As a photographer, I have come to find ways to get certain looks and ideas needed for shots. I learned a lot of post production tricks and shortcuts to put the finishing touches on a photo. As a photographer, the hardest thing to do for another photographer is give professional photography advice that they can use.
Every Photographer has been in your shoes right now. You are searching the internet to figure out how to take your love of a photography to a professional level. That is admirable, but daunting, as you start looking over what other professional photographers have put together. It’s making your bank account run and hide.
What most photographers don’t know is how to get to the top without breaking the bank. What I want to lay out for you is simple and clear. I am not going to throw out terms of technical jargon to confuse you or bore you. You don’t have to spend four or five figures on gear, to produce the shots you want to achieve.
You might have a smartphone, a fancy DSLR, Mirrorless, or maybe even a medium format behemoth. What is more important than any brand or gear is you. You’re the photographer.
I don’t encourage showing up to a photoshoot with just your phone, you can still take professional shots with one. I have a mantra about our smartphones, “The best camera you will ever have, is the one you have with you. “. You have it, so why not use it.
There are a lot of people out in the world walking around with $1k smartphones in their pocket. They have great sensors, great lenses, and amazingly good ability to capture just about anything. Don’t be afraid to use your phone.
With most smartphones today have sensors that can take decent low light photos, great portraits, and stunning landscapes. All with the functionality to edit the photos right in your phone. When I mention that to people, they have one of two reactions, “I don’t know how to use it” or “I forgot that my mobile social media machine also is a powerful camera”.
If you approach your shot like you would with a regular camera, you’re going to get results as you would with a regular camera. Paying attention to things like lighting, angle, and scene will make what would just be a boring vacation photo of your significant other turn into a shot that shows emotion and has meaning.
Let’s face it, without light there are no photographs. So, along with the camera, lights are super important for creating your scene. Whether you’re doing product photography, headshots, portraits, architectural, or even landscape photography, one thing is a constant; light.
Throw the sun out, I already mentioned that it’s one of the best lights out there. However, when you don’t have the sun or you want to create something more moody or colorful, you might be scratching your head. Especially when you see people showcasing these wonderful shots of beautifully lit faces, scenes, or even shiny reflective objects. You know it’s lit, but you can’t see that the light is there.
This is another area of oversaturation and confusion. There are a million light choices, from strobe studio flashes with giant 48 inch beauty dishes to small remote triggered flashes to constant on bar, ring or bulb lights. Where do you even begin with all of that?
Learning how to use the light you have, will prepare you for getting the lights in the future. With a simple lamp, that has a warm 40w LED bulb equivalent in it, with a piece of printer paper over it (be careful, depending on the lamp, this can be a fire hazard, use your best judgement), you now have a diffused warm glowing light that creates soft shadows over your face.
It’s learning the basics with what you have that can lead you to explore the larger and more powerful (also, more expensive) lights. It will also help you choose the right professional light when it comes to the day that you finally do so.
My favorite setup, for cheap and effective headshot photography literally comes from a 15 dollar bendy LED lamp, a small piece of parchment paper, and a little cooperation from your model. With that, you can light, diffuse, and pose for the perfectly lit headshot and not spend more than $20 on props and lighting to get you there.
The possibilities are endless.
The idea of a reflector is simple enough, you’ll see these crews of people out with giant disks of white, silver, or gold. The frustrated photographer yelling at his assistants to get the angle right. With it flapping in the breeze. Or, maybe you’ve walked by a photography studio, and saw a giant rectangle of white reflective fabric, with lights pointing at it, to get something to cascade across the subject they are working with.
You start to make note of all these things, seeing how it gets the light to bounce and highlight the other side of the object without directly lighting it. Then you start pricing it out.
“They had a full frame reflector, hmm that was $70 and that studio hjad that 6 foot panel diffuser and multiple 3 foot reflectors all around, I can’t afford this, these are hundreds of dollars to play around with light.”
You don’t need them. Stop wasting your money until you are at a point where the money is a necessity to buy these big fancy toys.
The best reflectors you will ever use for product, headshot and portrait shot work.
Are you ready for this?
Go to a dollar store, buy 2… 24×36 ¼ inch foam boards. Buy 2 rolls of Tin Foil. Buy 1 pack of tape.
You have spent $5.
Cover the one side in tinfoil and tape it down and repeat that on the second one as well. You now own 2 2ft x 3ft reflectors and saved yourself roughly $120.
You can have a friend hold them to get the right light bounce, or you can use clamps and basic household items, like chairs, to set them up around your subject. If you break them or they get damaged from a lot of use, go out and get more supplies from the dollar store.
And the results speak for themselves:
Here is a fun fact, those $65 – $100 reflectors that seem super fancy. Will degrade just as easily from the same wear and tear.
Make Products Pop
You’ve seen the photos in magazines, the shots in high end stores, and even on brand instagram pages. You see the product, seemingly floating or just kissing a sheer plane of glass among either an infinite, colored, or high contrast background.
That was a look I was always dying to get and when I had priced out a sheet of glass large enough to cover a 5 foot table, I was already way over the budget I wanted to be on the shoot. I won’t lie, I tried a few different ways to get this look. Maybe you have too.
Now, these won’t be tips, per se, though I will go over the best solution for the best budget. I have tried so many strange items to get that glass look.
The short list;
An Actual Glass Pane – This was something I luckily had in storage, it was about 10 inches by 8 inches. This might have been great for really small products, but there were scratches in it and I will be honest, unless you’re shooting something the size of a quarter, or smaller, you will want a larger surface. Also, glass is sharp, and if you’re clumsy like I am, you will cut yourself eventually.
An iPad – I know what you’re thinking. “You’re really using a $300 tablet to do product photography?” Yes, as I did with the pane of glass, I have placed the ipad on the table, with the background setup on a smaller scale. I cropped in with a macro lens and after some work in photoshop to clear up some of the bezel of the iPad, I had the shot needed. If you have one and are doing a small scale shoot (once again, little tiny earrings or any miniature items smaller than a quarter)
Cellophane – Yes, I tried it. No, it didn’t work.
Cheap Plexiglass – I bought some from a hobby store, it was small, cheap, and looked like crap on camera. There was no amount of cleaning that could get the haze from the plastic. Hard pass on this as well.
Then, one day at the home improvement store looking for a piece of plywood for a project, I walked by a section that caught my eye. It was only about an 8 foot wide section that is easy to miss.
It seemed so simple, I was a bit worried, because these were giant 24 inch by 36 inch sheets. I know plain glass sheets were a few dollars cheaper, but weighed a lot more and more importantly, could easily break because they were thin. The same sized acrylic sheet was 1/8th an inch thick to the glass that was 1/20th of an inch thick. The acrylic was lighter, more manageable to move and looked crystal clear.
I had gotten it home, covered my table with a black cloth, put up a white backdrop, lit it, and then was floored by the results. I use it in many product shoots I do.
Cleaning it was easy, putting glass pieces on it to shoot didn’t scuff it or scratch it, and the output was perfect.
In the end
Advice doesn’t have to be the usual “What settings should I use when the lights are low?” or “Should I get the 85mm or 50mm prime lens” all the time. It can be “How do I make things look hyper professional without going bankrupt. This is what I love figuring out for myself and others.
What are some of your favorite tips to help not break the bank?
Normally I would include affiliate links to things to buy for these blogs, but today, it’s really simple. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me on here, social media, or directly.