The Beginner's Guide to Product Photography

The Beginner's Guide to Product Photography

photography studioIn the course of processing over 10 million product images, we’ve worked with everyone from international mega-brands to DIY boutique retailers. Product photography can be intimidating for beginners, but it’s a challenge you can definitely overcome – there’s a science to this art form.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the marketing industry was energized by a new model structured around “4 Ps”—product, price, promotion, and place. Reducing a complex process to fundamental building blocks created clarity so effectively that the “4 Ps” are still taught today.

Template Icon

Free Video Guide

Learn how to take beautiful product photos on a budget with our free, comprehensive video guide.

Get the free video guide

To demystify photography and help you skip the growing pains most brands and retailers go through, we’ve compiled a start-to-finish guide covering the “4 Ps” of product photography: planning, photographing, post-production, and publishing.

1. Planning

Before cameras are configured, models make their way to hair and makeup, bright lights begin flashing, and photos stream into laptops, you need a plan.

Where are you shooting? What shots do you need? What equipment will you be using? How should it be set up? Who’s in your crew? What software will you use during the shoot? How will you process your images afterward? How will edited images make it to the web?

You need answers to those questions and more, before you touch a camera. Mapping out your shoot and workflow will save you time, reduce expenses, and result in higher quality images.

Where are your images going to end up?

amuse lookbook photography

Lookbook images are usually taken on location and tell a story; the purpose is to identify the product with a lifestyle. Image source: amusesociety.com

Ecommerce images generally fall into two categories: lookbook images and product images. Lookbook images usually involve fully styled looks in a location that creates context around the product, projecting the lifestyle a brand envisions. Lookbook images are often the result of themed shoots, and are commonly used as banner images on a website, in catalogs, within print and digital lookbooks, and on social media.

amuse product photos

Product images are traditionally clean, focused, and consistent. The purpose is to show the product. Image source: amusesociety.com

Traditional product images are taken in studio against a white or neutral background, and serve to give the viewer a clean, detailed, focused look at the product as they make a purchasing decision. Product images are the fundamental building blocks of an eCommerce website, and usually appear on the page with a “buy” button.

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on in-studio product photography for images that will appear on product pages. If you’re interested in photographing lookbook images, read this post by an art director and stylist on how to shoot a lookbook for fashion.

What’s your budget?

makeup

photo: Foxes & Wolves

You don’t want to limit yourself by obsessing over costs, but knowing how much you have to spend will influence many of your other choices. For example, is it in your budget to hire a professional model? If it’s not, you’ll need to look into mannequin options, or learn how to stage a DIY shoot with amateur models.

Can you afford a hair and makeup artist? Every expert you can hire will improve your final product, but you need to know your budget so you can prioritize.

What shots do you need?

Put together a shot list. A shot list is, fundamentally, a list of all the images you want to capture. It should include your product, the angles needed, details to highlight, and what an item should be paired with if you’re assembling looks.

For example, an entry on your list might say something like: “Jenna Top | Front, Back, 45 Left, 45 Right, Closeup ruffle hem, Back strap detail | Full Body Mannequin | Style with Stacy Capri.” Be sure to include CAD illustrations, or some other graphic element, if your shot list is going to be guidance for someone who doesn’t know your products by name.

A shot list will keep you moving forward at pace during your shoot, and also ensure you capture all the images you need. You can check shots off your list as they’re taken.

Where are you going to shoot?

photo studio

photo: Foxes & Wolves

Many big brands have in-house photo studios, but if you’re not at that level you can hire a studio or do it yourself. Hiring a professional studio isn’t cheap, but it will ease your workload tremendously, provide you quality results, and can be quite educational. Understanding how a pro studio operates will help you improve your own decision making and workflow around product imagery.

If you’re a DIY product photographer, your shoot location comes back in part to budget. If you’re on a shoestring, you need a spacious indoor location with plenty of natural window light. If you can afford to rent or purchase lighting equipment (more on that later), the major prerequisite is abundant undisturbed space where you can set up your studio safely, and leave it built for the duration of your shoot. Ideally, it will be a space you have permanent access to so that you can replicate your setup for future use.

What equipment do you need?

photo lighting

photo: Foxes & Wolves

Your equipment needs are determined by your product and budget. For most products, you can achieve good results with a DSLR camera, tripod, backdrop, and an artificial lighting kit. It’s also desirable to have a laptop for tethering with cost-effective software like Adobe Lightroom, or the more expensive and professional Capture One.

DSLR cameras produce the highest quality image, if you know how to set them correctly. It’s not just about megapixels: DSLR cameras capture images in RAW format, recording all possible sensor data to allow for advanced retouching later, and they can tether to a computer. Tethering will let you immediately see and process captured images, as well as fire your camera with the press of a spacebar. If you’re on a tight budget, you can try using a smartphone as your camera for product photography.

Backdrops are one of the easier problems to solve, as rolls of seamless white background paper are inexpensive (like this $28 option from B&H), widely available, and easily positioned with a C-stand or tape.

Lighting kits are usually the second most expensive purchase a budding product photographer makes, after their camera. Choosing between one or more speedlights, monolights, or continuous lights shouldn’t be a snap decision. Check out our Lighting 101 introduction, and if you’re not ready to buy you can try an option like renting from a site like BorrowLenses.com or ATSRentals.com.

If your products are of a smaller size, you are in luck. There are DIY photo studios, like the Foldio, that you can purchase for under $100.00. These are quality investments for ecommerce entrepreneurs, especially if you plan on adding new products to your website regularly. They are portable, easy to setup and dramatically improve the quality of your product photography without breaking the bank. 

2. Photographing

When your planned shoot day finally arrives, there are a few steps you can take to ensure everything goes according to plan.

Product Preparation

Preparing your product is really about saving time by putting the work in on the front end of your process. Sure, you can edit out blemishes that appear on your product in post-production, but it takes time, and less desirable elements can slip through. It’s smarter to get your products looking their best immediately before the shoot.

For apparel, iron and steam away wrinkles, remove any tags on the product, and remove any lint and dust with tape or lint rollers. If you are using mannequins or models, use clips and tape to create an ideal fit.

If you’re shooting jewelry, thoroughly clean and polish the product surface. If you’re shooting shoes, make sure the laces are in good shape, and check that there are no tags or stickers (or sticker residue) left on the product.

Styling

photo wardrobe styling

Style looks to create context and showcase your product’s fit and appeal. Stylist: Sarah Kensell, model: Jen Hawkins, photo: Foxes & Wolves

When styling your products, you should have two goals in mind: to showcase your products at their very best, and to make it easy for the customer to imagine what your products will be like when worn/used. For example, for apparel you should use a live model or mannequin, and pin the product to demonstrate fit and shape.

Some planning and post-production work can enable you to create realistic shape on otherwise uncooperative products. For example, you can hold up straps on sandals and heels with fishing line or floss. You can shoot watches on round watch holders, then edit the holders out later. Your goal should always be to mimic natural use and present a product as realistically and appealingly as possible.

Lighting

lighting kit

photo: Foxes & Wolves

Your first important decision is whether you are going to use natural or artificial light. Artificial light is preferable because it is more easily controlled, but budget conscious photographers can get great product images using a natural light source - if the weather cooperates.

Even when using artificial lights, it can be to your advantage to supplement with natural light, but you should take care that your light level is consistent. If the sun keeps going behind clouds, you’re probably better off shooting with exclusively artificial light. You don’t want to waste time adjusting your settings between every shot.

Your lighting setup is dependent on your product type and the number of light sources you have available. For example, you might want double overhead lights for highly reflective metallic products, a backlit setup for glass products, or two monolights at 45 degree angles for apparel.

Let’s look at three effective arrangements for apparel using natural light and/or monolights in a DIY style setup. In our first setup, using exclusively natural light, the product is positioned at a 90-degree angle from the window. If the light is too direct (causing deep shadows) you can try hanging a thin sheet over the window to diffuse light.

natural lighting photography

image: Pixelz

 

For a complete list of supplies and equipment needed to create a home studio setup, you can refer to How to Build Your Own Photo Studio on a Bootstrapped Budget.

Our next setup assumes you have a single monolight, supplemented by natural window light.

light studio setup

imagePixelz

A single monolight has been placed at a 45-degree angle to the product, while the location of the camera and tripod remain unchanged. If shadowing becomes a problem, you can move the product further away from the backdrop.

Our third setup simply adds another light, powered lower, again at a 45-degree angle, to provide fill light. If you can’t afford a second light, you could use a reflector instead.

lighting set up monolight

imagePixelz

If you are curious about what lighting and shooting equipment you need to get the best product photography shots and what all that equipment costs, you can head over to our blog post Lighting Equipment 101: Why to Invest and What to Buy, where you will find a whole list of equipment and pricing.

Camera Settings

If you have a DSLR, learn how to use Manual mode when setting your camera. The most important properties for product photography are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. We’ll keep it brief here; if you want to learn more, check out this introduction to camera settings for DIY product photography.

ISO

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive it is and the longer it will take to capture an image. For product photography, you want the lowest ISO possible. Start at around ISO 200 and take a few test shots; if the image seems a little dark, increase the ISO value. A higher ISO setting will capture an image faster, but it also introduces graininess

ISO photography

ISO 400 / ISO 1200 / ISO 6400

Read: 7 Dos and Don'ts of DIY Footwear Photography

Aperture

Next, set your aperture. Aperture controls depth of field, meaning what part of an image is in focus. For product photography, you want as high an aperture as possible. F16 and above are generally considered “full focus,” so the entire image should be crisp and clear.

Aperture controls depth of field, which determines what part of an image is in focus. Model: Jen Hawkins, photos: Foxes & Wolves

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed determines how long your camera sensor is exposed to light. For product photography, when the camera is mounted on a tripod and the product is motionless, use a low setting like 1/13. If you’re handholding (which you should generally avoid) or shooting a model in motion, you may need a faster speed.

3. Post-Production

With well-prepared products, good lighting, and the right camera settings, you have a strong foundation for excellent product images - but you’re not done yet. Now, it’s time to optimize your images for the web in post-production.

Consistent background removal, sizing, alignment, and cropping increase your store’s professionalism. Photo: Nordstrom

The most fundamental edits you can make to optimize your images for the web involve consistent background removal, alignment, size format, cropping, margin setting, and compression. For example, you may want all your images to be JPG with a white background, the product vertically bottom aligned, in a square shape with 5% margins. If you perform the same consistent edits, you will make your category pages easier to browse and increase your professionalism in the eyes of your customer.

Rather than go in depth on every post-production technique, we’ll take a look at the most common edit (background removal), and then show you how to perform batch processing and general retouching. Batch processing can make almost any type of editing more efficient.

Background Removal

Most companies remove the original background of product images and replace it with pure white. In a study of over seven million images we edited, we found that about 92% removed the background.

Removing the background - whether or not you choose to replace it with white, leave it transparent, or use another color - removes unsightly distractions, decreases file size, and increases consistency.

If you are DIY inclined, there are a number of free tools you can use to remove the background. You can use native Mac applications like Preview, or download free image editing software like Gimp.

We recommend paying the $10 per month fee for Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography suite, which includes both Photoshop and Lightroom. The learning curve is steep, but the range, power, and support of Adobe’s products just can’t be beat.

Batch Processing

Efficiency in your post-production process is essential, and one way to make sure you are working smart is by utilizing Photoshop's batch processing feature. Batch Processing works like this: if you have a batch of images that need similar editing tasks done, Photoshop is able to record the changes you make to one photo, and apply those changes to the rest of the images in the batch.

Using Batch Processing is fairly simple. The first step is to record a task. To do this in Photoshop, you need to go to “Window” and then “Action. This is going to open up the actions window tab. Once there, click “Create New Action” and then “Record.” If the little red circle has been highlighted, you know you are recording, and you can begin making your adjustments.

Once finished, go ahead and hit “stop.” This will end your recording, and you are now ready to apply your adjustments to the rest of your batch.

To apply your action to our batch, go to “File,” “Automate,” and then “Batch.” In this window, you can select the action via a drop down menu under “play.” It is in this window that you can also select your source/files you would like to run this batch action on and where you would like to save them to. Once ready, hit okay, and your action will be applied to the images in the batch.

General Retouch

No matter how careful you were with preparing your products for a shoot, there is a good chance that once you blow your images up on a big monitor in Photoshop, you will notice a few impurities somewhere on your product. There are two tools that we really like for fixing imperfections in our image: the “Healing Brush” and the “Clone Stamp” tool.

If you have a surface you want to clean up (say there is a dust on a shirt or a few blemishes on the skin of your model) you are going to want to even those out using the Patch tool. With the Patch tool, you are able to take a sample spot in your image of what you would like an entire surface to do look like, and then select the areas that you want to clean up. The Patch tool blends your sample with the selected area, and the result is a smooth, blemish free area.

In the picture above, we see a skin spot we would like to remove.

Using the Patch tool, we can select a sample area and then blend the sample with the area with the blemish.

The Patch tool’s blending results in the skin appearing even and blemish free.

The other tool you are going to want to utilize is the Clone Stamp tool. With the Clone Stamp tool, you are copying your sample and placing it over your selection, with no blending. This tool is ideal for use around edges where, say, you want to remove something from the image but keep the background (this can occur when fixing, say, stray hairs on a model's head). You can use the Clone Stamp tool for this because it won’t leave behind any color from your selection the way the Patch tool does. It is common to then follow up your use of the Clone Stamp tool with the Patch tool to get a nice even final look.

The picture above, we find a small blemish near the border of the shorts.

Using the Clone Stamp tool, we can take a sample of the skin to remove the blemish.

The result is a blemish free image.

If you're interested in seeing exactly how to use both of these tools, check out DIY 3: Editing Product Images.

Outsourcing

Editing product images is time consuming and the learning curve is steep. If you have neither the time, money, nor desire to edit images yourself, consider using a specialized company in post-production services for product images.

4. Publishing

When your images are shot and edited, it’s time for the most exciting part of the process: sharing your images with the world!

Thanks to Shopify’s super easy to use interface, uploading your images is simple.

To start, click the tag icon on the left navigation bar on your screen. This will take you to the “Products” area of your shop.

To add a product to your store, select “Products” in the navigation bar. Once there, you should find an “Add Product” button in the top right corner of your screen. Click the button. 

Here you will find all the information you need to fill out for your new product listing. Once you fill out the title and description, it is time upload your product images. Keep in mind, the maximum size image that Shopify accepts is 2048 x 2028 pixels or 4.2 megapixels, so you may need to do some compressing if your image files exceed that limit.

Fill out your product information and then select “Upload Image.”

To help improve the SEO of your images, we are going to add some alt text to our image. This will help your images be catalogued in search engines. To add alt text to your images, simply hover over them and select “alt.”

Hover over your image to reveal the “Alt” option.

In the window, add your alt text. Think of it as describing the image to a blind person; that’s literally how alt text is used with software for the visually impaired, and it’s the best way to help search engines understand your image. When you are finished, hit “Done.”

An example of alt text might be “Pair of pink imitation pearl earrings by Brand Name on gold chains.”

Once you have all your information filled out, click “Save Product” in the top right of your screen, and your product listing will be saved.

Select “Save Product” to add it to your store.

Refine Your Process

The 4 Ps lay a foundation for your product photography process from start to finish. Successful brands focus on optimizing their processes, making sure their workflow is as effective and efficient as possible. The great news is that even a one-person operation can create hyper-efficient workflows, so long as they arm themselves with the right knowledge and resources.

We certainly didn’t cover every aspect of product photography, so let us know in the comments below if you have comments or tips on the 4 Ps, or anything else product photography related!


shopify-author Thomas Kragelund

About The Author

Thomas Kragelund is the CEO and founder of Pixelz, a leading product image solutions partner for internet retailers, bloggers, designers, photographers and webmasters worldwide. He has been working in ecommerce for the last 15 years. Sign up today and get 3 product images edited for free.

Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify