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The ultimate guide to tabletop photography: tips & ideas for shots that reach the target

The ultimate guide to tabletop photography: tips & ideas for shots that reach the target

Pylyp Sukhenko

Jun 27, 2021

Tabletop photography has been there longer than product photography. Moreover, it's kind of the forefather of the art of taking product images. Even before e-commerce was born as such, people tried to shoot still life either in a studio or at home – that's when they used the most descriptive of the terms.

What is Tabletop Photography?

Tabletop photography is the still life photography method that suggests objects are placed on the table for the shoot, most often in a lay-flat manner or standing. With the emergence of e-commerce, the term has been partially ousted by the term “product photography”, which is more specific to the growing industry of online sales.

Having the most ubiquitous domestic piece of furniture in the name, it also has this hint of DIY embedded in the concept – suggesting that you can do it if you have a table.

Long story short: tabletop photography can be used interchangeably with product photography or even lay flat photography – but in the context deprived of the commercial intent and possibly with the DIY meaning to it.

See Google trends graph for the 2 terms: where the peak of the original term was in 2004 and the offspring denomination is still on the rising curve.

Types of Tabletop Photography

When it comes to different tabletop photography setups, we can distinguish 2 main types: isolated objects and collages.

White background images or isolated product images

This is mostly done nowadays for e-commerce or PR purposes.

If you need to sell or present your object to a wide audience, you'll probably need a picture like this:

  • The object takes up about 70% of the image
  • The image is in high resolution with proper lighting and shadows
  • The image is in focus and not under or overexposed
  • The object can be clearly seen in detail
  • The object is photographed against the white background

In the majority of cases, such an image is produced initially for placement on e-commerce marketplaces, like Amazon, eBay, or web platforms like Shopify. Given the abundance of competing for equivalent objects on sale, image quality is critical to the dynamics of online sales.

Commercially styled images with props

The same very object – or a series of them – can be also shot less matter-of-factly with more of the fun and buzz in the resulting shot.

This is when we talk about creative photography, which has some type of art direction, idea, concept to it.

Styled images are characterized by the following features:

  • They are used for social media or the category hero image on the website
  • They are used in the advertising stage more than on the product pages – the final stage of the funnel
  • They have props, colorful or textured backgrounds to create the mood
  • They may have a human element in them, even though the object is placed on the tabletop – like a hand touching a detail
  • Even though a solo object may be starring against a vibrant background, in the majority of cases such style photos are a collage of multiple objects and props.

Now that we know the types of this subcategory of commercial photography, let's quickly go through the equipment needed to produce such shots.

Professional and DIY Equipment for Tabletop Photos

Depending upon your mission, you may produce an OK result with a $0 budget or thousands of dollars of investment in photo gear.

Say, if you need to make an image of the used phone cover to sell on classifieds, you can take a decent picture with your smartphone, placing the cover itself on the table in front of the source of natural light.

But if you need to make a high-res image that is part of the e-commerce sales cycle, we recommend getting hold of some professional equipment. These are the basics:

  • Camera

The offering of cameras in the $500 price range is extensive and as a beginner, you don’t need a high-end camera, whose potential is going to be unused.

If you have a thick enough wallet and are in product images for a bit, check out this article on best product photography equipment with a lot of links and tech specs.

  • Lens

A macro lens may come in handy in case of making tabletop photos, but if you are not going for the tiniest details, you can get away with a regular lens too.

  • Tripod or C-stand with heads

Tripods are available on Amazon in the range of $25+ yet the role of it is ten times the price. 

In the majority of cases, you will need to position your camera at a 90-degree angle to the surface of the table and shoot from above. Most of the tripods will have enough height and proper heads to achieve that effect.

When shooting tethered [the setup, when your camera, lights, and photography software are synched via cords into a single organism], a C-stand with a horizontal hand and the sturdy head is your best solution.

  • Cords & software for tethering

The tethered shooting also suggests all equipment talks to each other via cords – make sure you take into account the exact outputs when buying connecting cords.

Your laptop should also have a special software solution, that supports the live process.

  • Lighting kit

Proper professional lighting equipment is critical for the result – if you use strobe lights or continuous lighting is another dilemma, with the latter being a preferred option for the beginner level.

  • Diffusor

Diffuser can be DIY-ed from a piece of cardboard with some parchment paper in the middle cutout. Indeed, the assortment of light-diffusing devices is extensive with some bigger frames reaching 2 meters wide.

  • Reflector

Reflecting boards are often DIYed too for tabletop product photography. They can be pieces of foam board that help you bring some light onto the part of the object that has a shadow on it.

  • Miscellaneous equipment

A professional photo studio will have lots of useful little objects to help affix things to each other – like double-sided scotch tape, blu tack, hot glue gun, clamps, etc. A can of compressed air is another must-have for any photoshoot location – as it helps minimize post production by removing specks of dust from the object.

How do you shoot a tabletop photo?

Every professional product photographer has their style of doing things onset and the routine may differ wildly. But below is a blueprint algorithm on how to shoot tabletop images:

  1. Set up the table and background: they should be comfortable enough for you to take pictures from above.
  2. Set up your camera using a tripod or the C-stand with the horizontal hand and the cords for tethering.
  3. Set up your lighting kit.
  4. Position the object and props for a test photo.
  5. Adjust lights and their effects with the help of diffusers and reflectors until you are happy with the result.
  6. Make shots at different angles as per client brief, always adjusting the composition and the lights if needed.
  7. Edit images to color-correct, resize, etc.

Once again, this scenario provides the milestone actions of the otherwise nuanced process.

Tips & best practices

Get your brief not brief at all

If shooting for a client, make sure to have a full understanding of the expectations. A properly filled brief is your safest way to go, whereby a client provides a full list of shots, angles, references, channels that are expected as the result of the shoot.

Prep your props beforehand for styled images

If you are looking to get some attention in the busy social media feed you need to put your thinking hat on and come up with some props that accentuate your main object. Textured backgrounds also work great -think of the weathered wood for masculine products and maybe some green succulents and a cup of coffee for an office setting.

Composition is key and you get there by playing around

Your main product doesn’t necessarily need to be in the center of things – sometimes it will shine best in the corner of the composition. There are 2 ways how you get that aesthetic skill of a perfect composition under your skin: 

  1. The more examples of tabletop images you see, the better your taste becomes, as you witness the best and worst examples of other people’s efforts.
  2. You need to keep an open mind when you position objects on the top of the table for the shoot – experiment with the composition and make a few test shots to see what looks best on the camera. Play around with composition. At the end of the day, your experience will have evolved to instinctively position objects in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Tabletop Photography ideas

Use textured and colorful backgrounds for mood

The easiest way to bring in some sunshine into a picture is to use a bright orange background. The simplest way to give a premium look to an accessory is to use folds of silk as the backdrop. One of the ways to bring the holiday spirit into an image is to scatter sparkling confetti on the table.

Whatever the object you need to make a picture of – there is a background that will create a mood for it.

Use associated items as props

Shooting cosmetics? Use other cosmetic products in the composition as props.

Need to make a tabletop image of a medicine? Use herbal ingredients next to the box of pills.

Doing some jewelry photography for a hand-made designer? Consider using jeweler’s tools as props.

Use natural light and a smartphone for budget shots

Budget shots are a necessity many entrepreneurs had to resort to – only to learn that this is no way to save.

Still.

If you have to do it – watch a few tutorials on Youtube on how to use natural light or DIY your product photoshoot, arm yourself with a smartphone, and wait for a sunny day. Good luck!

Use Shutterstock and Pinterest for references and a well-rounded horizon

Squareshot Pinterest Lookbook

Before doing anything – allow other people's experiences to form and widen your vision. Use Shutterstock and Pinterest for some ideas and references that could help you produce an amazing picture.

Squareshot is here for when you are ready

If you are past the saving stage and in search of a product photography tabletop studio, give Squareshot a try.

Our extensive portfolio is growing by the day with hundreds of happy clients. We have now opened a product photography studio in Los Angeles and XXX on top of the HQ in New York.

Speak to our devoted sales manager to see how much it takes to give your e-commerce shop that needed boost with impeccable tabletop images. Whatever it takes, the ROI is going to be through the roof, so tell our clients.


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