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DIY 1: How To Build Your Own Photo Studio On a Bootstrapped Budget

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Learn how to create beautiful online product images with our three part Do-It-Yourself guide.

Throughout these posts I will focus on a simple photo studio setup that is best suited to at-home photography; using the method commonly called ‘The Window Lighting Technique’; how to take advantage of your camera settings and how to edit your product images for your online store.

In this first post, I will teach you how to set up a photo studio at home, on a bootstrapped budget. You will be surprised to see how easily you can turn your living room (or spare bedroom, garage, etc) into your own ‘portable’ photography studio so that you can consistently produce quality product images for your online store. The photo studio below cost less than $300 USD to set up (with camera!) and you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

You can use this setup to shoot a range of products such as clothing, footwear, accessories, jewelry, and more! Let’s get started.

Part 1: The Shopping List

DIY product photography studio shopping list

Professional product photography equipment can be confusing and expensive. The good news is that it’s possible to create the same quality images without the bulky, high-tech equipment most professional photo studios use.

High-end equipment and gadgets do have their benefits but they simply are not necessary to create great looking product images.

High-end equipment has its benefits but is not necessary to create great looking product images.

Below is a list of the bare essentials that you will need to set up your studio:

1. Camera ($200)

Everyone has a camera these days, whether its built into your phone, an old point-and-shoot or something more on the professional side. I am here to say that you don’t need the best of the best for great product images.

That being said, if you have room in the budget for a quality machine, go for it. Keep in mind that your camera is just 1 of 5 factors that will affect the final outcome of your product images. Your studio setup, lighting, product styling, and post-production techniques all play an important role in the creation of quality product images.

So don’t stress about the camera, I suggest that you first try to use what you have at home before you go on a shopping spree. If you are set on buying new equipment, I suggest that you purchase a camera that at a minimum has manual exposure and aperture settings.

What to buy? Well there are tons of great cameras on the market and for the budget conscience E-tailers, I suggest something along the lines of a Canon PowerShot SX510, which is more than enough camera to get the job done. This camera retails for under $200, has manual settings, takes clean and crisp images and allows for wifi capabilities. Remember that you can also get a great deal on used cameras on eBay or Craigslist, in order to bring the price down even further!

$200 – Canon Powershot SX510

2. Memory Card ($10)

Don’t forget your SD memory card! This is what your camera will use to store your images on during a photo shoot. Memory is cheap these days and a high capacity SD card (+16GB) shouldn’t run more than $10 bucks. $10 – SanDisk 16GB SD Memory Card

3. Tripod ($20)

A tripod is essential part of your at-home setup because it will allow you to stabilize your camera, and work in rooms where the lighting is not optimal (such as your living room!).

In the second part of this post, I will show you how to adjust your camera’s manual settings depending on the light in your studio. You do not need to spend a lot of money on a tripod, but it is absolutely essential that you buy one. Below, I have listed a great budget friendly option: $23 – Ravelli APLT2 50″ Light Weight Aluminum Tripod with Bag

4. Roll of White Paper

To create a nice, seamless background, I recommend that you buy a large roll of white paper to place behind your product. You can buy rolls of white paper at most office supply and camera stores.

It is important to get a long roll of white paper, because you need to create a seamless ‘sweep’ (a curved seamless background behind the product), in order to reduce the amount of post-production work your images will require after shooting.

The width of the roll of paper should be larger than the product you are photographing. I recommend a good standard size of 53 inches across. You can find ones that are smaller and wider, but this is a great length that is universal to almost everything. I think the only product this size may not work for, is large furniture and equipment, or shooting on model clothing. In those cases you will want something wall length and large.

$22 – Adorama Seamless 53” Paper 12 yards

5. Foam Core Board

Use a piece of white foam board (‘foam core’) as your ‘reflector’. White foam boards are utilized for ‘bouncing’ light from the window of your studio back onto your product. The purpose of using a foam ‘reflector’ is to reduce the shadow on the side of the product opposite to the window. This technique provides ‘fill light’ and will give your product an even, clean look. Like the white paper roll, you can find foam core board at most office supply and camera stores. $7 – White Foam Core, Pack of 5 16”x20”

6. Folding Table

You will also need a table to allow your background ‘sweep’ to fall across, so you can position and style your product accordingly. You don’t want your product too high or too low, because it won’t be comfortable or easy for you to take photographs of your product. I suggest a foldable card table for easy clean up. You can use the table anywhere, making it’s portability very convenient as well! You can find tables like this under $50 at your local hardware store or online. $40 – Meco Square Folding 34”x34” Table

7. Dict Tape or Clamps

You will also want a few rolls of tape or clamps to secure your white paper sweep to your table so nothing moves while you are photographing your product. Duct tape is quick, convenient and easy to find while clamps make for easy clean up and reusability. You can find both at your local hardware store.

8. Window = $0

Last on our list (and most important) is having access to a large window that allows for a lot of natural light. Make sure you do a little house cleaning and clear some space in the room to work around the window. The key is having amble natural light and a workspace that allows you to move around comfortably while taking photographs. Depending on the size of your product, you will want the window to be significantly larger. The bigger the window/light source the more even and soft light there will be. The smaller the window/light source the least and more directional it will be. If you are photographing small earrings, a smaller window will work fine, but in my case I am photographing shoes, so the bigger and wider the better. In most cases, utilize the largest window in your home. The windows I have used, are in my dining room and measures 50 in. by 50 in. Just remember the larger the window compared to your subject the better.

So thats it! Now just head out to the store and for under $300 you will be converting your spare bedroom room into a product photography studio. Just don’t tell your spouse that you learned these tips from us! Now that you have all the necessary equipment to photograph your products, follow my next-steps and get your studio setup in 10 minutes or less!

Part 2: Build it

Diagram positioning camera, backdrop, light, and products in a DIY product photography studio

Step 1: Table & Window (1 minute)

Start by positioning your foldable table near your window. Our goal is to have even, natural light on the product. That being said, it’s important to point out that we do not want direct sunlight to hit your set. I will cover the optimal time to photograph your products in Part 2 of this post. You should also be sure to allow yourself enough room to move around the table to style and shoot your product once the backdrop is set up. I’ve learned that being in a small space can literally cramp your style.

Step 2: Seamless White Paper & Tape (3 minutes)

Now unroll your white paper roll and tape it to a wall, ceiling, or something that can hold it up, like a large box or a book stand. I will be using my ceiling, because my window is in the middle of the room, and this will allow my paper sweep to fall nicely onto the table. Tape the sides of the paper to the table as well, so your setup doesn’t move while you are shooting pictures. Stabilizing the backdrop also helps me keep things clean and organized which allows me to focus on my camera.

Step 3: Product (3 minutes)

Before placing your product on the white background sweep, make sure to clean and prep your object before you photograph it. This sounds like common sense but you would be surprised how many people forget this critical step! Keep in mind that a little cleaning can save you a lot of post production work. If you are photographing jewelry, make sure to clean and shine all your chains and gems.

If you are photographing footwear, make sure to brush, shine or clean off any dust or scuff marks. This can reduce your post production time greatly but don’t worry if your product isn’t 100% perfect, as it is possible to fix the remaining defects on the computer.

Make sure to clean and prep your object before you photograph it.

Now place your product in the middle of your backdrop, and directly in front of where your camera will be placed. I am photographing a pair of women’s heeled pumps, and I will be taking multiple images of this shoe to capture as many angles as possible for my product listing. When you rotate your product, make sure to keep your tripod/camera and object in the exact same place for each shot, so that the product is framed the same way for all images. Doing so, will make your images more consistent and will again, reduce the amount of post production time needed to perfect the images.

Step 4: White Foam Board – ‘Fill Light’ (2 minutes)

Depending on your light that enters your room and the color of your product, you may need to add extra ‘fill light’ to create even lighting on each side of the product. As I explained earlier, the larger the light source the more light on your subject.

Black shoe product image with and without fill light

Without Fill Light

With Fill Light

In my case, I have great large light source, but I am photographing a black suede pump, and generally black products need an extra fill to see texture and detail, because it is darker. To do so, I cut a small piece from my foam core board and propped it up vertically using a roll of duct tape. You can get creative with what you use for the prop. The important things are that your foam board stands straight, is positioned opposite to the window and is the same size as your subject or larger. When set up, the light coming through the window will bounce off the bright white board and ‘fill’ the shadows on the left (darker) side of the shoe. As you can see in my images above, the bounced light fills in the back and side of the shoe nicely allowing for detail to be present.

Step 5: Camera & Tripod (1 minute)

Extend the legs of your tripod and adjust it until the top of the tripod is flush with the surface of the table. Make sure your tripod is level because it will be easier to adjust your camera when it is attached. Now, attach the camera to the screws or clip on your tripod.

Demonstration of how to frame a footwear product in camera

DO: add extra free space on top and bottom

DON’T: too tight around product

It’s good to fill your product in the frame of your camera, but make sure to leave space around it.

Once your camera is secure, start playing with the position of the tripod by looking through the viewfinder on your camera while directing at your product. You will want to fill your product in the frame of your camera, but make sure to leave extra space around your subject, so you have room in the image. You may need to raise the neck of the tripod like I have, to ensure the best possible view of your product from top to bottom. If you feel like you’re too close or too far away, try utilizing your zoom feature on your camera lens. In my case, I have a fixed or prime lens, which means I cannot zoom in and out with it. I will have to manually move my tripod and camera closer or farther from my subject. The benefit to using a prime lens is that you can get closer with a lower aperture, and achieve quality images. But since we need a higher aperture and won’t be using lower ones, the benefit to having a zoom on your camera or lens, is that you can position yourself close or far from your product, which allows much more versatility! The only difference this may change going forward for you, is what you set your aperture and shutter speed to, but I will explain those in the next lesson!

So thats it, 1 trip to an office supply store, a $300 dollar equipment investment, and 10 minutes worth of photo studio prep time and you are now set to start shooting great looking product images! That wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be right? In second part of this post I will explain exactly how to optimize your images, by using your camera’s manual settings as well as what post-production techniques you should consider to make your products stand out.

Footwear Product Photography: Best Practices Guide