Are you looking to sell handmade products on Etsy? Or maybe level up your flat lay skills for Instagram?

If so, this tabletop photography guide is for you. Tabletop photography is not only a fun way to learn the basics of photography, it’s an absolutely crucial skill for anyone who sells their own products.

What Is Tabletop Photography?

Tabletop photography is just what it sounds like—it’s photography small enough that it can be done on a table. 

When you’re photographing items like food, products, or jewelry, you don’t need a large studio space. That’s why tabletop photography is perfect for beginners—it gives you an opportunity to learn the craft in the comfort of your own home and on a minimal budget.

Examples of Tabletop Photography

The most common types of tabletop photography include product photography on a plain background, flat lays, and stylized photos (or products in their natural environment). Here are a few great examples to get you inspired:

Skillshare instructor Tabitha Park shares an example of a stylized tabletop photo. 
bread and knife
Skillshare student Maria Matusova shares an example of a flat lay photo. 
Skillshare instructor Nehha Deshmukh shares an example of product photography on a plain background. 

What Equipment You Need for Tabletop Photography

The beauty of tabletop photography is that you can make it work with just about any equipment you have. Whether you’re shooting with a DSLR or a smartphone, use a tabletop photography kit or natural light and a white poster, the principles remain the same. 

Let’s take a look at the basic elements you need for your tabletop photography setup, as well as some equipment options you could invest in down the line. 

1. A Working Space

Think of your working space as a mini studio for your tabletop photography. Depending on what you want the final product to look like, you may choose to set up your photos on a table, on the floor, against a wall, or in a makeshift space.

If you have the budget and are looking for more professional results, consider investing in a tabletop photography kit. These usually include a shooting tent to place your product in, a special shooting table, or a mini cyclorama, as well as a set of LED lights. If you are only looking to shoot product photos with a clean white background, consider purchasing a tabletop light box photography kit, which is essentially a white box with a built-in lighting system. 

If you’re interested in tabletop light box photography, Tabitha Park’s Skillshare class will teach you how to make your own DIY light box.

lightbox diy
Tabitha Park’s Skillshare class on how to make your own DIY light box. 

2. Surfaces and Backdrops

If you’re looking to capture objects in a more natural environment, you can forego purchasing a pre-made tabletop photography setup and use materials found in everyday life. 

Start with what you already have around your home—a clean countertop, your floor, bedsheets, a blanket, paper, or any other surface you can think of. 

From there, you can purchase inexpensive additions to your collection of backdrops. Park shares many great ideas in her Skillshare class on DIY backdrops, including how to use chalkboards and tiles. She even shows a tutorial on how to grout backsplash tile to use in your tabletop photography. 

lightbulb terrarium
Tabitha Park showcases a photo she took using her DIY backsplash. 

3. Lighting

If you’re wondering how to light tabletop photography, natural lighting is an effective and inexpensive option. 

All you need is a window with sufficient natural light coming in. If the light is too direct or too harsh, you can diffuse it with a sheer curtain or tracing paper. 

A common problem people face with tabletop photography lighting is having too many shadows on the subject. To have better control of where the shadows fall, purchase a few white and black foam boards. The white foam board will reflect light and fill it into areas of your subject where it’s lacking. If there’s too much light spilling onto your backdrop, you can use a black foam board to block some of that light. Lastly, consider getting a few corner brackets and spring clamps from the hardware store—they’ll do a great job of holding your backdrop and foam board pieces in place. 

make a homemade background
Tabitha Park uses spring clamps and corner brackets to hold her backdrop and foam boards in place and create ideal lighting conditions for her photo. 

The only issue with natural lighting is that there’s a time limit on when you can shoot. If you have poor natural lighting or need to shoot after dark, look into artificial lighting. Your options here include special tabletop photography lighting kits, studio softbox lights, strobe lights, or speedlights that attach to your camera. 

4. Camera

Before you invest in a professional DSLR camera and lenses, practice your skills with what you already have. Your composition and knowing how to light tabletop photography the right way will have a much bigger impact on the quality of your photos than the camera you use.

When you’re ready for an upgrade, consider what you need your camera to accomplish. Unless your photos will be blown up on a massive billboard, you probably don’t need more than a 12 or 16 megapixel camera. 

In terms of lenses, a macro lens will allow you to take close-ups of your subject with incredible detail, but you can definitely get away with a standard 18-55mm kit lens. When purchasing lenses, also consider the available focal length. If you’d like your photos to have a blurry background or other objects around your main subject that are out of focus, an f/1.4 lens would be a great addition to your setup. 

5. Tripod

While a tripod isn’t a must-have, it is highly recommended. When shooting at low shutter speeds—which you may choose to do to allow more light into your photo—you can’t afford any camera shake. Your hands will naturally move and cause your photos to be slightly blurry. A tripod and a remote shutter release will allow you to get sharp photos without ever touching the camera. 

Some types of tabletop photography, particularly flat lays, are done from directly above the subject. While you can achieve this effect by standing and holding your camera above your setup, it’s much easier if you have a tripod with an extension arm or an overhead rig. 

Tabitha Park photo set up
Tabitha Park uses a tripod with an extension arm to secure the camera directly above the subject of her photo. 

How to Get Started With Tabletop Photography

The best way to learn tabletop photography is to start shooting, regardless of what equipment you have on hand. Once you start practicing, you’ll be able to identify what you need to purchase or DIY to achieve a more professional final product. 

Here are the simple steps to get you started:

Step 1: Prepare

Find a suitable location with a sturdy tabletop and good lighting. Prepare your subject, making sure there’s no dust or scuff marks on it. Think about your composition and gather any additional props and associated objects or materials. 

Step 2: Set the Scene

Set up your surface and backdrop. Place your subject in the center and play around with different arrangements. You can photograph the subject alone or add a few other objects to create a more natural environment. 

put extra bits around the product
Skillshare student Rachel Handley’s setup. She used cinnamon sticks, flower petals, and sprinkled spices to enhance her composition.

Step 3: Set Up Lighting 

Use natural or artificial lighting to make sure your subject is well lit. Play around with having the light source come from behind, the side or the front of your subject. Use a diffuser to soften the light. 

Try placing white foam boards to direct light into places that need more of it and black foam boards to block light from spilling too much. Your goal should be to reduce shadows on your subject as much as possible. 

white board helps reflects light
Tabitha Park places a white foam board directly in front of the light source to reflect light onto her subject. 

Step 4: Set Up Equipment

If you’re using a tripod, set it in place. If you have a DSLR camera, use manual mode and adjust settings such as the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. For high quality photos, aim for ISO of no more than 100 (you may need to back and add more light to achieve this).

If you’re using a smartphone, there are apps you can download that will allow you to adjust these settings. 

Take a few test shots and play around with the settings until you’ve achieved the desired results. 

Step 5: Shoot and Edit

For every great photo, there are often hundreds of discards, so take your time getting a variety of shots. When you’re happy with a few photos, use an editing app or software to make a few adjustments. 

Most importantly, you’ll need to crop your photo so none of your setup is visible. You’ll also likely need to play around with brightness and contrast, shadows and highlights, exposure and color correction. For more detailed instructions, check out this Skillshare class on how to edit product photography.

lighting comparison
Kristina Turner teaches Photo Editing for Bright and Bold Product Photography.

Create Your Own Tabletop Photography Backdrops

DIY Backdrops: Dynamic Surfaces for Tabletop Photography

Written By

Sayana Lam

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