How to take photos of products so they appear to float on a pure white background. I discuss techniques for a few different cameras with limited features, using natural light (not studio gear).
I used four cameras, ranging from expensive to inexpensive: iPhone (expensive), Samsung Galaxy Avant (386T1) (inexpensive used), Fujifilm XF1 (moderate used), and Nikon Coolpix S570 (inexpensive used).
All the photos in this post are not retouched. None have perfectly white backgrounds, and were taken indoors, with light from a window, and my body blocking the light. So, they were done “wrong”, but they came out acceptable.
The photos, when they are uploaded to Ebay, can be tweaked a little bit by increasing the brightness, and contrast, a little bit. That will set the background to a pure white.
1. Get a White Background
The best background is a piece of paper. I’m using a shower curtain liner, which is made of vinyl. It’s not as good as paper, but it works well enough.
2. Fix the White Balance, If You Can
Some cameras have a feature to let you adjust your white balance. Under most afternoon light, a sheet of white paper will be photographed as a light yellow-orange. Under flourescent lights, it’ll look green. Under incandescent lights, it’s a little yellow. White balance removes this tint.
So, when you have your photo area set up, set your white balance.
Some cameras like the Fujifilm XF1 allow the “custom” white balance, and use that if you can. Point it at a white paper, so it fills the entire image, and the take a sample.
Some phone and point-and-shoot cameras allow you to choose what kind of light: incandescent/tungsten, fluorescent, daylight, or cloudy. Pick one that works.
The S570 point-and-shoot has a manual white balance in “auto” mode, but when you use the “scene” modes, it seems to have auto white balance.
3. Exposure: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, Exposure +-, and Scenes
This is going to get a little technical, so you may want to get a cup of coffee or tea and load up on caffeine.
Light is made up of tiny particles called photons.
We see things when photons from the sun, or a light, hit an object, ricochet off, and then enter our eyeball, and reach our retina. The photon is absorbed by a cell in the retina, and that sends a chemical signal to the optic nerve, which transmits a signals to adjacent cells, and a big signal to our brain.
Think of a photon as a drop of water. Light is spraying all over the place, like a spray of water, and some is splashing onto you, and some is getting into your eye.
Photographers control how photons hit the sensor in the camera, the same as how your iris and eyelid control how many photons hit your retina.
- When many photons hit the sensor, the image looks white and is overexposed.
- When few photons hit the sensor, the image is dark or black and underexposed.
Look at these two photos of the same scene.
To control how many photons hit the sensor, the camera can open a shutter for a short length of time, or adjust the aperture; the aperture is the size of the light-hole behind the lens.
In the left, overexposed photo, the shutter speed was 1/4 second, and the aperture was f/1.8 (lower means larger). So the lens was wide open for a quarter second, and a lot of light got to the sensor.
In the right, underexposed photo, the shutter speed was 1/250 second, and the aperture was f/11.0. So the lens was almost like a pinhole, and open for only 1/250th of a second, and little light got to the sensor.
Again, think of photons like water droplets, and the lens is like your eye. You’re controlling how big the opening is, and how long it stays open.
It’s pretty simple, in theory, but in practice, it’s kind of difficult. You need a light meter, and to keep track of two different settings on the camera.
In the 1960s, companies started selling cmeras with Auto Exposure, which was a “computer” that measured the light, and then adjusted the aperture or shutter speed to get a good exposure.
Today, digital cameras have an “Auto” mode, and it’s a nod to auto-exposure on the film cameras. (It really is auto exposure + auto focus + auto ISO + auto whatever.)
Most point-and-shoot cameras, except the more expensive “prosumer” models, don’t allow you to control the aperture and shutter speed. Instead, they give you the “+/-” exposure button.
The button is the square with a “+/-” in it.
The good news; that exposure button is good enough.
The Exposure +/- Button
The exposure button let’s you go from -2 for a dark photo, to 0 for a “normal” photo, and +2 for a light photo.
What does that number mean?
I have no idea.
That control “commands” the camera to deliver a light or dark photo, and the camera figures out the shutter speed and aperture.
The iPhone doesn’t even have that button. You set the exposure by tapping the screen to select an area to expose properly.
Most cameras also allow you to control the ISO.
ISO is a term from film cameras, and indicated the sensitivity of the film. 400 film is sensitive and “fast”, and used with faster shutter speeds, but the photos looked grainy and fuzzy. 100 film is “slow”, and requires slower, longer exposures, but produces richer colors and better detail.
The main reason to use high ISO film, for regular folks, was to increase the shutter speed, and, thus, reduce the motion blur. Motion blur happens when you press the button and move the camera slightly.
ISO in digital cameras refers to the amount of amplification performed on the sensor’s signal. This is also called “gain”. It’s just like a “volume control.” The higher the ISO, the more amplification is applied, and increased amounts of noise appear in the photo, but the exposure time declines.
ISO in film, and ISO in digital cameras, are completely different things.
What does the ISO value mean?
It doesn’t really mean anything specific. Again, like the “exposure” value, it’s just communicating to the camera that you want some compensatory amplification so you can use a faster shutter speed, and a smaller aperture.
When you’re in “auto” mode, and your ISO is also in “auto”, the camera tweaks the ISO gain, the shutter speed, and aperture to achieve a good exposure.
If you pay attention to those three values, you’ll notice that when you push the button down halfway, they may vary a little between different photos of the exact same scene. The computer in the camera is just trying to find the best exposure by trying out different values on the three “knobs”.
The Nikon S570 has “Scene” modes, which are an even “higher level” way to command the camera, by giving it hints about the scene you’re photographing.
For example, the “Museum” scene tells the camera that you’re shooting indoors, a few feet from the artwork.
Someone at Nikon developed some rules-of-thumb about that shooting situation, and put some constraints on how the camera will attempt to choose an aperture, shutter speed, white balance, gain, and other “knobs” based on the scene
So, within each “scene”, you have constraints that influence how the camera will control several features, comprising the main controls: shutter speed, aperture, gain; and the other controls: focal distance, white balance, flash, and other features.
The scenes that seem to work for product photos are:
4. Taking Pictures
Let’s see how to influence each camera to take something that could work on Ebay.
Remember, we don’t need perfect – we need to get something into the camera that works, and if we really need to spend a minute tweaking a listing’s main photo, we can do that.
This is an enthusiast camera, and can be used in manual mode, with control over aperture and shutter speed. There’s a link to a review below.
The XF1 can be used in semi-auto modes that allow control over just one of the two controls – and the camera sets the other value. I stuck with the full auto mode with the +/- exposure control.
My first photo had bad white balance.
The second photo has truer colors.
Let’s make a photo with a clean white background.
A little GIMP photo-editing created this next photo, but you can also do this within Ebay , with the brightness and contrast controls. Increase the brightness, and then increase the contrast. I didn’t do erasing, selecting, masking, or anything to touch the pixels one by one.
Note that I didn’t use any of the manual photography features. I used features that are on many inexpensive cameras: exposure and white balance.
As noted above, some scenes work well. I used portrait, macro, and museum modes.
The results were good. I think they came out better than the XF1. The auto white balance worked well.
The gray shadow in the lower right is my body blocking the sunlight. In the last photo, I tried to move a little bit. By cranking the ISO up to 800, I got an almost completely white background.
I didn’t write down the scene modes, and cannot recall them, but the scenes are constraints and hints, not “settings”. The software tries to pick a good exposure within the constraints.
Note, I haven’t used GIMP or anything to alter these images, and I didn’t use lightbulbs or a flash. This is what the camera took with sunlight. I just resized them for this post.
The iPhone 6 has fewer controls than point-and-shoot cameras. The only way to influence the exposure is by tapping on the image to force the phone to adjust the exposure to make that area look good.
So, I tapped around the darkest area in the photo, marked here in pink. This photo shows how the picture looked without tapping:
Here’s how it looked like after tapping to trick the iPhone into exposing the dark areas correctly:
I’ll keep using it now and then, and see how it does with other types of photos.There’s a lot of randomness to making the background disappear. I just tapped around that light in the center, and it made a guess, and then I took the photo.
Notice how that center area now shows a lot of detail.
The iPhone produced very good results.
Samsung Budget Smartphone
The software gives you some control over the phone, but the phone doesn’t record all the details into the image metadata. It could also be that the software simulates these features.
I took only four photos with this camera, and thought that the one on the right was good, but it wasn’t. The dark photos turned out sharp, but the bright photos were blurred.
This is a real problem: the camera took a blurry photo, but I didn’t notice the blur.
The white balance was picked from one of the four preset options – there was no completely manual white balance setting.
The orientation of the photos didn’t work – but this may be a problem with WordPress. I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t correct. The image can be rotated within Ebay.
Don’t use this budget smartphone.
This isn’t a knock on Samsung. Their high-end phones take good photos, just like the iPhone.
This round of photos went pretty well. It was an easy subject. I liked the S570 the best, for this project.
Taking photos with a white background is mainly about setting the camera to overexpose the background. You can get most of the way, or even all the way, to a completely white background by changing the camera settings, rather than doing any complex photo editing.
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