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Mastering Nikon Speedlights: Product Photography Examples

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You can create great product photos using the Nikon Speedlights. This chapter from Mastering Nikon Speedlights: A Complete Guide to Small Flash Photography and the Creative Lighting System shows what is possible, whether using a single flash or many. Alan Hess walks you through the gear you need, shows how to set up the shot, and even discusses suggested camera and flash settings.
This chapter is from the book

For all the example images, I used the Creative Lighting System’s Advanced Wireless Lighting to trigger the remote flashes. You can use the built-in flash to trigger the remote units, or you can even use a TTL cord to trigger them from the camera. For all the photos, I used at least one light modifier, such as a softbox to diffuse the main light, or a Rogue Grid to control the spill of light on the background. Although you may never need to photograph splashing fruit, shinning knives, or glistening beer, the techniques required for the example shots will help you with many common photographic challenges.

Strawberry Splash

Sometimes the easiest photos to take look the most impressive and complicated. For instance, suppose you want to capture a strawberry splashing into milk at the moment the berry breaks the surface of the liquid. This action sounds difficult to capture, but it really isn’t. The hardest part is having the patience to drop the strawberry into the milk over and over again.


This shoot does not need a lot of gear because it uses just one light. The real issue with this shoot is that it can get messy—a side effect of those splashing milk drops. The gear needed for this photo is as follows:

  • Strawberries: You need some good-looking strawberries to drop in the milk. For the example shot, I spent a few minutes in the supermarket picking out the best pint of strawberries. Not all the strawberries need to be perfect, just two of three that have that proper strawberry shape. The color is also important; you are looking for a deep red because the image will be very bright. If your strawberry is on the lighter side to start with, it will look washed out in the final photo.
  • Milk: The cheapest gallon of milk at the local supermarket works great. You can also add a little cold water, if you need to stretch the amount out.
  • Plastic tub: You need a tub to hold the milk, one that’s deep enough to hold enough milk to create a good splash as the strawberry hits it. A white plastic tub works the best, but you can also use a clear one, as long as it is big enough so that you don’t see the edges (you don’t want to see anything that doesn’t look like milk). Once again, the supermarket offers inexpensive options.
  • Speedlight: The image will be lit by a single Speedlight in a softbox. I used an SB-910, but you can use any Speedlight that can act as a remote.
  • Softbox: The Speedlight needs to be diffused so that you don’t get hard shadows when the milk splashes up. I used the 26-inch Westcott Rapid Box Octa, which was the perfect size to light up the splash.
  • Boom or Century Stand: The light needs to be placed above the tub of milk and aimed down so that it can light the splash from above. To do this, you need a way to hold the light in place. A boom or a century stand can handle the job with ease. I prefer to use the century stand because it takes up less space, and I don’t have a lot of room to begin with.
  • Commander unit: You will need a way to trigger the light from the camera. I used the SU-800, but you can use another Speedlight or the built-in flash to trigger the flash.
  • Camera and lens: For the example photo, I used the Nikon D4 and a 105mm macro lens. You will want to use a lens that allows you to shoot a little wide so that you don’t miss the splash. You can always crop the image later.
  • Tripod: For this shot to work, the camera needs to be set in a tripod that can hold it at a downward angle above the plastic tub.
  • Towels: You can’t have too many towels handy on a messy shoot. I placed one towel under the plastic tub to catch any of the milk drops that made it over the edge but quickly realized I needed another towel to dry the milk from the strawberries I used as models. Each time I dropped a strawberry into the milk, I needed to fish it out and gently dry it for the next take.

Taking the Photo

The setup for this photo is simple: Place the tub full of milk on the work surface and the Speedlight in the softbox above it so the light aims straight down on the milk. Then, you drop the strawberry and press the shutter release button as the strawberry hits the milk (Figure 19.1).

Figure 19.1

Figure 19.1 The goal with this shot is to have the strawberry in focus and to capture the instant it breaks the surface of the milk.

NIKON D4 ISO 1600 1/2000 SEC. F/7.1

The first step is to get the exposure right using a shutter speed that will freeze the action. With the camera set to Manual exposure mode, I tried setting the shutter speed to 1/2000 and the aperture to f/7.1. This gave me a shutter speed that froze the splash and enough of depth of field to keep the strawberry and splash in focus. I set the Speedlight to act as a remote in Manual flash mode at 1/8 power.

The final step is to adjust the ISO. You want the white milk to look white, so I suggest starting at an ISO of 800 and taking a photo. If the milk is not white enough, you can move the ISO to 1600. If the milk is still not white enough, you can either increase the ISO or increase the output of the flash. For Figure 19.2, for example, a setting of 1/2000 second, f/7.1, and ISO 1600 with a Manual 1/8 power on the flash was still a little dull. I increased the power to 1/4, and that worked perfectly. Because the milk is white, it tends to reflect the light so it acts as a second light source.

Figure 19.2

Figure 19.2 Here is how the milk looked before I got the exposure dialed in. (I didn’t need to drop a strawberry until I had the proper exposure, but a photo of just milk here would have been dull in more ways than one.) To help whiten the milk, I ended up increasing the output of the flash from 1/8 to 1/4 while keeping the camera settings the same.

NIKON D4 ISO 1600 1/2000 SEC. F/7.1

The next step is to set the cameras focus on where you believe the strawberry is going to land. If you keep the camera on the Continuous Auto-Focus setting, the camera will try to focus as you press the shutter release button. This can cause a delay when you try to take the photo. You want to use Manual focus and pre-focus on the spot where the splash will happen. I just floated a clothespin and used auto-focus to get focus set; then I turned the camera to Manual focus and made sure I didn’t move the camera, lens, or milk (Figure 19.3).

Figure 19.3

Figure 19.3 I used a clothespin to act as the strawberry while I adjusted the focus. Because it was right on the surface, I could easily focus on it.

NIKON D4 ISO 1600 1/2000 SEC. F/7.1

The next steps are to actually drop the strawberry and take the photo. I held the strawberry over the milk with my right hand and put my left on the shutter release button. Then it was just a matter of dropping the strawberry, quickly moving my hand out of the way, and pressing the shutter release button as the strawberry hit the milk—over and over and over again.

You can see in Figure 19.4 that you not only have to press the shutter release button at the right moment but also need to move your hand out of the way to avoid a shadow of the hand in the milk. Press the shutter release button too early, and the strawberry is frozen in mid-air and out of focus; press the shutter release button too late, and the strawberry is covered in milk. You also need to pay attention to the look of the strawberry; for example, the middle image is ruined by a bruise on the berry.

Figure 19.4

Figure 19.4 The sequence of the strawberry drop proves timing is everything and practice is vital.

NIKON D4 ISO 1600 1/2000 SEC. F/7.1

I probably dropped the two best-looking strawberries into the same tub of milk more than 50 times before I got a shot I really liked. Between each drop, I waited until the milk was flat, and I dried off the strawberry. The final image (Figure 19.5) was the one where I could see the strawberry clearly and the splash looked the best.

Figure 19.5

Figure 19.5 Here’s the final strawberry splash image, which was my favorite of the shots I took.

NIKON D4 ISO 1600 1/2000 SEC. F/7.1

The setup for this shot is simple, and the results are fantastic. It’s easy to try with a minimum of gear—just have a towel handy.

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