Tech Shortcuts for Life

How to Take Professional Product Photos in Your Bathtub

Selling your stuff? Photos matter.

Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automations, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

Are you doing some New Year’s cleaning and selling off your unwanted items on eBay or Letgo? Maybe you’re using your lockdown time to launch a new product on Amazon or start a shop on Etsy? Or maybe you’d just like 2021 to be the year where you finally photograph every member of your antique Kewpie doll collection. Whatever your reason, at some point, you’ve probably needed to take high-quality photos of a product or possession. What’s the best way to do this?

Great product photos have bright, even lighting, a crisp white or solid-colored background, and are shot close-up so viewers can see all the details of your product or object. To take them, you could invest in a professional tabletop photo tent complete with a lightbox, backdrops, strobes, and more. But there’s an easier way. You likely have a well-lit, perfectly white, ideally sloped photo studio in your home right now just waiting to be used. It’s called a bathtub.

I’m a professional photographer, and I originally discovered the idea of taking product photos in my bathtub while working from home during the pandemic. I was wandering around my house looking for good backdrops and realized that my tub had the perfect conditions to produce great product photos. I’ve since used the technique to take shots that appeared in the BBC, AARP, Yahoo Finance, and right here on Debugger, among many other places.

To take your own pro-quality product photos, bring your product to your (empty) tub. Light is absolutely key for any kind of photography, and natural light is best. Luckily, bathrooms are often designed to be bright, airy spaces that bring in tons of natural light, which is one of the reasons they’re a great place to photograph products. Embrace that — fully open your blinds, keep doors open to allow in light from other rooms, and choose mid-morning or mid-afternoon on a sunny day for your shoot. You can even use a hand mirror to direct more natural sunlight into your tub.

Next, position your product. For the best shots, you want your product to be fully surrounded by a crisp, white background. You also want to minimize shadows on your background so that the product appears to be floating in a big white sea of nothingness. That focuses viewers’ attention on the product itself and allows your photo to blend easily into the layout of an e-commerce website or blog, many of which have white backgrounds themselves.

With their gently sloping sides, tubs have the perfect angles and geometry to envelop your product in a glorious sea of white (if your tub isn’t actually perfectly white, don’t worry — we’ll get to that later). I recommend positioning your product about 6–12 inches from the side of your tub. That way, the tub’s sloping sides blend into your background, giving it a seamless look, but you still minimize shadows on the background.

Next, position your camera. You can use your phone or a standalone DSLR or mirrorless camera. I either rest my camera directly on the bottom of the tub or use a small desktop tripod to elevate it slightly and position it perfectly. Depending on the product you’re photographing and the minimum focusing distance of your camera, you can position the camera anywhere from 5 inches to 2 feet away from your product.

Switch on your camera’s macro mode (usually represented by an icon of a flower) if it has one, and set it to a single-point autofocus with your product right in the center of the frame. Make sure to allow some white space on either side of your product — we’ll crop that out later. If you allow your product to get too close to the edges of your frame, you’ll end up with lens distortions, which are challenging to remove after the fact.

Here’s how a typical setup looks in my own tub. In this case, I’m photographing various home surveillance cameras.

Next, set your camera to take RAW or DNG photos, if you’re able. If you’re using an Android phone, set it to professional mode or consider a third-party app that lets your iPhone shoot RAW photos. This allows it to capture all the data coming out of its camera module, which will come in handy later when we edit our photos.

Now, shoot away! Choose different angles and different positions for your product. Get super close, or slide the camera back a few feet. Move the product around, or prop it up from below with some coins to get a different angle. I’ve even used gaffer’s tape to temporarily tape a product to the side of the tub in order to get the perfect angle.

Once you’re done shooting, take a look at your photos and choose a few that you like the best. Here’s a shot of a Wyze home surveillance camera taken in my tub using my Samsung Galaxy S10 phone.

This already looks great — certainly better than 90% of what you see on eBay. But we can make it even better.

Open up the App store or Google Play, and download the Adobe Lightroom app. Lightroom is a pro-quality photo-editing app from Adobe which I often use to edit news photos while shooting on location. Adobe provides the full version for free, likely in the hopes that you’ll subscribe to their Adobe Creative Suite.

Transfer your favorite shots to your phone if you’re using a standalone camera, and then open the Lightroom app. Press the plus sign at the lower right to import your product photos. Once they’re in the app, go to “All Photos” and click on one to open it. You’ll see the photo in the center of the screen and editing options at the bottom.

You should also see a white graph at the top of the screen, called a histogram. The histogram shows the distribution of light values in the image. If you don’t see it, press the three dots at the upper right and enable “Show Histogram.”

Now that we have the photo open in Lightroom, we’re going to make some edits. Our first goal is to make the background as close to pure white as possible to give our photos a polished, professional look. Press the “Light” button at the bottom of the screen, and then select “Curve.” You’ll see a graph superimposed over your image. Hold down on the right side of the graph, and drag it up and down.

As you change the shape of the curve, you’ll see the brightness of your background change. You’ll also see the histogram morph and slide from side to side. Play with the curves of your photo until the background is a super bright white but the product itself doesn’t look washed out. You might need to drag the curve in multiple places. Look at the histogram, too. You want it to be shifted all the way to the right, which indicates that you’ve substantially increased the amount of light-colored areas in your photo. When you’ve finished tweaking the background, press “Done.”

Don’t get carried away, though, or your colors could look unrealistic, or you could mistakenly misrepresent the actual product.

Next, we’re going to make sure that the whites in our image really are white and that the lightbulbs in the bathroom or the color of the tub didn’t give your photo some weird color cast. Select “Color” at the bottom, and then press the dropper. A selector will appear on your image that you can drag around with your finger to change your photo’s white balance. Move it to a pure-white portion of your photo, like a well-lit part of the background. You should see your photo’s color change — ideally to look crisper and more realistic.

Experiment with selecting different parts of the image until you get colors that look accurate, and then press the checkmark to apply the changes.

You can also experiment with the saturation and vibrance sliders. These enhance the color in your image, which can make a big difference if you’re photographing colorful fabric or a piece of art. Don’t get carried away, though, or your colors could look unrealistic, or you could mistakenly misrepresent the actual product. Finally, go back to the main menu, and select “Crop.” Drag the crop points so that your product is centered in the frame and there’s minimal background visible around it. Press the check box.

Congrats — your photo is done! Press the “Share” button in the upper right to export it. I like to upload mine to Google Photos, where I can then send my photos to people, search for them later, or hand them off to a stock photography marketplace for sale to publications.

Here’s how my Wyze camera photo looks after editing:

Again, these are good enough to use in real publications — especially if you shoot them with a high-quality camera instead of your phone. Once you know how to use Lightroom, you might find yourself using it for other photo editing tasks, too. Family portraits, vacation photos, and dog pics alike all look better when they’re shot in a RAW format and edited in software like Lightroom. You can also experiment with Adobe’s Photoshop, which allows you to fully remove the background from your product photo and place your product on a virtual, perfectly white surface.

Now list your product, publish your photos, fill up that tub, and take a nice, relaxing soak. You’ve earned it!

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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