The complete guide to product photography – more than a thousand words
We all know how difficult and complex the world of photography seems. The thousand words in the title is not only about complexity of product photography. A well-taken shot tells a potential customer much more than a long description. I will show you the most important ideas in product photography in a friendly and useful way. They will be of use for you in e-commerce.
Photography automation – a revolution!
If you’re looking for a solution to product photography dilemmas (time and money savings!) – check out how photography automation can help you on the way to perfect product shots.
Read on, as I will be there to explain product photography. I will touch on the question of differences between two main types of product photography, i.e. Still life and Packshot. I will list out the key problems you might need to consider while taking product photos. The text also contains several tips on how to train your skills and what to keep in mind along the way.
Still life and packshot photography
Shopping online you encounter hundreds of product photos covering a range of items from jewellery to electronic devices and groceries. Is it possible to categorize these photos technically? Sure, yes! Product photography splits generally into two types: Still Life and Packshot. It is packshot photography that I would like to cover most extensively in this article. It has enabled online sales to thrive and grow. First, however, let’s have a look at the differences between Packshot and Still Life photography.
Still life photography
Still Life photography requires the photographer to present everyday products in an unusual and creative way. A lot of ordinary items do not look “sexy” in a simple shot. They are usually no design art pearls or hand-craft wonders. This requires the photographer to have an idea for a particular product, one that will make this ordinary item a shining focus of interest.
He must keep in mind that the goal of still-life photography is to make the buyer buy. The photographer will be able, even will be forced to, experiment and let his creativity run free. He will have freedom of product composition and he can go wild with lighting. Still, he needs to remember that the main goal in this creativity rage is to expose the most important features of the item and create emotions around it. The photographed item must be presented adequately to reality, without venturing into fiction.
If you want to take photos in the still-life style, do not be afraid to experiment. Start your adventure with things at hand. Create an interesting composition with a cup of tea and a pile of books, where the main topic is to show off the cup. Everyone who looks at the photo will be able to imagine a silent evening at home, with the cup filled with favourite tea and reading a favourite book. This is still life photography – it is meant to awaken your imagination.
This is exactly why this type of photos is no good for e-shops. Think of a person looking for a handbag and arriving at an online shop where each handbag is depicted in a creativity-rich, individual way. Chaos comes. This is why still life photos are mainly used in advertising.
Good still life photography, however, also brings plenty of side-associations. This refers to completely unreal scenes, funny or scary. This means acting on the viewer’s emotion.
While creating images in this way, play with the light and the composition, it will help you to master lighting setup skills.
A packshot is a photo of an item showing it right in the centre of the frame. The object is placed on a consistent background, usually white. The aim is to present the item just as it humbly exists in reality, so that a buyer will not be disappointed having unpacked the parcel.
There should be no space for experimentation or an amazingly individual lighting of each product. The photo is to present a clear view of the item where all the elements are well-visible. This is why packshot photography differs significantly from Still Life. You should hold back your creativity and not try to play with exposure.
Packshot photography is most often seen in online shops. Why has it become so popular on the Net? Mainly because it shows the product without unnecessary elements in the background. Thus, nothing steers the attention away from the product. The user can focus on the product itself, get to know it. Also, he can see what it is made of and calmly think of its texture, color, and shape.
What do I need for product photography?
If you want to start your journey in product photography, you need to master some basic technical knowledge right from this article. You will also need equipment – a traditional or an automated photo studio. I will get deeper describing traditional studio setups and briefly mention an automated solution.
You can have a very expensive camera but when the lighting is not set up correctly, the product will come out miserably. Vice versa, perfect lighting and a low-class camera will cause the photo to be of bad quality and your intended effect to crumble. The photographer needs to be well-prepared, when it comes to photo equipment. I have always directed myself upon a quote that I once found on a photographic forum:
Be like the master. Light is prime. Without it, there would be no photography. Of course, a wise master would allow space for other factors to shoot a perfect photo. Each of the questions described below will be very important and contribute to your shot. Eliminating any of them will produce a photo of worse quality, plus it will consume more of your time in post-production (ah, Photoshop!). Thanks to a few years of experience as a product photographer, I can share my tips with you. Here we go:
- photo equipment
- careful preparation of the product
- proper background
- photo-editing software
Certainly the most important element. Thanks to the ray of light, which passes through the lens into the camera body onto a sensor or a film, the image is recorded.
Modern digital photography gives us full control of light. Both at the moment of setting up the scene, when you can shoot a number of mock photos, and later when you digitally process your files. Two types of lights are used in product photography: flash and continuous.
Flash lights (aka strobes) will light for a fraction of a second when the camera shutter is open but you can see the result only after the image is taken. Strobes require synchronisation with the camera shutter to operate properly (cable or remote). Constant lights shine continuously and you can see the result even before you take the image. No synchronization with the camera is required.
When using studio flash lighting, you should keep in mind that the synchronisation time usually comes at 1/200 s. It is worth remembering this parameter, if you want to avoid a lighting mistake. If you shoot at a quicker shutter speed, the photo will probably be faulty, with an unwanted horizontal black line.
This problem will not occur with continuous lighting, as the light constantly exposes the camera sensor, when the shutter stays open. Mind, however, that flashlight will be more precise to catch movement in one still frame – flash duration can be as low as 1/1000 – 1/5000 (1-0.2ms), virtually freezing any movement in the image. You will be able to use higher shutter speeds and operate freely in a no-tripod setting.
The advantages can turn into a disadvantage, when you need to change flash light settings – it’s not easy, you need to capture an image to see the final result. What’s more, you can lose the repeatability of the shot. This may deter less advanced photographers and prolong your studio time.
Flash lights are usually connected to cameras through cables for synchronization. This creates additional space organisation difficulties – you will need to watch your step. A radio connection of your lighting set might be a solution only in case you purchase a reliable strong transmitter to deal with distance, interference and shutter release issues.
On the other hand, there is a wide range of accessories available for flash lights such as diffusers and reflectors, which will help a lot with the customization of your studio.
When using continuous lighting, you are able to benefit from the most important feature of modern digital cameras – you will enjoy the live preview. This option will let you observe how the light plays out on your product without the need to shoot a photo.
Frankly, what is modern photo equipment? I would say it is both the same and different from 20 years ago. Let’s dive deeper. Almost everyone has a mobile phone which takes good quality pictures. But can we shoot a good photo for our online shop with it? Generally, yes. The photo will have good parameters, well-sufficient for the needs of online shops and social media.
However, when you need to repeat this photo for similar items, or if your photos are to land on a website or in a printed catalogue, a proper camera comes in handy. Of course, studio-level cameras are more difficult to choose and more expensive to buy than a mobile phone.
For effective use of a mobile phone in product photography light boxes and light tents have been invented. With the help of these portable studios, you will be able to provide white background and studio lighting for your product. However, there will be little possibility to manipulate the light and shadow or to adjust the view angle. Image consistency is not easy to achieve and a mobile app which comes with the phone is good for a few shots. Most probably, you will not be satisfied by its capabilities for real content production in a larger e-commerce enterprise.
Should you decide to go professional and high volume, you will have to choose a proper lens for your camera. Let’s examine what would be needed.
Lens for product photography
The choice of optical solutions is very important. Thanks to the lens, the light falls on the sensor and the picture is recorded. A lower quality optical solution will render less sharp photos. In general, there are two types of lenses: prime (fixed focal length – no zoom) and varifocal (zoom lenses).
When choosing a lens for your product photography, it is not a bad idea to think about the sensor type of your camera body. A typical 50mm lens, will do good in a lot of situations (and is inexpensive). 50mm is the optical setup that renders the image in a perspective close to the human eye. If you are using a crop sensor camera, I recommend using crop-dedicated lenses. The complexity of determining focal length in relation to sensor sizes is best described in our article “Focal length in photography”.
The use of standard 50mm lenses will prevent variations in shape (distortion) of your products but you will lose flexibility, when you shoot products varying in size. The varifocal lens (zoom) will be more practical. Anyway, the rule of thumb is that product photography is shot at focal lengths of at least 50mm.
Shooting at a higher focal length you don’t have to put the camera very close to the object and thus limit the light. High focal length allows you to easily move away from the target while the camera system will apply the corrections to keep your product in its original shape and look.
Very often macro lenses are suggested for product photography due to their sharpness and magnification ratio (being able to shoot small items closely).
You can learn more about lens choice from our article “Best lens for product photography- expert tips”.
Which camera for product photography – DSLR or mirrorless?
Lenses checked, let’s focus on the camera itself. For product photography, you can choose between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. I do not recommend compact cameras with fixed lenses. The price difference is not huge and you will like the freedom of choosing a lens that best fits your needs.
Mirrorless cameras are based on a modern design without such elements as a mirror in the viewfinder, a focusing screen or a pentagonal prism. The focus preview is limited solely to the camera’s display screen. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses have very good resolution sensors. Modern mirrorless cameras can capture images using the electronic shutter (instead of the mechanical one), which limits vibration from the shutter and produces sharper images.
A full-frame sensor is 35,8 x 23,9mm, while an APS-C sensor is smaller depending on the brand and model. Both allow the use of various lenses. Full control over exposition parameters such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO remains an equally important factor here.
All in all, the highest level of control and best results can be achieved by using cameras with interchangeable lenses, be it a DSLR or a mirrorless. Sure, you can still buy a simple digital camera. Be prepared, however. You will experience a lack of control over various parameters and this will rarely allow you to arrive at the effects pre-planned for the shootout.
Tripod for product photography
The last useful element that supports your camera is a good photo tripod. Firstly, it stabilizes your camera to achieve sharp and unmoved photos. With the camera immobile you will be able to reduce the aperture and ISO for a higher depth of field and less noise.
Secondly, a tripod ensures repeatability of your shots. You set the studio only once, place your camera on the tripod, and then freely exchange photographed products with a guarantee they will be shot at the same angle.
Background for product photography
Your background choice changes from photo to photo, depending on the type of effect you are aiming at. If you are taking Still Life photos, there is plenty of freedom in the scene setting. The photographer arranges the setup and the background changes from product to product.
The case is different with packshot photography. The item should be placed on a uniform background. Usually, you will go for simple white, no additions. This will also be the requirement of many e-commerce platforms such as Amazon. I would say though that packshot photos can well have backgrounds of different colors, as long as they remain uniform and without additional elements. In traditional photography it is not easy to achieve a pure white background without post-processing. This is where technology comes to your aid!
Image editing software allows cutting the product from the background. The one condition is to shoot a more or less uniform background and sharp product edges. What’s more, you will be able to find fully automated product photography systems. Their dedicated software will automatically cut the background and set it to the desired color. Year after year, the process becomes more effective with solutions such as Orbitvu automated studios.
Equipment wise, to properly shoot packshot photography, you would need:
- photographic backgrounds of various colors, usually white
- a system for hanging the background
- photographic reflectors and diffusers
- still life table
Careful preparation of the product
Each product should be properly prepared for the photo session. The greatest enemy here would be the dust. You need to clean your object very carefully because everything imperfect will be visible in the photo. If you don’t dust your product correctly, long and tedious post-processing and hours in front of the monitor wait in the queue. From my experience, the following gadgets will help you with product preparation for packshot photography:
- cotton gloves – never again leave fingerprints on the product,
- well-chosen cleaning chemistry – it needs to match the product requirements
- microfibre towels
- a container of compressed air or a small compressor – to fight the dust.
- a lint remover – very useful for fashion photography.
Why is it worth being ready with all this cleaning equipment? Imagine you enter an online shop selling wine glasses. The photos you see show tainted and dirty products, fingerprints are visible. The photographer has not done his job with product preparation. Most probably, he simply took the glass out of the box, shot the photos, and even after the quality assurance process the effect is visible on the website. Obviously, such photos deter customers from the product and lower the chance of purchase.
Save your time and check how to prepare the product in several simple steps. All made easy in our article about cleaning the product for photography.
With your shots ready on the drive, it is time for post-processing in your software. You would need a proper editor program. It will help you to remove unwanted spots, adjust contrast, and change many other parameters. The main function of the program remains to make the background perfectly white, the key characteristic of a good packshot.
Working in programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo can be a daunting task, especially for beginners. You will have to learn the use of layers, masks and cutting tools, which might take up to a few months to master.
The simplified photo editing provided in automated photo studio solutions may turn out to be worth an investment, as it is a quick and easy way to a white background in the picture. Read more about the “remove background” challenges in our complete photo background guide.
Each of the above elements, camera, lens, tripod, or software, is important for your success, so do not hesitate to get deeper into the presented questions.
How do I take professional product photos?
The way you set your camera will be key to the final quality of the photo. When you make a mistake at this stage, it can turn out that the photo will lack sharpness, have excessive noise or wrong (untrue) colors.
The aperture is a hole in the lens that determines how much light will fall onto the sensor. It is measured with the f-stop figure which describes the ratio of focal length to aperture diameter. The aperture influences the depth of field, which is the distance in front of and behind the focus point.
Three photos of a keyboard below might help you to understand the concept of depth of field. I have set the focus to the middle of the item and using the aperture I will manipulate the depth of field. For the first photo the lens opened at f/4, and you will notice that only the small middle part of the keyboard stays in focus. After stopping the lens down to f/11, our depth of field has grown. When we capture at f/22 (very small aperture) almost the whole keyboard comes in focus. This trick has its limitations, as it causes quality loss when using small aperture values. The best image quality is produced using mid-range f-stops, i.e. around f/11.
The next setting is shutter speed, also called exposure time. The shutter is a mechanism that covers and uncovers the sensor or film. The time during which the shutter stays open is called exposure time. With the adjustment of shutter speed you can decide whether the photo will be lighter or darker.
ISO value is a parameter of the sensor indicating its sensitivity to light. Too high an ISO value will create image noise. Modern sensors are significantly better than those from years ago and allow good quality images at an ISO as high as 800.
Photos taken with a smartphone will be more prone to noise as the sensors of these devices are smaller. This means that with the same shutter speed and aperture a mobile phone sensor will generate a more noisy image even though it may not seem so visually – it goes through a lot of default processing using the phone software AND the screen is usually better than in laptops or on monitors.
White balance is defined as: "the adjustment of sensor properties to the color temperature of light, in order to faithfully render colors on the photo."
White balance is best explained with the example of a photo of a white product. When you shoot white shoes using warm color temperature light, the shoes will get a yellowish hue. White balance setting allows you to correct any differences of color coming from light color temperature and is digitally adjusted by the camera:
Historically, the optimal light color temperature was 5500K (neutral white). It has less meaning today, as a camera can compensate almost any light temperature. It is more important to use lights with high Color Reproduction Index (CRI). You should aim at a minimum value of 95 CRI (100 is maximum).
Many online shops experience issues with the presentation of the product. To avoid repeating them, follow these tips.
A packshot should give the most faithful representation of the product. The view should present the product at its best. The perspective should remain neutral, similar to one from a real-life shop.
When shooting a cup, it is not advisable to present only one side of it, e.g. leaving the ear out. A potential customer who sees such a photo will not be able to make sure what kind of cup is being sold. You need to set the camera at a slightly higher angle to show the whole shape of the product. One or two photos should instantly convince the customer about the nature of the product.
Always aim to capture at the highest resolution. Although, final image resolution in an e-shop is not high, shooting at the highest quality allows you to crop details from the image, achieve a higher quality low resolution image in the post-production or use the image for print. A quick definition will help you understand resolution.
In digital images, resolution is the level of detail represented in the number of pixels. Resolution will make your post-processing easier. With a bigger image file, you will be able to get many more details out of it. When processing material of 6144 x 4608 pixels, you can easily make it smaller and save it in 3072 x 2304 pixels. This way you get two files – one for the Internet, one for print.
Online files cannot be too large, as their download time increases with their size. In lower resolution files, on the other hand, you will lose the chance to present details. Using high-resolution images, you will be able to generate several sizes of an image.
This will make your life easier, as you will not need to take a huge number of pictures with details only. Instead, you will simply cut many photos with product details out of one! This example, a photo of an orchid, will show you the way resolution works. The first photograph, 705×470 pixels, is definitely too small. The image became blurry after zooming in.
The second photo was 5295 x 3530 pixels. You can zoom in to an image of a good quality still.
Exposing the color and texture of an item
An Internet buyer cannot experience products online as in reality: they are not able to touch it and feel the texture. It will be your task as a product photographer to take the picture in a way that reflects the character of the product.
You will have to play with its color and the material it is made of. The color has to stay natural, resembling what is seen by the eye on the product. Here, the white balance comes in handy, as we described it in the photo features section. This setting simply cannot be skipped, if you intend to be sure that white shoes stay white and do not get a yellow hue.
Proper rendering of the material of the product is also a key factor to a shop’s success. Showing the texture of the product can be important for the customer. They can be confused by a photograph of a flat-texture sweatshirt and in their order unpack a fuzzy sheep wool product. Check out our article on “How to photograph flat lay clothes?” for techniques of exposing material properties.
Generally, your task would be to set the lighting in a way that shows the material and texture. Should a blanket be the object of your product photo, you would need to show its fuzziness and pleasant touch. It can be achieved through light manipulation. If the light is uniform and shines with the same strength and angle from all directions, your image of the item will become flat. Using contract lighting will help you to highlight the texture.
Lighting setup for better texture
In product photography, the properly setup lighting adds the third dimension to a flat image. What this means in practice is that you need to set the lighting unevenly – so it lights stronger from one side. The product will show delicate shadows and lighter spaces, which altogether will create an impression of 3D shape emerging out of the photo surface.The aim is to let the light and shadow play their photographic game.
A simple example shows here how light acts on the product and how you can observe a changing image:
What to do, if the image is meant to be repeatable? Draw a visual aid. Try it like that:
You draw the whole photo setup. Where the lights are, what intensity they shine with, what the distance is, which accessories were used to regulate the lights. You can also describe the type of background and camera settings. You will need floor marks for your turntable and lights to be absolutely precise.
A drawing is not always sufficient, especially when you want to move the studio from time. Imagine your company has plenty of warehouse locations and the products are big enough to prevent quick and easy transportation. It would be the studio that would have to be transported (or replicated!) and set up correctly each time. Drawings, case descriptions, and floor marks might turn out not enough. Your process would grow in costs. Also, this way perfect repeatability of shots would be difficult to achieve.
Automation of product photography
An automated photo studio helps you to achieve the same result as in a traditional photo studio at increased pace with less knowledge required. The key difference between traditional and automated photography is the integration between camera, lighting a turntable and software. The automation automatically removes background from the product image, which eliminates the problem of uniform white background, and makes it easier to light the product. The construction of the studio, together with the possibilities of digital photography, lets you carefully control the spread of light.
The use of continuous light supported by live preview provides the “What You See is What You Get” concept in product photography. Any changes made to lighting, camera settings are immediately visible in the software. It makes it much easier to learn and operate such studio.
Automated photo studios are equipped with a turntable, which rotates the product placed on it. This allows you to capture automatically several product shots at different horizontal angles. On top of it, it’s possible to capture 360 product spins.
Thanks to dedicated studio software and hardware-software integration, the studio automatically removes background from product images. In post-production the background can be replaced with white solid color or another color or image. If needed, images can be exported for print with transparent background.
How can I practice product photography?
If you want to reach good skills in photography, just as in any other branch of human activity, a lot of practice and experience is needed. There is no golden way to start. Each road is similar and leads to a photo studio.
Let me share some key points on how to start practising your photography skills.
Engagement! It is important to stay motivated and engaged in your plans.
Watch good product photography! Search the Internet and catalogues for well-executed photos. Analyze them! Observe how light originates in the studio and on the product and what the perspective is. If you need to photograph a product – google images of it, see how others took their photos!
Read and watch materials online! Search for interesting articles, watch tutorial videos, learn about tricks and effects.
Experiment! Treat each project as an experiment, don’t be afraid to change lighting and exposition parameters. Check out each of your ideas.
Get to know the equipment! The knowledge of tools of your work is an important question. Check how the lights behave, whether it is easier for you to work on continuous or flash light, which lens is best for which shot.
Correct product choice! Use simple products at the beginning. E.g. a cup. When you master the basic skills, start photographing what you really like. You will see how many ways to show your product appear at a second look. Dorothea Lange once summed it up interestingly:
Show what you feel looking at the product! This is a piece of advice aimed more at those who prefer to choose Still Life photography. Remember that each photo conveys emotions. And if you, as a photographer, don’t feel anything with a look at your photo – no one will.
Product photography is the queen of online shops nowadays. I think that, just as all kinds of photography, it is a very demanding monarch. You will need technical knowledge but what is more important is to capture the gist of products.
Lighting, photo equipment, resolution, the right frame, color and texture of the item, the preparation of the product and proper background. They all play a role.
And they will surely help you with your work in the studio. Make it easier and more pleasant to start the adventure with product photography. No matter whether you shoot Still Life or Packshot.
You, as a product photographer, have a very important role to play – you bring real products to online virtual reality. The amount of sales and returns in your e-shop (and how happy your management and clients are) will depend on how good your pictures are.
I hope that on your road, the words „one photo is worth more than a thousand words” will accompany you all the time. And you will understand them soon. Good luck!
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