Product Photography Resource Guide
Have you ever heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand online sales?” Maybe it hasn’t caught on just yet, but it certainly applies in ecommerce.
You know product photos are important for your online store. In fact, they may be the most important element. The difference between mediocre and professional-looking product photos could easily make or break your online sales. With this in mind, let’s equip ourselves with the right knowledge of product photography to turn your photos into one of your biggest assets. In this ultimate ecommerce guide to product photos, we’ll discuss:
- Why product images are important to your online business
- Best practices for showcasing and leveraging high quality product images
- The pros and cons of hiring a professional photographer vs. taking the product photos yourself
- Tips on taking your own product photos
Why are product images important?
Product photos effectively communicate to your customers the details of your product in ways product copy cannot. Here are some of the biggest factors:
1. It’s what the shopper sees first
Product photos capture attention. Shoppers want to ensure the product matches their expectations, whether they’re looking for specific colors, sizes, styles or other qualities that make or break their opinion of the product.
2. They help customers better understand your products
Modern online shopping experiences are all about convenience. One thing this experience lacks is the opportunity for customers to physically handle a product they’re interested in. High quality product photos — from multiple angles — help fill this gap by providing your customers with the information they need. And when customers can easily access the information they want, they’re much more likely to come back for more.
3. They boost your brand
Good product photos act as brand ambassadors: They telegraph your brand and style in one simple, efficient and effective way. Whether your brand is contemporary, kitschy or anything in between, your product photos strengthen your brand and make it even more recognizable. Plus, high quality product images are known to build customer trust in both your products and your brand.
4. They give you a competitive edge
Online shoppers are inundated with options. Product options, pricing options, rating and reviews and so much more. It should be assumed your customers will check competitors’ products before making a decision. It’s imperative your product photos are enticing and make your products as appealing as possible to capture the sale as quickly as possible.
5. Quality photos + useful product copy = increased sales and fewer returns
Your return on your investment in high quality product photos is maximized when complimented by highly useful and unique product copy. The closer a customer gets to making a purchase decision, the more information they want about a product. Especially at higher price points. Useful product information both entices customers to buy and increases trust in your brand. The more unique your product copy, the better your chances of getting found in search engine results. All of this makes for a more informed buying experience and this experience yields fewer returns.
6. They increase the likelihood of social media sharing
If you’re looking to get any benefit from social media sites … who isn’t … attractive product photos are an absolute must. Visual social networks like Pinterest, Tumblr and Polyvore, as well as Facebook, are great places to share your products and get some buzz for what you sell, but you have to have good looking product photos to really take advantage of these communities.
Now that we know why high quality product photos are so important to ecommerce success, what is it exactly that differentiates mediocre product photos from spectacular ones? Let’s find out.
Product image best practices
Although there’s a lot of flexibility and creative liberties that can be taken when deciding the exact aesthetic of your product photos, there are some things that all great product photos have in common.
1. Make sure they’re high quality
We’ve mentioned it a couple times before, but we’ll say it again: High quality is an absolute must. You want your customers to get the clearest picture possible, both literally and figuratively, when it comes to your products, and high quality photos are an integral part of achieving that.
2. Incorporate alternate views
Product photos showcasing alternate views are another must-have. Remember: You want to be able to recreate the experience of a customer walking into a store and being able to pick up a product and look at it from every angle. Showcase your product by displaying pictures from different angles and from different proximities to give customers a feel for what the product will be like in person.
Consider showing the product in use. This gives customers the full experience. For example, if you sell dresses, you’ll want to show photos of each dress from different angles while being worn. Some ecommerce apparel sites even offer photos of their clothes being worn by models of differing body types to give customers the fullest picture of how the clothes will look on them.
3. Have a photo for each color or variation
If a product comes in different colors or variations, you’ll want to have a photo for each possibility. Customers really appreciate it when they can see exactly what that product will look like in a specific color, as opposed to having to imagine it themselves and have it show up on their doorstep looking completely different.
4. Enable zooming
For your product photos to be their very best, you’ll want to make sure that it’s easy to zoom-in on them. A good zoom should be like giving the customer the ability to pick up your product and bring it right up to their nose. The photo should remain clear, even when zoomed in on, and really highlight the details of your products. If you’re using Volusion ecommerce software be sure you’ve activated the Enable Image Zoom config variable in your store’s admin area to allow your customers to zoom in on each of your products.
5. Consistent with each other
In order to enhance your brand and give the most cohesive ecommerce shopping experience, your product photos should be consistent. Whether you use Flash or no Flash, a background or no background, or a model or a mannequin, the important part is that whatever creative decisions you make, you apply them across the board.
One way to create consistency is to make sure your product photos come from the same source. Most business owners get their product photos via one of these three ways:
- Use the manufacturer’s images
- Hire someone to take your product photos
- Take your own product photos
Note that it’s preferable to have high quality, unique photos rather than using manufacturer’s images. Hiring a commercial photographer to take your product photos or taking them on your own are both great ways to improve your website. It just depends on which one better suits your business needs, free time, abilities and funds.
Let’s take a closer look at these two options:
Hiring a product photographer vs. taking your own product photos
There’s no shortage of talented photographers. Here are some of the pros and cons of hiring a photographer for your product photos:
- You don’t have to pay for expensive, high quality camera equipment
- You don’t have to spend time learning photography
- You don’t have to spend time shooting your products and can focus on other aspects of your business
- You may not get exactly what you want
- The cost of a professional photographer can be high
- Depending on your photographer, you may not own the rights to your product image
Taking your own product photos, on the other hand, can provide the same high quality product image boost that hiring a professional can. Of course, this DIY option has its own downsides, too.
Here are some of the pros and cons of being your own product photographer:
- You know your products better than anyone and know exactly what to highlight in your photos
- No back-and-forth between you and a third party
- You’re in complete control of the branding and aesthetic of your product photos
- You’ll own full rights to your product photos
- You’ll spend a lot of time learning the craft of photography and photo-editing
- You’ll have to spend some time practicing your photography skills
- You may need to buy a high quality camera and camera equipment, like a tripod, lighting and different camera lenses
- If you don’t invest the proper time and resources, you may end up with product photos that look unprofessional
Between the two, only you can choose which is best for your business. If you’re interested in hiring a professional, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- Don’t just hire someone with a good camera. You’ll want to look at the photographer’s portfolio and ensure they take good photos and have experience taking product pictures.
- Work out rights to the photos upfront. As we mentioned earlier, some photographers retain rights to the photos they’ve taken, so discuss this before you begin working with the photographer and ensure you’re not surprised later.
- Ask your photographer about his/her photo editing skills and whether edits are included in the price. Not all pictures come out perfect just the way it was snapped, and almost every photo could benefit from a little bit of retouching. Find out up front whether your product photos will be edited by your photographer.
- Look for a responsive photographer. When working on a project like this, you want a photographer who’s a true professional — someone who returns your calls and emails promptly so you’re not waiting around for days every time you need to ask a question or schedule an appointment. If a prospective photographer isn’t getting back to you quickly, take it as a warning sign and move on to someone who will.
Often times, however, we’ve found that the entrepreneurial types tend to apply that same independence and tenacity to acquiring their product photos, and therefore typically choose to take their own. (Somehow, we aren’t surprised.)
With that in mind, here are some tips on taking your own product photos:
6 tips on taking product images yourself
Whether you have advanced camera gear, or a simple point-and-shoot, there are some basic tenants of product photography that will consistently give you professional-looking product photos.
1. Plan out your shoot
It’s not enough to think “Well, I guess I’ll take some product photos now.” You want to have a vision or intention for your shoot. If you’re at a loss, try imagining the kind of publication you’d like to see your product photos in, and then look up those publications and take note of how they do things. What kind of lighting do they use? What kind of background? Which angles do they shoot from? Take your favorite aspects of those product photos and apply them to your own work.
Quick Tip: Consider creating a Pinterest board with product photos you like and use that as a starting point for planning your own photos.
2. Use a neutral background
When it comes to your product photos, you want your products to shine! So in most cases, your best bet will be to go with a simple, neutral background. By neutral, we’re talking white, beige, gray or black. White is an especially great starting point, since it looks very clean and is easy for beginners to shoot. If you’re running product listing ads through comparison shopping engines like Google Shopping, white backgrounds are a requirement. Try finding a white wall or sheet, or even a white sheet of paper to place behind your product will give the desired effect.
Note: There are exceptions to this rule, depending on your brand and your idea for the shoot. Should you choose to use a more complex background (e.g. the wood grain of a picnic table, a living room), always be sure that your products are what’s in focus, not the background. Ideally, in these more complex shoots, your background will be out of focus and blurry, while your product will be clear-cut and the focus of the photo.
Quick Tip: For smaller items, a lightbox can work wonders! While there are plenty of inexpensive options available for purchase, you can also make your own fairly easily.
3. Pay attention to your lighting
It’s almost a crime how much of a difference lighting can make when taking your product photos. You could have everything else perfect: the gear, the angle, the positioning, the photo composition, and bad lighting will ruin it all in one fell swoop.
In most cases, when it comes to lighting, your best bet is to use soft, diffused natural light.
This can mean shooting:
- Outdoors at dusk
- Outdoors on an overcast day
- Indoors next to a window
And if outdoor lighting isn’t an option, you can always make your own simple light tent to get the soft, diffused light as well.
4. Steady your camera
A steady camera will make a lot of difference in the quality of your shots. Sharper photos come from steady cameras, so consider purchasing a tripod or finding something around your house or office that will work, such as a stool or a tower of hardback books.
For best results, use the timer function on your camera and set a 2-second delay. That short delay will allow your camera to re-steady itself after you pressed the button to take a photo.
Quick Tip: Some cameras even have a wireless or wired remote you can purchase to avoid rocking the camera at the time of the photo.
5. Take more than one shot (a lot more)
Although customers are only seeing the final, perfect shot when they’re looking at your products, that doesn’t mean you’ll get your ideal shot in the first, second or even third take. Instead of being focused on getting that one perfect shot, take several photos of your product with the expectation of getting three or four solid photos to choose from later.
When taking your photos, remember to include some of these variations:
- Different angles: From the front, from above, a profile of the product, etc.
- Different proximities: Far away (to see the size of the product in relation to something else), close-up (to catch the details), etc.
- In use: Showing your product being used by a model. For example, if you sold watches, you could take a photo of watch being on a wrist instead of being on a flat surface.
6. Take wide angle shots
Wide angle shots allow you a little more leeway when editing your photos, and they leave you the freedom later to add text on one side or the other. While you’ll want to crop your photos more closely when you’re posting them on your website, it’s important to take a step back and give yourself some room on each side of the product while you’re doing your photo shoot. This will open up a world of options that will help you down the road.
7. Don’t rush when editing your photos
In terms of photo-editing software, there’s always the tried and true Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. But if those software packages are a little out of your budget, don’t worry. There are several free photo editing services like Picasa, Gimp, PicMonkey, Canva or a number of others that will be able enhance your product photos.
When editing your photos, pay attention to properly cropping your image and adjusting the brightness and contrast. For cropping, get rid of excess space as you see fit, and keep in mind that square, consistently sized product photos look more professional than irregular, rectangular ones. In terms of brightness, contrast and color, use image enhancer tools in your photo-editing software to bring out the very best in your image, but be sure not to go overboard.
Additionally, we highly recommend saving a copy of the original (untouched) photos for future uses or if you make a mistake. You never know when you might make a mistake — or have a catastrophic computer issue — and a backup will come in handy.
8. Don’t give up
Product photography is a mixture of art and skill, and like most things that combine the two, it may take a lot of practice to get into your groove. But there’s no need to get discouraged. Developing your product photography skills is well worth the blood, sweat and numerous takes.
If you’re feeling frustrated after a long shoot, try walking away and focusing on something else. You can try finding inspiration elsewhere by flipping through some magazines or ads and compiling a list of to-dos and to-don’ts. And if all else fails, you can always try other techniques to get around your creative roadblock. Just don’t give up!
As you probably realize, there is a ton of photography equipment available. This variety of equipment may be daunting, and there are a lot of conflicting viewpoints on the type of camera ecommerce store owners should use for taking product photos. From our standpoint, there are three different types of cameras you can consider using.
- DSLR — This is one of the best cameras to use for product photos. If you were to hire a professional photographer, he or she would be using a DSLR. These cameras offer a high quality image and a lot of control over your shot, and they often require expertise to get the most out of them. However, that quality and control comes with a hefty price tag. If you don’t expect to take photos very often, then investing in a DSLR may not be the right choice for you.
- Point-and-Shoot Camera — This is probably the camera you’re familiar with. It’s smaller and easier to handle than a DSLR, and these are typically fairly reasonably priced. Point-and-shoot cameras often don’t offer the same control over your image settings and may have a lower quality than a DSLR, however.
- Smartphone — You can even take great photos on your smartphone! If you’re not ready to invest in better camera equipment, read our blog post on how to take professional product photos with a smartphone. You’ll learn about white balance, apps to get closer to the control a DSLR offers and more.
How product photography fits into your marketing mix
We’ve written a lot about how product photography helps increase your conversion rate, but it’s important to consider how product photography affects your marketing efforts as well.
Product photos can be a big help for your SEO efforts. For some industries, such as apparel and jewelry, image searches can drive a significant number of sales. Some shoppers use image search engines to find a product with just the right “look,” so it’s important to have images that grab the viewer right away.
To help your product photos bring in even more search engine traffic, you’ll need to declare an Alt attribute on the image. Alt attributes are descriptions of the image that help search engines understand what the picture shows. As our blog post about How Search Engines See Your Site Images explains, search engines don’t see your images like your shoppers do, and rely on Alt tags and contextual HTML text to explain what is in the photo. Writing an Alt attribute is easy, though: Just describe the product like you would to someone over the phone. You’ll want to naturally work in a descriptive keyword (chunky green necklace, for example) and keep your descriptions short and to the point.
Your product photos can also affect how well your store does in other marketing methods, such as Shopping Feeds. Google and other comparison shopping engines have a strict set of rules for product photos shown in the comparison shopping feed. For example, Google will disallow photos that aren’t on a white background or come with a watermark or other branding on the image. For more on what isn’t allowed in a product photo on Google Shopping, take a look at our blog post 7 Product Image Mistakes Google Will Ding You For or review Google’s guidelines.
Social media can also be another avenue for your product images to shine. With the emergence of visual-heavy networks like Pinterest and Polyvore, it’s especially important to have images that make your products look appealing.
Product photos are an important part of putting your online business at the top. With your camera, your fantastic products and this guide on your side, you’ve got everything you need to create product photos worthy of your online business. So get to snappin’!
About Julianne Coyne
Julianne Coyne is an SEO team lead in Volusion's Marketing Services department, where she works to help Volusion store owners find online success through targeted SEO campaigns. Julianne is currently pursuing her master's degree in business administration.