Whether you take photographs of products for fun, for some money on the side, or as your primary income, there is a common mistake that many photographers make that is holding them back.
Photographing products is for all intents and purposes a right of passage for most photographers. Whether you're learning how to light a glass bottle with those framing white catchlights or practicing how to beautifully capture wedding rings, most photographers will attempt product photography at one point or another. It's a useful genre for learning about various aspects of photography and damned enjoyable too. However, if you want to really start mastering the craft, I would suggest in addition to learning techniques with your camera and lighting, going one step further than that: learn why people love that product.
Taking a picture of a product for the first time usually comes with one objective: take a nice picture of this item. Professional product photography done in a commercial capacity shares that objective, but the criteria shift. This shift is not well documented, and I believe it's where most photographers will fall short. In this article, I will use my story to exemplify a problem I know persists in many other areas of product photography, from jewelry to food, in the hope you can take an extra step further than other photographers.
Seeing the Product Through an Expert's Eye
I've always had a love for watches since I was buying fake Tag Heuers from markets in Spain as a child. Interestingly, I wasn't obsessed with the most expensive watches as it goes — though I of course liked them — but rather, I liked the form of watches in general. These days, for the many uninitiated, that sort of enjoyment of watches is typically found in microbrand enthusiasts. As I've grown older, I have of course learned to love the horology side and impressive complications, but the child who just liked the designs still persists.
Not long after I'd bought my first camera, I bought my girlfriend a watch for her birthday present. I was already dabbling in macro photography as that's why I bought a camera in the first place, so I gleefully realized I ought to try to combine the two. I remember being reasonably happy with the shots I created, which looking back are utterly atrocious, and I started taking more shots of watches. Some years later, I landed my first job photographing watches for a brand, and someway into that first job, I learned a valuable lesson: I'm not looking at the watches through an expert's eye. I will give you an early example of how that caused me to make a mistake.
There's a lot I got right with this image. Firstly, the choice of wardrobe to complement the dial color is great. The lighting isn't too bad either. However, there are mistakes that I made because I wasn't looking at the images through the eyes of someone who knows about watches and how they ought to be presented. I had shot at 10:10 because that was something I could Google (you generally shoot at this time to avoid the hands clipped with the brand's logo), but there were elements I couldn't search.
The first I've highlighted: the strap. Perhaps it's obvious now that I've put a glowing white arrow pointing towards it, but I remember that I didn't even notice the strap poking out: the client (whom I had and have a great relationship with) immediately called it out. I fixed it, and the shot went live. However, with years of commercial photography for many watch brands now under my belt, I can spot other issues. One that bothers me now is just how big the catchlight is on the watch's face. This can be a good way to give a timepiece a sense of depth and show the curved glass, but this is too much. However, there's a bigger problem — much bigger in fact — that's so subtle, most would miss it: the crown.
Of course, you have to set the watch to 10:10 (or whatever time is best for that particular watch), and shooting doesn't always happen immediately, so you don't want the hands moving, so you pull the crown out. However, if you can't push it back in for the shot, then you need to Photoshop it back flush with the case. High-end clients would and do immediately notice such trivial mistakes, and it betrays your work. Technically brilliant photography can still be rejected (believe me, I've had it happen more than once) because a design element of your subject hasn't been properly captured.
How Can You See Through an Expert's Eyes?
The simple answer is, you can't. You will gradually become an expert in whichever product you want to regularly photograph, but that takes time. What you can do, however, is outsource and research. Researching ought to be an in-depth study of the highest quality images for the best products in that sector. What did the photographer highlight? How did they present the product? How did they light it? Get as knee-deep in the nitty-gritty as you can. In most cases, however, I suspect you won't notice enough of the minutiae to preemptively correct it, which is why I recommend outsourcing.
If you're already working with a brand or close to doing so, speak to the designer of the product if possible and ask about the details they want special attention paid to. Ask the marketing person what their favorite aspects of the products are. You can even take test images and show the brand to ask if there's anything they would change.
If you're building your portfolio or learning, I recommend joining collectors groups and forums for whatever product you're going to photograph. Whether it's high-end handbags or Henry Hoovers (yes, I know, I just liked the alliteration), there will be forums and Facebook groups filled with collectors and connoisseurs who will accidentally teach you the details experts love that you missed and can give you feedback if needed. Do not underestimate how powerful these resources can be.
The Rewards Aren't Just Better Images
The primary aim, I suppose, is to improve your product photography with each subject you want to shoot. However, I think it's generally unknown by most who don't photograph products as part of their business just how important it can be. I have had multiple clients — great, desirable clients creating brilliant products — come to me because the product photographers they have hired didn't know how to capture their product. They are usually jacks of all trades and didn't know the nuances of this particular product. I doubt the photographers would have been hired if they weren't excellent photographers, as some of these brands settle for nothing less than the best of everything, so the problem wasn't technical ability, it was nuance.
There have been two occasions this has happened to me. Once, I went into their showroom, and using the barebones kit, I showed them how to overcome the problem they were having when capturing their product and why people were falling short, and I got the job. The second, I just told them how passionate I am about watches and explained how I would capture their product, and I've worked with them many times since. I don't believe for a second that I am just a better photographer than the photographers who preceded me. It might be true, but I wouldn't bank on it. What I would bank on is that I spent more time learning about the products I photograph and how I can squeeze every iota of justice for them out of each shot I take.