A 6-Step Guide to Natural Lighting for DIY Product Photography

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Natural lighting can either be your best friend or worst enemy in a product photography shoot. Nail it, and the results will speak for themselves. Get it wrong, and no amount of editing can save a photo from poor lighting.

Lighting and camera settings determine the outcome of the entire shoot before it’s even started, so a solid understanding of the basics of lighting will help you achieve amazing product photos that you can use throughout your website and marketing efforts.

For most merchants, it’s unlikely you’ll have access to a photography studio and all of the equipment needed to shoot professional product photos. So in this post, we’re going to look at how you can master DIY natural lighting, and create beautiful photos using either a smartphone or professional-grade camera.

1. Find the right lighting conditions

The most crucial part of every photography setup is the lighting, and it’s also the hardest to get right.

There really is no quick fix, or one size fits all solution. Different products will require different lighting, and it’s up to you to figure out what works best for your products. Once you get a handle on the basics, it’ll be a case of trial and error until you find the perfect formula. We’re going to focus specifically on natural lighting.

Natural lighting through a window is the ideal solution for a few reasons. First and foremost, everyone has access to a window. Second, natural lighting coming through a window has a single direction. This generates natural shadows, creating a 3D effect by adding texture to your product, bringing it to life.

When shooting next to a window, you want to shoot when the day is brightest. Take a look at the weather. Is it a full sunny day or is it an overcast day? To achieve the look you’re going for, full sunlight might not be what you need. This is where practice, and figuring out what look you prefer comes into play. As you can see below, shooting with natural lighting can make quite a difference in the highlights and shadows of your photo.

2. Harness natural lighting

Great natural lighting is essential to achieving perfectly defined images. By controlling the shadows created from natural light, you can add an element of interest to your product photos.

But one of the most predictable things about mother nature is that it’s unpredictable, and so natural lighting is too, often changing from one minute to the next. You need to be prepared for every eventuality.

As the sun changes and moves throughout the day, it affects the way the natural light shines through the window. Finding the best light to shoot your product photos can be a challenge at the best of times. Keep an eye on how the light changes throughout the day to figure out when the sweet spot is for that particular location.

There are three terms you should know when illuminating your subject with natural lighting:

  • Front-lit is when indirect natural light hits a product head-on.
  • Backlit is when it hits your subject from behind.
  • Side-lit is when the light comes from either side of the product.

Whatever angle of lighting you prefer, it’s important to note that each one casts a shadow on the opposite side.

To get started using natural light, place a table or chair next to a large window and prop a sweep (a large white sheet) against the wall. This will provide just the right combination of good lighting and soft shadows. The trick is to avoid direct sunlight as it will result in dark, unsightly shadows.

If the sun is too strong, you don’t need to completely scrap a photo shoot. Instead, hold a thin white sheet, known as a diffuser, against the window to diffuse and soften the light to create a less harsh effect. Avoid hard light at all costs as it often makes colors look more saturated, and will highlight even the most minuscule flaw not visible to the naked eye.

How to use a reflector to fill in shadows

If the sun suddenly decides to hide behind the clouds, causing the level of natural light to drop, make sure you have a reflector on hand to bounce and intensify light to fill shadows. A reflector can be a white foam board or any white screen. You can pick up white foam boards from just about any craft store or pick up a reflector on Amazon.

Without enough natural light, the shadows from the creases on this jacket stand out.

If you’re using a reflector for the first time, you can control the amount of natural light that bounces back by moving your reflector either further away or closer to your product. Using a white surface helps reflect natural light from the sun back onto the product.

With a reflector, the creases become less prominent as the shadows are filled in by natural light.

Watch where the light is coming from, and bounce the light in the opposite direction. You should shoot directly next to your light source at a 90-degree angle, then reflect that light back onto the subject. This will give your image as much light as possible while also eliminating as much shadow as possible.

For my fashion photography model shots, I always keep the window to the right and my reflector to the left. This helps bounce the light to places where there was little to no light, giving a much softer finish to the photo.

Don’t be afraid to play with the angle of the reflector to find the right balance between shadows and lighting. When shooting a backlit product, try placing the reflector in front of the product so the natural light can bounce back onto it.

Side-lit products can produce particularly harsh shadows, so make sure you have your trusty reflector on hand, allowing the light to bounce back on the shadows and soften them.

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