One of the major disadvantages ecommerce companies have is their customers can’t touch, taste, hear, see, or smell the product. With traditional retail stores, consumers get to try it before they buy.

Not so with an online store. Many consumers won’t buy a product they can’t at least see. The solution is to offer online product photos. So, if you want to dramatically improve your online sales, then this guide will show you how to do that by capturing breathtaking photos and setting up a highly visual online store.

Stock Photography: A Primer

You’ve probably heard the term “stock photography” before. Sometimes, photographers will refer to it as “picture archives,” “photo libraries,” “image banks,” and variations of these terms. They all mean the same thing. They are large collections of images hosted online. And, these images are “stock images” of products that consumers may want to buy.

If you own an online store (ecommerce store), you probably already understand the need for photography. What you may not know is how to get started or what are some of the challenges you may face.

Stock photography sites usually cater to businesses that need (more or less) generic photographs. Usually, models are hired, and photos are taken, to satisfy a broad range of needs. These might include photos for the homepage, about page, and maybe some internal pages.

Entire ecommerce businesses exist just to sell these photographs to other online business owners. By buying stock photography, an online business or store saves time and money since the images can be easily licensed to the business and delivered via the web in mere seconds. And, the business owner doesn’t have to bother with setting up a studio in-house.

The problem with traditional stock photography, however, is it rarely captures specific products. So, ecommerce businesses are left on their own to come up with product or catalog images. Most of the time, a professional photographer can be hired to do the job, but they can cost several thousand dollars per shoot.

A much less expensive option is to do it yourself.

The Setup: What You Need Before You Begin

Before you snap a single shot, you need some supplies and a suitable area to take photos. Lighting is crucial when taking product photos, but so is a suitable location. Here’s are a few of the basics you’ll need:

● Table
● Backdrop
● Tape
● Bounce cards or umbrellas
● A good camera
● Tripod
● A basic 3-point lighting system
● Photoshop or good photo-editing software

A folding table is ideal for the staging of the product. Get a table that’s between 24 and 27 inches wide.

A typical DIY photo table setup and lighting elements.
A typical DIY photo table setup and lighting elements.

 

A white backdrop is almost always essential since it visually erases distractions in the photo and makes it easier to edit later. Special backgrounds, called “white sweeps,” will make it easier to edit your photo later, and give them a real professional look. They curve up in the back, giving the backdrop an “infinity curve” in the back, thus reducing or eliminating shadows.

Tape is useful if you need to hold down parts of the product and to take the backdrop down.

Get bounce cards made of foam core. You can get them from an art store. They won’t be called “bounce cards.” What they are is extra scraps of white foam core you can buy. You’ll use them to bounce light onto your product. A letter size works well. You could alternatively use umbrellas. Depending on the product, it may or may not work well. Larger products need more light, so umbrellas can work better than bounce cards.

Your camera choice is probably one of the most important aspects of the shoot. A DSLR is ideal. If you were to hire a professional, he or she would use one. These cameras and their lenses can be expensive, and they can be difficult to use, but they also produce high-quality images and give you ultimate control over the shot. If you’re taking a lot of photos, invest in one. Otherwise, get a point-and-shoot.

Point-and-shoot cameras are very popular, ubiquitous, and cheap. It’s smaller and easier to manage than a DSLR, but it won’t take as high quality a photo as a pro-grade camera.

Finally, the smartphone. You can take decent photos with your smartphone. It’s far from ideal, but it’s possible to do it, and then clean things up in post production in Photoshop. This produces the lowest quality photo, and it can be harder to take good photos due to the backend editing needed to make them look professional.

The tripod is the second-most important part of the equipment piece you need. Without a tripod, it’ll be next to impossible to get a good photo. All professional photos should be taken using one. It eliminates camera “shake” and lets you get very precise with the picture. It also has the benefit of being reliable and repeatable, so you can take multiple photos of the same product from different angles — perfect for 360 shooting where you need to maintain the same lateral angle all the way around the product.

Smartphone photography can achieve good results.
Smartphone photography can achieve great results.

A 3-point lighting system is photography 101. Without light, it’s difficult to capture your subject. In this case, your product. Ideally, the room you will take your photos in will have a huge window. And, you’ll place the table near to the window for maximum natural light exposure. Direct sunlight is not ideal unless the window is blurred and provides a diffused light effect. Either way, you’ll still need a lighting system to fill in the natural light (which can cast harsh shadows).

Photo-editing software is necessary for post-production and editing. Most professionals use Photoshop.

Photo Basics: How To Shoot Your Product

Get a model release (if you’re using models). Get any permits or necessary licenses for public shooting (if applicable). If you’re using models, get a release signed before you shoot. It will prevent you from having to make drastic edits later on, or risk losing the photo altogether.

Set up your space, and position the 3-point lighting system around where your product will be. Choose between natural and artificial lighting. If your room has a large window, use it. Set up your backdrop, and place your product in the middle of it. Use the umbrellas or bounce cards to keep light on the product. The goal is to surround it with light without casting a shadow on it.

Do a few test shots. Take shots from multiple angles using a tripod to steady the camera. When you’re done, clean up the photo in post-production.

Basic Organization Tips

Before you start your shoot, you should catalog your products. When you’re finished with the shoot, catalog the images for your products. Keep them numbered or tagged in a way that’s easy for you to remember. Consider how you will name the files to keep them organized and easy to search for when needed. You may be passing on the photos to web developers, so make sure your naming policy is intuitive and can be understood easily by others.

Always prep the products (clean them, test reflection, lighting, etc.) before you shoot. Organize products in the order you want to shoot them. Create a “workflow” and “assembly line” for your product photos. This will speed up the process and allow you to be more efficient.

Spend some time getting familiar with your camera. Most cameras come with a set of instructions. Read them. This will reduce or eliminate the risk of:

● Noise
● Soft focus (loss of sharpness)
● Compression artifacts
● Low resolution (pixel count)

Basic Tips For Shooting

A basic rule for shooting photographs is the “rule of thirds.” When composing your image, imagine a frame splitting the image into 9 equal parts which are created by making two vertical and 2 horizontal lines. The rule of thirds states you place important compositional elements of your product near the intersections of these lines.

Another good tip is to fill the frame and not waste space. If this is your first time shooting, it’s fine to bend this rule a bit by using a wide angle lens. This lets you capture more than just the photo and gives you leeway in editing.

Ordinarily, you want to frame your photo so it contains only the visual information you want in it. You don’t need (or want) extra space. A common mistake is to allow most of the frame in the photo to be taken up by a dull or uninteresting subject.

Finally, pay attention to lines and geometric shapes. Lines are important in photography. Diagonal lines make photos dynamic. Use them as leading lines to give a way into the photo. Use repetitive lines to draw the user’s attention to the center of whatever your product is or wherever you want them to look.

Advanced Photography and Sales

A rotating Arqspin device that aides in 360-degree photography
A rotating Arqspin device that aides in 360-degree photography

As customers expect more from ecommerce merchants today, you need to offer more than standard photos. Shoot from multiple angles to give customers a better idea of product. Shoot “360” photos. “360” photos are “live” photos that allow your prospective customer to “pan” the product from all angles.

There are simple platforms like Arqspin for adding interactive 360-degree product photography to your eCommerce storefront. According to the Internet Retailer Magazine, using the 360-degree rotation feature sees at least a 10% boost in conversion rates. This figure can sometimes be as high as 30% to 40% when compared to products that are not using this feature.

Once you have all angles, you can assemble a “3D view” in a photo editing application. Also be sure to include high-resolution and magnified versions of your product.

Always review your photos before ending the shoot session
Always review your photos before ending the shoot session

Use Photoshop (or other editing software) to remove the white background. This “zero background” effect is often used by large retailers to “float” the product on the page. It looks more professional and eliminates distractions from the photo.

Use storyboarding for products with multiple components and use contextual shooting methods to give customers a sense of scale. For example, you might compile multiple photos of a product if it is spring-loaded, or contains some action necessary for its function.

This way, prospective customers have a better idea of how it might work. Contextual shooting means placing the product next to a familiar object (e.g. a quarter) so prospects get a sense of scale and size.

Best Practices

Some photographers use “creative editing” to add details, whether to purposefully mislead or accidentally. Make sure you avoid doing this. For example, if you’re shooting a dress shirt, do not include other details like cufflinks, even if you think they make the product look better. Customers will be confused as to whether the product comes with cufflinks or not, and you may unintentionally mislead them if you include them in the photo.

Use professional-grade equipment for best results. Don’t use light or color filters. Use an extension tube and macro lens and setting for close-up shots of your product.

Licensing

If you allow affiliates to sell from your store, you’ll want them to sign a commercial license so that you can control rights to your photographs. Without this licensing, you won’t be able to control how affiliates use your product photos.

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