In this blog post we'll teach you how to set your camera's manual settings for product photography. This post is meant to build on our how to build a DIY photo studio post; you don't need to have read it to understand, but some product photo examples reference that studio setup.
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Camera settings almost all adjust a camera sensor’s relationship to light, and ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are no different. ISO sets sensitivity to light, aperture controls how much light gets through, and shutter speed is how long your sensor is exposed to light.
In our demonstrations, we'll be using a Canon DSLR camera. Don’t worry if your camera is another brand, as you should still be able to find these same settings on your camera so long as you have a "manual mode."
So what settings should you use?
ISO: as low as possible
ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive and the longer you will need to capture an image. You can increase ISO to capture images in lower light, or just to capture images faster, but there’s a cost. Higher ISO settings can lead to grainy, or “noisy,” images.
ISO measurements reflect fractions of a second and generally range from 100-3200. “ISO 100” is a full second, while “ISO 3200” is 1/32 of a second.
You should use the lowest ISO possible in order to keep noise to a minimum. Mount your camera on a tripod and take a look at your product after your lighting is set. Start at the lowest possible ISO, and gradually increase it until your product appears properly lit.
For example, let’s select our ISO setting based on the light in our studio. In our at-home studio, we chose 400 because we wanted to keep our ISO lower for image clarity and at the same time help improve the lighting of the product.
Here is a closer view. See how the higher the ISO value the more grain, or noise, we are able to see in the image. We want as little noise as possible.
Takeaway: ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor which takes your image. As ISO increases, so does grain. For product photography, start as low as possible (like ISO 100) and then increase as needed.
Aperture: as high as possible
Aperture functions like the pupil of an eye: it controls the amount of light passed through the lens to the camera. It also determines the depth of field of your shot. The depth of field is the area of your shot that is in focus, and it has major aesthetic consequences.
If you want high quality product images, you need to set ISO, aperture, and shutter speed yourself.
Aperture is measured using a system known as F-stops, and generally ranges from F1 to F22. The lower the number, the more light gets into your camera and the faster your shutter speed can be. Lower F-stops also create a shallow depth of field, allowing you to focus on specific details while focus falls off and blurs around your focal point.
For product photography, shutter speed isn’t an issue because your camera is on a tripod and your light is generally consistent (even with DIY sources). You will almost always want to use as high an F-stop as possible, like F16 or F22, in order to capture your product in full focus.
The exception that proves the rule is when you’re trying to highlight a detail, like a handle on a knife or a buckle on a belt, and you use lower aperture to draw the eye to the focal point. In almost every other case, you will want the entire product to be in complete focus.
Takeaway: Aperture is the pupil of your camera. The higher your F-Stop, the more light you let in and the more of your product is in focus. For product photography, start as high as possible (like F22 or F16) and decrease as needed.
Shutter Speed: slow and steady (on a tripod)
The shutter speed setting (also known as “exposure time”) determines the amount of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light while taking a photograph; literally, it’s how fast your shutter opens and closes. Generally speaking, the faster the shutter speed the more an object is frozen, while slower speeds can create motion blur.
For landscape, sports, and nature photography, shutter speed is extremely important aesthetically because shots contain moving subjects. The photographer may be moving too, and handholding the camera.
In DIY product photography, your camera will almost always be on a tripod shooting a still object. For this reason, we don’t have to worry much about motion blur or camera shake (from handholding), so it’s possible to use a low shutter speed to create extremely sharp images.
Shutter speeds are given in fractions of a second. When using a tripod in a studio, use a low setting like 1/13 in order to push more light into the camera. Use your light meter to determine your exact setting by adjusting shutter speed until you get to zero.
If you are shooting a model, you may need to increase your shutter speed to compensate for motion. If you have to handhold, shutter speeds below 1/60th of a second are too slow to avoid motion blur, even with compensation from a good built-in image stabilizer. So stay above that threshold.
Takeaway: Shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes. A camera on a tripod in steady light can have a slow shutter speed. For product photography, use a low setting like 1/13 and adjust according to your light meter.
More Manual Camera Settings
It's bonus time! Let's take a quick look beyond the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) at additional manual camera settings for product photography.
Camera Mode: manual
This blog post is about manual mode, and that is what we recommend, but there are other modes. Cameras usually offer a variety of settings, but the most popular modes are Manual, Aperture Priority, and Automatic.
Aperture Priority lets you choose the aperture, then automatically adjusts ISO and shutter speed to your selected aperture. You might want to use this setting outside the studio, where light changes dramatically with shade and you want to quickly adjust depth of field to draw focus to specific subjects.
Automatic is exactly what it sounds like. The camera takes its best guess and sets aperture, ISO, and shutter speed on its own. It basically turns your camera into a slightly more intelligent point-and-shoot.
Manual lets you control all aspects of your photo. If you know what you're doing, this will get you the highest quality image. Cameras are pretty smart these days, but if they're not set to manual they'll use some sub-optimal automatic settings (such as flash, shutter speed, aperture, etc).
Takeaway: Use manual mode for product photography.
Image Format: RAW
Image format is the file format your camera uses to store images onboard your memory card or tethered computer. If you have the option to set your images as RAW, absolutely do so. RAW files are huge (20 MB+), but they're the highest possible quality and you'll have more flexibility afterwards in post-production; eventually you'll get to JPEG, but you want to do initial adjustments in RAW first. If you do not have a RAW option, then we suggest you choose the largest image size and format that your camera will allow you to select, which in most cases will be a JPEG.
Takeaway: Use RAW if you have it, highest JPEG if you don't.
White Balance: automatic
As you know, we set up our photo studio next to a window to take advantage of the natural light. Beautiful sunlight can do wonders for your product images, but we also need to measure the sunlight to avoid overexposing our image—or creating the wrong result with too many shadows or harsh direct light.
It is extremely important to make sure that direct ("harsh") sunlight isn’t coming through your window.
The afternoon is generally the ideal time to photograph, but if for some reason you have direct sunlight during your shoot, you can drape a white curtain or sheet over your window to diffuse the light. This will create more even light in your at-home studio.
Since you can’t control the sun, you must work around it every day. If you have the ability to use photography set lighting, use it. Lighting equipment provides more versatility and gives you more control over your lighting results. In terms of efficiency and time restraints, it also allows you to work at any time of the day, instead of waiting on the sun to dictate when you shoot.
Now it’s time to choose the white balance so our camera knows how to adjust the image color correctly. Most people choose the "automatic white balance" setting, which allows the camera to decide the best option depending on what it senses about the studio lighting. For an extended look at white balance, read our how to use white balance and grey cards blog post.
As you can see in our images, the closest to what is correctly seen by our eyes is the "Cloudy" or "Auto" setting. The daylight setting is close as well, but there's too much yellow in it compared to the other two options. So to shoot our beautiful pair of black heels, we will take the photos during the afternoon and choose the “Cloudy” white balance setting because we're using natural light and it's cloudy outside.
Takeaway: Use auto white balance unless you're experienced.
When you're shopping online, you want product photos to show the product as accurately as possible. That means full focus. Don’t worry about making "attrezzo" or artistic pictures, just place full focus on the product.
In order to do so, choose the automatic focus setting on your camera and lens, so the camera will lock onto your product through the lens and keep it in focus for you. You won't have to do any lens focusing, which can be tough to do just by eye. After a couple of hours in the studio, your eyes can get tired, and even though you think you see clearly you don’t.
If you try to focus manually, it's not unusual to open your images and find they seem a little blurry, almost like a camera shake. Since we only have our product in the frame, this is a perfect opportunity to let the camera do the work and allow our hands to be free of the lens.
Takeaway: Use automatic camera and lens focus
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Do you feel like you’ve got camera settings down?
Good! The next big step in improving as a photographer is learning how to shape light itself. Read our guide to photography lighting equipment to determine what to buy, rent, or build for DIY product photography. Then check out three common lighting setups for apparel and see if they’ll help on your next shoot.