Everybody has heard the importance of great photos before, that’s because they can make or break one’s shop. But on their way to improving their shops people very often come across enough “do this” and “never do that” tips to become quite lost and confused.
If you are not very experienced with product photography, this post will give you 10 easy to follow steps (and a lot of resources) that will help you with bringing your photos’ quality to a whole new level. And if you consider your photography good it still might be worth reading as there always are new things to learn.
Before going further please note that this is not a tutorial on a particular photography technique. It is a guide that will help you in finding your own creative way of photographing your products.
Step1: Look around.
Take a look at some successful shops (or the ones that you like), and not only those selling products similar to yours. See how people photograph different sorts of products: pay attention to the composition of the photos and to their quality; notice the way of lighting the products; check the backgrounds and the props. Check the old listings in the shop (you have big chances of finding them among the sold items) and see what has changed in the shop’s photography along the way. Try to figure out why certain tricks work for certain products while some others don’t. This exercise will help you in judging your own photos, it will also show you that there are many different ways of photographing similar products.
Having done the exercise above take a look at the photos in your shop (or on your disc) and evaluate them in the same way. Note down the things you like about your photos and the ones you don’t like at all. Also take notes on technical mishaps, like bad lighting, blurriness, any imperfections you see and would like to get rid of. Doing this be critical and also be honest with yourself. If something is bad call it bad, otherwise you won’t be able to improve it. And if something is good, don’t forget to note it down as well.
So, by now you should have a list with all the strong points of your photography vs the weak ones and you should be able to see what areas will require more of your attention than the others. Keep your list and all the notes for the future – they will be of great help at the time of evaluating your progress.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN EVALUATING PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY
- General quality of the photos (sharpness, colors, contrast).
- Composition: how are the products positioned? are they fully visible or cropped? if cropped, does the cropping look accidental or intended?
- How is the product lit: are there any shadows on the photo? if yes, are they very obvious or not? are the shadows distracting? can you see reflections on the products? if yes, do they seem to be accidental or intended? are the reflections distracting? are they necessary (in your opinion)?
- Are the products popping out on the photos or are they blending in with the background?
- Background: is it neutral or rather strong? patterned or not?
- Props: are there many of them used? how are they used? do they make the photo prettier? are they complementing the product in any way? are they drawing your attention away from the product? are they giving you the sense of scale of the product? are they necessary (in your opinion)?
- Models: aren’t they distracting? how are they presenting products? how are how are they posed? how are they styled? how are the photos cropped?
Keep in mind: Product photography is a TOOL, it is not the PRODUCT. You cannot look at it in the same way as you look at art photography. It is not only about aesthetics. It is about presenting the product in the best possible way.
Step 2: Think of personalization
Looking at different shop photography in Step 1 you probably noticed that some shops look better than the others not only because of their hi-quality photos but also because of the photography throughout the shop being very coherent. Maybe you even have come across shops with such distinctive photography that now you would recognize their photos anywhere and anytime. Don’t you think it would be cool if your shop were that noticeable as well?
So, now is the time for some creative thinking. You will need to come up with a concept for photographing your products in a beautiful and memorable way. You can look for inspiration in some of the shops you like but make sure that what you come up with at the end is not just copying someone else’s ideas. Also, it is important that your concept goes well with your kind of products (ideas good for shooting cars might not really work when shooting veggies, you know).
IN CASE YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START YOU CAN START HERE
- Think COMPOSITION. Who says the product has to be smack in the center of the photo?
- Think DRAMA. Maybe your products could do some acting?
- Think POSITION. Your products don’t have to be laying flat on the table. Try to hang or support them.
- Think COLOR. Maybe you can come up with a unique color palette for your photos?
- Think LIGHT. There are endless possibilities in setting up lights for product photography, you don’t have to be schematic.
- Think SCALE. In many cases you should help the viewer with getting the sense of your product’s scale. Don’t use a coin, it is boring and not pretty at all! You really can get creative here.
- Think MODEL. Models are common in fashion photography, but you can use a model to present pretty much anything. You can use models in many creative ways.
- Think MANIPULATION. Don’t forget the post-production process. As long as you don’t distress the product itself you can try pretty much anything. Just don’t overdo it!
Keep in mind: as much as you want to make your photography interesting and unique you should keep it clean and simple, and this especially counts for your catalog (shop) photos. So first make sure that your shop page will look nice, clean and conform and then you can get more creative about the additional photos.
And if you want to get inspired with some creative product photography, here is a NICE COLLECTION OF REALLY COOL PHOTOS for you to look at.
Step 3: Get your gear ready
Knowing what you want from your photography make a list of the equipment you will need in your studio. The check-list below might be helpful to you, just remember that it is only setting the outlines and you will not need everything. The list will differ depending on both your products and your photography concept. Also, never buy things you are not sure you will ever use. And if your budget is limited don’t buy three junky lenses, buy one and let it be a really good one.
I know what you are thinking, getting a studio well equipped does cost a lot of money indeed. But there is some good news. There are a lot of resources on the internet that will help you to build your own gear. OK, maybe they will not teach you how to build a digital camera from scratch but they certainly will help with a lot of other things. I suggest you check out a REALLY COOL (AND FREE) DIY GEAR SOLUTIONS COURSE and see how much you can get for a little money.
THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN CHOOSING BACKGROUNDS AND PROPS FOR YOUR STUDIO
- A seamless white and/or neutral gray (18% reflection) background is a must.*
- Patterned backgrounds are a big no-no (there are some exceptions but they really are exceptions on the rule.)
- Colored backgrounds are dangerous. If you really want some color, go for pastels rather than for saturated colors.
- Black background (especially a reflective one) can make some objects stand out and look elegant and expensive. But just some.
- Props are fun, sometimes. Sometimes they are not but still necessary to show the scale of your product, for instance. If you decide you want to use props for your photos, don’t forget that it still is your product that has to be the most important thing in the picture.
- While the equipment needed for product photography is generally universal for all products (lights, stands, reflectors, backdrops, etc.) your specific needs depend on the products you are going to photograph. Large products will need a larger stage, backdrop and lights than the small ones.
* There has been a lot of discussion going on about Amazon obtaining a patent for white background photography (that’s not a joke!). Don’t worry, they do not have a patent to shoot on a white background. The patent is for the particular set up in their studio (types of lenses, cameras and lighting) and for a particular way to shoot. Shooting on white background is a photography trick that has been used for decades and Amazon certainly has not invented it, so as long as you do not use the exact patented studio setup and camera settings you are more than 1000% safe.
Step 3: Plan it.
Product photography is quite different from taking pictures at a party or on a walk with your dog. You don’t have to be fast, you have to be accurate. That makes a huge difference.
Before you start shooting make sure you have enough time to complete your session. Believe me, there is not many things more frustrating than finding out that out of a hundred photos you have just taken only two are decent enough to use them in your shop, and that is often the case when you are shooting in a hurry. (To be clear, it does happen that out of a hundred photos you only pick two and you don’t get frustrated at all. But it only works like this when out of a hundred very good photos you pick two that are absolutely gorgeous. Forcing yourself to pick a few photos that are only less bad than the rest is inevitably going to get you utterly frustrated. Unless you don’t care for quality at all, but in that case why would you be reading this post?)
So, how do you get to the point that out of a hundred photos you can use a bit more than just two? That’s not that difficult if you remember about some useful tips:
- Plan your shooting sessions for times when you don’t have to hurry.
- Make a list of the items you are going to photograph noting the important details you want to show.
- Plan and sketch (or describe) your scenes (general style, backgrounds, props…).
- Make another list, this time of the gear you are going to use (lenses, lights, backdrops, tripods etc.), props (in case you are going to use them) and handy things that you might need to build and arrange your scene (like different pins, tapes, supports, etc). Don’t forget to add extension cords (for the lights), some batteries (for the camera) and/or camera loader to the list. If you are not fully confident with your camera, put the camera’s manual on the list as well. And don’t forget cleaning supplies! Both for the set and the camera!
- (optional) If there are any buttons or switches on your camera that you have never used and you don’t know what exactly is their purpose, check the manual. You can take photos using the full automatic mode, but you will get much better results when you switch to manual settings. It might take some time to fully understand how things exactly work but the photos will be worth every minute spent on learning.
Step 4: Build the set.
Before you actually start shooting you need to prepare your set. Having your studio in a separate room (or in a separate space where you can leave at least some of the gear standing around) helps a lot as you only have to adjust some things before starting a session.
- First, POSITION your product table/pedestal, light box, backdrop and/or background. This will depend on the lighting setup, if you are going to use natural light the table should be placed in the neighborhood of a window, otherwise any spot will do.
- ARRANGE the lights. In a typical lighting setup there are at least three lights (you want your light to be soft so use either umbrellas or soft-boxes), but if you have two lights, that also will do. Even one light will be enough if you use it cleverly.
- CREATE the scene: add props (if you are using them) and position your product.
- CHECK if the product is correctly lit, adjust the lights if needed. Use a light meter for this or take test photos otherwise. This is something you should do every time you rearrange your scene.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN BUILDING THE SET AND CREATING THE SCENE
- Make sure everything on your set is CLEAN! Remove any spots, smears, hairs and dust particles from all the items. If you don’t do it now you will have to do it later in the post-production process which is going to be much more time consuming and very frustrating.
- When setting up the lights avoid harsh shadows and aim for softer lighting (try using a light tent or light modifiers as umbrellas or soft-boxes).
- It is your product that should be the center of attention. Don’t overload the scene with unnecessary and distracting props.
- When shooting against a background, place the product a bit in front of it. This way the background will be out of focus which is exactly the result that you want. You will have to experiment with the distance and with the camera’s settings, but this is the general idea.
- Mount your camera on a tripod and check the viewfinder (you can also make some test shots). Adjust your composition gradually until it is just the way you want it.
Step 5: Grab that camera.
This is a good moment to say that even though your camera is very important, photography is not about about cameras. It is about the light in the first place.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that you can use the automatic settings of your camera (and then you can skip most of the points below) but for the best results it is recommended to put your camera into the manual mode (unless your camera does not have it, but that is a whole different story). If you don’t know how to switch modes on your camera, check the manual. Then
- ADJUST IMAGE SETTINGS. Always set it to the largest quality possible. If your camera can shoot raw files, use this setting. There might be options available for two settings: size (like L (large), M- (medium) S- (small)) and quality (like S (Superfine), F (fine), N ( normal), L(low)). You always opt for the biggest size (you can make the photo smaller afterwards but you can’t make it larger) and the best quality (which means the camera will use all the pixels available to render the image). It will be best if you check your camera’s manual to see what settings you have available here and how to adjust them.
- ADJUST ISO SETTING. ISO (film speed) setting on your camera controls the light sensitivity of your camera’s image sensor. If you are shooting in a well-lit studio, or in a room with large windows, you’ll probably have plenty of available light to work with and your camera can beset between ISO 100 and 400. However, if you are taking photos in a dim environment, your camera is going to need some extra light sensitivity provided by a higher ISO setting above 400 to gather enough light for a proper exposure. Just remember: The higher ISO you set the more grainy photos you will get so try not to go really high. Check your camera’s manual to find out how to change its ISO settings.
- ADJUST WHITE BALANCE . You want to do this to get the most accurate colors on your photos. Most cameras do offer some automatic WB settings (like Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten etc.) and in most cases you can get decent results using those modes but for the best colors you should use the manual mode. The general idea is that you take a photo of a white (or neutral grey) card placed right next to your product to give your camera a reference point for recalculating colors. The camera uses this reference in all the subsequent photos so you have to be sure to adjust white balance every time the light changes. Considering that there are different ways of adjusting white balance on different cameras you should check out your camera’s manual for this.
- ADJUST THE APERTURE (THE DEPTH OF FIELD). The aperture is an opening within the lens that determines the amount of light getting to the camera’s sensor. The aperture is linked to the depth of field which means that depending on the aperture a bigger or a smaller area of your photo will be in focus. It is measured in f-stops and the general rule here is: the smaller the f-number the larger aperture and the more shallow the depth of field will be. The depth of field also depends on the distance between the camera and your subject so it might be that you will have to adjust your aperture every time you move the camera and/or put another product on the scene. In case you don’t know how to adjust the aperture on your camera, check the manual again. Also keep in mind that the lenses differ and some of them have a greater aperture range than the others.
- ADJUST THE SHUTTER SPEED. The shutter speed indicates for how long the curtain remains open when taking a shot, it is measured in seconds (most often you will be dealing with fractions of a second, though). As the shutter speed determines for how long light is getting to the camera’s sensor, it is very much correlating with the aperture which determines how much light is getting to the sensor. This means that if you take a photo and want to change what’s in focus keeping the same brightness, you will have to adjust the aperture first and then compensate the change by adjusting the shutter speed as well (if the aperture goes to a lower f-stop number the shutter speed should be set to a shorter time, with a higher f-stop number the shutter time should be greater). Again, check your camera’s manual to see how to set the parameter. If you are getting very confused you can set your camera to the Aperture Priority (Av) mode. You will only have to adjust the aperture and the shutter time will be adjusted automatically. Sometimes the resulting photos won’t be perfect, but in most cases this setting should be quite sufficient.
- TAKE A TEST PHOTO. Check the image on the back of your camera (don’t forget to zoom it in, otherwise you will not be able to see if it is as sharp as you want it). If your product does not look sharp, change the aperture setting to a higher number which will enlarge the field of depth. Unless you are using the Av mode don’t forget to adjust the shutter speed as well. If the photo is sharp but too dark, set the shutter speed to a higher value. If it is too bright, you should try a faster setting (lower value, that is). Take a test photo after each adjustment until you are happy with the result. Then you can start shooting.
THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN PHOTOGRAPHING YOUR PRODUCTS
- You have to remember that the longer shutter time the more chances of shaking the camera which results in blurry images. This is why it is very important to put your camera on a tripod and use a shutter release cable.
- Never take only as many photos as you actually need. Take many more so that you can choose the best ones in the next step.
- Always photograph each item at many different angles and in different light, you can also experiment with various backgrounds and props. Getting a great photo is much more likely to be a success if you maximize the possibilities.
- Always take your time. Shooting your items in a hurry might result in a bunch of poor photographs and/or in having to photograph the same items again.
- Take notes with every photo. Note down the camera settings and the lights and if later you add short comments on the resulting photos to them you will end up with a great reference for the future. When your experience grows you will need less notes but it is recommended to always take notes when you are experimenting with lights, camera settings and/or new backgrounds.
Step 6: Choose the winners.
Choosing the best photos is easy, right? Just make sure you look at them on a good screen, don’t trust the camera window. Look at every photo carefully – and don’t be afraid to be critical! Answer the questions below with yes or no – and the more yesses you get, the better is your photo. If you are in doubt, make it a no for now. You can get back to that photo later and see if your opinion changes.
- Is the general impression good? Does the photo show what you want it to show (the product, that is)? Does it look interesting? Or – even better – tempting?
- Is the picture sharp (as long as your product is concerned)? Or, if your intention is to have part of the photo blurred, is it really the correct part?
- Is your product popping and catching the eye?
- Is the composition nice to look at (keep in mind that framing can be adjusted in the post-production. To some extent, at least).
- Are the colors true?
- Aren’t there any accidental items in the frame? Or shadows? Or reflections?
THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN CHOOSING THE PHOTOS FOR PUBLISHING
Never use photos that are
- blurry, dark or desaturated
- accidentally cropped
- overloaded with unnecessary props
- not clear about what you are trying to sell.
Also remember: in the post-production process you can enhance your photos quite a lot and make the very good ones look really great but there is no way you can make a bad photo look better than decent. And decent is way below what you want.
Step 7: Turn winners into the Champions.
You don’t think all those great product photos you have seen haven’t been edited at all, do you? Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a good photo perfect, but every photo DOES NEED some work before it can be published. Remember, we are talking about GOOD product photos here!
So, now is the time to
- CROP your photo to the right proportions (you will be resizing it later). Doing this keep in mind the composition, make sure that your product is the focal point of the resulting image and that it fits the frame and has some free space around it.
- EDIT white background.
- ADJUST the color settings
- ADJUST the contrast, depth and brightness
- RETOUCH any imperfections
- MANIPULATE the photo (optional)
To do the above you can use photo editing software of your choice. Just remember that if your image files come in the raw format you have to use software that actually does handle this format. If your favorite software does not let you work with raw files consider using the photo editing software that comes with your camera (you should also be able to download it from the camera’s manufacturer’s site). In many cases that software’s possibilities will be limited but still you should be able to adjust the at least the brightness, color settings and contrast. Once you do this, save the file as a jpeg and do the rest in your favorite photo editor.
SOME PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE FOR YOU TO CHOSE FROM
- Free: GIMP, SERIF PHOTO PLUS STARTER EDITION, PHOTOSCAPE
- Paid: ADOBE PHOTOSHOP, COREL PAINTSHOP PRO, SERIF PHOTO PLUS, ACDSee PHOTO EDITOR
Step 8: Optimize.
In this step you will prepare your photos to be published. It is best to keep edited versions of your photos intact, in case you might need them in different sizes o with different details later, so it is suggested that you go through the steps below using copies of the jpeg images resulting from Step 7.
You do the below using your favorite photo editing software again:
- RESIZE them to the dimensions required (or suggested) by your shop application and
- ADD a watermark and/or other text on the photo (optional).
Voila! Now your photos are ready to be put in your shop.
TIME SAVING TIPS
- Creating a template for your product photos will make your life a lot easier and ensure that you have consistent images.
- Keeping the original files and saving the optimized ones under different names is always a good idea. This will save you time if in the future you want to resize the photos and/or change the watermark/text on them.
Step 10: Publish.
Once you have your photos edited and optimized, you can publish them in your shop and/or on the social media. This is not difficult but there are few things that you should keep in mind:
- The main product photo should present a full view of your item. There is a theory saying that if you only show a part of the product people will tend to open the listing out of sheer curiosity, they will want to find out how the complete product looks like. If you think the curious people are your target you might try this approach, but another theory says that people seriously looking for a certain product will not waste their time on something they cannot see at the first glance.
- Even if you are not a big fan of white backgrounds try to have at least white background photo of each item. White backgrounds are often favored by blog and magazine editors. Sometimes a readily available white background photo can be the winning difference between getting a nice feature and not getting a feature at all.
- If you are a fan of shooting on location, that’s cool. Just remember that although such photos can look absolutely great in a look book or in a magazine they might be not the best choice for your storefront. You want to keep your storefront clean, conform and readable and this is very hard to achieve using photos with busy backgrounds.
- You want to use all the photo slots available for a listing in your shop and you want to use them well. That means publishing various photos. Make sure you present as many aspects and/or details of your product as possible.
Product photography is much more than pressing a shutter button on a camera. For best results you not only have to be able to operate your camera, you have to be creative and also know how to turn your ideas into successful photos. You can learn some things from tutorials and guides but you will learn the most from your own experience. This is why it is so very important to be taking as many notes as possible, at least until you start to be confident about what you are doing.
A very important thing to always keep in mind is that your photos play a crucial role not only in selling but also in informing, influencing and educating your potential customers. Don’t try to make one photo do all the job! Use different types of photos for different situations, just remember that they all have to look professional and be stylistically consistent. Photography can create and build up your brand so make sure your imagery presents what the brand is all about.
- 10 RULES OF PHOTO COMPOSITION
- more tips on PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION
- guide to PHOTOGRAPHING MODELS
- USING LIGHT TENT FOR SMALL PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY
- Take a look at an UNUSUAL (AND VERY SIMPLE) LIGHTING SETUP and see what can be done with it.
- This is for you if you are interested in GETTING A CREATIVE PHOTO WITH A CLEAN WHITE BACKGROUND.
- Only have one light? Check out this introduction to ONE LIGHT PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY
- If you have to shoot glass items, here are some GLASS LIGHTING TIPS AND IDEAS
- And here is more tips on photographing HIGHLY REFLECTIVE PRODUCTS
- A short tutorial on SETTING CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE
- A good article explaining DEPTH OF FIELD
- A very useful article on CAMERA SETTINGS