Practical Ecommerce

How to Take Gorgeous Product Photos

Editor’s Note: We welcome Jason Lawrence as our newest contributor. He is a computer scientist, researcher, educator, and entrepreneur, having co-founded Arqspin, a mobile phone-based platform for creating 360 spins. He is also an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Virginia.

The way you present your products online has a significant impact on sales. Amateur-looking product shots erode consumers’ trust and could send them fleeing. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend $10,000 on equipment or hire a professional to create beautiful product photography that will instill faith in your online store and get results.

In this article, I’ll show you, in eight simple steps, how to save money on product photography and improve your store’s look and performance.

1. Camera

It’s important to use a nice camera. Fortunately, they have become very affordable. You can’t go wrong with a modern digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) model. I prefer the Nikon D7000 in terms of its price vs. performance tradeoff. Be sure to choose a camera that can capture video, and invest in decent lenses. I normally use a 50mm lens — here’s an example — which can accommodate mid-range and portrait work. A 105mm lens — here’s one from Adorama — while a bit expensive, is great for close-up work and jewelry product photography.

Although it used to be that having a DSLR was necessary for taking quality product photographs, smartphones have dramatically changed the game. The iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel sensor and can produce professional grade shots. It’s received glowing reviews, like this one from The Sydney Morning Herald. I strongly encourage you to explore using your smartphone after you have the proper setup before committing to purchasing a higher-end camera. You may be surprised.

You may be surprised at the quality similarities between an iPhone and DSLR photo.

You may be surprised at the quality similarities between an iPhone and DSLR photo.

2. Lights

You will need some good lights. Of course, Mother Nature has a built-in option, which can produce great results. But the Sun is fickle. I like the Elinchrom D-Lite 4 Kit, which includes two lights, tripods, and attachable diffuser squares. While there are many photography lighting kits available, what’s most important for your setup is to get lights that operate in “continuous” mode — versus flash only — as this allows using them for video as well. In fact, I prefer to shoot even still photographs with my lights in continuous mode as I find this makes previewing the shot easier and adds depth to the result.

3. Tripod

You need to take longer exposures; holding your camera by hand will produce blurry images that shoppers will not like. I prefer Manfrotto tripod products. There are also some very functional tripods for smartphones such as the Woxom Slingshot.

4. Photo Setup

I like to shoot products in front of a continuous background — often white or neutral grey. It’s a simple and professional look that is often used by major online retailers. Fortunately, it’s simple to achieve.

Just purchase a few rolls of craft paper and some metal clamps. Roll the craft paper down a long and wide table and use the clamps to attach one end of the paper to something a few feet above the table. This will produce a smooth ramp. Place your product on the craft paper just after it comes into contact with the table.

Craft paper and clips can make a nice do-it-yourself product shoot setup.

Craft paper and clips can make a nice do-it-yourself product shoot setup.

Place your setup near a big, sunny window if you want natural light, or in a dark room if you want to use your photo lights. For about $50 you have a professional studio like my setup below. If you’re looking for a ready-made setup, Modahaus carries a good line of all-in-one tabletop photography studios.

The author's custom photography setup.

The author’s custom photography setup.

5. Use a Wide Aperture

The aperture is the opening that lets light into your camera and is specified by an “f-number” like “f/16” or “f/4”. A wide aperture (small f-number) produces a narrow depth of field that makes your photos look richer and more professional. I’ve found that shooting with a narrow depth of field works particularly well for product photos of electronics. Set the aperture on your DSLR to something like “f/1.8” or “f/2”. You will need to have your camera in “aperture priority” mode to do this. Check your manual.

These images below are from my iPad app, “Bokeh: A Book About Cameras.” The images illustrate the effect of a camera’s aperture on the final shot. The image on the left was captured with a wide aperture and has a narrow depth of field. The image on the right was from a narrow aperture and has a wide depth of field. In short, use a wide aperture to produce product photos with a more professional look.

Zoom Enlarge This Image

Wide aperture settings produce a narrow depth of field, such as the image on the left.  Narrow apertures produce a wider depth, as in the image on the right.

Wide aperture settings produce a narrow depth of field, such as the image on the left. Narrow apertures produce a wider depth, as in the image on the right.

6. Pay Attention to Shadows

Avoid harsh backlighting and other setups that cast shadows on the surface of the object. Keep the lights on the same side of the object as your camera, or slightly off to one side.

7. Clean Up

A big fingerprint on your product or dust on your lens produce poor, amateur results. Buy some microfiber rags and wipe everything down carefully before shooting.

8. Don’t be Afraid

The biggest obstacle to doing something new is often ourselves. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Be creative. You will make a few mistakes on your way to gaining a deeper understanding of the process. Not only will your sales increase, you will likely develop a new hobby along the way. When you’re ready to delve deeper there are many wonderful books. I like The Art of Photography, by Bruce Barnbaum.

Summary

You are well on your way to having an outstanding photography studio. Your product photos will appear as if you spent thousands on them. But really you did it all yourself.

Jason Lawrence
Jason Lawrence
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Comments ( 16 )

  1. Marv Conn January 29, 2013 Reply

    "You are well on your way to having an outstanding photography studio. Your product photos will appear as if you spent thousands on them. But really you did it all yourself. "

    So, buy a $900 light kit, a $1000 DSLR camera, $300 lens and a $100 photo editing software, and then if you can use the three of them proficiently, you can do it all yourself for cheap!

    Sound good!

    Customer generated product photos that I’ve normally get suffer from two problems. First lighting issues (Low light noise, color balance issues) and second product placement issues (Poor background, too close to the background, poor shot angles, trying to shoot in too small of a space).

    I agree that buying all of that equipment and learning how to use it would greatly increase the quality of most images, but beyond the quality of the photography, the setup of the products is normally lacking. When I shoot products, I normally bring an assistant to do the actual shooting and spend my time setting up the products, which is very important.

  2. Mary Wilkinson January 29, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for all the tips. I am a bit confused in regards to the aperture. The ipad photo above on the right looks much more crisp & clean, the one on the left is blurry, less defined. You said the left one is how it should be done, but how is a blurry photo more professional?

  3. Jason Lawrence January 29, 2013 Reply

    Marv, Thanks for the feedback, but don’t overlook the quality of the product photo I shot with my iPhone. That one required sunlight (free) + iPhone 4S ($400 that you might already own) + craft paper and clamps ($40). You are correct: a good backdrop and composition are often the most important aspect of producing nice product photos (and the two things most commonly overlooked). I wanted to emphasize that investing in a nice camera will only get you part of the way home and that smartphone cameras are getting quite good.

  4. Jason Lawrence January 29, 2013 Reply

    Mary, That may not have been the best image comparison to make my point.

    Here is a better example.:

    [http://blog.arqspin.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/shoe_dof_example.jpg](http://blog.arqspin.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/shoe_dof_example.jpg)

    Notice that the narrow depth of field leaves only a thin part of the shoe in sharp focus. Other parts are rendered blurry. This has the effect of drawing the viewers’ attention to a specific feature (in this case, the brand name of the item) while creating, in my opinion, a more interesting and professional look.

    Thanks for asking me to clarify.

  5. Shocked September 29, 2013 Reply

    Well intentioned but simply misguided article. The author knows enough to be dangerous, but not enough to teach you anything.

    Beware anyone that says that an iphone will be just as good – notice the distortion of the product in the iphone shot? No one selling a product will want their product distorted, and no one buying photography will want the file from an iphone! Also, his aperture advice is far from true.

    I could go on – but I’ll just give you a word of advice. Get more opinions on lighting before spending $$$ based on this articles advice.

  6. sam October 8, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for the article Jason.

    As someone who does quite a bit of product photography I must say it’s perplexing to see you recommending a wide aperture.

    Usually the goal with the product photography is for it to be crystal clear and sharp all over. E.g. F8 – F32 range. That’s half the reason to light it artificially too, so that you can have that deep focus and a low ISO for maximum sharpness and zero image noise. After all F/2 (like you recommended) lets in so much light that you’d hardly need two big lights pointing at your product, you could get away with a diffused flash or natural light.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

  7. k Kelly October 28, 2013 Reply

    I personally use Stock.XCHNG has a more complex image licence agreement than some of the competition, though, so read that carefully before you start.

    But here are some product photos for mock ups http://123productphotos.com/free-samples

  8. nikhil November 11, 2013 Reply

    You can check out all your elinchrom studio lights equipment for online shopping @ ArihnatDigi.com

  9. Mark November 19, 2013 Reply

    I have to disagree with the Aperture. I always use f/10 – f/16. What you can do to bring somewhat more detail is shoot two pictures and blend them together (f/2) and (f/16). This will give even more detail and richness.

  10. Jan Hanus November 27, 2013 Reply

    I agree with Marv. Shooting product photography is not that easy. If you want to get good photos it demands some skills not just in shooting but lighting, Photoshop and so on. If I need good affordable product photos I go to http://123productphotos.com/ and I get clean color accurate images for my clients.

  11. Alex Choi January 15, 2014 Reply

    I think everyone makes a valid point but it’s all relevant to the degree in which you need the photos. I’m a graphic designer of almost 2 decades and you simply cannot substitute a reliable, professional product photography service with a quick FPO work. On numerous occasions, I’ve done what the author describes but not for my final print/online product image. Although I use Photoshop everyday, I am by no means an expert like my photographer is. They have color calibrated monitors that help them achieve color correctness that I simply cannot achieve… reliable photographers know how to use their tools of trade. And I like to leave the tast to the expert. Like couple of the reviewers above, I use 123 Product Photos… http://www.123productphotos.com. They’ve been very reliable and cost effective for my design shop. We ship the products we need photographed and in a few days, we have high-resolution images that we can use for our clients.

  12. Greg Dorney March 1, 2014 Reply

    I am a professional product photographer and I am currently writing a book on this subject. The information above is not at all accurate, Please do not invest in equipment based on its advice.

    It mentions that Jason Lawrence ‘ is a computer scientist, researcher, educator, and entrepreneur, having co-founded Arqspin, a mobile phone-based platform for creating 360 spins. He is also an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Virginia.’

    It does not mention anywhere that he is a product photographer.

    Taking high quality product shots at home is most definitely achievable, but the kit and methods required to do so are based on the type of products your shooting and how big you require the images to be.

    Without getting into too much detail, corrections to the above article:

    Do not feel the need to buy Manfrotto tripods. Buy the cheapest tripod that will hold your camera steady. 20 bucks might well do the job, instead of $150. Your not shooting in a hurricane, in your home, keeping the kids from knocking the camera over will more likely be the issue. Even an expensive manfrotto can’t overcome stuff like that!

    USE THE SMALLEST APERTURE AT YOUR DISPOSAL!
    On a camera phone, this does generally not apply (it probably will soon enough though), this is to achieve MAXIMUM DETAIL throughout the image. Focus 1/3rd the way into your product and shoot it at maximum aperture and you have the most detailed shot you can get of it. FACT!
    Technical reasons make this happen, but its the same with every camera, every lens and every product, so make sure to do it!

    Lighting: Goodness, if only it was so simple!
    Lighting your product depends on your product. I have lit literally hundreds of thousands of shots and believe me, lighting can come from any and every angle.

    I would love to be able to explain all about product photography in eight simple points, but it is taking me a long, illustrated book to do so. As there are may products, there are in turn, many ways to shoot them.

    Jason, I applaud you trying to help retailers get their images online, but next time please consult a subject matter expert before throwing in some expensive brands, bad information and leading people in the wrong direction.

  13. John March 9, 2014 Reply

    Going to disagree on the f-stop. F10 would be my recommendation if you want the details of the product preserved. Small f-stops are for arty shots and blur effects (bokeh). Otherwise good advice.

  14. Jeff Delacruz May 29, 2014 Reply

    Hey Jason,

    I think the article is great! I don’t nessesarily agree with everything (ie using continuous light, fstop), but what I do think is that most people would get pretty good shot from this and would definitely learn something.

    I think some people have been a little heavy handed here but I appreciate what your doing.

    Thanks
    Jeff Delacruz
    http://www.powphotography.com

  15. ZCasavant June 18, 2014 Reply

    I found it interesting that you start out talking about DSLR cameras then switch to smartphone cameras. There’s a HUGE world in between! There’s are a ton of mid-range cameras that produce amazing images (compared to smartphones) but are WAY cheaper than a SLR. A 12-mpx zoom camera will smoke a smartphone in image quality and-especially- zoom capability… and cost in the mid-$300 range. These cameras have the advantage of having REAL apertures, OPTICAL (not digital) zoom and shutter control. so you can play with them and learn the relationship. This is very important if you want to be serious about photographing. Smartphone cameras are not designed for professional photographs, although I agree their quality has gone up dramatically.

    Also, all of the technology going into smartphone lenses/image software will obviously go into cameras too, so a good camera is a worthy investment for much less $. The only advantage I can see for a smartphone is the potential for photo-editing apps that you can use in real-time… but then, on that tiny screen, I’d say that might be a risk if you really care about your images!

    Anyway, for those with a more limited budget who really truly want to learn to photograph… get a midrange camera! Just my 2 cents :)

  16. safak karaca November 26, 2014 Reply

    Dear Jason;

    My name is Safak and I am living istanbul turkey. I have been searching for building a home based prodcut photography studio. I have two questions. If you answer me, I would be appreciated.

    My first question is about the strobe power. I am planning to but an elinchrom strobe kit. But I don’t know how much power do I need.
    I am gonna shoot prodcut photographs and still life photographys. There is a 500watt kit . elincyhrom BRx 500. Is it too much for me? Please advice me.

    And my second question is about the aperture. I read your article and you are talking about suing wide aperture is better. But on the other hand, if you apply narrow aperture, then you get more depth of field. and it means you have bigger focused area in your pictures. Am I right?
    let’s pretent, I wanna shoot a wrist watch with my 105mm macro lens . And I need the whole face of this watch to be sharp. If I use a wide aperture, then I could get sharpness on only a part of the face. right? So it would be bad for me.
    can you explain me this?

    I am waitng your reply

    thank you

    Safak

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