A former teacher, Matt now specializes in R&D for ecommerce business owners and helps guide merchants in understanding the importance of this digital-first world.
When shopping at a traditional brick-and-mortar store, consumers can easily view, pick up, and interact with pretty much any item that catches their interest.
Of course, doing so while shopping online is impossible.
For this reason, it’s up to you, the ecommerce store owner, to provide high-quality images of every product you offer. While you won’t be able to truly simulate the experience of physically browsing through items at a brick-and-mortar store, you can use product photography to immerse your customers in the virtual shopping experience in a way that simply can’t be done through product descriptions alone.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything that goes into creating high-quality product photographs that engage your customers and get them to convert.
Before we dive into these strategies and tips, let’s talk about why presenting product photographs is essential for your ecommerce store.
How High-Quality Product Photographs Can Affect Your Conversion Rate
As we said earlier, providing photos of your products is an incredibly effective way to attract and engage your customers.
But why is that?
Well, as is usually the case in the world of marketing and sales, it all comes down to human nature and psychology. According to data collected by Hubspot:
- While people only remember 20% of what they read, they remember 80% of what they see
- The human brain processes images and other visuals 60,000 times faster than it processes text
- 93% of all communication is nonverbal and/or reliant on visual cues
In addition to being more attractive and memorable than text-based communications, images are also more engaging. As discovered by Socialbakers, 93% of all Facebook engagements are with posts of a visual nature.
Now, the caveat is: not just any old image will do. You can’t just snap off a few photographs of your product and expect your conversion rate to skyrocket.
On the contrary, a lot goes into creating eye-catching product images that immerse your customers in the shopping experience and get them closer to hitting the “buy” button.
But there’s no need to get overwhelmed. In the sections to follow, we’ll give you an overview of the major aspects of product photography and discuss your options and best practices for each of these aspects. We’ll also point you toward some additional resources if you really want to dive into the world of professional photography.
Let’s get started.
Product Photography Equipment
While we’ll discuss additional equipment and accessories you may or may not need later on, let’s first go over the basic necessities for creating high-quality product photographs.
This one is obvious, no?
All kidding aside, you’ll need a camera with digital capabilities in order to photograph your products and present them on your ecommerce site.
What you don’t need is a top-of-the-line camera used by professional photographers that will set you back thousands of dollars and eat into your ROI. For your needs, you should anticipate spending about $700-1,000 on a new Nikon or Canon unit.
While you don’t need to drive yourself crazy comparing camera specs or anything like that, you need to be sure the camera you choose is a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and that it offers the following:
- Manual mode, which allows you to adjust the camera’s aperture and shutter speed
- Video mode for interactive 360° photos
- Ability to change lenses, as you’ll want to use a variety of lenses depending on the product you’re shooting
If you aren’t able to invest in a brand new camera at the current moment, you can simply use your smartphone to take product photographs, as well. If you go this route, though, download a photography app (such as VSCO) instead of using your device’s native photo program.
As mentioned above, you’ll also want to have multiple lenses handy (that is, if you’re not using your smartphone camera).
Though you can definitely purchase as many lenses as you desire, you should have, at the very least, pick up a macro lens and a wide-angle lens.
Macro lenses are used to snap detailed, sharp images of objects (usually those smaller in size). If you sell products such as jewelry or other engraved items, you’ll want to shoot them using a macro lens in order to showcase their various intricacies.
(Source / Caption: Both photos were taken at the same distance from the popcorn bowl.)
A wide angle lens, as the name implies, captures a wider field of vision than a standard lens. You might consider using a wide angle lens when taking action photos of your product - which we’ll discuss in a bit.
As we’ll discuss later on, lighting is perhaps the most important factor in creating high-quality product photographs - so you’ll absolutely need to be prepared to this end.
For the budget-conscious photographer, you can pick up a speedlight at a relatively cheap price. These attach to your camera, and allow for flash photography without distorting the object and environment being photographed.
If you’re going all-in, you’d want to pick up a full set of light stands. The more lights you have, the more control you’ll have over the lighting of the environment you’re shooting. This allows you to get creative and really get your photographs to “pop,” even if using a lower-end camera.
The list of camera-related accessories you can purchase is basically endless.
Again, depending on how deep you want to get into the world of photography, you can pick up items such as:
- Strip boxes
- Grip arms
- Wall plates
(You can learn more about these accessories from SLR Lounge.)
For our purposes, many (if not most) of such accessories aren’t essential. However, you will want to have the following items handy:
- Tripod/camera stand
- White foam board
- Large, transparent plastic tub
- Reflector card
- Backdrops (if you choose to use them)
These accessories are necessary in order to set the physical stage on which your products will sit when you shoot.
Product Photography Techniques and Tips
Okay, now that you have everything you need to begin shooting product photographs, we can actually discuss the best ways to do so.
In the following sections, we’ll discuss:
- Using lighting to your advantage
- Deciding on a background
- Positioning and camera angles
- Post-production editing
Let’s start with the most important aspect of photography: lighting.
Product Photography Lighting
At the risk of getting way too philosophical, it’s important to mention that lighting is literally what makes photography possible in the first place.
We’re not interested in just snapping a quick picture and moving onto another aspect of our business. We want to create gorgeous images that (literally) present our products in the best light possible.
Here, we’ll discuss some of the basic things you need to know about how lighting can affect your product photographs - for better or for worse.
Light the Product and the Environment
When it comes to lighting for your product photographs, the light surrounding the product is equally as important as the light shining directly on it.
(Source / Caption: I didn’t think it was possible to make Clamato appear delicious, but here we are.)
Okay, so the lighting in the second picture is clearly computer generated. But it gets the point across: by lighting the entire scene (rather than the product in question), the product itself becomes more attractive and eye-catching.
It’s also important to illuminate the product and environment from multiple angles. Take a look at the following photo comparisons:
This example perfectly illustrates why illuminating your product’s environment from multiple angles is so important. By ensuring that both the foreground and background are equally illuminated, this photographer was able to capture the image on the right, in which every aspect of the photograph seemingly leaps off the screen.
Another aspect of lighting to take into consideration is how you diffuse the light shining on your product.
Diffusion is simply the act of filtering light, making it less “harsh” on the object it’s shining on. This helps avoid specular highlights and harsh shadows that either hide or detract from the physical features of your product - and gives the photograph a more natural look, as well.
While you can choose to purchase a diffuser or softbox panel, you could also simply use a plain white sheet or t-shirt to achieve the same effect.
Natural vs. Artificial Lighting
We’ve mentioned a couple times that the goal of proper lighting is to make your photographs appear natural.
The key word in that sentence, though is “appear.”
While in some cases using natural light may be your best course of action, there are many more instances in which artificial light is the better of the two options.
(Quickly: Natural light is best if you have a small budget, or if you’re going for a more authentic look and feel to your photos.)
When using natural light, you’re basically at the mercy of the sun and the weather. Using artificial light, on the other hand, allows you to tweak angles, brightness, and other qualities that you simply can’t tweak when using natural light.
Additionally, while natural light is constantly changing, artificial light changes only when you make it change. This allows you to shoot all day from multiple angles, all the while remaining confident that the lighting is the same in every photo you take.
One quick note: Never “mix” natural and artificial light. Doing so will almost certainly change the entire complexion of your photograph, and will make editing extremely difficult.
When photographing your products, you have a few options in terms of choosing a background:
- Plain white
- Solid color
- “El Bokeh” wall
- Active backdrops
Let’s look at when, why, and how you’d use each of these options.
Plain White Background
White backgrounds are almost universally used when taking products photographs that will appear on actual product pages.
The goal for such a photograph is to present your product “as is.” By isolating your product on a white background, you give your customers a clear vision of what they should expect to receive. Just as product descriptions are written in a technical, non-flashy manner, product-page photographs simply present visual information about your product to help inform your customer’s purchasing decision.
To shoot a photograph to make your product appear as if it’s floating on a white background, you’d use what’s called an infinity curve. Essentially, an infinity curve is a stage in which the floor gradually curves into a wall (rather than there being an angled “cutoff point”).
(Source / Caption: Photographers and skateboarders see two totally different uses for the thing in this picture…)
You can also add a bit of “flash” to your plain white backgrounds by using plexiglass as the stage for your product, as seen in the example below:
In this photo, you can see how the simple addition of a plexiglass platform creates a reflection, adding some depth to an otherwise rather plain photograph. While you wouldn’t want to use this tactic for product page photographs, you could definitely use it to showcase your products elsewhere on your site.
Solid Color Backgrounds
Most guides will tell you that, when using solid color backgrounds for your product photographs, you should err on the side of caution - or avoid using them altogether.
Think about it:
While white goes with everything, certain colors only work well with other specific colors. If you sell multiple products that come in multiple colors, you’ll have to work overtime to ensure you also have a background color that goes with each of your product variations.
However, if you are able to take on this extra challenge - and you have a strong understanding of color theory - using colored backgrounds for your product photographs certainly can work to your advantage. Not only can it help solidify your branding, but it can also stir up a wide spectrum of emotions within your customers’ minds.
If you do choose to use color backgrounds in your product photographs, be deliberate in your choice of color, as an arbitrary choice of color will almost certainly turn your customer completely off.
“El Bokeh” Wall
Even if you’ve never heard the phrase “El Bokeh wall,” you’ve most likely seen one in other product photographs:
(Source / Caption: Ooo...shiny…)
Ironically, though this image gives off the appearance of luxury, the background is created mainly through the use of…
Yes, the process of creating an El Bokeh wall is rather cheap on the wallet - and extremely simple, too. You can shoot a product in front of an El Bokeh wall using just ambient light, but we’d suggest using a speedlight as well.
Additionally, you can attach color gels to your speedlight to add color to your El Bokeh wall background. Again, as mentioned before, be deliberate in your choice of color here.
El Bokeh wall photographs are best used on splash pages and other more advertisement-heavy areas of your website, as your goal for these pages is to lead your customers toward the actual product’s page. But you certainly wouldn’t want to use such a photograph on your product description page, as doing so would take your audience’s attention away from the actual product in question.
Up until now, we’ve discussed presenting your product in a sort of vacuum.
But you didn’t create your product just for it to sit on a shelf, did you?
(Unless you sell clocks, or picture frames, or candles…Anyway…)
In addition to the environment-less types of photos we’ve already discussed, you also want to present your products as they are meant to exist in the real world.
A few examples:
- A beach blanket laid out on the sand
- A mug of coffee resting on a breakfast bar
- A kite flying through the air
The possibilities here are endless, limited only by your imagination.
(Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing.)
But, before you start thinking of active environments to use for your next photo shoot, there are a few things you should consider:
- Make sure the environment aligns with your brand’s image
- Make sure the environment aligns with your customers’ use of the product
- Don’t use an environment that’s so “busy” that it distracts your audience from your product
(Source / Caption: Simple and effective use of context to showcase the sharpness of a knife.)
You might also choose to show your product actually in action. Though your online customers can’t actually engage with your product until they buy it, you can at least let them live vicariously through others.
(Source / Caption: Now we’re getting “meta.”)
Again, this type of photograph adds context to how your product is used in the real world. It also allows prospective customers to get a better understanding of the size and dimensions of your product, as well.
Which brings us to the next section…
Product Photography Angles and Positioning
Because your online customers can’t pick up your products and check them out on their own, it’s up to you to present your products as fully and accurately as possible through the photographs you take.
Cover All the Angles
This is pretty straightforward:
It’s essential that you photograph every inch of your product, no matter how insignificant a certain part may seem. The last thing you want is for your customer to receive your product and exclaim “I didn’t know it had this on the side of it!” Not only will this most likely cause them to return the product in question, but it will also make them hesitant to trust your other product photographs, as well.
(Source / Caption: Almost perfect, but not quite.)
In the series of photographs above, we’re shown almost every part of the pair of high heels...except the bottom. As I said before, it may seem rather inconsequential (“Who cares what the bottom looks like? No one ever sees it.”), but this misstep will almost assuredly turn off customers who need to know exactly what they’re purchasing before they click the “buy” button.
In addition to providing as much visual information as possible, showing your products from all angles also allows you to get creative. Check out this next picture:
By simply adding a mirror to the photoshoot, this photographer allowed us to see both the top and bottom of the sneaker in one picture. Not only does the picture serve a purpose, but it’s also rather original, too (as compared to the straightforward high heel images above).
If you’re feeling really ambitious, you might even consider delving into 360° photography, allowing your customers to see literally every angle of your product. To learn more about how to create and present 360° product photographs, check out Arqspin’s guide.
Show Objects to Scale
Another disadvantage of presenting products online is that it’s difficult to showcase the actual size of most products.
(Source / Caption: In some cases, though, things actually turn out better.)
To mitigate this situation, you can photograph your product alongside other items your customers are likely familiar with.
Case in point, answer me this: Are these vases for succulents, or for garden-sized plants?
Hard to tell, right?
How about now?
Now, as we talked about earlier, any extra object or item you include in your product photographs should be consistent with your brand, as well as with the product in question. In other words, don’t add a random familiar object (like a ruler or pencil) just to show scale; make sure the extra object relates in some way to the product being showcased.
The above suggestions work for product photographs taken in an active environment.
But what about product page photographs? After all, they’re supposed to be devoid of anything other than the product itself, right?
While it’s much more difficult to showcase product size when said products are placed on a blank white page, it can be done. In the next section, we’ll discuss the basics behind post-production editing - and touch on one thing you shouldn’t do during this stage.
Before we dive into this section, it’s important to recall that the goal of presenting images of your products in the first place is to give your customers a realistic sense of what your products actually look like in real life.
That being said, your goal when editing your product photographs is not to make the product appear to be something it’s not. Rather, the edits you’ll be making focus more on the quality of the actual image, as well as the way in which your images are presented on the page.
Let’s get started.
No product photoshoot is ever perfect.
Maybe the lighting was a bit off, or the angle you shot caused a glare or shadow you didn’t notice at the time. Or maybe your product collected dust or scuff marks during the shoot.
The unedited photo above, unfortunately, lacked proper lighting (something which is essential, especially when photographing jewelry that’s meant to shimmer and shine). To mitigate the problem, the image’s brightness was simply increased post-production. Notice that nothing was added to the photo (such as an artificial shine effect); rather, the overall quality of the image was improved as a whole.
Pixelz provides an in-depth guide to some of the most common (and acceptable) post-production edits you can - and should - make to your product photographs. Even if you’re not a Photoshop master, these simple tricks can help you remove the more minor imperfections in your product photos while still showcasing them in a realistic manner.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the toughest things to do via an ecommerce website is to provide a sense of scale to your customers. This is even more difficult when presenting multiple products of varying size on your product pages.
(Source / Caption: Notice the “small,” “medium,” and “large” descriptions.)
The actual sizes of the handbags pictured above vary widely - but you’d never know it by this image, would you?
In contrast, this next screenshot does a much better job of showcasing size:
Although the above screenshot “cheats” a bit (at least for our purposes) by using the surrounding environment to provide context, the main thing to note is that the size of the photos are exactly the same - allowing the size of the products to be easily noticeable.
Compare this to the handbag example. In this case, the smaller products were photographed at a closer range than the larger ones were - unfortunately making all of them appear as if they were the same size.
Pixelz again provides an in-depth guide for representing different product sizes on your product pages, which boils down to the following steps:
- Create an in-house sizing guide to be referenced at all times
- Edit your product photographs according to your reference points within the sizing guide
- Preset your products in size order on your product pages
Though you’ll need to also provide specific measurements within your product descriptions in order for your customers to get a true sense of the size of your products, you want your product photographs to supplement these written specifications as much as possible.
In our modern, Instagram-happy world, you might be tempted to add trendy filters to your product photographs during post-production.
We’re not going to say you absolutely shouldn’t do this. But we will say you shouldn’t do so arbitrarily.
In other words, don’t add a filter because “everyone else is doing it,” or because you feel like you need to do so.
The main thing to remember is that your product is supposed to be the focus of the image - not the image itself. Unnecessarily adding filters to your product photographs might make the overall picture more pleasant to look at, but if it distracts your audience from the actual product, it’s doing more harm than good.
Similarly, if the filter distorts the appearance of your product to the point that your customers are disappointed with what they actually receive in the mail, they probably aren’t going to stick with your brand for much longer.
The best use of filters, then, is when it’s obvious - and acceptable - that you’re using the filter in the first place. So, it may be acceptable to use filters on splash pages and landing pages - but it definitely isn’t okay to do so on product pages, or anywhere where it’s assumed the photograph presented is an actual representation of your product.
Wrapping Things Up
Showcasing your ecommerce store’s products through high-quality photographs is all but essential for attracting customers and allowing them to engage with your products as much as they can without physically touching them.
Knowing this, we simply cannot understate the importance of investing time, money, and effort into learning how to properly photograph your products. While this might seem like a monumental task for those whose only experience with photography is taking selfies and pictures of dinner, the effort put into learning the ins and outs product photography will almost certainly pay off in dividends down the road.