DIY product photography lighting setup on a budget

This was one of my first product shots ever from waaay back in time, but I want to put it here because it can inspire new photographers to experiment with very simple equipment and get started on a tight budget. I had just bought my first digital  DSLR – Canon EOS 300D aka Canon Digital Rebel with the kit lens.

I was pretty new to photography at the time. I had a some experience of shooting with analog film, and also shooting a lot with digital compact cameras, but not with a DSLR. So I didn’t shoot RAW at the time, which is absolutely necessary for professional digital photography.  I did many misstakes and lots of learning by doing.  This was not an assignment for a client, I was just experimenting at home in a very small apartment with DIY equipment and a tight budget.

The most experimental aspect of this product lighting setup is that I lit up the bottle with a flashlight from underneath. I put a sheet of acrylic glass (plexi glass) on a card board box. I made a small hole in the box, right under the bottle, so the flashlight could shine right through the stage of acrylic glass, and luminate the bottle. This specific product was frosty matte in its finish, which give a more even glowing effect.

You can use this technique for all kinds of bottles and product photography of other transparent objects. I have later on used it even for beer bottles made of colored glass and it gives a very warm glow.

For more inspiration of great product photography using a flashlight, check out Magnus Svenssons paint with light product photography.

The lighting setup

The background was lit up with a Canon Speedlight 550EX. I might have used a home made snoot for speed lights that I made of black straws and some black card board.

The speed light was placed next to the card board box, facing the backdrop (which was just a wrinkly sheet of paper). I don’t remember if I used a home made DIY snoot on my speed light or if i just had it as is.

The blue color tint is made from the different color temperatures of the flashlight and the speedlight flash. So no gel filter or equivalent is used.

I did also use the cameras built in flash from the front, mainly to trigger the speedlight, and not so much for exposure, because then the bottle would be overexposed and I would lose that glowing effect that I wanted to achieve.

I used a long shutter time to get a balance between the flashlight under the bottle and the speed light on the background.

I didn’t own a proper tripod at the time, so I put the camera on a bunch of books so it got the right height in relation to the height of the cardboard box with the pixie glass. As you can see on the unedited product photo the horizon is severely tilted, and the reflection of the bottle too.

There are so many things that could be improved in this product photography.

I didn’t put the bottle facing straight to the camera so the text is not symmetrically centered. The focus is on the high contrast circular logo, so the text on the front of the bottle got slightly out of focus. Since the whole product is basically back lit, the cap got a bit underexposed. 

Post processing

I have made some major post processing in Photoshop. I did mask in a more even backdrop, made with the gradient tool. I also sharpened the text on the bottle. I made the cap lighter. And finally rotated the photo a bit. Probably I did some more minor editing that I don’t remember, but these are the most obvious and prominent digital enhancements.

DIY product photography lighting diagram
Unedited version of the product photography with flashlight and speedlight

Fashion photography lighting setup with model ShellZ Zhu

This fashion photography lighting setup is from a session on location in Hong Kong, featuring ShellZ Zhu. ShellZ Zhu is a fashion model and actress in China, but she has also been seen i a few Hollywood productions.

Portable lighting setup

I didn’t have the possibility to bring my full arsenal of lighting equipment, so I had to find a lighting setup that was easy to travel with. I brought a hot shoe speedlight flash, a shoot through umbrella, a lightweight light stand and the Elinchrom Skyport radio trigger. The shoot through umbrella was actually a multifunction umbrella with one shoot through layer and one removable silverlayer that you can bounce the light in when needed, but for this photo session I used it only as a shoot through umbrella. This is really a minimalistic fashion photography lighting setup.

It was a bit cloudy that day so the daylight was soft and had no specific direction. I placed the umbrella in front of ShellZ Zhu about 45 degrees to the left. For the photo with the “catwoman stance”, the lighting setup was moved so the lighting direction came a bit closer to the camera direction. Since the models pose i lower, the light gets relatively more from above.

Portrait lighting setup with fashion model ShellZ Zhu.
Model lighting setup for almost full figure model photography with fashion model ShellZ Zhu.
Lighting diagram of portable lighting setup for model photography

Butterfly lighting setup with Denice Andrée

Butterfly lighting setup with Swedish model Denice Andrée

This is a lighting setup by swedish photographer Carl Magnus Swahn with swedish model Denice Andrée. It is actually a classic butterfly lighting setup. I think it gives a very feminin character and I find suitable for classic beauty photos. This specific setup has the soft box with angle closer to the camera lens and less from above, so the characteristic butterfly shadow under the nose is not so prominent.

The equipment for this lighting setup

The photo was shot with a Lastolite Hilite 2,5 x 2,15 m giant soft box as a background. It was lit up by two Elinchrom strobes with a red/pink-ish gel filter to get that pink background. The gradient in the background was later enhanced in Photoshop. It’s difficult to see in the lighting diagram, but the Lastolite Hilite soft box is really huge. It’s like a huge lit up backdrop that easily can cover a full figure modell.

An Elinchrome Ranger (even though it was indoors) with a large soft box above the camera pointing at Denice. There was also a table with a silver metallic rescue blanket on it, used as a giant reflector. That gives a rectangular shape of the reflector and a much nicer catch light in the eyes.

If you zoom in on the photos and take a close look at the catch light in the eyes, you can clearly see the large soft box from above as well as the reflector from underneath.

The bokeh blur was added in photoshop.

Check out Denices Youtube channel here!

The Lastolite Hilite Soft box is much larger than shown in the lighting diagram.
More photos with butterfly lighting setup with the Swedish model Denice Andrée

Fruit splash photography lighting setup

This is a setup from the swedish photographer Carl Magnus Swahn.

– I used a small aquarium filled with water, and then I simply dropped different fruits in it. I dropped the fruit with one hand and triggered the camera via remote with my other hand. It took a while to get the timing right. Between every shot there was water drops on the inside of the aquarium, so I had to wipe it before the next shot to avoid blur.

These photos are from a series of about twenty different fruits dropped in water. So there was a lot of wiping the window of the aquarium. And a lot of retakes when the timing wasn’t perfect.

If I had to do it again today, I would probably done much more in the post editing. Even for those photos I reused parts of the best splashes. The most resonable way of doing this could be taking separat photos of just the water splash and the surface, and then edit in the fruits. Then I would be able to photo all fruits from perfect angles and combine it with perfect photos of splashing water.

I used two Canon EX 550 for this shot. They burn pretty fast, so the water splash can freeze. I had one with a soft box behind the aquarium and one without modifier from the right side. On the opposite side I used a reflector. I shot many different fruits and there was many different strobe settings depending on if the fruits were light, dark, colorful etc.

The splash makes the photo a bit more interesting than a regular still life photo of fruits.
If you look closely, you can recognise parts of the splash pattern that has been reused in the photo editing.
Two Canon EX 550 were used for this shot.

Clam shell lighting setup for beauty shots

Beauty shots using the clam shell lighting setup.

Clam shell lighting diagram. Please notice that the softbox and reflector are NOT vertical as the lighting diagram insinuates.

Beauty lighting setups does not have to be difficult. You can easily get professional looking beauty shots using the clam shell lighting setup.

It’s called clam shell simply because you rig two softboxes as a giant gaping clam shell. It’s hard to see in the lighting diagram because of the levitated view. It would have been better illustrated if the lighting diagram was viewed from the side. Anyway, I think you get the idea.

A common setup is to build you’re clam shell with a larger upper softbox and then a lower smaller stripbox. The upper softbox is about one stop higher than the stripbox. Using two softboxes gives you good control of the light.

Simplified clam shell lighting setup

This specific clamshell lighting is simplified a bit. I used one big softbox from above and then a big horizontal silver reflector underneath. This gives you a little less control of the light, compared to using two softboxes, but the setup is about what you want anyway. The softbox will automatically give more light than the silver reflector. You can vary the distance between the soft box and the rector to control the light a bit. You can also try with a white reflector to find a lighting setup that you like.

Lighting setup using natural light and silver reflector

This is a photo portrait of the swedish professional dancer Karl Dyall. The lighting setup is very simple. The model is standing next to a big window which is about 4 feet from him on the right hand side. On the left hand side stands a silver reflector about 2 feet away. It was cloudy that day, so the light is very soft.  As many of you know is the Canon EF 50/1.8 II bokeh a bit stressful, so the warm light in the background is not as smooth as I would like it.

Natural light photography

When you practice natural light photography, keep in mind that the constant light from a silver reflector can be annoying for the model if the light is too intense. It makes it difficult for the model to keep a certain facial expression, and the whole workflow for the session will be affected.

If the light from the window would have been more intense that day, or if it had been an outdoor session a sunny day, I would probably have used a white reflector instead of a silver reflector.

Portrait lighting diagram with natural light and reflector

Studio lighting setup for product photography

This is a simple yet very useful lighting setup with only two hot shoe flashes (canon 580 ex speedlite), two homemade light modifiers and a dark glossy board.

I use one honeycomb snoot on the backdrop to get more control of the light. That flash i placed under the board. I use one homemade horizontal strip softbox as a main light. That flash is mounted on my camera.

For this session I wanted a dark exclusive look n feel that harmonizes with the delicious dark coffee tones, so I used a brown backdrop and a black glossy board to put the cups on. Even though the board is dark, it will still reflect plenty of light from the background

Low budget lighting setup

First time I used this lighting setup was on an assignment when I shot some food and drinks for a restaurant i Stockholm and needed to keep the budget down.

I have reused this lighting setup many times. These specific photos is from a session when I shot some stock images for istock. Check out that lightbox.

It’s difficult to give a good ratio between the two strobes, since I have used this lighting setup on many different colored backdrops. My advice is simply to try what’s best for your specific session.

Good luck with the shooting!

Photographer Carl Swahn

Contributing photographer Carl Swahn

A few questions answered by photographer Carl Swahn.

Where are you from?

– “I’m from Stockholm, Sweden.”

How old are you?

– “I’m 35.”

How long have you’ve been into photography?

– “I bought my first black and white darkroom in 1993, that’s when I got into it for the real. I developed pictures day and night. The next big step was when I bought my first DSLR, a Canon EOS 300D (kiss?).”

Which photographic genres do you like best?

– “I work across many different genres, fashion, advertising, product, stockimages and more, but I like to take photos of people in general.”

What is your dream assignment?

– “Since I most of all like to take photos of people I would rather think of a dream session with a person, than a dream assignment. I would really like a photo session with Charlize Theron who is not just extremely fotogenique, but also a great actress. I’ve understood that she had a tough background and has been working really hard to achieve all her well deserved success. That’s inspiring, and I like working with people that inspires me.”

Your favorite website?

– “Smashing magazine is very inspiring, even though it’s not specifically about photography.”

What other photographers do you like?

– “I like photographers that go their own way and take photos with heavy impact. Larry Clark and Terry Richardsson are such photographers and I really love what they do. Since this is a blog about lighting setups I feel that I must mention Jill Greenberg and David La Chapelle even if that might be a bit too predictable.”

Your favorite lighting setup?

– “Even though I’m very interested in lighting setups, I have no specific favorite. But I like shooting on location so I prefer lighting setups that doesn’t require much lighting equipment.”

Favorite photo accessory?

– “That must be my Elinchrom Skyport, a radio trigger for my strobes. It’s really great!”

Let’s have a look at some of your photos

Here’s my blog in Swedish: Carl Magnus Swahn

or take a look at my istock portfolio.