An Introduction to Product Photography

In this age of online shopping, product photos are as essential as ever for businesses based on selling physical, tangible goods.

When customers have twenty different choices for every product they’re buying, it’s a guarantee that if your product photos are poorly lit, pixelated, or not colorful enough, your item is going to be passed over without another look.

So what’s the answer? Get a cheap photo cube, some utility lights, and a digital camera, and you’re good to go? Well, in my eight years of shooting thousands of product photos, I can tell you that you’re on the right path, but it’s often more difficult than it looks. Here are a few things to think about before you upload those photos to the web.

Lighting

Getting the right lights for product shoots (and really any type of photography) is the first step. Having shot with both strobe flashes and continuous lighting, there are benefits to both. Flashes are more portable and versatile; on the other hand, continuous lights let you know what you are shooting at all times and you can adjust without clicking the shutter every time. Plus, they are useful if you want to get into product videos – a growing area in and of itself, especially on Amazon, where products with videos are given priority over those that do not.

Then there’s lighting temperature – I can tell you that bulbs from Home Depot are likely not going to be bright enough, and they’ll probably be too yellow, or too blue, or too something. Your best bet is to find a reputable photo store or online like B&H and get some of those huge, bright bulbs and some modifiers like soft boxes or umbrellas (or the aforementioned photo cube).

A third consideration is how your object responds to light. The first time I shot a high-vis T-shirt, the reflective striping did exactly what it’s supposed to do – reflect a ton of light right back to my lens – and, in turn, ruining the picture. These types of objects must be lit from the sides or a different angle. Clear objects can disappear on a light background, so it’s important to figure out the best way to keep them in the photo.

Backgrounds

After working with a cheap, cloth photo cube, I found that my subjects tended to sink in and create sort of divots, which was less than desirable. I also had to contend with wrinkles and dirt; if I was shooting a product that had been stored in a dirty warehouse, my clean white background/base was not going to make it out unscathed. For that reason, I recommend a seamless paper background. Depending on the size and nature of your subjects, one roll can last a long, long time, as long as you keep it clean and free from tears.

One thing I can tell you is avoid the temptation to use green. Early in my product photo experience, I found my company’s old photos had been shot with a green background to do it like they do in the movies. In practice, it was awful – everything had a greenish glow; out-of-focus parts will have a green fringe; the list goes on. Leave green-screening to the video world.

Post-Processing

Proper editing makes the difference between this rough verison…

…and this finished version.

Great, you’ve shot your photos! Now, is that visible? Are there reflections or colors coming from elsewhere in the room? What sizes of image do you and your 30 distributors need? I’ll give you a hint: they all need different ones.

I am not exaggerating when I say that some of the most time-consuming editing I have done has been on a seemingly simple product photo. Amazon wants everything on a perfectly white background, and shooting transparent or translucent objects is no easy task. Lighting plays a big role here, as previously mentioned.

In my product photos, I try to avoid objects that appear to be cut out and floating in space, and I attempt to keep a little natural shadow so my products are clearly subject to gravitational forces. Wouldn’t want to get in trouble for false advertising.

Creating a clipping path on a product photo.

However, doing so often requires creating a clipping path: an outline around your object that Photoshop, Indesign, etc. can use to remove a photo’s background. It’s an important step, but very tedious when you’re shooting five, ten, twenty, or hundreds of product photos. In addition, print designers and distributors often demand this step, and they will know if you have taken any shortcuts.

Distribution

Once your photos have been created, you need to get them to your distributors for print and web use. If you are emailing them, though, you will be lucky to be able to send more than five full-resolution images at a time; photos can range anywhere from 5 to 10 megabytes, and even the best email clients will only allow up to 20 MB per message. That’s why companies have turned to distribution services like Smugmug or file sharing services like Dropbox. It’s important to keep these tools organized, updated, and accessible for users so they can do the work and you don’t have to.

In addition to your print-sized versions, distributors and Amazon will ask for specifically sized photos. There is free software that you can use to create these, but it’s another learning curve to master.

Conclusions

So, with all things considered, if you have the time to spend and the patience to learn, product photography is something you can tackle. As someone who learned on the job, the best advice I can give is to (1) learn Photoshop, and (2) learn some basic lighting techniques. Books and Youtube videos are great resources for educating yourself.

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