The Ultimate DIY Guide To Beautiful Product Photography
Undoubtedly, when it comes to ecommerce and really any online business venture, people will be quick to judge the value of your product and whether or not to trust your business almost solely based on your website’s design and photography. Having a high quality, accessible and easy-to-navigate website is not unlike having a warm, welcoming and well laid-out retail store; people will feel much more comfortable and will be more likely to buy in a place that appeals to them in some way. Of course, one of the major factors
that plays into having a well designed website is often high quality photography of your products. People will like to be able to get good, high resolution looks at all angles of a product, much like how Amazon for example often give you a handful of different pictures of the same product: it allows you to know exactly what the product looks like.
Now of course, these photographs are not just for adding a quality feel to your site, no, they often help to convert mere perusal or window-shopping into a sale. I can’t stress the importance enough of having photographs available of your products that not only portrays them in the best light that you possibly can but also ones that make every nook and cranny of the product clear and visible to the customer. So many times I find myself on the edge of buying a second-hand product, for example, only to ultimately be turned away because there is a beam of light over the product’s screen and I can’t help but think to myself “Is that light purposely hiding a scratch, or is it just coincidence?”.
However, often for newcomers to photography getting shots of your product done can prove to be quite a daunting experience due to expensive equipment and the need to employ techniques that you’re unfamiliar with to ensure a good photo; lighting, proper framing, things like that. For business owners that are already strapped for cash, investing all they can in the business, it isn’t always viable to pick up expensive cameras and other equipment, however, in this article I will detail methods and DIY tricks that you can use to take your own professional quality product photographs for only a fraction of the price.
While there are of course lots of different techniques and styles that will result with great looking images, the one I will focus on now is called The Window Light Technique. As someone who has to take lots of product photographs almost everyday, I have written this tutorial with small startup businesses in mind; in effect, this tutorial will be cheap and cheerful, while still producing high quality results for almost all kinds of product.
What You’ll Need
Equipment is of course going to be our main focus here and unfortunately it can the aspect of photography that gets most people confused and frustrated. There are so many different factors to account for that it can be overwhelming, but it is important here to thoroughly research everything you are considering buying. Money will be an important factor here, and it will be critical to not overspend. There would be no need to spend potentially a couple of hundred dollars on some fancy lights when all you really need is some white card or paper and placement near a sunny window. When all is said and done, if you already own a camera, the Window Light Technique will probably only set you back about $20. Here is everything you’ll need:
Camera: Definitely the most expensive of all the gear that we will be looking at today, it can also potentially be the easiest to acquire. There is no need to fork out wads and wads of cash for a shiny new DSLR with a lens as long as your forearm. No, in reality all you really need is a digital camera that takes pretty nice looking photographs, which, nowadays, is pretty much any new-ish digital camera. Of course, it can still be quite expensive, but chances are that you know someone with a digital camera you can borrow, or you could always pick one up online that is second-hand or refurbished until you can invest in a really special camera.
If a basic digital camera is still unobtainable for you, even a smartphone camera will do. While it won’t be the same quality as a dedicated camera, it’s still very possible to get good results from a smartphone camera that will be more than sufficient for your needs. So, while the camera is without a doubt the most important piece of equipment for this DIY task, (we are going to be taking product photos after all!) good results will be capable with quite modest budgets and cameras.
Tripod: A tripod is going to be crucial here, especially for modest camera users. To ensure the best quality photograph, we’re going to need to set the camera aperture to be very small, which in turn will result in giving us a wide depth of field. This will give the image a nice effect where the product is in sharp focus while the background is kind of blurry, just enough to be aesthetically pleasing. We will also be raising our f/stop number, which is tied to the shutter speed of your camera. For the uninitiated; shutter speed defines the time that a camera shutter is open for, allowing more or less light in. For example, a high shutter speed will allow less light in than normal, resulting in darker images. A larger f/stop number will let in less light and so, to counteract this, we must use a slower shutter speed so that we can allow more light into the camera.
Using a slow shutter speed means that it is no longer to take pictures by holding the camera; the slight natural shakes and movement that humans have will result in blurry photos. So, this is why we have to use a tripod. You might encounter a problem here in that your budget camera or smartphone may not, and likely won’t, allow you to change the f/stop but there are workarounds that we will go through later on in the article. For now though, just remember not to overspend on your tripod. You should be able to find some online for around $20 that will be more than enough for our Window Light Technique.
White Background: This will definitely be the most simple piece of our equipment to obtain, as a simple piece of card will work well enough for what we will be using it for, however if you intend to be photographing a lot of products I do have to recommend sourcing a proper white sweep. A white sweep is essentially just a structure that gives a white background an indistinguishable curve upwards, and it generally just gives your photographs a really professional look. It is entirely possible to create your own sweep though, all you need to do is blu-tack your card to a wall and make sure there’s a curve in it. However, you can probably find one quite cheap online.
White Foamcore Bounce Cards: While purchasing your piece of card, or if you happen to be near a crafts shop, you should ask if they have any white foamcore available. The purpose of this is to create a kind of cubicle for the product that will bounce light onto the product.
Table or Desk: Any standard table or desk will do and don’t worry about any visible blemishes or scratches on it; they shouldn’t be visible in your photo as we will be focusing on the product.
Tape: Tape and blu-tack will be more than sufficient to allow you to sweep your white card, just make sure that it isn’t visible from where you will be taking the photo.
The Right Room: This is important to get right, as it is the reason we haven’t had to spend a lot of money on lights. Choose a room with the largest windows possible next to a wall to ensure that the maximum amount of light possible is allowed in. The more light we have the better our product should look in the completed images.
How To Photograph Your Product On A White Background
Well, by now you should have everything that you need to take good looking photographs of your products, but we’re still missing something: the technique itself. In this next part of the article, I will detail how to take the photographs of your products that will certainly cast them in as best a light as possible.
Step 1: Set Up Your Table: Now that you have gotten all of your gear together, the very first step we must take before actually photographing anything is to setup our desk in a way that is going to allow for the best photos possible. You’ll want to start by placing your desk outside of the shadow that the window itself will cast while still keeping the window at a 90 degree angle to your left or right. The light will be softer based on your closeness to the window and the size of the window itself. And while we’re talking light, don’t forget to leave all the lights off in the room you’re working in as any artificial light will only contaminate your images.
Feel free to try rotating your setup to different degrees and having the window at different placements with regards to the desk. Many different styles of photography rely on having the light sources at different places, so really it will ultimately come down to whatever setup that you feel looks best. Just remember that direct sunlight does not look well on most products.
Step 2: Set Up Your Sweep: Your goal here is to have your cardboard mat slowly curve up from a horizontal position to being vertical. Done correctly, you should be left with a nice gradual slope that will make your product appear to be sitting in the middle of an infinite white plain. Taping the top of your sheet to a wall, or makeshift wall if you’re setup isn’t near one, and sweeping down to the table is the method that I find works the most consistently and easily. For proper product placement you’ll want to position it dead center of a the flat part of the card.
Step 3: Set Up Your Camera: First of all I would recommend familiarising yourself with the menus and settings in your own camera as we will be jumping around a lot and it can be quite hard to follow if you don’t know where you’re going. I’ll detail this process in a step-by-step format so that you can follow at your own pace.
- Set your white balance (WB) to Auto.
- Make sure that your flash is off.
- Find your ISO settings and set them to 100. This is often the lowest that ISO settings go to on many cameras. ISO controls how sensitive the camera’s sensor is, meaning the higher the ISO, the more noise is in the image. We want crisp, clear images of our products so we want to have minimal picture noise.
- Zoom in. Cameras often have both an optical and a digital zoom. Digital zoom will result in a drop in quality whereas optical won’t. Use your optical zoom to zoom in as far as possible, which will remove any distortion you may have from your lens.
- Image settings: here you will want to make sure your image quality is at its absolute largest.
- If your camera supports it, set your image quality to raw. I don’t expect many handheld digital cameras or smartphones to have this feature, but on the off chance that you do, by all means use it. Raw format is the largest that a camera can shoot meaning that you will get the highest resolution photos that your camera is capable of. Unfortunately it does mean that you will have to do your editing with a software that supports raw format images, such as Photoshop, which can be expensive.
- If you don’t have the raw option available to you, simply set it to the highest possible JPG setting you have. Typically there will be 2 settings to look out for: quality and size.
Quality: The options that you will likely find here are labelled S, F and N – Superfine, Fine, and Normal, respectively. You will want to choose Superfine here as this setting will allow the camera to use as many pixels as possible on its sensor, resulting in a higher quality image.
Size: Typically here you will find L, M, and S – Large, Medium, and Small, respectively. This setting will determine the filesize of the image and the bigger the filesize, the better the image quality. So here we will choose Large for the best possible quality image.
Step 4: Exposure Settings: You will have a few options to choose from here so I recommend messing around with each of them and seeing the results for yourself. Decide on which one you prefer and retake some shots using your preferred method. Personally, I have always been a fan of manual settings, especially for this kind of work where the subject is static; you will be able to alter and tinker as you go without the need to worry about missing that perfect ‘Kodak moment’, but ultimately it is up to you.
Option A: Set your camera to Manual (M)
As I said, my preferred setting and arguably the best as it gives you total control over what your picture will look like. If you’re going to be using the manual method, make sure that your f/stop is set as high as it can go to give you the widest depth of field.
Pay attention to the images as your photographing them. Setting the f/stop high will have made them dark, so we will have to lower our shutter speed to let more light in. Keep adjusting this shutter speed setting and checking what the images look like until you feel that is correctly exposed, and from then just work away taking your product photos.
Option B: Use Aperture Priority
This method will make the camera choose the shutter speed that it deems to be correct based on your f/stop – which you will want to set to the highest number, once again. However, your camera may be wrong and you might feel that it looks a bit off, so it is always a good measure to experiment with the exposure compensation dial to add or remove light as you see fit. Unfortunately, this is another one of those settings that I don’t expect to find in point-and-shoots or smartphone cameras, but if you have it by all means give it a whirl and see if it gives you good results.
Option C: Auto Exposure
You might not feel comfortable messing around with all the settings required in the above two options, and that’s fair enough. The only thing you’ll have to tinker with using this method is the exposure compensation dial, just to add a little bit of (likely necessary) light. While your images probably won’t be the best possible quality using the automatic settings, they will definitely be just as usable as if you were using a manual method. Also, if you’re using the automatic method I would have to tell you not to trust the image shown on the camera itself and instead to follow the histogram being displayed. The histogram will go from left to right, black to white, but if there is a gap between the slope of white and the border of the histogram, add a bit more exposure until it is just touching the border. The gap between the border represents there being no pure white in the picture, but of course your sweep card is pure white, so this adjustment should make your image look perfect.
Step 5: Set Up Your Product Correctly: You will want to place your product directly in the center of the flat part of your sweep mat. Correct positioning is integral to an attractive shot of your product, so put the necessary time and care into where you actually place your subject. Pay attention to details that might need to be centered, such as logos or focal points. There will often be little details that you may want to accentuate and it will take continuous small movements until you are truly happy with your positioning.
Step 6: Set Up The Reflector Card: The reflector card that you sourced earlier will be the most important lighting utility that you have at your disposal in your makeshift studio. The purpose of a reflector card is to bounce light off of the card and eliminate any shadows around your product. Feel free to put your reflector card in various different positions as it will be what you like best that you will ultimately run with.
Step 7: Take The Picture And Evaluate: Now that all your setup and setting changes are complete, it is time to start properly taking pictures and evaluating what is working and what isn’t within them. This is something that you will get better with through practice and over time as you develop an eye and a feel for product photography, but for now simply try and analyse what might look better and experiment with ways to improve your images. When you are happy with them, it’s time to upload them to your computer to get an even better idea of how they look, as they will be blown up in high resolution.
I recommend downloading Adobe’s Lightroom program to organise and perform basic editing on your photographs, however free utilities such as GIMP should be fine for performing any necessary touch-ups.
Step 8: Retouch Your Images: Once you’re finally happy with your images, it will be time to carry out some minor digital edits to them, making them a bit more vibrant and sharp before you upload them you your website or webstore. If your settings were correctly in line with what I had outlined above, the product will be exposed and your background will look more grey or off-white than pure white.
This retouching process is very important when it comes to product photography, as your products are not truly looking their best until they have been through these edits. Unfortunately, teaching the necessary skills to perform these retouches yourself is another article in and of itself and can still be a weakness for many. Because of this, I’d recommend that you either source a tutorial yourself on how to perform these edits yourself, or send the pictures to a professional retouching company such as Mister Clipping, one of, in my opinion, the best in the business. Having a company do the touch-ups for you is actually quite affordable, and the process can be done entirely digital so there are no pesky shipping costs or hassles.
Step 9: Upload Your Pictures To Your Website / Webstore: Once your images have been retouched it’s time to get them uploaded to your website or ecommerce store. Using Shopify already puts you a step ahead, as it automatically resizes images for you, saving you any headache of having to do that manually as many other sites do. In fact, any website that does automatically resize for you will allow to just simply upload and apply the images, job done. However, if you have to manually resize your images, it will be a bit more work.
Manually Resizing An Image:
- Find The Necessary Image Size: Many images do not scale well, and if blown up too much will look very fuzzy. Luckily, we have taken our pictures at their highest possible resolution and quality, but reducing their size will have no real discernible impact. To find the image size that your website uses, right click on an image that is already uploaded and hit ‘Inspec Element’. This will give the two image dimension, width and height.
- Crop Your Images: You will more than likely have to crop your images to fit your website. Luckily, cropping is very straightforward and can be done in even free photo editing software, simply look up a tutorial for whichever particular software you happen to be using. Once again, I would recommend GIMP as a free program, and Lightroom if you’re willing to spend some money.
- Export Your Images: Once you’ve cropped your image, the final steps before uploading is pretty straightforward. Head to the ‘File’ tab, choose ‘export’ and ensure your file settings and image sizings match the following:
- Image Format: JPEG
- Quality: 80-90
- Colourspace: SRGB
- Resize to fit: Width and Height – match crop size
- Resolution: 72ppi (pixels per inch).
Now, export and upload your images.
After following all of these steps you should be taking professional quality product photographs from the comfort of your own ‘studio’. Hopefully, the profits that you make from your store will allow you to reinvest into better and better gear for photography over time, though I’m sure you will find that, using my guide, that will be unnecessary.