One of the cool part of product and still life photography is that you have almost everytime the control over every settings your camera offers. That leaves you with the freedom to use only the ideal parameters. Here, I'd like to explain why I set the exposure (and non-exposure related) settings the way I do.
I want to use a shutter speed that is (in combination with ISO and aperture, of course) fast enough to kill all ambient light but still under the flash sync threshold. I usually go with 1/125th of a second. With that, if the strobes do not fire, I get a pure black, #000000, frame. The main reason why I do not want any ambient light is simple; the white balance will get mixed up and it’s a disaster to fix later on. Also, I can’t control the harshness or softness of it (or quite difficultly). However, when I need to see the screen from a device (like the upcoming FitBit shot), I lower the shutter speed to actually be able to see it.
That’s a big one. As opposed to what many may thinks, shooting at f/29 is less than ideal for product photography. More is in focus, yes, but everything is soft (very soft). That is because of lens diffraction. More on this is in this video on the physics of lens diffraction by Vadim Chiline. I photograph at f/8. It’s ideal for my sensor size and pixel area. Not only do I don’t have diffraction but I need less flash power. I want the ultimate image quality from my gear and choosing the best aperture is one way to do it.
ISO, too, is chosen to capture the best quality. Of most cameras, you can go as low as ISO 100. However, I can lower it up to ISO 50 on my Sony a7. The only problem is that it is not native ISO. There are some magic algorithms that permits the camera to go there. Some say that it’s the same exposure than ISO 100 only lowered by one stop. So, looking at a image quality chart, we can see that the best ISO is 80 (that graphic only applies to dynamic range but other aspects (image quality, quantity of colours, etc…) show a similar pattern). That best setting is usually called base ISO.
Is pretty much the simpler parameter. I set it to Auto White Balance because it prefer to tweak it in the computer. It’s got a better, bigger display. Also, as I don’t let any ambient light show through, the white balance is somewhat more uniform (albeit WB tend to be affected by flash power and you usually don’t have all of your flashes set at the power level, it’s still a lot more constant than with some room light).
File format is also an easy one for me, I SHOOT RAW. Again, I desire the greatest image quality (IQ). RAW contains more colour data and dynamic range as well as overall image quality. However, it’s larger file.
So, that was the 5 base settings I use for commercial product and still life imagery. I’m really in the mindset of benefiting from the utmost IQ from my equipment. It’s costing me mostly only file size (RAW Vs. JPEG) and post-processing time (e.g.: focus stacking) but it’s worth it to me.