Pro Tips For DIY Cannabis Photography
It’s no exaggeration to say that high quality photography is the best way to highlight your cannabis plants and products, whether we’re talking your website, your social media channels, or via marketing and advertising. How else can you so quickly and effectively show off your cannabis than with photographs? Consumers might find you via websites such as Leafly, or by perusing their Instagram feed, but no matter where they first encounter you, the only way you can convince them to stop scrolling and check out YOUR products as opposed to your competitor’s is with stand out, professional photography.
It’s really a no brainer, yet when you actually look at the quality of cannabis photography, it’s amazing to me how many sub-par images are getting published in magazines or posted online. I constantly find photos that are out of focus or crooked because they were shot on a phone, or where the lighting is tinted a hideous yellow, or was produced with a high contrast flash. In either case, the results are more likely to turn away potential customers than attract them.
I get it that not every cannabis company can afford the services of a professional photographer, especially when they are just starting out. So today, let’s take a look at what amateur photographers can do to improve their output and make photographs that a professional would be proud of. Or at the very least, that won’t leave people feeling nauseous.
The Challenges Of Cannabis Photography
The most popular form of cannabis photography probably involves close up, macro shots of large cannabis flowers in full bloom, usually in an indoor setting. Unfortunately for amateur photographers and strapped-for-cash grow ops, these also happen to be among the most difficult shots to do well. This is because indoor cannabis lighting is both harsh and in an off-putting color temperature. Trying to take photos with a cell phone will result in weird tints or ugly flash photography that is high in contrast.
There also tends to be very tight quarters in indoor grows, making it hard to set up a tripod, or get an isolated shot of one particular flower. The rooms may be filled with powerful fans that are required to compensate for the heat generated by the grow lights, meaning the plants are always in motion as well. The cramped rooms also leave very few options when it comes to background.
Even more barriers are posed by the sub-category of cannabis photography known as macro photography or trichome photography. This includes the amazing shots people like to see of crystals growing on the plant or, even more amazingly, the trichomes sticking up off the flowers, as if through a magnifying glass. To reproduce these kinds of photos requires special kinds of equipment that can be very expensive.
So what’s an amateur to do? Here are some tips for aspiring cannabis photographers and small cannabis companies that can’t afford a professional.
Dial In The Focus
The number one rule of product photography is your product has got to be in focus. This is certainly true of cannabis photography, and one of the biggest challenges posed for those who want quality DIY photos of their cannabis. Almost every other aspect of the photograph can be dealt with in post, but there’s no rescuing a blurry photo. If the detail isn’t there, the photo is lost.
This is why the sharpness of a photograph really matters. The problem with iPhone and Android photography is that it’s hard to really dial in the focus when you’re just touching a point on the screen.
One thing that you’re going to need to learn is how aperture and, to a lesser degree, shutter speed, effect the depth of focus of your image. Depth of Focus is a photography term that refers to how much of the image is within the focal range of the camera. With some photos, there is only a narrow band in focus, and everything in the foreground and background is highly blurred. In other situations, most of the image is sharp, from the front to the way back, meaning there’s a wide depth of field.
Most cameras, even cell phone cameras, will have an option to control the aperture, with numbers ranging from 1.4 or so, to 22. You’ll often see this written with an f in front of it, so the aperture might be f2.4 or f11. The bigger that number, the wider the depth of field.
The secret to professional photography is that usually you want a narrow depth of field. For product photography, you want the depth of field to be just enough that the product itself is in focus, with the background at least slightly blurred. But when you’re dealing with a narrow depth of field, you have to be really certain that your subject is crystal clear.
The more you practice with the focus on your camera of choice, the better you’ll become at producing sharp photos.
Make Sure You Have A Decent Tripod Or Stabilizer
Speaking of focus, there’s another crucial ingredient to sharp photography, and that’s making sure the camera is stable as your shooting. With extreme closeups, even the act of pushing the shutter button is enough to create a noticeable shake.
This is why you’re going to need some form of tripod to go along with whatever camera you're using. The truth is that even an iPhone can produce professional quality photos, but this requires the right accessories to go along with it. Among the items you’ll want to invest in is some kind of stabilizing attachment or tripod specifically fit for your model of phone. This will allow you to take photos with the camera completely still.
The truth is that even if you have surgeon hands, there is bound to be some shake, no matter how imperceptible, when you take hand-held photos. Once you see the finished photos close up, what seemed unnoticeable when you took the shot will ruin the entire image.
Along those same lines, you’ll want to, if at all possible, turn off all the fans in your grow room when doing photography. If your plants are swaying back and forth all the time, you’ll never get a decent photo.
Ditch The Flash Setting
Let’s talk about do it yourself lighting. For most cannabis photography, you probably won’t be using the flash setting. Flash photography, when done by an expert, can produce beautiful results. But you need the right equipment, and to really know what you’re doing. For amateur photographers, the best bet is to ditch the flash setting and focus on using exterior lighting solutions, whether that’s natural sunlight, overhead lights that are daylight temperature or tungsten, or cheap LEDs.
When you are using an iPhone or a DSLR in automatic settings, the computer will decide when you need a flash or not, even if to the naked eye it seems like you have enough light. You’ll have to either switch to a manual mode or turn the flash off, depending on the type of camera you are using. This is important, as it can get extremely frustrating if the flash keeps popping on and ruining your photos when you don’t want it to.
Once you’ve got the flash disabled, you’ll need to figure out how much light you have available and when necessary figure out a way to get more lights. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to be working on an outdoor cannabis farm, all you’ll need to do is schedule your photoshoot for early in the morning or just before sundown, during what we refer to as Golden Hour. For everyone else, you’ll have to come up with some DIY lighting solutions.
Some DIY Lighting Solutions
As mentioned above, one of the biggest photography challenges for indoor grow ops is the harsh lighting conditions. Cannabis lights often have either a harsh yellow or a purplish tint. These lights tend to lead to really ugly finished photos that even the best photoshop experts will have difficulty rescuing (though it’s not impossible). When possible, turn off your grow room lights and bring in outside lights that you can control.
One great DIY lighting option is a simple desk lamp. I prefer the kind that you can clip onto a post or shelf, and with a pivotable arm that will allow you to control exactly where the light is pointed. Better yet, get three of these lights, and you have a three point lighting set up. But when working with a single light source, I like to back light my subject, as this will create some cool effects. Try experimenting with moving the light around at different angles and figure out what you like best.
Now the trick to really taking your DIY lighting to the next level is the light bulb you use. Pick out a nice soft light bulb that’s either daylight temperature, or in the 3200-3500k range. You’ll be able to match the color temperature of your light bulb to the white balance on your camera so you know you’ve got the color dialed in correctly.
Another great option to improve the lighting of your photography is to invest in some diffusion. This is when you take a bright or harsh light source and diffuse it through a white sheet. This will soften the shadows and mimic the golden hour light we mentioned earlier. Diffusion is especially useful when dealing with mid-day sunlight. But you can also invest in some cheap soft lights on Amazon. This are the lights that have a thin white gauze over the lights for diffusion.
Invest In A Cheap LED
When you’re ready to take your photography hobby to the next level, I recommend buying one or more LED lights. Once again, these can be found on Amazon for quite cheap, but they offer photographers a lot more options in terms of controlling color intensity and temperature. Remember when you make a purchase you’ll not only need the light, but something to attach it to, whether it’s a light stand or some kind of clipping mechanism. Ideally, you’ll have LEDs that can be attached in multiple different ways, to give you even more options for lighting your cannabis.
Even if you’re shooting outside, battery powered LEDs can really help with your lighting. I like to get an LED shining as close as possible on my outdoor macro shots. To the naked eye, the light will barely be noticeable, but is’s a great way to eliminate harsh shadows caused by the sun. Or, if you’re shooting cannabis or a subject in the shade, the light will help you match the highlights in the background.
Buy A Light Box
When you want to photograph your product packaging, this poses a whole different set of challenges. You really have two options to create effective product photography. One is to take your products, whether they are pre-rolls, flower jars, packaged cannabis buds, cannabis and CBD beverages and edibles, or cannabis paraphernalia, and photograph them in some scenic or dynamic location that fits in with your brand aesthetic.
A Colorado company may shoot their products with the Rocky Mountains in the background. A California grower may head out to the Pacific Coast. A vape manufacturers may want to shoot their products in a happening nightclub. Whatever spot works best for your brand, the lighting challenges will be similar to those discussed above.
The second option is to shoot close up product photography of your packaging against a single color background. This can be much more difficult to overcome for amateur photographers. The first thing you’ll need to do is invest in a product photography light box. These are readily available at affordable prices on Amazon, and usually entail a collapsible box with shiny silver walls, a light at the top, and one or more colored backdrops.
Depending on the type of packaging involved, this can be easier to accomplish or nearly impossible. For the product photography we did for Grasse (pictured below), their packages are made from silver metal that just so happens to be a highly reflective surface. A lot of work went into getting these shots just perfect, including during the shooting process and in post processing.
Fortunately, for most packaging, this won’t be a problem, and a decently priced light box will be more than up to the task. I definitely recommend putting in some practice, as it takes some time to get everything just right.
Fix It In Post
Once you’ve mastered all of the DIY photography techniques discussed above, the next step will be to pop your photos into photoshop. This is when you’ll remove the shadows, even out the lighting, fix the color temperature, and make your flowers and products pop. If you already have some experience in photoshop, then this shouldn’t be too difficult, as you’ll always be able to find specific tutorials for the tasks you need.
If you are completely new to photoshop, you might want to hand off your photos to an expert. By doing the photographs yourself, and partnering with a graphic designer or photographer who really excels at photo retouching, you’ll be able to get professional level photography at a fraction of the cost.
Another pro tip involves using Adobe Lightroom (a similar program to Photoshop) and downloadable presets. You can find presets done by professional photographers that you simply apply to your photographs in order to accentuate your products. A pack of presets can be had for under 50 dollars, and I recommend finding one or two that you like and then using them on all your photos. This will ensure that you maintain brand consistency across all your images.
Get A DSLR Or Mirrorless Camera
Last and certainly least is to invest in a professional or prosumer camera. You can get a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera for a few hundred dollars, which is what you would be spending on one or two photoshoots anyway. By now, you’ll know if the investment will be worth it, because if you have enjoyed the DIY process to this point, you’ll certainly love experimenting with a decent camera.
The biggest advantage that these cameras offer is that you can switch out the lenses. Your first lens should be one that’s well-suited to product photography. A good starter’s lens is 50mm, but your second lens should almost certainly be a macro lens that’s intended for close up photography.
Now, with a professional camera and lens in hand, you’ll be ready to shoot beautiful product photos that will rival the pros.
Hire A Professional For Just The Most Important Photos
You may be reading all of this and thinking it’s easier said than done. This may or may not be true, depending on your passion for photography. Some people love it, some people can’t stand it, and if you are one of the latter, then there isn’t much point in starting down this path just to save some money.
What you might do instead is find someone in your company who does have a passion for photography and put them in charge of your company photography. I often recommend to single location dispensaries that don’t have a big marketing budget that they should assign all of their social media tasks, including the photography, to one of their budtenders. I know of one cannabis grow outside Portland that learned one of their trimmers was an aspiring photographer with his own gear, so they lucked out and were able to assign him to manage all of their photography.
But no matter what your situation is, at some point you’ll need to venture into the world of professional photography for your marketing needs. I strongly recommend that companies that are about to launch or have just started out should hire a photographer for just one or two shoots, to cover the primary photography for their website and online marketing. Then they should follow the above tips for producing regular images for their social media feeds. As their business grows, they can then book additional photoshoots as needed for specific marketing needs, like an ad run for a new strain or product line.
Find a photography team that’s willing to work with new and growing businesses and understands this type of piecemeal approach. Working with flexible partners who can tailor their services to your needs will help ensure you maximize your investment and grow your business more quickly than you might have been able to otherwise.
Partner With The Professional Photographers At The Hood Collective
The Hood Collective has always prided itself on providing affordable solutions that fit any marketing budget. But for companies that have a nonexistent marketing budget (and a lot of those companies are out there), then figuring out DIY solutions is your best option. But if you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to start working with a professional, congratulations on surviving through the tough times. We are committed to growing with our partners, offering customizable packages that can scale up as you find more success. This includes our on site and in studio photography deals.
The Hood Collective specializes in producing premium cannabis photography for any budget, including aerial photography. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.