It’s a known fact that humans are visual creatures. Studies have shown that 90% of the information that comes to the brain is visual, and images are processed 60,000 times faster than text. Graphics are also more effective in stirring up emotions, and since a lot of people are emotional shoppers, images make for great selling tools.
That’s why having killer product photos on your ecommerce site and even your brick-and-mortar store is a must. Strong images grab attention, make you look more professional and—most important—generate sales.
In an age where having a compelling online and offline presence is a must, getting your product photos right is essential.
Background and Context
This section will talk about best practices when it comes to choosing a background for your product photos and presenting them in the right context.
Decide what background to use
Should you shoot images using a standard background or go for “lifestyle” photos (or do both)?
The answer depends on what you’re photographing as well as where the images are going to appear. If the images are just going to live on your website, then having a standard and consistent background is recommended. This will make it easier for online shoppers to browse your site.
“Keeping consistent images allows shoppers to easily compare product to product,” says Michael Atman, CEO at Iconasys Inc. “For images on a website, it is suggested to have consistent backgrounds (preferably white) and angles (ex. a shoe – front, back, side, inner side, top and bottom) from all like products.”
On the other hand, if you’re planning to share the images via social media, then you’d want to take lifestyle shots or shoot images in their natural environment. “Lifestyle shots (ex. apparel on a model in an outdoor setting) tend to convert better,” adds Atman.
You’ll also want to think about the image and voice you want to convey. If you’re a lifestyle brand or if you cater to a hip demographic, then shooting your products in more dynamic environments could work better for you.
Consider what Urban Outfitters is doing. As Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate points out, Urban Outfitters’ bedding section features “a collection of sheets, pillows, and blankets as you might see them in a home – beneath light-strewn windows and towers of books. The scenes are both beautiful and inviting.”
If it fits your brand, see if you can do (or test) something similar in your store.
Use plain paper backdrops for a classic effect and use acrylic for a sleeker look
If you’re going for a clean, classic look with your product shots, ProductPhotography.com founder Robert House recommends using curved paper backdrops. On the other hand, he says that retailers who want to achieve “a more modern, sleek look” can use a flat piece of white acrylic.
“There are many manufacturers, Plexiglas® being one of the more recognizable brands,” says House. “Acrylic sheets come in many sizes, thicknesses, and colors. 24”x24” is the size we use most in our studio, but we keep sheets as large as 4’ x 6’ as well. Because the thickness isn’t important you can save money by choosing sheets as thin as 1/16 of an inch.”
If you’re using acrylic as your shooting surface, House says “it’s often helpful to place a diffused light source behind the subject to act as a backdrop instead of a paper sweep. Doing this will make the reflection more visible from the front.”
Use a shallow depth of field for environment shots
Shannon Carrus, creative director at WHOISCARRUS shares this quick tip for retailers shooting in natural or dynamic environments:
“When shooting a product in its natural environment (ex: a boat on a lake, versus against a studio background), make sure you are taking the photo with a shallow depth of field. This puts the product in focus and throws the background out of focus, training the eye on the subject you want to sell.”
Shooting products on their own vs. using models
Should you use models in your product shots? According to consumer psychologist and retail consultant Bruce D. Sanders, the answer to this depends on how confident your shoppers are when it comes to evaluating items.
“If the audience generally believes they know a lot about the category, you’re better off showing the product on its own. On the other hand, an illustration or photo of somebody using the product works best in increasing purchase likelihood with shoppers who rate themselves as having limited knowledge about the product category,” says Sanders.
Most people, for instance, aren’t comfortable buying clothes online because they can’t be sure if the merchandise will fit them correctly. This is why many apparel retailers use models in their product shots. On the other hand, consumers are generally comfortable buying stuff like pens or mugs online, which is why it’s not necessary to include people when photographing such items.
“Consumers are more comfortable focusing on the product when they’re confident of their ability to evaluate it,” adds Sanders. “But when there’s self-doubt, they gain confidence and thereby build interest in the item upon seeing someone they can identify with.”
Lenses and Distance
Shooting using the right lens and at the proper distance helps maintain the right proportions in your shots. Follow the guidelines below to get these elements right:
Select the right lens
The right lens will depend on the products that you’re photographing, so there aren’t any all-encompassing rules for this one. However, House says that if you’re taking photos of products, you’ll probably want to avoid wide-angle lenses to prevent unnatural distortion in your images.
“While they do a great job on landscapes, wide-angle lenses also carry with them the possibility that your product may look distorted or oddly proportioned from the actual item.”
At the ProductPhotography.com studio, House says that they usually end up using lenses that are in the 50mm to 85mm range. “On occasion we may venture into a wide angle or even a long telephoto lens for a special need, but it’s far less common.”
Ensure you use the correct lens at the recommended distance
Once you have your lens, be sure to do research on the best distance to shoot with.
“Every lens has a natural distance to the subject that should be maintained to represent the subject as it appears in life,” says Melis Steiner of Melis+Dainon Photography. “If you get too close, the middle becomes bigger and edges curve away; if you step too far back, the opposite happens.”
“Simply Google the recommended distance-to-subject for your lens length or check with your lens manufacturer,” she add.
Can’t seem to achieve the right color or quality in your images? You may need to do something about your lighting. As Atman puts it, “90% of image quality comes down to correctly lighting your subject.”
Diffuse light and eliminate unwanted shadows
“Aim to not to get a lot of shadows in the shot unless you know how to use them,” says Greg Milneck, President of Digital FX.
To accomplish this, Milneck advises novice photographers to position products by a window to get natural light, and then use “a piece of white poster board to bounce light onto the product to reduce glare.”
If you’re looking to invest more, Milneck recommends that you “purchase a photo cube softbox to place your product in while you light it from this outside. This way, you’ll have even lighting all the way around the product, with minimal shadows.”
Atman also emphasizes the importance of lighting and says that he often suggests that his clients use daylight balanced (5500k) diffused softboxes.
The cost of softboxes can range from $60 to a couple of hundred bucks, while you can get photo cubes such as the one above for around $60 or lower. Shop around for lighting equipment and see which ones work best for you.
…But don’t go overboard with soft light
According to House, while softening your light source is important, “too much soft light can have its disadvantages.”
“Soft light tends to mute colors and reduce contrast. When lighting your subject, try throwing an additional hard light into the mix. This will help make colors pop, define textures, and increase overall contrast.”
To add a bit of hard light, he suggests using a silver umbrella. “Silver umbrellas have a metal foil interior and are one of the most common lighting modifiers available. Plus, they’re inexpensive to boot! Silver umbrellas won’t alter the color of your light source and will provide harder light without being downright harsh.”
What to do after taking product photos
Done taking photos? Take the steps below to further enhance your images and optimize them for conversion:
Edit your photos
Even if your photos look fine as is, it wouldn’t hurt to at least check if there’s anything you can do post-production to them pop even more.
“Make sure the photo has accurate color exposure, white balance, and remove any distractions like lint, scuffs, marks on the background, wrinkles, and the like,” advises Steiner. “If it shouldn’t have been in the photo to begin with, remove it, so long as it is not an essential element of the product like color, texture, or sheer effect.”
That said, she also warns against over-editing images. “Do not make massive changes in Photoshop that will alter the appearance of a product’s essential characteristics. If you’re editing changes the color, texture, or boldness of the product to an unnatural level, you are lining the buyer up for disappointment when they receive the actual product,” she adds.
“Improper representation of products will inevitably lead to returns and possibly poor customer reviews.”
Optimize your images for search
“An often overlooked part of images in eommerce is their value in search engines,” mentions Atman. High quality, unique images can increase exposure in search engines. Don’t forget to name the image specific to the product (ex. Nike-Free-5.0-mens-shoe.jpg) and include the information in the alt tag as well.”
Test and measure impact and engagement
The sure-fire way to figure out which best practices are actually “best” for you is to measure and test different product photography tactics. Test everything from lighting, angles, size and number of images, then take note of which actions yield the best results.
You can do this by keeping an eye on traffic and conversions. Whenever you modify the images on your product pages, for example, be sure to take note of these metrics before and after you made the change.
Another way to get product photography insights is to measure social engagement. “Increasingly, consumers are communicating in pictures, not words – saving products they aspire to buy on Pinterest, Tumblr, and other visual channels to demonstrate desire and intent,” says Gupta.
“Put this visual data to work. By measuring which product photos are being shared most frequently on these channels, you can ultimately learn not only what your customers want to buy, but also which characteristics drive clicks.”
Whether you’re taking product photos for your online store, your promotional materials, or even your brick-and-mortar collateral, we hope this piece was able to inspire you to step up your efforts and take better pictures!
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About Francesca Nicasio
Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.