Product Photography 101: An Interview with William Egbert
Commercial photographer and product designer William Egbert has taught a variety of classes on small product photography at our Chicagoland Oak Brook store, and we recently asked him to talk to us about this specialty field and to share a few tips with our readers.
How did you specialize in product photography?
Specializing in product photography really came from necessity when I started my degree in industrial design and I realized I had to get the idea of a prototype to the client, and what better way to do that then a really cool photo. Then some years later, during rehabilitation from a life-changing accident, I picked up photography again and dove in headfirst. Only after having to redefine myself as a photographer did I figure out that custom constructed and “storied” sets were to be my thing.
What is your “go-to” gear to capture the fine details of a certain item? How does it differ from photographing something like office furniture to fine jewelry?
My gear selection is really all over the map. I use digital medium format when the project calls for it, but I rely mostly on my DSLR gear, both Canon and Nikon. The gear that definitely gets used the most are my tilt-shift lenses, which are the closest thing to a technical view camera.
When I have to photograph a small piece of jewelry with fine details, I bust out the macro lenses. Sharp focus in product photography is critical, so a studio stand and a geared macro slide are great to have. I always shoot in manual focus and DSLR lenses have such a short throw that many times I will use a geared head to achieve tack-sharp focus. You can always dull it down in post-production, but no amount of sharpening will fix an out-of-focus subject.
However, times change, as do clients’ tastes, so a photographer’s kit should always be evolving and staying current.
What was the most challenging assignment that you ever had to shoot? How did you achieve success?
Definitely documenting the restoration of a “one off” 1951 Bentley. This project was a big mess from the moment I set out, and I mean that in a challenging way. I needed to gain access to the vehicle on a regular basis to document the build, but vehicles like this are not built on a schedule, so that meant I had no schedule!
Each time I needed to photograph the next phase, I would have to dust the car, wipe off fingerprints and clean up the mechanic’s area so I could set up my gear. This vehicle is worth a tremendous amount of money, so if anything fell on the car or a light stand scratched it, I would be held personally accountable.
After the finals were assembled, post-processing began. These photos took enormous amounts of time to retouch, as there were so many shadows and reflections from having to shoot in an active restoration facility and the time restraints involved. But I completed the project and turned over a really dynamic set of images that the client will treasure for a long time.
How much editing do you plan for in your schedule for a product photography shoot?
Post-production is really a tricky thing to budget for. I generally budget for a couple of hours knowing that some photos will take a few minutes and others a lot longer, so it usually averages out. But it really depends upon the assignment and the amount of compositing that will need to be done.
My rule of thumb is for each hour spent on set design and photography, I add an hour of post-production. Most all of my work is done in camera with real lighting, so most of the time all I need to do is some dust removal, a bit of dodging and burning and some creative layers to make it pop.
What’s the number one mistake everyone makes when they first start photographing products? How can you avoid this?
I think the biggest mistake is not giving your images a hard enough critique. This can be difficult, but without it there is no progress. I suggest finding the best photographer you know and asking them if they would “honestly” critique your work. Then go home, have a good cry and get back to work using their suggestions.
Remember, Michael Jordan was kicked off of his high school basketball team. So develop thick skin early, don’t make excuses and get out and attend some workshops, watch some videos online and practice your lighting. Being able to control the light will always create the drama you need, even if the project is just on a white seamless.
To see more of William’s commercial photography stop by his portfolio. And, learn more about William’s company Vulture Equipment Works by stopping by their website or browse a great selection of Vulture Equipment products here. If you’re interested in learning more product photography techniques from William and are in the Chicagoland area be sure to register for his small product photography class at our Oak Brook, IL location on August 31, 2013.