Friday, November 09, 2007

How to Take Better Product Pictures

There are few things on the ‘net that will identify a website or an auction as “amateur” faster than bad graphics. Likewise, it’s hard to find something that will chase someone away from your catalog faster than unclear or badly shot photos of your products.

Now, if you’re selling things from a dropshipper or even working with a manufacturer, very often they’ll have product pictures you can get, or even download directly from their website. That’s cool, because often they’ll be shot by professional photographers, and already sized for the web. That’s so much easier.

But what if you’re selling a product you’re making yourself? Or, what if you’re selling something you already own in an eBay auction? You might not be able to capture a picture of the exact make and model off the web.

If it’s something that you’re going to be selling a lot of (in the case of the eBay auction) or if it’s something you’re going to be building your business up around (in the case of your website), you might want to consider hiring a pro, or even a good semi-pro photographer. It could be well worth it in the long run.

If, however, you don’t have the budget for that, let’s talk about some ways to make your pictures great.

  1. It’s all about the framing

One of the biggest problems I see as I look at non-professional product photos is that the item itself isn’t filling the frame. There’s a lot of space around the item, and often a lot of clutter, and irrelevant items competing for the space.

The fix? Get up close enough to fill the frame with the item. Remove the clutter from around it. Remember that the picture is of the product, not of the table with the product in the middle of it.

  1. Then it’s all about the lighting

The next biggest issue I often see is that the items are not well enough lit. This can be simply not enough light, which ends with dull and gray pictures, or it can be too much reliance on the camera’s flash, which can “white” or “bleach” out a picture with too much direct light.

My basic rule is: You will need more lighting than you think. Gather all kinds of lamps and floodlights. You’ll want to have light shining on the object from several directions: Left, right, and back. Think of the layout as a triangle with the item in the middle. Put a couple of bright lamps in each position and you might get enough light. Flood lights work very well because you can direct the light. If you’re going to be doing a lot of pictures over a long period of time, I’d recommend buying a few good photo lights.

Another option is to shoot outdoors on a sunny day. You’ll have plenty of light. Position the item so the sun shines on it from one side. The problem with this is that you’ll also have harsh shadows on the non-sunward side of the item. To lighten up those shadows, hold a big piece of white posterboard up, reflecting the sunlight back onto the item. Using posterboard instead of a mirror will diffuse the light and soften up the harsh shadows the sunlight brings.

Try and get so much light on the item that you don’t have to use your flash. A flash will send a hot, bright light straight from the camera, off the item, and back into the lens. As a result, you won’t be able to see any of the side-to-side shadows that give the picture its three-dimensional look. And, you’ll have a harsh shadow line directly behind the item as well as bright hot spots on the item itself.

With digital pictures, you can tweak the lightness, darkness, and contrast, as well as the colors in your graphics editing program after the fact. Still, the better your picture is to begin with, the less tweaking it will require.

  1. The picture space

If the framing and the lighting are working, then the next step is to take a look at the space where you take the picture. Just dropping the item onto the kitchen table isn’t as nice as having some nice cloth draped behind it.

One easy way to set up a picture-taking spot is to cut two adjacent sides out and the top off of a cardboard box, so that you’re left with the bottom and two sides forming a corner. Set a couple of books on the base to have a pedestal for your item, and then drape nice cloth over the entire thing. Gentle folds in the cloth give it texture and three dimensions. Set the item on the cloth, on the books, set your lights and take the pictures.

A “Photo Box” is another great item that you can get from a photo store. It’s a box made of translucent cloth with only the one side panel open. You set the item in the box, with the open face toward you, and shine lights toward the sides and top. The cloth will diffuse the light around the item, giving it a nice glow.

The best thing you can do is to simply take some time and experiment. Try lighting this way, that way, more, less. Look at your pictures and see which ones come out the best. It will take a lot more time the first time, but you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. Then the next time you’re taking pictures, you’ll be ready!

Mark is the co-director of, the search marketing consulting arm of Clickincome ( Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

1 comment:

  1. And of course, nothing drives people away from a website or auction faster than poor pictures where you can't see what you are buying...

    I will admit to being a picture snob - no clear picture, no sale.