If you have a flashgun and, ideally, a large light modifier such as a softbox or umbrella, then potentially you have a whole world of product photography at your fingertips.
Of course, while some product photography, like macro close-ups of jewellery, is very technical, there are still lots of still life shots you can take using just one flashgun. You could just bounce it off a wall or ceiling if you don’t have any modifiers.
One of the biggest advantages of shooting products is that you can usually do it inside, so there’s not normally a problem with trying to balance your flash with powerful outdoor sunlight. Even the most humble flash can usually provide plenty of light at close quarters, and if you have an armoury of reflectors—which can be as simple as pieces of card or bits of tin foil—then you have a top lighting rig already!
The best thing about small flashes is that they are very portable. With a couple of flashes, an umbrella, and a grid for some rim-lighting, you can shoot lots of top-quality product pictures.
As with shooting cars, the key to photographing shiny objects is to manage the reflections. A reflection is actually a mirror image of the light source. So shooting juicy strawberries with a big softbox means the shiny bits of skin reflect an image of the softbox that can look great. Just remember that at very close distances, the fall-off from your lights can be extreme. Move the flash away, and the light becomes more even, but harder. Of course, if you’re using a big softbox this is hardly a huge issue!
The main instances when you will use ambient light to balance with the flash is when you’re shooting food. Lots of modern food photography is shot using predominantly natural light, enhanced by a splash of light from the flash. It’s a more natural look that’s a world apart from old-fashioned studio-style shots of food using totally controlled lighting.
This natural look can lend itself very well to shallow depth of field. With large flashes you’d struggle to do this, unless you resorted to neutral density filters. By using small hotshoe flashes, you can adjust the power to very low level, which is ideal for balancing with low light and using a shallow depth of field. If you’re shooting a fully dedicated system, you can also go even higher on the shutter speed—past your sync speed—to choose whatever aperture and shutter speed combination you desire.
The Flash Photography Field Guide is Adam Duckworth’s indispensable guide to getting the best out of your artificial light sources, whether you shoot with a simple light on your camera, a remotely-triggered unit, or a complete studio setup. Duckworth offers expert guidance on lights, supports, adapters, triggering, placement, and techniques, plus with comprehensive case studies, lighting diagrams and information on setups that will help you to achieve professional quality results using flash.