3 Exercises To Learn How To Better Light Your Handmade Products

One of the areas many makers struggle with the most in product photography is lighting.

I get it. I had a hard time with it too!

When I was running my Etsy shop and taking my product photos, I never thought much about light. I thought whatever light I had was fine and I’d get a good photo. But then I’d wonder why my photos weren’t improving over time or why they didn’t look professional like the photos other Etsy sellers had. I thought it was magic or something. What was I doing wrong?

But little did I know the lighting made the biggest impact on my product photos. This seemed like a new concept to me especially because I was selling photo products in my shop. But product photography is different than photographing a landscape or pretty flower. And it comes with a steep learning curve.

Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to understand how light worked. By not understanding how light can change the way a product looks in a photo, I wasn’t making progress in improving my product photos. I just kept creating the same old meh product photos. 

Lighting is the #1 thing you need to nail down when it comes to your product photos because lighting can make your product look beautiful, or, er, not so beautiful. So often I come across listings online for products that have unflattering lighting. I always wish I could have told the seller if they just moved their light source, or repositioned their product, their product would look so much better!! 

Through these simple exercises, you’ll better understand how the light changes in different areas of your home (or wherever you photograph your products) and how the position of light can change the way your product look and feels.

So let’s dive in!

What direction are your windows facing? 

First off, it’s good to know what direction your windows are facing in relation to the sun.

The sun rises in the east and the sun sets in the west. For instance, in my home, I have north, east, and south-facing windows. 

I get really beautiful indirect light throughout the day in the living and dining room because it faces north. For my east-facing windows, I get beautiful streams of light on sunny days when I’m making breakfast in the morning. And throughout the day, my bathroom gets south-facing light throughout the day.

If you’re unsure what direction your windows face, you can always download a compass app on your phone that will help you out.

Now let’s dive into these fun lighting exercises!

1. Observing light in your house 

Pick a day this week where you’re going to observe the light in your house. 

When you get up for the day, open up the curtains and blinds to any windows in your home. Each hour of the day, take a minute to see how the light looks in each space and write down some notes. Bonus points if you take a photo of each space. This might make for great reference later on.

What kind of notes should you write down? Here are a few questions you can answer:

  • Is the sun shining directly through the window?
  • Are there any shadows?
  • Are the shadows long or short?
  • Are the shadows soft or nonexistent? 
  • Is the light quality bright?
  • Is the light quality dark?
  • Is the sun high in the sky or is it low in the sky?
  • What’s the weather like? Bright sunny day? Overcast? Cloudy/rainy? Snowy?

Do this throughout the day until the sun goes down and look back at your notes and see what you came up with. 

Obviously, the results will vary depending on the weather and the time of the year, but it’s a great experiment to do to better understand how light changes throughout the day in your home. 

You may discover a few spots that work for even lighting for photos, but also great spots for more dramatic photos. 

2. Observing light outside 

Another exercise you can do is observe how the light changes throughout the day outside.

Find a spot you can observe throughout the day like your backyard or front yard.

Follow the steps in the previous exercise and make note of how the light changes throughout the day. Make note of how the lighting changes too under any trees or buildings because that can change too.

This is a great experiment to do especially if you prefer to photographing your products outside.

3. How light changes the way an object looks

Get an object that’s small and easy to move around like a ball or even a bottle. Also, get a flashlight or a small light that’s easy to move around too. If you’re using a digital camera, you can use the flashlight on your phone as the light source. But if you’re using your phone as your camera, you’ll want to use another light source that’s easy to move.

It’s easiest to do this exercise indoors since you can control and move the light easily. Don’t do this exercise in a space where the sun is hitting your object or with indoor lights on.

You’re going to set up your camera (or phone) facing your object, preferably on a stable surface or with a tripod so your camera doesn’t move. If you don’t have this, do your best to photograph your object from the same angle/perspective. If you’re using a digital camera to take photos, to make this easy, set it on auto mode.

Next, you’re going to take a photo of your object (only moving your light source) with the light in the following directions:

  • Directly above your object
  • Below your object
  • To the left of your object
  • To the right of your object
  • Behind your object
  • In front of your object

Feel free to move your light into other directions to take more photos. 

Now look back at your photos. How does the object’s appearance change in relation to where the light is hitting the object? Are there certain angles that make the object look attractive vs not attractive? 

If you're using artificial light, this a great way to understand what other positions you might want to experiment with since you can easily move your light source.

If you're using the sun as your light source, you can combine this with information you gathered in the previous 2 exercises to find the right time of day to photograph your products.

Hopefully, with these exercises, you’ll end up with several spots in your home to photograph your products (likely during different times of the day) and how to position your product in relation to your light source to create a flattering product photo.

About the author

Imelda Jimenez-LaMar is a product photography coach and former Etsy seller, who said goodbye to her corporate job to create a business teaching photography. She is on a mission to demystify product photography for makers who want to create product photos that sell their handmade products online and grow their handmade business.

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