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Virtually all tangible products require a good picture in order to sell online or through the mail because people depend almost totally on their eyes. Countless product photos on eBay and other internet sites are badly lit, and this almost always translates into a lower sale price, so study this information carefully. The idea is to display a product's best features to their best advantage. However, you must create a genuine representation or customers may be very disappointed. An enormous amount of money and time goes into photographing merchandise. The good news is that in many cases all you need is a simple photo, that is, the product, alone, with good indirect or bounced lighting and a neutral background.
Before photographing a product, you should spend some time thinking about how you want to present it. What kind of emotional response do you want to get from a prospective buyer? Beyond that, you need to consider the following;
The item's size, texture, and surface material. Reflective surfaces must be carefully lit. Do you need to capture small details? Will any other items be in the photo, such as related products or props? What color background is appropriate? Materials and shapes can make a big difference in lighting choices. These are just some of the factors involved in photographing merchandise for sale. In this instructive section we’re going to go over all of them, and discuss various kinds of equipment.
You do not need top-of-the-line cameras and lights to get good product shots for MOST purposes, such as selling on eBay. You DO need to understand how your camera works, its limitations, and how to get good lighting.
Get a good quality camera. The extra you spend will pay off in faster and better quality images. That does NOT mean go out and buy too much, too fast. I strongly recommend a digital camera. Digital cameras are far more cost effective because you don’t need any film and you can see immediately what you are getting. That saves a load of time and money. On top of that, it’s much easier to get images from a digital camera onto a website or auction site. Get one that has several ISO ( film speed ) settings because in many cases you will want a faster speed ( larger number ), such as 400, or even 800. Get a camera that has the ability to compensate for different kinds of light, using a “white balance” setting. Also, get a camera that has a macro ( close up ) feature.
If you plan
to do a lot of product photos you should get a camera that accepts different
lenses, such as a digital single lens reflex (
Many people don’t realize that lenses can cause distortion. For example, a wide angle lens will make something look smaller, as well as cause horizontal and vertical lines to appear bent. A zoom lens can also distort an object, make it seem larger or distorted. Distortion effects are magnified if your lens is very close to the subject. To portray something accurately you should set the camera lens to the range that is normal to the human eye, usually 50mm or so. Sometimes it is necessary to use either a wide angle or zoom lens, such as when the subject is large ( wide angle ), or small ( zoom ). In that case, do your best to place the object, test, review for distortion, until you get an image that works.
Don’t scrimp on lighting equipment because photography is all about lighting. Many cameras have an onboard flash but most of the time that’s NOT the flash you want to use. Ideally, you should get a camera that has the option of attaching an external flash on a coiled cable so you can direct the flash precisely where you want it. Most of the time, you will want to bounce the flash off a wall or ceiling because a direct flash from a short distance will either wash out the image or create unwanted glare, reflection, or “hotspots”. If you can’t afford, or don’t have, a good external flash unit, set up your product outside or near a window.
Flash units for photography are rated in what’s called “wattseconds”, WS. It’s a measure of power, per unit of time. All you really need to understand is how much you need, without getting too much or too little. Most people who sell online need little more than a 150 WS flash unit, placed in a 10 inch or larger reflector, or better yet with a small “soft-box” option. In other words, sometimes use the bulb exposed, other times behind the translucent cover. Some people use an “umbrella” reflector instead, with a translucent “shoot-through” umbrella. To make your system more versatile, you could get:
one 150, to 300 WS flash, with the auto-fire “slave” flash switch.
One small softbox to put over it sometimes.
One additional 150 WS slave flash to put in a clip-on bracket with reflector
One off-camera “speedlight” unit connected by a coil, fired by your camera
Medium sized light tent.
One small “hot-light”, color balanced toward daylight spectrum
Light stands as needed. Get good solid ones, you won’t regret it.
With this assembly of equipment you could do a huge range of small product photography. With a little creativity, you could even photograph a big object like a car with that equipment. If your budget is small, I would start with the attached, off-camera light unit on a coiled wire, and a nice outdoor or window location. Next, buy the small 150 WS with softbox. If most of your products are small, buy a light tent next. Then you could put the softbox just outside the light tent, and you would get a nice even wash of light on your product. Experiment.
Types of light
Many people don’t realize that cameras don’t record light they way our eyes do. Our eyes automatically compensate for the different kinds of light frequencies but cameras can’t do that unless you have one that allows you to set the white balance. Daylight contains a much wider range of light frequencies than artificial light. Camera flashes produce light that is closer to a daylight spectrum, but tends more toward the blue end. Common incandescent bulbs produce a yellow, or even reddish light that will tint your photos. Candles and fire also produce a yellowish red light. Fluorescent bulb light is highly variable and ranges from greenish to bluish, making photos really ugly sometimes, especially on skin tones. Many modern cameras have a “white balance” selector that allows you to set the camera to compensate different kinds of light conditions. It’s wise to use that feature.
Lens Reflex (
Flash and other lighting equipment
Most products are relatively small, so you don’t need overwhelming light. In fact, many good product photos can be created with either daylight, or a simple flash unit.
As mentioned above, one such unit is a portable flash unit that’s attached to the camera with a cord ( usually coiled ). That way you can aim the flash in any direction. Another useful tool is what’s called a slave flash. It’s a device that screws into a regular light socket, but it’s a flash that’s triggered by another flash, such as the portable flash just mentioned. You can get these quite cheap, say 20 or 30 dollars. If you put a slave flash into a simple clip on light fixture that has a fairly large aluminum reflector ( 8 inches in diameter or more ), your on-camera flash will trigger the slave flash giving you much more light. That’s helpful for lighting larger products. You can put the clip-on fixture on a stand if you wish, or find a convenient place to put it. The idea is to have 2 flash units lighting the product from different angles. For some kinds of products, where atmosphere is especially important, you might like to have some shadow, or suggestive lighting. In that case, you might want to use what’s called a “hot light”. That’s a light that is always on, typically you can move it around, try different angles, to create atmosphere. Hot lights don’t need to be powerful for average sized products. You need to make sure they are “color balanced” or emit light in the daylight spectrum. You can find these at many photography stores online, just do a search. Using “hot-lights” or continuous light has the advantage of being able to see the final lighting before shooting. They do get hot, so you need to be very careful with them.
Another useful tool is what’s called a light tent. It’s usually a cube shape made out of translucent white nylon and flexible edges that can be folded up and put into a bag. The idea of a light tent is to prevent shadows and give you consistent lighting. Set up your slave flash to one side of the tent, and the light will go through the sides of the tent, lighting the object. You can get light tents cheap on eBay. Get one that’s a decent size so you can photograph fairly big products. A nice size is 30 inches cubed.
Some of these light tents have different colored nylon background sheets that attach to the back with Velcro. That’s okay for some products, but nylon is very artificial and reflects light. A better idea is to use nice pieces of fine cloth, with different textures and colors, depending on the product. That has the effect of absorbing some of the bright light, and balancing the image. Swatches of attractive cloth can be used outside the “tent” as well, on a table. Fabric is very useful in photography.
Above: a product photo setup
This setup uses a “softbox” above the product, and another softbox to one side. A soft-box is a powerful light enclosed inside a reflective “box“, that has a translucent cover. The light is softened as it is broadcast.
Using lots of light can greatly reduce shadows, but you have to be careful about the angles you use. The lights in this photo are “hotlights”, or continuous lights, not flash units. However, they are truly hot, and you should be very careful. More info and examples
The atmosphere surrounding a product is often very important. In many cases it's what triggers a sale. That's why a lot of effort is put into creating a "set", or even doing expensive location shoots. Most products do not need much space to photograph, so you can use a small room, or even a table. Even if the product is small, it can be very beneficial if you put it in an environment that suggests value, mood, product use, or triggers an emotional response from the viewer.
Pay close attention to the background in your photos. Most of the time you should use a plain, neutral background for product shots. You can use a sheet or other fabric. Select a background that contrasts with the product, such as a light background for dark objects. Avoid backgrounds that reflect light, such as glossy plastic, glass, steel, etc. The texture of a background should also be considered. For example, metal is a somewhat harsh material. You can soften the impression it gives by placing it on a soft material, or something like wood, as in one of the samples below.
You can get creative with backgrounds, too. Outdoors you can use green grass, foliage, flowers, or sky, where appropriate. Just make sure it looks good and doesn’t have odd objects in it. Nice wood tables make great platforms and backgrounds for many products.
Photographing different materials
Each kind of material has different characteristics that affect lighting. Below are some broad categories of materials and how to light them successfully.
Glass and ceramics
These materials usually reflect light so you have to be careful about glare spots. Use indirect flash by bouncing your flash unit. I usually bounce toward a light colored ceiling or sometimes to a side wall. You don't need expensive flash units. For many of the sample photos, I used an on-camera "speedlight" pointed slightly away from the item, or directly up. The "speedlight" triggered a small, 60 watt-second slave flash that was also pointed slightly away from the item, usually off to the side and upward. The combination of 2 indirect light sources prevents harsh shadows.
Metal is similar to glass in reflective capacity. A lot depends on what color it is. Indirect soft flash works very well. Metal is frequently painted. Select lighting according to color and surface texture. Metal can appear cold and uninviting, so it's common to introduce warmer tones and textures.
Most wood has wonderful
texture and a range of color in the same item. Soft indirect lighting and high contrast
works well. Subtle shadows add depth
and interest to photos. Once again, use bounced, or
indirect flash. Notice the nice lighting on the elephant.
Paper is not always very reflective. It's a "warm" material, so a modest amount of shadowing is okay. If the paper is glossy, you need to shoot at a slight angle, especially with a flash. That way the flash will bounce off of and away from the lens, eliminating the glare. You can also turn the product slightly, such as in the last photo on right.
Plastic can be very reflective, but not like glass. Some kinds of plastic have nice texture, too. Wide variety of colors are possible. To convey warmth, put plastic near a soft textured object or background.
Combinations of materials
When there are more than one kind of material in the product shot it creates a bit of a challenge. Reflected light from a flash works quite well. Sometimes a slight reflection enhances the appearance of a product. The trick is to arrange the lights so only a small area provides the "glow". You might need to experiment a bit by moving the items around and doing test shots.
Good jewelry pictures can be worth a lot of money. They can be important evidence for insurance and theft claims, too. Because most jewelry is small it's often necessary to use macro photography techniques. For really top notch photos of gems you should use a tilt/swivel lens or view camera and preferably slide film. Few people need to photograph high end jewelry, however.
Fabric and clothing
From a lighting standpoint, fabric is much like wood except for a much wider range of colors. Leather is also similar to some fabrics, in terms of texture. Clothing has a strong emotional component, so you should use artistic skill with your composition and use good combinations of colors. Experiment with lighting to enhance texture. The best lighting usually comes from an angle, not head on.
Sometimes details are very important to a buyer. In most cases, all you need to do is get closer to the subject using a zoom lens, or just bring the camera closer to a portion of the product. If the product detail is very small, most lenses cannot get closer without blurring. In that case you usually need a lens extender or bellows for extreme close-ups.
Many cameras now have a macro feature that allows a closer view without blurring. Soft lighting, sometimes at a sharp, or low angle, is best. Macro photography ( extreme close ups ) is often used in advertising. It requires careful attention to lighting and a special lens or lens extension. It's usually best to use a tripod, too, because the slightest camera shake will blur the photo.
Combining similar or associated products makes the image stronger and saves space. Several items in a photo can also convey how a product is used. You don’t need to show details of every item, just enough to give the viewer a good idea.
Using a series of photos
Many times you will need to use a series of photos to completely convey a product’s features. This is very important on eBay, for example, where buyers need complete information before offering their highest bid. See the samples above. It’s worth paying eBay for extra photos, because people will bid more and higher if they can see clearly what they are bidding on.
Packaging there's a whole science to it and a package often sells the item. However, a good photograph is necessary to sell the "package".
Communicating value Expensive items must be carefully photographed to show their true worth. Often it's best to have a high contrast ratio. Some customers have poor eyesight, or they look at the advertisement in poor lighting conditions.
Large items if an item is large, or part of a set, it's better to have 2 or more photos. Some should display details.
Editing and adjusting photos
Most of the time you will want to work with your images to make them even more attractive and clear. Photoshop is the program most professionals use, but many people have access to other less complex and cheaper programs that can do many of the same things. If you have a photo editing program it will pay off if you learn how to do the following things with it.
Image size First, remember that for online sales you need a smaller file size so the photo will load fast. Many cameras produce an image that is much larger than that. It might be 1 or 2 megabytes, as well as 30 inches wide ! You don’t need that for online sales. Try to make the photos under 100 KB ( kilobytes ) by using your photo editing program. Ebay’s photo loading program can reduce image size automatically, but it takes much longer to load the images if they are really big, and time is money. How big should they be? The full size of an online product photo should be large enough to be clear, but not too large. An 8 by 10 image works quite well. With ebay you can “supersize” photos, but if your originals are decent size you won’t need to pay extra for that service.
Cropping Cropping is a very powerful tool. Use it to get rid of everything in the photo that doesn’t need to be there to sell the product. You can also use it to make the file size smaller and change the proportions of the image.
Contrast Many times a photo can benefit from heightening the contrast. When displayed online, product photos are often small, plus they are displayed on a variety of different monitor types with different lighting conditions. Add to that the fact that many older people have weaker vision, and you can see that online product photos need to be very clear. I often heighten the contrast and increase the brightness just a touch.
Color balance I often see photos on ebay that are clearly not accurate representations of a product’s true colors. That’s because people take photos inside under tungsten or florescent light bulbs and don’t set their camera to the proper white balance setting. Ordinary lightbulbs cast a yellowish hue on everything, and florescent lights radiate a greenish or blueish tint. You should fix that before trying to use a photo to sell. Most photo editing programs provide color correction, at least minimally. In Photoshop you select Image, adjustment, color balance. Adjust the hightlights to be a bit bluer and less red/yellow.. Same with the midtones, but usually you won’t need to do much midtone adjustment.
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