Photo studio with paper backdrop and lamps

A simple and inexpensive photo studio will neatly showcase your merchandise and lend a professional sheen to your online business. We use a portable "infinitive cove," or seamless back drop for large items, and a lightbox for smaller items.

MATERIALS LIST:

  1. PVC pipe long enough to stretch between two walls
  2. Wall mounts to receive the pipe 
  3. Roll of white photography paper 
  4. Banquet table 
  5. Spring clamps
  6. Adjustable Lamps with fabric diffusers


For large merchandise, a roll of white photography paper is suspended from PVC pipe like a giant roll of paper towels. Draping it over the front of the table creates a gradual curve, referred to by fancy weirdos as an "infinitive cove," which eliminates seams and background noise, effectively creating an illusion of empty, continuous space. Merchandise looks very good on it and you can tear the paper off and toss it when it inevitable becomes soiled.

Photo paper roll on PVC pipe

We clamp our photo paper to the edges of the banquet table with spring clamps like these in order to prevent slipping and maintain the proper curvature: 

Spring clamps for securing photo paper to banquet table

LIGHTS

Natural light can provide really nice results, but is often impractical especially when shooting indoors or at night (obviously), or in a room where sunlight is inadequate. Three or four incandescent lamps with paper or fabric draped over the fixtures will provide adequate light for most situations. The fabric will soften and diffuse the light, reducing "hot spots" and bright reflections. We found these work lamps at a garage sale. They are fully-adjustable and very handy with clamp mounts attached to the base.

Lamps with fabric diffusers

Position the lamps in such a way as to eliminate shadows. Place one or two lamps behind the merchandise and two lamps in front. Imagine your merchandise inside a rectangular box, then position the lamps on the inside corners pointing toward the center. If light is coming from every direction, shadows have nowhere to hide. Shadows are your enemy. You must seek and destroy shadows. 

Lamp configuration diagram to eliminate shadows

For smaller merchandise, a light box can be constructed from cardboard and non-reflective paper (found at photography and art supply stores). The top of the box should be removed. Stretch fabric over the opening and place a lamp directly above it:

Photo lightbox with lamp and white backdrop

You can position an additional lamp in front of the merchandise if necessary. Items shot inside a light box look very good, but make sure you keep the surfaces clean because little blemishes will show up. Here's an example of a lightbox photo: 

Example photograph of lightbox

Again, the infinitive cove concept eliminates the background noise.

REMOVING THE BACKGROUND IN POST-PRODUCTION

You might want to scrub your background altogether and replace it with a gradient or solid color in post production. This becomes a tedious chore for large quantities of pictures and sometimes looks cheap, but a helpful tool is the "Redefine edge" command from the "Select" menu in Adobe Photoshop. This enables you to feather the outline of your merchandise with complex edges.

How to remove background from merchandise in Adobe Photoshop

If your merchandise is simple and in high contrast to your backdrop, using the paint bucket tool or gradient tool will often fill the background without much work. The magic wand tool and the Quick Selection tool are also very useful, but tedious.

FINE-TUNING

We've tinkered with our photo studio a lot over the years. We originally used a felt backdrop and the results were...mediocre.... falling short of the non-reflective paper, which is what many professionals use. It's the best. We've also constructed dark backdrops and lightboxes which look OK sometimes, but most merchandise looks best on white, including shiny silver things.

Your camera obviously plays a role in the quality of your photos too, but getting the light right is the most important part. We've had good luck with a mid-level DSLR Sony camera in manual exposure mode. Most modern cameras are able to take a good picture in a well-lit environment.

No flash, please! There's no better way to make your merchandise look cheap and your photographs amateurish than with a flash bulb. It's just a mistake in almost every case. Unless your light is terrible and you're shooting very large things, turn the flash off.

Use a tripod. Image stablization features on cameras can't compensate for a shaky hand when shooting fine details. Leave your camera on an easily adjustable tripod or monopod.

When your paper gets dirty, change it. Spare yourself the endless busywork of touching up photos. Merchandise shows up great on photo paper, but so do blemishes.