Taking photos of very small objects is called macro photography. While taking photos usually relies on the skill of the photographer 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
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 manually and also focus manually. This is the very best situation for a camera, the sensor can really bring its best performance. Therefore the quality of the picture mostly depends on the used lens.
There is no way around a good macro lens and this lens will be expensive. Most likely the most expensive part of your whole equipment.
Let me illustrate this point with a number of example photos. The test subject is an Adafruit micro lipo USB charger. This board is just approximate 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 exactly the same, I just switched lenses and cameras in front of the light box.
I also processed each image to get the best looking result and I resize 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 camera on the marked. The photo was made using the smartphone on a tripod.
It is very hard to get the focus right and at this resolution you barely can 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 of 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 to 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 there is less blur over the image, still the surface structures on the board lack much detail. The reason for this small improvement is most likely just the different optical filter on the sensor itself (I will not explain all technical details at this point).
Now 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 which was made with the Sony Alpha 7II, which has a way better sensor.
If you have a very controlled environment with the right light and a stable tripod, even cheaper sensors will produce a great picture. Nevertheless, there is no way around a professional macro lens. Even the best sensor will give you a blurred picture with the wrong lens.
If you are serious about the product photography you plan to do, you will have to invest into the best possible 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 for 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 the camera sensor is not that 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 lots of shadows on the photo. Therefore the used sensor should be able to capture a high dynamic range.
It means the camera can capture really bright and really dark parts of the image and store all details in the image file, even 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 this bright parts are “cropped” in the image and just showing white, the sensor still captured details in this area.
In post processing you can simple “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 itself. All this information was stored in the file from the camera and it can be used in post processing.
If you use a camera which has 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.
All this cameras can make use of the Sony FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS lens and you will get perfect results. You can start with a Sony α6000 and buy a Sony α7R II at a later point in time and reuse the same macro lens.
The key features 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 is a small container which can be used to setup backgrounds and lights.
The first photo was made in a light box with a even and soft light.
Compare it with the next photo which was made on a desk using a spot light.
There are less shadows in the first image, so 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 photo looks cold and hard.
While there is no good or bad about the different light situations, to sell products you should choose the soft and friendly light. The hard light from the second photo is nice to create dark and mysterious pictures.
I can recommend Foldio3 from Orangemonkie. It is the perfect combination of light box und integrated lighting. This solution is also portable, you can simple fold the box and it will take no space in your office or flat.
If you buy Foldio3, you not only get the perfect box for your photos, there is also a professional light bar integrated into this box. You also get a white and black background with the box and there are additional “halo” lights.
If you like to use a different product, best is you go into a photographers shop and check the desired box there. Make sure you take the camera with you, so you can make a test shoot to check the light.
The key features selecting a light box to do product photography with electronics are:
- Large enough to have space to setup 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 diffusor for this task.
- Flicker free dimming.
- Additional lights to put highlights on the objects or brighten shadows.
Post Processing Software
The lens, camera and light box and proper cleaning will produce the best possible raw data for the final image. To produce a great final result, you need (professional) post processing software. 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 this basic tasks for very simple images you will most likely also do these things 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 light box with the right illumination and background for the final look.
In the image processing software the light, white balance and colour is adjusted. The photo is cropped to the final dimension and a vignette is applied.
Done. This took only approximate 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 a first step the light and colour is adjusted until the object looks great in the image.
In a next step, unwanted elements like dust is 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 is added to the picture. Final partial light and colour adjustments are made.
Done. All steps processing this photo took approximate one and a half hour.
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. This are not very user friendly tools, but the technological advanced ones. The tools to remove elements like dust or cut objects from the background are unbelievable powerful and let you work fast and efficient.
You can get both tools with a simple and cheap subscription, 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 steps using the Adobe products. You will have to find the matching tools and methods for your own software.
There are currently no open source tools I can recommend for this kind of tasks. While it is possible to combine a dozen open source tools to get similar results, there are sadly no tools around which provide a complete and efficient work flow.
The key features 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 a number of 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 photographers store and try some tripods. Take the camera with the macro lens with you.
You can get sand bags to make lightweight but stable tripods heavy enough for the task. There are also really heavy studio “columns” which are usually very expensive.
The key features 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 a number of required accessories:
- Remote control for the camera.
- Gray 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 things which are really useful. The following list will name a few of them.
- Sand bags for the tripod.
- Reusable gum like adhesive to keep the objects in place.
- Video lights to create additional highlights.
If you did photography before, you most likely already own most of the equipment listed in this chapter. For absolute beginners, this can be an overwhelming list. Best is to use the initial list of importance and start with the first points. Get some experience with the new equipment, so you will quickly see which part is missing for your own workflow.