How to Photograph Your Everyday Essentials

Final product image

What You'll Be Creating

Photographing a collection of personal items is a great way to visually share your personality and lifestyle. Getting the right background and lighting for your objects can really enhance the photograph and give it the right vibe. Images that look stunning get shared over and over, being seen by thousands of people. All it takes is some forethought when it comes to background and set up and some simple lighting.
The background can make or break a photograph. It needs to help pull the items in the photo together to become a cohesive image. Choosing a background can be tricky but all you need to consider is whether it adds to the image or takes away from it. It adds to the photograph when it holds interest, such as when an old, distressed piece of wood is used as a backdrop for a vintage or rugged subject. A backdrop can take away from an image if it is too busy or just does not connect with the essence of the subject. An example of this would be using a really busy patterned cloth for items that have a clean, minimal aesthetic.

Background possibilities for your photograph

A backdrop can be created by just about anything you have around the home or office. It can be your favorite piece of furniture, such as a table, countertop, or hardwood floor. You can also use fabric or textiles. Just make sure that it is smooth and unwrinkled. Paper is another great item to use as a backdrop. It is my favorite because of its utility and low cost. You can use plain papers such as craft paper or butcher paper or you can also purchase decorative papers that come in different patterns and textures.
Careful and thoughtful arrangement of your everyday essentials will create a strong image. When arranging subjects for a photograph, I try not to think about what they are but rather how they look. I consider their color, shape, size, and texture and arrange them so they work well together.
I aim to create paths for the viewer’s eye to travel along. To accomplish this, I look for items that create strong lines and then use those lines to lead the eye to other areas of the image. I also look at the shapes created in between the subjects. These areas are known as negative shapes and have quite an impact on a viewer. I then look at items to see how they complement or contrast each other in color or texture. Our eyes love contrast and are naturally drawn to areas of contrasting value or texture. Try putting a white object next to a dark blue or black object to see what I mean.

Items arranged on a grey background

Arranging items in a grid is an effective technique because it allows the viewer to easily compare items that are in different cells of the grid. Just be careful not to divide an image in halves because the resulting composition tends be a bit dull. A great alternative is to arrange the grid in thirds, as this creates a composition with more visual interest. Some experimentation will lead you to the best arrangement.
Try arranging your everyday essentials so that only part of each item is in the photo. Then get up close for a photo that shows the details in the subject, such as the construction details or the marks that show up from everyday useage. Try using the Macro setting on your camera to allow the camera to focus up close. Macro mode is indicated by the flower icon on most cameras.

A close-up shot of everyday essential items

The easiest light to use comes from a large window on a cloudy day or a window that does not get direct sunlight. I like to lay out my items on a table near the my biggest window and let the natural light do the work. I also use a large white card to help reflect light back into the image. This way the window itself lights one side of the layout and the reflector lights the opposite side. This will help to even out the lighting and eliminate strong shadows.

A simple lighting setup using natural window light

If the sun is coming directly into the window and creating deep shadows, I use a piece of thin white cloth to diffuse and soften the light. Thin paper, like tracing paper, or frosted Mylar also work great to diffuse light.
When the sun is down or on a cloudy winter day, I switch to a pair of clamp work lights. These are inexpensive and their light can easily be directed where it needs to go. A pair of lamps also works well. The lights should be placed at even distances and angled at 45 degrees to the subject to get nice, even light and minimize any reflections that are created. You can change the distance that the light is from the subject to alter how bright it is. Moving the light closer makes it appear brighter and moving it away will reduce the amount of light reaching the subject.

A simple two light setup for your everyday essentals photo

With this type of photo, where much of it is filled with items of similar value, cameras often create an image that is too dark. This can easily be overcome by using the exposure compensation feature on your camera. Almost all cameras have this feature, whether it is a smartphone or DSLR, and it works in most camera modes. Look for the button or icon that has a plus and minus symbol on it. If the image is too dark, increase the exposure compensation to the plus side. If the image appears too light, move the exposure compensation to the minus side.
Good color balance in a photograph makes a massive difference to the quality of the image. Color balance or white balance make up for the differences in the color of light that comes from the light source. For example, incandescent lightbulbs are warmer or more red and yellow than a cooler light source like sunlight.
Normally our eyes automatically compensate for this difference and digital cameras try to as well but their auto white balance function can sometimes be fooled. When that happens the neutral areas of an image can look too yellow or too blue.
A simple way to set your white balance is to look for your white balance settings and choose one of the presets. Cameras have pre-installed presets for common light sources such as sunlight, fluorescent light, and shaded sunlight. All you have to do is choose the one that matches the type of light that you are using and you’re set.
One of the most effective ways to adjust your camera's white balance is to use the Custom White Balance function. Most point and shoot and DSLR cameras have this setting. All camera makers have slightly different ways to set Custom White Balance so you will want to look in your camera manual for specific instructions.
And that is it! You have just created a great photo of your everyday essentials and wow it's time to share it. 
Let's recap the main points of this tutorial:
  • Choose a background that enhances the features of your objects.
  • Window light and a reflector card is an effective and affordable way to light
  • If you live in a very dark place or don't have windows, two lamps will do the trick
  • Arrange your items to make use of negative space and excite the viewer's eye
  • Use exposure compensation to capture an accurate exposure
  • Use white balance to capture accurate colors
Here is a look at my everyday essentials photo.

A look at my everyday essentials photograph


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