The saying “A picture is worth a thousands words” could not be more true when it comes to photographing for-sale furniture pieces. Or, in this case “A picture is worth a thousand dollars” may be more fitting since you want your customer to feel that they know the piece they are about to purchase.
Since a lot of customers cannot come see it in person they are trusting that what’s on their computer screen is close to exactly what they will receive. I cannot stress how important it is that you represent your piece correctly!
Now, there is A LOT of different areas that could be covered here on camera settings from proper exposure, aperture, and correct white balance. Since I’ve only been playing around with my DSLR for a few years and still have A LOT to learn I’ll just stick with telling you about the lighting setup that works best for me. I may do a post in the future on the settings I most often use on my Canon Rebel T3i, so let me know if that’s something ya’ll are interested in!
I want to start off by apologizing to any professional photographer’s that may stumble upon this post as they
may will cringe at a lot of what I say, but this is what I have found that works for me and I started this blog in order to help other’s like myself out! So please understand I in no way claim to be a professional and highly recommend that you do your own research to figure out what will work best for you.
Let’s start with some of the basics:
- Types of lighting
- Lighting mounts
- Placement of the light
- Different angles of shot
Types of Lighting:
There is SO much information out there and a lot of it is super helpful for portrait shots and small objects but I couldn’t find much on shooting large inanimate objects like furniture. What I did find was really helpful in picking out my setup and through a lot of trial and error I found the type of bulb that works best for me…Fluorescent Daylight.
The daylight bulbs have lasted me almost a year with no burn out and the flicker is minimal to none. The lights are SUPER bright and allow me to do my shooting in the evening and late into the night. I’m one of those people who doesn’t seem to have inspiration strike until around 7pm and then I’m up until 3-4am working on a project, does that happen to anyone else?
If you want to start out with an on-camera light then I recommend getting a decent slave flash. This just means that the flash can be mounted on the top (shoe) or placed throughout the room and controlled by your camera.
These can be found for under $50- don’t think that you have to buy the name brand flash to work with you camera, there are plenty of options out there for lens, flash, and camera accessories that work perfectly fine! This speed light flash costs less than $40!
The Rebel T3i comes with built-in wireless control for flash, but if your camera doesn’t have that feature you can buy cheap connectors that plug into the camera and control the flash.
I have yet to purchase a slave flash but it’s on the top of my list! There are a lot of photography blogs and forums that say the first piece of lighting you should buy is a flash, but my needs were more about lighting the sides and top of large furniture pieces in the dark corners of my garage late at night vs direct flash or bounce.
The way you can mount and use these bulbs are endless from DIY to mass-produced products. The most common mounting for studio lights are; Umbrella & Soft box. I wasn’t sure which would work best for me but I found myself more drawn to the soft box since I could aim them into better positions to fit my needs.
My understanding is that umbrella’s defuse the lighting around the room instead of giving you directional lighting. Since I don’t want to light up the entire garage, just my furniture piece I went with soft boxes.
So after a lot of research and anxiety at the prices (without even knowing if it was really what I needed)- off to eBay I went to get a cheap set. Let’s just say this didn’t go as well as planned.
I wanted to be sure that my light housing was ceramic and not plastic so that it wouldn’t melt while I was using it for extended periods.
I also wanted to be sure that the stands were made of a high quality material and could withstand years of movement, weight, and overall abuse.
The other thing that isn’t as important but was something I wanted if possible is the ability to control the various bulbs individually. This helps with shooting different size items, decreases the heat by using less bulbs when possible, as well as other uses outside of furniture photography. The lightbulb housing comes with switches on the back that allow you to turn each bulb on/off individually.
The size of your soft box housing is important, you want to be sure that it’s large enough to do the job while also housing the amount of bulbs you place in it safely without melting. You can buy light housing’s that hold as many bulbs as you’d like. Just keep in mind that they do create heat unlike LED and Halogen so the more bulbs you’re putting in that small area the more careful you need to be.
I began by purchasing a 4-bulb soft box kit. I did a happy dance the day they arrived and instantly set about getting them setup for photography that had been staking up. Needless to say they ended up being NOTHING like the photos and description and were instead some cheap plastic pieces made in china with a lot of the stuff missing.
After getting that cleared up with eBay I then tried again with a more reputable seller that included warranty. I decided this time I would pay more and go with a 5 bulb set.
I had slightly better luck this time but once again had issues! The ceramic bulb housing was cracked on both heads & the internal shade covers were missing. I worked out a partial refund with the seller due to my frustration and just wanting to be done with all of this at the time. I’m a bit impatient!
Looking back I now wish I had originally gone with a more reputable site and purchased a higher quality set to begin with…you get what you pay for!
So, now I’ve got a total of 4 light boxes; 2 of them have 4 light bulbs and the other have 5 bulbs. They are both 24″ x 24″ light boxes so they are large enough to hold the bulbs while not overheating. You wouldn’t want to go much smaller than this since the larger the surface area you need to cover the more light you need.
Placement of the Lights:
There is a learning curve to getting the placement of studio lighting correct. This is part of the reason when you go to have professional photos taken they have light reading meters, and assistants to move the lights around. I’m not lucky enough to have any of that so I just read as much as I could on the good ol’ fashioned web.
After a lot of trial and error I found that the most important steps are; to make sure that you have the lights at and angle & across for one another. So if you are trying to light a nightstand placed in front of your backdrop and your holding the camera in front of the piece…. Your soft boxes should be on either side of you facing at an angle toward the corners of the nightstand. This helps remove light the front & sides & top without any shadows and also eliminates the need for any direct flash from your camera (you don’t want to use this if at all possible).
Alex Koloskov has an amazing blog on Digital Photography School that is helpful in understanding this and other elements to proper lighting. His example is for a cell phone but the same principles apply to any object. I cannot recommend it enough!
They lighting almost cancels itself out while making it look natural. If you only have one soft box at an angle your going to have dark shadows across the opposite side your piece.
The size of the boxes also helps to make sure that the light is dispersed across the top and the sides. You can adjust the angle of the box to tilt up, down, sideways, etc. This will vary by piece so just use your best judgment and play around with it when you find shadows or aren’t happy with how it’s turning out.
If you have more than 2 boxes its nice to add one hanging over the top and out of the frame of the shot. This will require a boom that allows you to mount it above but I think it more than pays for itself in your first couple sales!
Different Angles of Shot
When shooting furniture it’s important that your customer is able to inspect each element of the piece. It helps cut down on questions, and also makes sure that they are more than happy with the final result.
This means that you cannot just take one shot head on and call it good. You want at least a shot of the top, sides, any drawers, and details.
The details are what makes a piece special and for me what I spend the most time on with each item. Shooting these can be difficult but that goes into camera settings more than anything. If you have proper lighting it’s easier to get shots of the texture, stencils, distressing, or any other details you created.
Lets say for example that you have beautiful carved feet on a buffet table that you have distressed and glazed. The full on shots are not going to show this detail and it’s something most people would fall in love with. Get up close and personal and take a side, front, and above shot. You can always choose not to use them but you’ll be cussing if you go through the photos and find that you didn’t get it when you were all setup to go.
Hardware is another example of this since it’s unique to almost every piece and something most people will be touching on a daily basis. Get up there and include some shots of the handles and drawer pulls!
This is a topic that could take up an entire blog post since there are a lot of different aspects to it. For now, I’ll just say this–Use some of these simple design rules and your photo is more likely to cause the emotional reaction from buyers! Reeves from the Weathered Door has written a great article on staging furniture over on her blog, you can check it out here.
- Rule of 3: Group items in odd number’s (such as 3)- this is easier on the eye and is a long time rule used by interior staging. We often call these ‘Vignettes’! Example: Starting out with a vase of flowers, placed next to the stack of books with a statue on top & a candle in front of the books that is the group of 3 we are looking for!
Our eyes read a stack of items as a single continuous item, so when items are placed on top of one another they count as 1 item (such as books with a statue on top= 1 item).
This is a great info graphic by Jackie at School of Decorating!
- Stagger the height: When staging, we don’t want all of our items to be the same height. It draws the eyes across the piece if the items go from tall, medium, to short. Using our example from above you can see this take shape (pun intended):
(Tall Item)–Placing the tall vase of flowers on the outer edge + (Medium Item(s)) the stack of books and statue next to it, and (Short Item) the candle in front.
- Use the law of Triangles: When decorating a bookshelf it’s easiest if you try to draw the eyes around in a triangular motion by placing items with similar coloring or texture in a triangle form. Example: White decorative stoneware plate across the top middle shelf, White ceramic candles on the next level down and to the right, and finally some white books another level down and on the left. You can use the law of triangles when creating vignettes as well- instead of stacking your Tall, Medium, and Short items in a row–try grouping them into a triangle so they seem to fit together.
- Play around until it feels right: Sometimes all the pieces look like they should work but something is just off. Trust your gut! If the flowers or vase seem too tall for the group, switch it out for a lantern or shorter greenery. If the colors seem to clash with the piece, find more muted items. The same goes for the style & period of the staging items–when using a vintage frame & roman bust statue on mid century modern furniture it will look all wrong in most cases. Keep in mind that if it feels wrong to you, it probably does to the potential buyers as well. Even the most seasoned interior decorators carry boxes full of items to a shoot because it takes some playing around to find the perfect fit!
Lighting can make or break a sale just as fast as staging! To set yourself apart from the competition and create professional looking photos of each piece it’s important that your lighting be great!
This setup shouldn’t cost you more than $100 (assuming you already own a camera), and even if you don’t have a DSLR this will definitely help those iPhone camera photos turn out better. I do recommend that you get a DSLR if your making a business out of this, the phone camera’s just don’t compete. You can get an older model DSLR on eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook sale groups for under $300 now, it will be one of the best investments you can make for your blog and company!