Luke Ayers: The Life of a Professional Product Photographer

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All images by Luke Ayers. Used with permission.

Product photography comes in all different shapes and schemes–just ask photographer Luke Ayers. He’s a photographer that has used the cheapest eBay lights to impress clients and became obsessed with learning how to light, tell stories by using light, and use lighting to make things just look great. Luke was invited to be a part of the Creating the Photograph series, and showed us that besides what he does for clients, he can also use light to create beautiful scenes for the fashion world.

Luke talked to the Phoblographer about the business, lighting, and how wants to grow even more as a photographer.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Luke: My passion for photography actually started with my passion for filmmaking. I was about about eight years old when my dad casually let me watch the film Saving Private Ryan. My god, I was amazed at the emotional impact that both moving images and sound could have on a person, and from that moment all I wanted to do was learn how to create that same emotional effect upon others.

I started by making loads of short films with friends from my neighbourhood and continued the practice until one day I actually got good at it. Then when I was about twelve I one day whimsically borrowed my parents point and shoot digital camera on a trip away and took a photo of some flowers, and oh my god I saw the background turn to real bokeh for the first time! I was hooked!

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From that point on it was all about learning techniques and acquiring the right gear and making loads of mistakes until my photos slowly began to resemble the stuff I was seeing the pros produce. It was also many years of upset and fascination as I never attended any formal photography course, just learned what I could find on the internet and then practiced, practiced, practiced.

Phoblographer: There comes a point in every photographer’s (or most) career/life where they want to get into strobism and creating their own light. how did you know you wanted to dive into it?

Luke: I was seeing a lot of high-end fashion images in magazines all the time and I kept wondering why the hell the sunlight I was using for all my shots was not creating the same result. I then one day read an article which stated the magical words “If you can imagine it, you can create it with flash.” Up until then I was imagining a lot of images which I never thought I could create, until I finally discovered you could do it with off-camera speedlites. So from that point I was determined to find out how!

“It was also many years of upset and fascination as I never attended any formal photography course, just learned what I could find on the internet and then practiced, practiced, practiced.”

Phoblographer: How did you go about learning to light and understanding what it can do for your photographs?

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Luke: I was fortunate enough on my very first web search to stumble across David Hobby’s Strobists 101 guide. That is the BEST education on off-camera flash I think anyone could find anywhere. I learned the basics of everything I needed to know from just that one article. Truly remarkable and simply written but so comprehensive! I recommend anyone starting out or even professional to read it at least once.

Phoblographer: How do you feel adding lights to a scene helps you with your creative vision?

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Luke: It’s just so awesome because you know how everyone wants that amazing orange sunset light to just last forever? Well with flash it CAN last forever. Enough said!

Phoblographer: How has knowing how to light helped you in your quest to get more paid work/gigs?

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Luke: When you really understand how light works and how to modify it and how it can affect objects in different ways depending on angle and the degree of diffusion then you can make the most mundane products or people look incredible! And people pay good money to have things looking good in photos. While there are of course other factors to consider such as composition, make-up, styling, etc. without light there is no photo at all!

Phoblographer: So let’s talk gear, what do you often find yourself using and what light modifiers do you prefer to use? Why?

Luke: To be brutally honest, I’ve used some seriously cheap lighting equipment for some of my best work so far. I’m talking like no-name brand Ebay $60 strobes from China. It’s embarrassing to talk about them sometimes, but the only two things I worry about them is the continuity of the light temperature between shots and the mystery of when they may suddenly stop working.

Unless it bothers you or your client personally to use budget equipment then it’s really only the end result that matters. I had a client once seriously questioning my professionalism when I showed up with my “Ebay kit”, only to swallow his words and afterwards become one of my greatest fans when he saw the first image come on screen. However sometimes to keep your client happy is reason enough to buy expensive good-looking equipment, as it’s all part of the service to look your best.

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As for speedlites, I’ve used Canon flashes in the past, but right now I’m a big fan of the Yongnuo 560III as it has a built-in radio trigger and costs only about $80 with no discernible difference in light quality to my eyes from that of the bigger brands. And they’ve never failed me once yet.

“Unless it bothers you or your client personally to use budget equipment then it’s really only the end result that matters.”

Deep down I’ve always wanted to prove that it’s more about the photographer than the equipment, and so I hopefully I’ve done exactly that with my current portfolio which has been shot with a camera, lens and lighting setup work only around $1000 total, believe it or not.

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As for light modifiers I started off with umbrellas which work great for anything which isn’t reflective, but once you start photographing rings and wine bottles you really start to see some strange spider-like reflections that you get sick of photoshopping out after a while. So these days I’m leaning more toward square soft boxes. For small product photography however a great tip is to just hang a roll of baking paper down nice and close to the object and shoot your flash through it. Makes for a great large and soft light source that is crazy cheap to buy.

Phoblographer: Lighting is a big part of your commercial work, but how do you use it in your personal work?

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Luke: If I ever get time for personal work then my ideal lighting is just one great big softbox. I love to keep it “simple and soft”. Big soft boxes are like a giant frosted window that you can take anywhere, and you basically just can’t go wrong with it. I’m also quite surprised sometimes that some of the most amazing images you see in fashion, etc. are all done with just one light. It almost makes the photographer seem like an amateur and not very professional, but I guess a real amateur would need five flashes to make an image look good whereas a true pro could do it with just one.

Phoblographer: So at this stage in your career, you’re surely obviously where you are. Where do you want to be in one year and how do you plan on getting there?

Luke: My greatest joy in professional work is to take beautiful pictures of beautiful things to really show them in their best light (pun intended). My aim is to start taking photos for bigger and bigger-name brands. Also architecture and real-estate photography is a new area I’m just breaking into now.

The two best ways I’ve found to promote yourself and get new clients is 1) meet and work with other people in the same industry, i.e.: work WITH your competitors, not against them, and 2) sending lots of cold emails to your target market and introducing yourself in a genuine way, not in a salesman-like way but honestly and sincerely, to really find out what is needed and wanted from THEM, not what YOU want to get out of them. There are far too many sales messages in world and not enough questions as to WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY NEED FROM ME? I find that approach is pretty successful and encourage anyone to try it for themselves.

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