In a brick-and-mortar store, customers can pick up a product, feel its texture, and sense its weight. These sensory inputs have an effect on a shopper’s buying decisions. For online stores, achieving the same level of emotional buying excitement can be hard. One solution is to offer good product photographs that convey some of these same sensory clues.
In this edition of “eCommerce Know-How,” I’ll offer three basic tips for improving the quality of your store’s product photography. First, we’ll look at lighting. Next, I’ll encourage you to invest in a good camera with big pixels, and finally, we’ll look briefly at composition.
Product Photography Disclaimer
I have to start by saying that this Ecommerce Know-How is not for everyone. If your store is profitable enough to afford a professional photographer who can take great images, don’t try this yourself. As helpful as the tips are that I’m recommending, they cannot replace an artisan. Of course, if you have a relatively small ecommerce operation, taking your own product images can be a huge cost savings, and its fun.
Tip No. 1: Use Soft Light for Better Product Photographs
I read in a textbook years ago that the goal of product lighting is to emulate sunlight on a cloudy day. Bright direct light casts very dark and distinct shadows that attract the eye and detract from the product you’re trying to sell. But softer light, like on an overcast day, produces gentle shadows and helps to create better looking images.
As you will no doubt recall from your high school science classes, light travels in waves. In direct light, the waves of electromagnetic radiation are all lined up, traveling together in a straight line like an army of photons marching in step. Meanwhile, diffused or soft light includes scattered waves traveling in all different directions like a crowd milling about some large train station.
To get soft light, consider using professional-grade lights with an attachable diffuser; or, for smaller products, a tabletop light box. If you really want to save money, pick up a basic work light from a hardware store and cover it with wax paper.
Tip No. 2: Use a Good Quality DSLR and Get Bigger Pixels
The camera you choose to take your product photographs matters. And it has a lot to do with pixels.
The term pixel generally describes the smallest image-forming unit on a monitor or video display. And we often talk about digital photographic resolution in terms of the number of pixels an image contains. A 10-megapixel camera, for example, produces photographs that have 10 million pixels. But pixel is also used to describe the specific photosensitive sites on a digital image sensor, which is the heart of every modern camera.
Image sensors are advanced digital semiconductors—including both charge-coupled devices (CCDs) and complementary metal-oxide semiconductor sensors (CMOS)—that collect photons (light energy) and transform it into digital data. The more photons that an individual pixel can collect and hold, the more available data in your finished picture.
Think of the process this way: Photons in the form of light waves enter a camera’s lens and are focused onto the image sensor. Passing through a protective layer of glass and a Bayer color filter array, the tiny photons collect in the sensor’s pixels like rain collects in a bucket left out during a downpour. The larger the bucket, the more rain it collects.
Image sensors with very tiny pixels—like those in a typical cell phone camera—take relatively poor images, while image sensors with large pixels take relatively good images. How many megapixels a camera has doesn’t matter. You can have a 10-megapixel camera with 2.2 micron-by-2.2 micron pixels. For comparison a human hair is about 100 microns wide, so you could fit almost 50 of these pixels on the cross section of one hair.
While there are some exceptions, bigger pixels are usually better for taking your product images, and digital single-lens reflexes (DSLRs) have some of the largest pixels of any kind of camera available. DSLRs are the cameras that professionals use, and consumer versions start at about $499.
Tip No. 3: Compose Your Product Images
Now that you have a well lit product and you are ready to take a picture with your DSLR and its big fat pixels, you should consider the composition. Product photos don’t have to be straight on shots. Instead consider the rule of thirds and the golden section rule.
The rule of thirds recognizes that the human eye naturally settles on a spot about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of a photograph. So when you take your product pictures or when you crop them with a photo editing tool like PhotoShop, you should put the most important part of the image at about that two-thirds mark. Follow this rule and customers will focus on what is most important in the picture.
The golden section rule is also concerned with how humans view objects. This rule recognizes that certain sections in an image naturally draw the eye’s attention. This golden section is often the result of an object or scene’s shape. For example, diagonal lines can draw a shoppers eyes from left to right. Compose your product images so that an item’s golden section is the central focus.