoshoot.
4. Prepare the product and your camera for action
Before you actually begin a shoot – but after you determine the proper lighting setup – you should spend time cleaning the product. Wipe away any fingerprints, and use compressed air to blast dust and dirt off the product surface.
If you haven’t already, put your camera on the tripod, then dial in the proper exposure settings. I generally shoot at narrow apertures to keep the scenes as sharp and in focus as possible, but it can be nice to widen the aperture for a shallow depth of field effect. Note that there is a delicate balance between adding artistry and distracting the viewer, so be sure to keep the client’s intent in mind when shooting.
I’d recommend using your camera’s native ISO value, and as long as you’re working on a tripod, you can drop the shutter speed as low as you need for a detailed exposure.
It’s not essential, but consider grabbing a remote trigger. That way, you can avoid camera shake by firing your camera shutter without pressing the shutter button. If you don’t have a remote trigger, use your camera’s two-second self-timer so the camera has time to settle after you tap the shutter.
5. Don’t forget to do in-depth post-processing
Pretty much every commercial image requires in-depth post-processing! Yes, this will take time, but it makes a huge difference, so you should always block out a few hours (or days) after each shoot to handle the necessary editing.
The commercial retouching process can generally be done in a basic editing program like Lightroom or Capture One, but for high-level commercial work – including any work that involves compositing – you’ll need to use a layer-based program like Photoshop.
Below, I explain my standard editing workflow using Lightroom and Photoshop.
Editing commercial work in Lightroom
If you’re after a high-key e-commerce-type image, boost the Highlights and Whites to blow out the background and create a nice glow to the product. You may wish to boost the exposure on the subject, but be sure not to clip the highlights. (Here, the histogram can help you out.)
This image featured a gray background:
But after adjusting the Highlights and Whites, I got this result:
Be sure to remove any color casts by white balancing your image. To save time, you can do white balancing in camera or you can use a gray card.
Consider adding a bit of Clarity and contrast for extra pop, then right-click and select Edit in Photoshop.
Editing commercial work in Photoshop
You should always clean your product before shooting, but you’ll never manage to remove all of the dust. Luckily, you can select Filter>Noise>Dust and Scratches. Then select the radius in pixels to target the dust specks. The filter isn’t perfect, so you may lose a bit of sharpness, but the result is worth it.
And if you feel like the image is too soft, you can always undo the changes, select – using the Lasso tool – any areas that require dust removal, put them on a new layer, and only then apply the Dust and Scratches filter. Here, you can see that I selected the screen of the phone, created a new layer, then removed the dust and scratches.
That way, I was able to remove dust from the screen while leaving sharper areas, such as the edges, untouched.
If there are any blemishes that the Dust and Scratches filter cannot handle, you can then bring out the Clone Stamp tool or try Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill option.
And once all the problem areas have been dealt with, add a bit of sharpening – you can try a high-pass sharpening technique – and export the image as a JPEG!
Commercial photography tips: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to take some stunning commercial photos – so remember the tips that I’ve shared, pay careful attention to the details, and have fun!
And if you don’t own a fancy lighting setup, that’s okay. You can get great results using only a small lightbox.
What subjects will you photograph first? What type of commercial photography do you plan to do? Share your thoughts in the comments below!