How TR gets (some of) its squeaky-clean product photos

If you follow our intrepid Editor in Chief on Twitter, you might have read his tweets about a little misattribution mishap a couple of months back. In short, another site mistakenly copied one of the photos from my Radeon HD 7800-series review and attributed it to AMD, even though I’d snapped the shot myself. Here’s what Scott said at the time:

FWIW, TR doesn’t use stock photos. Those are our own! We work hard on them. Like this one:

However, our photos are often taken by other sites. Like this one at DT, sourced to AMD!

So if you ever wonder how TR gets access to all of those great, clean pictures, the answer is: hard work we put into our own photography.

The attribution error was soon corrected, and all was well.

But that didn’t address the broader issue: our photos often look a little too clean, and some folks seem to mistake them for stock images supplied by the companies we cover. Part-time TR coder Bruno Ferreira told me one of his acquaintances, another TR reader, thinks we don’t do any of the photography in our reviews—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. We do occasionally insert stock pics when we don’t have the products at hand, but we always label them. See, for example, the third image here.

To help clear things up, I’d like to take you on a little behind-the-scenes tour of my homebrewed photo studio. Scott and Geoff and our other writers have their own setups in their own labs, but they follow a largely similar procedure. Besides, we all know I take the best pictures around here. Ahem.

Here’s a still life of my photography gear. Excuse the murky picture; I couldn’t use my good camera or lights for this one, obviously. The items you see are as follows:

  • Canon Digital Rebel XSi DSLR camera with EF-S 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 IS kit lens
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC prime lens
  • Smith-Victor SMKT500 KT-500U tungsten light kit with umbrellas
  • Vanguard MK-2 tripod
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4
  • Roll of 3.5′-wide craft paper
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Drug store pencil eraser

The Rebel XSi is invaluable, but I’d say the most crucial components of the setup are the lighting kit and the tripod. No, really. You just can’t take squeaky-clean product photos without good lights. Using a direct flash will generally make the subject look flat and two-dimensional, and more often than not, it’ll cast harsh shadows, as well. What we want are smooth, soft-edged shadows, and a decent set of tungsten lights and umbrellas makes them very easy to obtain.

The tripod helps get as much light as possible into the camera’s sensor without sacrificing image quality. I tend to shoot with shutter speeds in the 0.3-0.4″ range, which lets me lower the aperture to f/14 and stay at ISO 200. If I weren’t using a tripod, I’d have to raise the shutter speed to 1/80 or so to compensate for my unsteady hands. That would mean, in turn, increasing the aperture and cranking up the ISO, which would leave me with a shorter depth of field (i.e. a blurrier foreground and background) and much more background noise. Not good.

Here’s the gear in action. The two tunsgtens spit out a combined 500W, which bounces against the unfurled craft paper to produce those clean white backdrops we all love. Some products leave dark blemishes on the paper, and that’s where the pencil eraser come in.

Also, throughout each shoot, I’ll keep wiping down the product with the microfiber cloth to get rid of smudges, fingerprints, and dust. That helps more with glossy surfaces like laptop bezels than with matte ones like GPU coolers, but I do it regardless. Closeups have a funny way of magnifying little imperfections.

Instead of hitting the shutter release manually, I tether the camera to my PC and use Canon’s excellent EOS Utility. The program essentially works like a shutter remote on steroids, with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO controls, not to mention a live preview window that shows me exactly what I just snapped. It’s a huge time saver. I don’t need to squint at the camera’s tiny LCD and wonder how it’s going to look on a real display. Also, the high-res preview lets me check for stray dust motes and whatever else survived the microfiber rubdown.

Each shot gets automatically downloaded to my computer in RAW format. Why RAW and not JPEG? Adobe Camera Raw is why. The software allows for post-hoc exposure and white balance corrections, plus all kinds of useful little tweaks, like a “recovery” slider for overexposed highlights and a “fill light” slider that brightens up darker, underexposed areas without affecting the rest. Since RAWs are lossless with 14 bits per color channel, those tweaks don’t bring up ugly compression artifacts.

Of course, I rarely use Camera Raw for white balance corrections. I just configure white balance directly on the camera before shooting. All it takes is a shot of my backdrop sans subject and a trip down the Rebel XSi’s menu tree, to the “Custom WB” control, and I’m all set.

The last step before a photo makes it into one of our reviews is Photoshop. Here, I adjust levels to make sure the background is as close to white as possible without sacrificing detail. I then crop as close as possible to the edges of the subject.

And there’s the result. Not one of my best, and maybe a little overexposed because of the reflective aluminum shroud, but you get the idea.

Any questions?

Comments closed
    • Dr_b_
    • 10 years ago

    this is very cool with amazing results.

    Question: how would you go about taking an overhead picture of something? Is there a special camera tripod/mount that allows downward facing shots of objects that anyone knows of?

    • SezaGeoff
    • 10 years ago

    I haven’t seen the Duke for ages! Welcome back

    • RainMotorsports
    • 10 years ago

    Nice tutorial and setup. I myself resort to using bounce flash off ceiling or reflector with the item against a paper (large sheet) background rather than a continuous lighting setup. The shoot through umbrella’s are another nice luxury item. I have been messing with 105 watt (400 equiv) full spectrum CFL’s for video. Would much rather not use CFL’s due to the SPD characteristics native to them but it keeps the power budget down. Been meaning to do some test shots with them anyways for still photography.

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago


    • Ditiris
    • 10 years ago

    Canon’s 60Da is supposed to start selling this month I think, a 60D modified specifically for astrophotography. You might want to check that out. I think your motorized mount is far more important than your camera for astrophotography, but the articulated screen on the 60D also helps to remove the noise generated by the LCD, and the “a” variant should capture better images while eliminating the need for filters.

    • Anonymous Coward
    • 10 years ago

    Yay 30mm Sigma! I imagine you use that when you can’t bring your own lights.

    Have you seen that Canon has launched image stabilized f2.8 primes, one at 24mm and one at 28mm? You would get only 1/4 the shutter speed, but you would almost certainly get a better result with the image stabilizer and the smaller aperture, since your target is stationary. Must be hard to use f1.4 for product photos anyway.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 10 years ago

    Great! That is definetly a start. Will look into those you mention. Thanks!

    • liquidsquid
    • 10 years ago

    Probably not the best for astro-photography, but not bad either. Instead look for the latest cameras which contain the Sony sensors, X-MOR or something like that (I forget) Pentax K5 uses it, I think a Canon or two, and of course Sony cams Nex5n for example. Their dark noise is phenomenally low for long exposures.

    I prefer to use mirror-less cameras for long exposures as you dont have to deal with mirror-lockups and shaky tripods. I have yet to use the Panasonic GH2 for this, but my older Panasonic G1 was a bit poor at noise, but great on usage in these scenarios.

    • Aphasia
    • 10 years ago

    It’s easy to do alot with a little, as long as you know what you are doing. I did some freelancing reviews and articles for a photography magazine a few years back and use a similar setup, but even slightly more budget for the diffusor(pvc-pipe, clamps and a nice milky cut up plastic sheath). Works just fine. The really really hard part is getting rid of the dust and smudges. And you truly to a terrific job of that. That together with the clean backgrounds is probably why people confuse your shots with official product shots.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 10 years ago

    Man, oh man!

    You all rock! This has been something I have always wondered how things are done. And viola! You show us the going-ons behind your scenes. Nothing, but pure awesome. Thank you for sharing.

    I still haven’t forgotten that photo of the coin next to the chip. Credit needs to be given to those whom are due it.

    Question: Is that a good camera for night sky shooting? I’m getting a 11″ Celetron telescope with a full-blown mini observatory! Can’t wait, I’ll be deliverying it myself from MT this coming Tuesday. I’m definetly taking pictures. Well, you just spoiled me with your setup, now I’ll have to have a setup of my own. That is a good thing, mine you!

    Keep up the great work, you have a reader for life!

    • rjseo1
    • 10 years ago

    Duke NUKED

    • d0g_p00p
    • 10 years ago

    I wish I knew about photography. Seems like a really fun hobby. Anyhow Cyril, your shots are so clean and high rez that you can see your lighting setup on the back end of the 7850:

    [url<][/url<] Very cool, keep up the good work. Maybe the other TR editors can post about their setups? That would be baller.

  1. This is exactly how we did product shots when I worked for a projector reseller. The biggest part of selling a product is making it look great.

    My Canon XTi just died last march. I am really frustrated about it. I took that thing everywhere (backpacking, canoe camping, camping, day hikes, rain, snow, sun, -30 F, 105 F, and more) and it always performed flawlessly. I went to California in march and when I got back I realized the built in light meter died half way through the trip. We did not even have any bad weather or anything. My eyes are not that good so I have to rely on the auto focus and built in light meter. Now all the pictures are super dark. Too dark to get anything out of them.

    • Cyril
    • 10 years ago

    Thanks, I’ll give that a shot.

    • Cyril
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve had this particular setup for about two years now. Before that, I used old worklights with a melamine light box. And before [i<]that[/i<], well... [url<][/url<] Ahem. Also yes, I do a little bit of photography as a hobby. I uploaded some of my nicer shots to Flickr last year: [url<][/url<] Mostly I just use my iPhone to take pictures when I'm out of the house, though.

    • Bliskin
    • 10 years ago

    Lots of folks out there with tech knowledge, no doubt, but TR always has that certain polish.
    Sets you apart…you guys really do rule!

    • Sam125
    • 10 years ago

    Great article! TR always has some of the best photos of hardware and now I know where they come from. 🙂

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    [url=<]Let there be light! Link to me![/url<]

    • Airmantharp
    • 10 years ago

    That’s a good camera- I’m actually looking at upgrading my T1i to a D60 for the flip-out screen and video capabilities (and having cross-section auto-focus on all nine focus points).

    Just make sure you get some good glass with it; the 18-55mm is a decent walk-around starter lens, but it is slow and isn’t as nearly as sharp as you can get!

    I just picked up Canon’s 15-85mm IS USM for my walkaround, and their 70-300mm IS USM for outdoors use.

    • Parallax
    • 10 years ago

    If you’re playing with the raw properties you should look into fixing the chromatic aberration while you’re at it. Most of your hi-res photos show green/purple/blue edges toward the photo borders, which can be corrected in camera raw in a few seconds (the lens tab is pretty much dedicated to this).

    Otherwise, nice lighting and product photos!

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 10 years ago

    I’m looking to get a Rebel T3i for aquarium photography.

    Flip you do good work.

    • superjawes
    • 10 years ago

    I’m surprised you can hear us over the sound of how awesome you are.

    Excellent work.

    • Silus
    • 10 years ago

    Awesome! TR’s photos in reviews surely stand out from all the other review sites I visit. It was nice to see how everything works behind the scenes! Thanks 🙂

    • gbcrush
    • 10 years ago

    +1 The attention you put into pictures and reviews is appreciated. On top of that, I love that you guys think we might be interested in how you do things…because we are!

    • Jambe
    • 10 years ago

    A question: how long have you used this particular setup, and how many revisions has your setup/workflow gone through since you began reviewing?

    Another: do you take pictures of other things as a hobby/profession?

    Interesting look at your process here! Thanks for sharing.

    • Ifalna
    • 10 years ago

    It’s always cool to be granted a look behind the scenes. Much appreciated and some mighty fine equipment you have there. ^_^

    • Nutmeg
    • 10 years ago

    You should do some action shots of Geoff snowboarding down a Rocky Mountain, XFX cards in each hand. 😉

    Not that the shots of them sitting on some white paper aren’t very nice though.

    • Mourmain
    • 10 years ago

    Excellent. Have you thought about putting a perspex sheet under the paper, and lighting it from below? That might help getting the background completely white.

    • ShadowEyez
    • 10 years ago

    You guys have great photos – thanks for the informative article.

    • integer
    • 10 years ago

    I agree. Thanks for sharing, Cyril.

    • Thatguy
    • 10 years ago

    Just another example of why i continue to comeback to this site for the reviews and information. The attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed.

    Keep up the great work guys!

    • brucethemoose
    • 10 years ago

    Looks great, I love my Cannon Rebel XS.

    BTW, you should try MuseMage for photo editing. Of all people, TR should be putting GPUs to work when making an article.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 10 years ago

    and then they show up on any number of websites completely unattributed, or attributed to the manufacturer.

    • cheapFreeAgent
    • 10 years ago

    Impressive !
    even that Gorm shelve looks more photogenic than mine !

    • Corrado
    • 10 years ago

    Looks great! I used to do similar with guitars at a guitar shop for sale online/on eBay back in the early 2000’s. Granted, back then, we didn’t have fancy DSLRs, we had to rely on a Nikon CoolPix 5700 (I think). This is the job where I learned best to use Photoshop 5 and how to use bluelights and backdrops/etc. You don’t learn anything as fast as when your job depends on it!

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