Advertising Photography

Making great advertising photographs for products is not an easy task. A client brings you an object – a jar of face cream, a toaster, a hair brush – and wants you to make it look like a space ship or 10 million dollars. This picture has to stop people from turning the page or hitting the next button when they are browsing magazines or the web.

Props and backgrounds

One way to make to make your $5 wallet look like more is to put a set of expensive car keys next to it. Putting your product in an expensive looking setting is one way of making it look like it is worth more. A trip to an arts and craft store will land you lots more props that are useful for product photography. Glass beads, pebbles, crystals, flowers and plants, marbles, paint, art paper and so on can be used as props and textures. I keep a collection of 30 or so pieces of fabric in the studio to use as backgrounds or to add to a set.

The most commonly used background for product photography is black or white Plexiglas. Usually reflective or glossy finishes are used, but satin or matte finish can work as well. Black Plexiglas creates a dramatic surface with no distractions, and the reflection of the product can be as interesting as the product itself. The problem with reflective backgrounds is they reflect your lights as well. Remember this principal: angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. If you bounce a ball at a 45 degree angle off of a wall, it will bounce away from you at an equal 45 degree angle. If you stand in front of a wall, and throw the ball straight at the wall, it will bounce back and hit you in the stomach. The same applies when lighting a product on a shiny background. You cannot place lights directly overhead, or directly opposite the camera behind the product as these locations will result in reflections.

Shooting shiny products

Glass, metal, plastic – many products are made of reflective materials, and your lights, light stands, camera, tripod and face can reflect in the product, making your image useless or require extensive retouching. I have a client that makes a soft drink with printed shiny plastic film covering the bottle. It does not reflect the objects in the studio, just the shape of the lights themselves. To avoid these reflections, I shoot the bottles in a cocoon. Cocoons are tent-like boxes made of white fabric and metal rods. The fold up for storage, but can be lined with background paper and used to reduce reflections in shiny products. I normally put three softboxes above and to the left and right of the cocoon. The cocoon defuses the light, and reduces the number of reflections seen in the product.

Mirror Paper

I like using colored mirror papers, sometimes called Mylar paper, as a background surface for a product that could benefit from a reflection. These papers come in silver, gold, red, blue and green in my art store. These colors can add fun and excitement to a product, but they are a photographer’s challenge. You cannot place a light overhead or behind the product, or the mirror-like surface will create ugly reflections from each of your light sources. If the paper is curled or curved, it will reflect every light facing that curve. The paper scratches with ease, so be careful when you buy them in the store that you are not buying a scratched up piece.


At times I use white cardboard reflectors or small mirrors for still life photography, but the silver Mylar cardboard reflectors are my favorite. You may make your own reflectors from “mirror paper” sold at art supply stores, or purchase them from Light Right, at The advantage of Light Right reflectors is that they have a magnet on the back of the reflector, and a piece of metal on the other flap. This magnet setup allows the photographer to change the angle that the reflective surface picks up the light and bounces it back.

Using light subtraction to create shadows and mystery

Where light is not in a picture is just as important as where it is. The whitest area of a picture is what draws your eye to it first, however, without the contrast of the dark; an all white picture would be boring. Put rich, saturated colors up against dark backgrounds and they pop! There are several useful tools for controlling where the light is not in your pictures.

Softbox grids are cloth square web that attach to the front of the softbox by Velcro. The grid directs the light all in the same direction, rather than being scattered and defused everywhere. If you use the edge of the softbox to light your subject it is called feathering, the effect is even stronger when a softbox grid is in place, lighting one area of the subject softly with a rapid fall off to darkness.
Reflector grids are round metal honeycomb disks that come in 10, 20, 30 and 40 degree ratings. The number reflects the size of the honeycomb holes in the grid, letting out more or less light 10 degrees being narrow and 40 being wide and lighter. These reflector grids allow you to direct the light from your reflector head to a particular product or area of the set to spotlight it, leaving the rest of the set in darkness.

Flags are cloth stretched around metal frames, and are available in black, white, silver, gold and zebra. All the colors except black are for reflecting or softening light, but the black flags are for blocking light. If you want to keep reflections off of a background or product, a flag is often the perfect solution. My flags come from Mathews, the company that makes century light stands used in the movie industry.

Cinefoil by Rosco is a thick black aluminum foil that can be wrapped around light heads or reflectors to create custom openings to put light only where you want it, and keep it from where you don’t. This product is also available in generic versions, but make sure you get thick foil that is heat resistant, or you could melt foil on your light heads.

Light control is the key to good product photography. Putting light where you want it and keeping it off where you don’t is what the lighting tools are built for. Learn to love light, embrace it, control it and make it do what you want. Products are for the most part, boring. With your impressive lighting, backgrounds and props you can make them into magical objects of desire, which will get you paid.

Dennis Ray Davis is a Long Beach, California based photographer specializing in photography for business. Call 213-434-3344

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