Whenever a creative professional signs on to a new project, there must be a conversation with the client about direction. There are an infinite number of questions, topics, and ideas that can be discussed at this point—a designer may want to talk layout, while a photographer will want to talk lighting—but it’s important that, whatever the medium or the task, both parties discuss a direction, create a plan, and go into the production phase feeling comfortable with what’s expected of them.
In product photography, one of those topics is styling. On some projects, a photographer will be working alongside an art director or stylist—that makes the photographer’s job a lot easier. But if they’re working alone, the photographer must work with the client to reach a conclusion about how the final work should look.
Finding that style takes time, trial and error, and an understanding of the brand ethos. Successful brands use visuals intelligently to reflect their values, so before deciding on a visual style, a brand needs to clearly define their values and their target audience—otherwise, the visuals might look “cool,” but they won’t resonate with the audience or what the company offers. Consistency is also important; while it’s acceptable to try a variety of styles to find one that works, a cohesive style is the common thread that ties the the work together and promotes brand awareness.
The takeaway: for the creative professional, developing a style—not a personal style, but one that fits the brand—is essential.
Let’s take a look at product photography we created for Black Creek Mercantile & Trading Co. Black Creek is a wonderful shop (right in our neighborhood!) run by woodworker and artist Joshua Vogel and head of business Kelly Zaneto. Their work has appeared in publications like Elle, Design*Sponge, and The New York Times, and their handmade products are available in boutique shops around the world. Josh is also the author of The Artful Wooden Spoon, published by Chronicle Books; the book stands as an homage to Josh’s most loved and discussed work—his hand-carved spoon collection.
Steps to styling for product photography
Get acquainted with the current style
In my first meeting at Black Creek, I noticed the work was arranged with plenty of negative space, the tools were organized, and things were kept in small collections everywhere. The general aesthetic reminded me of a cross between the MoMA and Things Organized Neatly. This showed me that their style was detailed and orderly, but still organic.
Spend time with the work.
When the products were introduced to me, I made sure to take an additional five minutes after the discussion ended to lay down on the sawdust-covered floor and look at the piece from a different perspective. If part of the creative profession is to be visual, go ahead and be visual!
Clients work closely with their products, and a creative professional becomes a valuable team asset when they gather information. What types of materials are used in the products, and why? In what setting would the product typically be used? What’s the function of the product, and how can we visually translate that in a product photo? What’s unique about this product (i.e. how is this spoon different from any other spoon on the market)? Will it be used alongside other products? What’s the design of the product page on the website or other place where these photos might get published? All of the client’s responses will help you gather a well-rounded idea of how the products can be best displayed.
In every photo session that followed our initial meeting, I continued to listen to the client while we were photographing the product. Even if you think you know what’s best, it never hurts to be open-minded and have a greater perspective. The underrated advantage of being open-minded on set is that your attitude will resonate with your client, and they’ll be more likely to listen, too. That’s going to be key when problem-solving and applying creative direction under the predefined brand ethos—which can be tricky at times. Success in branding requires all the members of the ship’s crew to be rowing in the same direction.
Explore different styles
At Black Creek, we always used natural lighting. Natural lighting creates beautiful, soft shadows and a realistic, organic tone that’s immediately warm and familiar to viewers.
When using natural light, you’ll need higher amounts of light to offset its softness. Therefore, it’s best suited for items that are smaller in size with less area to cover. For spoons, for example, there was enough natural light—but for this session (below), where our subject was a 6-foot-tall cupboard, there was not. Therefore, we explored artificial lighting with this piece.
This lighting style did not make it to any other photo session. We were all in agreement that, though necessary for this one product, it didn’t work with the brand.
At the time of the cupboard photo session, Black Creek had just moved into a new workshop space with edgy brick walls. We decided to use the walls as a way to add some context to the product photos. This added moodiness and contrast to the photos because the wall and the cupboard had obvious differences: perfection and imperfection, new and old, light and dark. The distance between the wall and the product also created a strong shadow on the left side of the photo, which added dimension.
Another example of context is when a person is interacting with the product. By showing a hand wiping down the piece in the photo below, the viewers can feel as if they themselves are able to touch the piece. It creates a down-to-earth style, rather than a museum-like style in which the piece is viewed as art form and viewers are not able to touch the work.
The result of removing the context was clearly a less dynamic, but more direct approach to capturing the product’s subtle details.
Black Creek’s portfolio is delicate, artistic, and modern, even though their materials are natural. Both Josh and Kelly expressed that minimalism was a core characteristic of their work. We all felt this style, below, was most successful, due to the focus it gave to the piece and the subtle dimension created by the shadows and the angle where the floor meets the wall.
In a similar photo, where the floor-meeting-wall angle is removed, the minimal style was less effective. The lines of the product are not complemented well by the airy, washed out backdrop.
One of the most important results of our style tests involved pairing pieces for contrast. Placing a white chair with a black table, one with straight legs and one with rounded legs, highlights the details that each product possesses. Because the products are on the same plane, they are presented as a unit. The contrast between the pieces is what makes the image.
We’ve found a lot of success with this style of repeating elements. Pairs, triplets, and collections do well for the small products, perhaps because it tells part of the story of the shop—artistically crafted in small batches.
During one of the first product photo sessions I mentioned the idea of elevating some of the work mid-air. Several months later, Josh and I decided to give it a try.
This style was the most time-consuming, because the process of lifting wooden products up off the ground with monofilament (a fancy word for fishing line) was not an easy task.
We used the strongest test we could find at the local sporting goods store, 20 pounds. We positioned two tall panels parallel to each other and perpendicular to the rear wall—the left panel was screwed into the wall, the right one clamped to a nearby pre-existing wall. Next, we used screw eyes, which were about a half-inch long, to connect the monofilament to the panel.
The photos were vastly different from the others. The strengths of this surrealist approach is the abstraction of the chair—it no longer read as something you sit on, but more as a work of art. The weakness of the surrealist style is that, unlike the rest of Black Creek’s portfolio, it wasn’t simple. The pieces were now taking up most of the vertical space, which was usually negative space, making the images much more full. And it was less organic and familiar to the viewer than other set-ups we had tried.
Analyze the results
After testing many different styles and combinations of pieces, the result was a style that employs minimalism, uses contrast, and plays on the strengths of natural lighting. Whenever possible, we try to use these style techniques, and they have crafted a distinct tone on Black Creek’s social channels.
The style proved to be successful, as the photos we produced with Black Creek have been requested by big-league publishers like Condé Nast and published in print on several occasions.
By defining a photography style that highlights the art and subtlety of the products, we place each image into a cohesive collection. What stands out is not the medium of photography (or how “cool” we can make it look), but the products, into which our client pours their craftsmanship and their passion.