Successful product photographers are able to adapt with the times, while maintaining a strong personal style that sets them apart from the crowd. For the past 35 years, Eberhard Schuy has done just that. As well as being a Canon Ambassador, he has also worked for the likes of Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, Linde AG, Arri and Atlas Copco Energas to name but a few, shooting everything from still life to food, working with models and even venturing into videography.
He is known for perfecting the shot in-camera rather than using post-production software, meaning lots of his time is spent preparing products and lighting on-set to get top-notch results. From pre-production work brief to capturing the image, Eberhard explains his process for photographers wishing to go pro in product photography.
How do you work with a client at the briefing stage to ensure you get a good end result?
"The process is almost always the same, no matter who the client is. First we have a discussion about the idea for the photograph, during which I'll take notes. Then I create a checklist of all the small details commensurate with the shoot. I've found that if I don't do this and there's a miscommunication, it's those small details that often take a long time, and several emails, to clarify. This is something best avoided unless you want to annoy the customer.
"These checklists consist of trivial but deceptively important things. Which formats are desired? Colour or black and white? Are the images going to be printed or used on the internet? Are there desired perspectives/angles? Are there specific fonts to be used for type? Does the text come later in the process, and if so, where does it need to go? The last question is when will the bill be paid. It might sound silly, but I say that very seriously. That's a very important question in commercial photography."
Which Canon cameras do you find best for product photography?
"I usually use the Canon EOS 5DS R, because my clients require the pictures in larger formats and the 50.6-megapixel sensor gives me the resolution I need. However, I like to use the smaller Canon EOS M50 for shoots that don't require the same resolution. I was recently carrying my gear 2,500 metres up in the mountains to develop some ideas for a fashion label, and at that point I was particularly pleased about the small, lightweight design of the mirrorless EOS M50."
Macro lenses help when photographing smaller products, but which focal length do you find works best?
"I choose to shoot with the longer Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens because I need the increased working distance from my subjects, especially when they're small. It means I can easily illuminate the products without the camera or lens getting in the way, casting shadows. With shorter lenses that have smaller working distances, lighting is more difficult. I've found that the camera has to be closer to the product with shorter focal length lenses, and in glossy products the reflection of the camera will be more visible."
What do you find useful about zoom lenses for product work?
"Much of my location work takes place in industrial spaces and factories, and I'm often shooting in very tight spaces, so that limits the positions I can shoot from. Therefore, I take a zoom lens in preparation for this. My go-to zoom lens is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM, which is perfect when I take industrial shots. It always gives me the perfect breadth of focal length, because I can go wide with the 24mm end if I need an expansive shot, or zoom in to 105mm to get closer details. It depends on what I want in the frame."
How does a tilt-shift lens change the way you work with products?
"I shoot on camera bodies that provide me with maximum dynamic range, so I need a lens that supports that level of quality. A good tilt-shift makes every angle possible – perfect side views, shots without optical distortion – and provides me with sharpness in areas exactly as I would like them. Similarly to my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM prime lens, I like shooting on the longer Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro tilt-shift. Also, when I work commercially, my customers look at the gear I work with (even though ultimately only the picture is important). So I have to be seen to use the best kit."
What's the best way to meter and manage lighting in product photography?
"Some 95% of all situations can be measured well with the light meter in the camera. However, in difficult or extreme lighting conditions, which I often encounter when shooting products, I need to measure individual parts of the scene with my Gossen light meter to achieve the dramatic effects I strive for. This is especially true for work on location."
What are some of your go-to techniques for lighting products?
"I'm using continuous lighting more and more. A good LED technology with really constant colour values allows the perfect assessment of the light, in real-time. I work with Arri LED L5-C and L7-C lamps and the Arri Skypanels S30-C and S60-C. I'll usually shoot with just one or two lights. First, I'll start by balancing the key light to illuminate my subject, and then I'll add fill light.
"I think that continuous light gives off a little more nuance, even with relatively direct lighting. I feel the subtleties of the colours from the lights are more apparent when shooting with continuous light. Perhaps this is because the slightly longer exposure times allow some ambient light to leak through to the final image? Either way, that's good for my style of photography. I love those fine nuances in the pictures."
How do you ensure accurate colour rendition when shooting? Do you do it in-camera or in post-processing?
"I make sure that all colour values of the lighting are taken into account first. That's because everything that is possible to do on the set, is done on the set. One phrase that's absolutely forbidden in my studio is 'We'll do that later in Photoshop'. To ensure product colours are consistent, I use the SpyderCube. This not only gives me adjustment aids for the grey value, but also maximum white and black values. Due to its cubed shape, it provides tonal information from multiple sides. This is something that flat grey cards struggle to do due to their two-dimensionality."
Product photography turnaround is often fast-paced. How much time will you allocate to a single product photoshoot?
"It depends on the type of presentation. Without preparation, a simple pack shot should be done in two hours. The preparation of the objects sometimes takes five to six hours. On a still-life shoot it depends on the arrangement. What looks really simple in the picture is often very time-consuming to construct."
What trends have there been in product photography in the 35 years you've been shooting?
"I've seen many style changes over the years, from factual representations to bluish-hued images. There was heavy use of desaturation for a while, and lifestyle models, and even the mimicking of cinematography to produce a filmic quality. However, ultimately you should have your own style. Do not look at other pictures to copy them, except to practise your skills. As digital technology has made it more accessible for photographers to master the techniques involved with product photography, it's now your own creativity that's in demand.
"The best advice I have for other photographers who want to get into product photography is to keep taking pictures, over and over again. It is really important in product photography to master the technology and learn how to work with light. Even after 35 years as a product photographer, I am still challenged by certain products. You have to build a relationship with the objects. Sometimes I talk to them – that sounds crazy, but it helps to order things in your head while shooting. You have to respect the task, the product and the people behind it."