Taking photos of very small objects is called macro photography. While taking photos usually relies on the photographer’s skill and not on the camera and equipment, this is different for macro photography. You can be the most skilled photographer, but without the right equipment, you will not be able to create really good pictures. Also, this equipment will be expensive.
- Importance of the Equipment
- Camera Sensor / Camera
- Light / Light Box
- Post Processing Software
Importance of the Equipment
The following list will show you the different parts of the equipment and how important this part is for the quality of the resulting photo.
- Camera Sensor / Camera
- Light / Light Box
- Post Processing Software
No other part of your equipment will influence the quality of your pictures more than the lens. For product photography, you will mount the camera on a stable tripod, illuminate the scene with bright and perfect light, choose most camera settings, and focus manually. This is the best situation for a camera, and the sensor can bring its best performance. Therefore the quality of the picture mostly depends on the used lens.
There is no way around an excellent macro lens, and this lens will be expensive. Most likely the most expensive part of your whole equipment.
Let me illustrate this point with several example photos. The test subject is an Adafruit micro-lipo USB charger. This board is just approximately 2×2 cm in size. I tried to fill a photo with this board using different combinations of lenses and cameras.
For each combination, I tried to get as close as possible to the object to get as much detail as possible. The light and object situation was the same, and I switched lenses and cameras in front of the lightbox.
Only Sony Equipment?
All my work is done using Sony cameras and lenses. Many years ago, I switched from Canon to Sony because of the lack of innovation in Canon. The Sony cameras and lenses are technologically years ahead of the two leading camera brands. In my opinion, they provide way more value for the same money. Therefore most of the discussion in this document is based on Sony products; nevertheless, you can apply it to any brand.
I also processed each image to get the best-looking result, and I resized them to 800-pixel width for a better comparison.
Lens Comparison Photos
Let us start with the worst possible solution. The next photo is the best result you can get using one of the best smartphone cameras on the market (when I wrote this tutorial). The photo was taken using the smartphone on a tripod.
It is very hard to get the focus right, and at this resolution, you can barely read the labels on the SMD resistors.
For the next photo, I used a very good camera, the Sony Alpha 6000, with the kit lens.
Compared to the smartphone photo, this picture looks already very good. You notice a slight blur over the whole image. Also, if you look at the surfaces of the solder blobs and the gold, you notice the lack of details there.
Kit lenses are always a compromise. These are not bad lenses, but usually, neither really good ones.
To compare the impact of the sensor on the image quality, I put exactly this lens on the Sony Alpha 7II. This camera is closer to the professional segment and works great for macro photography.
You will notice less blur over the image; still, the surface structures on the board lack much detail. This small improvement is likely just the different optical filters on the sensor itself (I will not explain all the technical details at this point).
I take the same photo using the Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 macro lens. This lens was precisely made for this task.
This is a huge improvement. Now you can see every detail in the photo. You can see individual dust particles sharp and clear. The texts on the resistors are sharp, and you can even see details of the print. You also clearly see the structure of the solder and gold surfaces.
This is exactly the quality of raw image you like to have as a base for further processing.
To see the influence of the sensor, I use this lens on the Sony Alpha 6000 camera.
Can you see any difference? The picture is as sharp and clear as the one made with the Sony Alpha 7II, which has a better sensor.
Even cheaper sensors will produce a great picture if you have a very controlled environment with the right light and a stable tripod. Nevertheless, there is no way around a professional macro lens. Even the best sensor will blur the picture with the wrong lens.
If you are serious about the product photography you plan to do, you must invest in the best macro lens. I recommend using the Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS lens using one of the compatible camera bodies.
Similar lenses for other camera systems are:
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR
The key features of a macro lens to do product photography for electronics are:
- Highest possible lens resolution value (e.g. MTF 50), >1600 lp/ih
- Focal length 80-100mm
- Minimal focus distance
- Easy and precise handling for manual focus
Camera Sensor / Camera
Even though the camera sensor is not as important as the lens, there are some specific requirements if you take photos of electronics. All the metal parts and surfaces will reflect light and generate many shadows in the photo. Therefore the used sensor should be able to capture a high dynamic range.
It means the camera can capture very bright highlights and deep dark shadows of the image and store all details in the image file, even if they are not immediately visible.
Dynamic Range Example
The next image is an unprocessed RAW image from the camera. You can see all the bright spots where the solder reflected the light. Even though these bright parts are “cropped” in the image and show as white areas, the sensor still captured details in these parts of the image.
In post-processing, you “compress the light” and recover all details in these highlights, as shown in the next image.
Now you can see the structure and colour on the solder points and see details in the LEDs. All this information was stored in the file from the camera, and it can be used in post-processing.
If you use a camera with a normal dynamic range, you can get a photo like the first one, but you will be unable to recover details from these highlights or shadows.
I recommend the first camera in the following list you can afford.
- Sony α7R V
- Sony α7R IV
- Sony α7R III
- Sony α7R II
- Sony α7C
- Sony α7 III
- Sony α7 II
- Sony α6500
- Sony α6300
- Sony α6000
All these cameras can use the Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS lens, and you will get perfect results. You can start with a Sony α6000, buy a Sony α7R V later, and reuse the same macro lens.
The key features of selecting a camera to do product photography with electronics are:
- Full frame sensor (or at least APS-C).
- Sensor with a high dynamic range (> 12Ev at ISO 100).
- Sensor with a minimal resolution of 6000×4000 pixels.
- The camera must be able to store RAW files.
- Everything can be controlled manually (ISO, Exposure Time, Focus, Aperture).
- The camera can handle a heavy macro lens.
Bonus features are:
- Focus preview.
- Exposure bracketing.
Light / Light Box
Good product photos require an even and controlled illumination. This is only possible using a light or photo box. This small container can be used to set up backgrounds and lights.
The first photo was made in a lightbox with an even and soft light.
Compare it with the next photo, which was made on a desk using a spotlight.
There are fewer shadows in the first image so that you can see all details of the components and surfaces. Also, the colour reproduction is better.
The first photo looks pleasing and friendly, while the second looks cold and hard.
While the different light situations are not good or bad, you should choose the soft and friendly light to sell products. The hard light from the second photo is nice to create dark and mysterious pictures.
I can recommend a Foldio lightbox from Orangemonkie. It is the perfect combination of lightbox and integrated lighting. This solution is also portable, you can fold the box, and it will take up no space in your office or flat.
If you buy one of these Foldio lightboxes, you get the perfect box for your photos and a professional light bar integrated into this box. You also get a white and black background with the box and additional “halo” lights.
If you like to use a different product, the best is you go into a photographer’s shop and check out the desired box there. Make sure you take the camera with you to make a test shoot to check the light.
The key features of selecting a lightbox to do product photography with electronics are:
- Large enough to have space to set up the projects.
- Space inside of the box for the camera lens.
- A smooth and even light which can be dimmed.
- The light needs a very good diffuser for this task.
- Flicker-free dimming.
- Additional lights to put highlights on the objects or brighten shadows.
Post Processing Software
The lens, camera, lightbox, and proper cleaning will produce the best possible raw data for the final image. You need (professional) post-processing software to produce a great final result. The post-processing software is used for the following basic tasks which have to be done for each photo:
- Light correction
- Adjust the overall exposure level.
- Adjust the contrast.
- Compress highlights.
- Recover shadows.
- Boost whites.
- Adjust the black point.
- Colour adjustments
- Increase the colour vibrance.
- Fix colour shifts or damp unwanted colours.
- White balance adjustment.
- Crop the photo.
- Removing geometry distortion from the lens (if required).
- Removing lens vignetting.
- Fixing chromatic aberration (if required).
- Selectively sharpen the final image.
- Remove dust and unwanted image elements.
- Convert a proprietary RAW file into something standardised.
- Working with 16bit or 32bit image data.
Apart from these basic tasks for very simple images, you will most likely do these for more advanced images:
- Fix the image geometry.
- Apply partial detail adjustments.
- Combine multiple images using “focus stacking”.
- Cut one or more objects from the background.
- Replace an image background.
- Add artificial shadows and lights.
Very Simple Example Workflow
It starts with the unprocessed raw image. The photo is already carefully prepared in the lightbox with the right illumination and background for the final look.
In the image processing software, the light, white balance and colour are adjusted. The photo is cropped to the final dimension, and a vignette is applied.
Done. This took only approximately 5 minutes for this simple photo.
Complex Example Workflow
It starts with the unprocessed raw image. The object is not perfectly aligned, and the colours are flat because of the dynamic range compression.
In the first step, the light and colour are adjusted until the object looks great in the image.
In the next step, unwanted elements like dust are removed, and the object is isolated from the background. The isolated element is arranged correctly in the picture.
A new flat background and a shadow are added to the picture. Final partial light and colour adjustments are made.
Done. All steps in processing this photo took approximately one and a half hours.
Not all images require the same workflow. It merely depends on the look you like to have for your final images.
I recommend using Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and Adobe Photoshop CC to manage and process photos for this task. These are not very user-friendly tools but technologically advanced ones. The tools to remove elements like dust or cut objects from the background are unbelievably powerful and let you work fast and efficiently.
You can get both tools with a simple and cheap subscription, with all future updates included.
If you do not like subscriptions, try Affinity Photo, which is available for Windows and Mac. This tool lacks the photo management you get with Adobe Lightroom but should be up to all required retouching tasks.
The chapter about post-processing will demonstrate all the steps using Adobe products. In case you use a different software, you have to find the matching tools and workflows for yours.
There are currently no open-source tools I can recommend for this task. While it is possible to combine a dozen open-source tools to get similar results, there are sadly no tools that provide a complete and efficient workflow.
The key features of selecting post-processing software to do product photography with electronics are:
- Destruction-free image adjustments and editing.
- Tools to fix geometric distortion and lens distortions.
- Integrated RAW format processing for your camera model.
- File organisation (keywords etc.)
- Advanced and fast spot removal tools.
- Advanced object selection tool with object outline detection.
- Layers for composition and adjustments.
You will need several additional accessories to work efficiently. One of the most important tools will be a stable tripod with a good head.
It is hard to give a good recommendation at this point. Best visit a local photographer store and try some tripods. Take the camera with the macro lens with you.
You can get sandbags to make lightweight but stable tripods heavy enough for the task. There are also heavy studio “columns”, which are usually very expensive.
I use products from Manfrotto, which have very good quality. For the ball head, I use a product from Novoflex.
The key features of selecting a tripod to do product photography with electronics are:
- Heavy and stable.
- Adjustable column.
- Ideally possible to use the column vertically.
- Solid tripod head which can handle the weight of the camera and lens.
- Enough long legs so you can use the camera top-down.
There are several required accessories:
- Remote control for the camera.
- Grey card or white balance card.
- Air-blower to clean the lens and remove dust from objects.
- Sheets of glass or a transparent platform to lift the object from the ground.
- Soft fabric to clean the lens and glass.
There are other really useful things. The following list will name a few of them.
- Sandbags for the tripod.
- Reusable gum-like adhesive to keep the objects in place.
- Video lights to create additional highlights.
If you have done photography before, you most likely already own most of the equipment listed in this chapter. For absolute beginners, this can be an overwhelming list. The best is to use the initial list of importance and start with the first points. Get experience with the new equipment, so you will quickly see which part is missing from your workflow.