Photography sells! The good news is that even small businesses can get professional-looking product shots without blowing the budget. The trick is understanding how to use pictures to show shoppers what your product does and why they want to buy it.
Read on to learn how to photograph products on a small business budget. Whether it’s a DIY project or a smart investment decision to hire a professional photographer or rent out studio space, you can make the most of your resources.
Get inspired by product photos in your category
A picture is worth a thousand words. That’s because people process a lot of information visually. So it’s important to know what you want to communicate. Take a look at what leading brands in your business are doing with photography, so you understand if you want to do something similar or completely different.
To get you started, check out these examples of different approaches to product photography.
Consider introducing texture in the background of your photoshoot. These examples show three presentations that use wood grain in very different ways.
A flat background does not mean boring. Grab attention with a bold pop of color, keep your product the center of attention with classic white or set a high end mood with a dark background.
Beer & Wine
Although these wines are all photographed against a white background, the choice to shoot close-up, at an angle or straight on conveys the brand’s personality. The example in the middle even shows a clever way to play with the shape of the label!
Color strongly affects the look and feel of product photography. Compare how the cool aqua, luxury black and sunny yellow backgrounds change the way you view the bottles featured. In the case of the blue wine, the color also highlights an interesting selling point to shoppers.
Set up a background that matches the type of product you’re selling. Compare the effect of marble and stone textures to the product showcased against clean white. All three work in different ways to get the viewer excited about the beauty products shown.
It’s not all about marble for beauty. Whether it’s a subtle placement of lush leaves, a bold background or an array of hues across a product line, color can also convey luxury.
Books are a great category to show how much can be done with photography. Show context by stacking several to create the feeling of browsing in a bookshop, set on a wooden table or show a hint of cityscape beyond the book.
Make use of angles, background color and effects (like a subtle shadow) to build interest. Another option is to show both the printed and electronic versions of your book. Thoughtful touches like that will help shoppers picture themselves as the reader!
How to plan ahead for your photoshoot
As you can see above, product photography incorporates a number of choices, like angle, distance, lighting and background. Some things, like angle and distance, are easier to play around with during a shoot. Other things, like lighting and background, are better planned ahead to make the most of your time and effort.
So how do you decide those things beforehand?
Choose your background
A simple shift in photography background can strongly affect how customers feel about a product. Do you want them to think of your product as high-tech or all-natural? That would help you decide between a very stark white background or a more natural texture like wood grain or lush green leaves.
Take another look at the examples above and think about which photographs are closest to the look and feel of your own brand. You can also research what other companies are doing in your industry. Do you want to fit in with the same aesthetic, or stand out? Start saving images that feel right for your brand or line of products. They’ll make a great reference point, whether you’re doing a DIY photoshoot or planning to hire a professional.
Select your lighting
The two main categories of photography lighting are strobe and continuous.
Strobe is also known as flash. It will flash high intensity light briefly when you trigger it, which can create eye-catching results… but only if you know what you’re doing. If you decide that you want to go this route, it may be best to hire a professional photographer (more on that later).
Continuous is also known as constant lighting. Basically, when you turn the lights on, they stay on until you turn them off. This type of lighting is easiest for a DIY product photoshoot because you can see what the picture will look like.
With continuous light, you can control the intensity, which affects the overall effect of your product photos. But how do you know how intense you want your lighting to be? Well, the real answer is that photography is subjective, and that you’ll develop your own style as you go. But here are some quick pointers to get you started right.
1. What’s your background?
Your choice for intensity depends a lot on the background of your photos. As a rule of thumb, more harsh light is best if you’re planning to use a black background, so that the product stands out from the background.
If you’re using a white, light or natural background, more diffused lighting is best. This prevents your product from fading into the light background.
2. What’s your competition doing?
Your competition is a valuable source of inspiration. Whether you DIY or hire a professional, you should research what other companies in your industry are doing to showcase their products, so you can decide how to fit in or stand out.
3. What’s your style?
You’ll learn the most about your lighting preferences, and photography in general, through trial and error. If you need some inspiration, check out these creative exercises to develop your skills.
As you gain technical skills, you’ll see that you have a lot of control over how your product looks, and how your photography makes shoppers feel, simply by changing your background and lighting. The subtle variations in those choices define your photographic style.
How to photograph your products
Now that you know what you’re shooting for, it’s time to learn how to DIY a professional-looking product photography studio. We’ve collected tips for setting up your backdrop and lighting, shooting and editing.
How to set up a product photoshoot
When we say you can plan product photography for any budget, we mean it! The tradeoff is the investment of time and creativity that you put into your planning, of course.
Here’s a great tutorial we found for a $12 setup. If you want to browse more DIY photography options, check out this list of 25 product photography tutorials and choose the one that fits your timeline, budget and business needs.
Control your camera
Now you know what kind of setup and look you want for your product photoshoot. Whether you’re shooting with a DSLR or using your smartphone, the next step is learning how to work with the manual settings on your camera.
Since there are so many different kinds of cameras, we’ll cover the three key terms here so you know what to look for in your owner’s manual (or Google search).
1. Shutter speed
Shutters on your camera allow light to pass for a determined period of time. The faster they can open and close, the more clearly you can capture a moment in a picture. If you took a blurry picture, it means that the shutters were slower than the movement of the object (or the camera if you have shaky hands). You can also experiment with slower shutter speeds to capture the sense of motion, if you’re selling something that should look “fast” like a car.
Newer smartphones have manual options to control shutter speed, and all DSLR cameras give you this control. For most product photography, faster is better, so your pictures come out crisp and clear.
In photography, the aperture is size of the opening that light is passing through when the shutter is pushed. The aperture is measured in numbers called “f-stops” (ie: f/2.4). This setting helps you control the contrast between the main focus of your picture and the background. The larger the f-stop number, the more contrast. That means your product would be in focus, but the background would be blurry and not competing with the product.
Technically, you can’t control the aperture of a smartphone, but recent releases give you more control over “depth of field” which refers to the same effect.
ISO stands for International Standards Organization, a standardized scale for measuring sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive a camera is to light, which means it needs brighter light to capture your product well. Like the other settings, there’s an art in balancing ISO because pictures can get grainy if it is set too high (it becomes too sensitive to various light sources).
You can control ISO in your camera by adjusting the sensor. Recent updates to smartphone camera controls give you a lot more manual options, including ISO sliders.
The interaction of these three elements will produce a ton of different results. That’s great because it gives you a lot of control! For product photography, you want the focus to always be on your product, so experiment to see which settings will guide the shopper’s eye right where you want it. Remember to take notes so you know how to reproduce the same effect every time.
Choose your best product shots
With online shopping, great product photography is more important than ever before. That’s because they have to give shoppers the experience of picking up and examining your product from a distance.
Before, during and after your photoshoot, think about all the different ways that you can showcase your product. Here’s a checklist of key questions to guide you:
- What are your product’s features? How can you show them in a picture?
- What are the frequently asked questions that customers have? How can you answer those questions with a simple picture?
- Where or how is your product likely to be used? Can you show your product in that environment?
Edit your photos (post-processing tips)
One last step before you have shiny, new product pictures to share on the internet. No matter how carefully you set up your shot, lit the pictures and adjusted your settings, there’s almost always some post-processing to be done. The good news is that it takes some of the pressure off of being perfect during your photoshoot.
Here’s a checklist of easy photo editing options to make your product photography look its best:
- Always do non-destructive editing. This means that the full original file is saved, and you can revert back to it if you don’t like the changes you made.
- Careful cropping can work wonders. If there’s too much going on in your picture or your product looks too small, crop in.
- Lighten up! If details of your product are getting lost in the shadows, try lightening the picture overall.
- Contrast can help, too. If your product is looking too light and fading into the background, try enhancing the contrast to help it stand out.
When you need a professional photographer
Now that you have an idea of the photography style you want, and what would be involved in a DIY setup, it’s time to evaluate the pros and cons of hiring a professional.
Pam Webber, founder of weeDECOR, explored DIY options for photographing her products and came to the conclusion that it was worth the investment to hire a professional photographer with studio space. That’s because her company sells a line of eco-friendly wall decals, products that needed to be shown on a wall, lit and shot professionally to really show consumers the product in action.
Show the world what you’re selling
Bottom line: You get what you pay for, but there are smart ways to stretch your buck with product photography when you’re willing to put in the time.