Ecommerce photography – 15 ways to take photos that sell

I just revived this old article for OpenSky merchants learning to take better product photography. Cross-posting here in all its glory.

Great photos are your best attention grabber, whether in shoppers’ feeds, in emails, or on your product pages. You don’t need a fancy camera to take product photos that convey your brand and your products’ quality. Instead, simply focus on making your images:

  • Bright
  • Detailed
  • Clear

Here’s 15 steps to improve your product photographs. Keep them in mind to get more glam for your goods!

Lighting your product photographs

You’ll get better photos with some unconventional thinking about lighting:

  1. Don’t use your camera’s flash. Using a camera’s flash might create harsh shadows and bright highlights, obscuring details and washing out textures. This is more true as you move your camera closer to your subject.
  2. Indirect lighting is best. Unlike a flash, indirect lighting softens shadows and highlights. You can diffuse your lights by pointing them away from your product – consider them reflecting off a white surface like a flat bed sheet. The soft reflection will allow the light to reach every part of your product.
  3. Natural light is best. On cloudy days and in the early morning, when the sun’s light is diffused by the atmosphere, natural light is the ultimate indirect light source. You can complement it with a few additional diffuse lights if you see any harsh shadows forming.

Keep the backgrounds simple

Don’t make your background the unintentional subject of your photographs. Patterns and textures compete with your products for a viewer’s attention.

  1. Keep backgrounds simple. Use solid surfaces, such as flat, painted walls and tables. Be careful with backgrounds that demonstrate 3-dimensional space in your pictures, such as plants and landscapes.
  2. Choose a solid background color. Avoid patterns. Remember that even simple patterns like grass, wood grain, and upholstery can distract viewers from your products.
  3. Use neutral colors. Let your products, not the setting, create the drama. Think white, tan, grey, and muted hues. Placing your object on or near a white or light-colored background will also create some diffuse reflections (see the indirect lighting tip above).

Framing your shots

Maximize your images’ impact with strong visual compositions that keep the product at the center of attention.

  1. Keep it close. This isn’t a formal family portrait! Viewers want to get up close and personal with your product. Get as close as you can and let the product fill the frame. A tight focus will often show details of your product while blurring the background.
  2. Look at your corners. When framing your shot, take a moment to look at all 4 corners of your camera’s viewfinder. Those edges build your shot in subtle ways, so choose a different angle if they don’t look great.

Take multiple shots

Digital photography makes it cheap and easy to experiment. Take lots of different shots during your photo shoot, then step back and compare the results to select your best option (and consider sharing the results with some people you trust, so you can learn more about what works).

  1. Get details. Many products have lots of interesting details that surprise and delight shoppers. Take a moment to explore your product and look for interesting details, from buttons to fixtures to accessories, and include them in your photos.
  2. Try every angle. Once you have a good “normal” angle, take some time to explore alternative options – you might discover a dramatic new way of looking at your product.
  3. Remember the packaging! If your product has interesting packaging or labels, include them in your photographs. Help viewers understand that the product is a great experience from start to finish.

Create a unique voice

Once you’re confident that you can clearly showcase your product, explore options for adding a unique or dramatic twist to your photos to help them stand out from the crowd.

  1. Use styling to communicate your brand. Think about what different kinds of backgrounds or product angles “say” about your brand. Consider adding simple items (as props) to your photos to communicate a specific scene.
  2. Highlight the product in use. Build a narrative and show how people actually use your product. Open packages. Put clothes on people. Fill cups and bowls with attractive food. Help viewers’ imagine how they would use the product themselves.
  3. Choose interesting mannequins. If you need to hang or prop up your products, give some thought to what you use as a “mannequin.” Natural elements can make great mannequins: try wood, coral, large seashells, and other interesting forms.

Steady Freddy

And don’t forget to steady your shots. Use a tripod or place your camera on a flat, steady surface to avoid any blurring in your photos. This is particularly important if you’re shooting without bright lights and flashes.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you look through an online shopping site like OpenSky your favorite catalogs. Notice when the photographs seem to “follow the rules” and when they break them. As you become more confident, try breaking some rules too, to create a voice that’s unique to you.

Not selling with OpenSky yet?

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Thanks Tasra!

This article originated as some ecommerce photo tips from Tasra Mar, who used to be active on OpenSky as a photography expert. Though I don’t think she’s active on OpenSky any more, her blog is still a great read.

The 3×3 Rules

From one of my heroes, @umairh. For the past year I’ve been grappling with some version of his #7 rule, which I phrase as “epitaph, not resume.”

  1. Time will go by (a lot) faster than you think, want, or need.
  2. Most of the stuff you think will make you happy won’t.
  3. You’re capable not just of a tiny bit more than you believe. But of a huge amount more.
  4. The more yourself you are, the less timid you’ll be. The more haters will hate you. It’s a sign you’re living it right.
  5. Never waste a second working with people who don’t support you, or loving people who don’t love you.
  6. Any idiot can be cynical. Most are. You must always believe in love, life, and truth.
  7. The question you must answer isn’t how to get ahead. It’s how to go somewhere that matters. And have fun on the way.
  8. (Bonus rule: ) Learn to compromise. Learn never to settle.
  9. If your life doesn’t surprise you, it’s going to bore you. If your life never satisfies you, it’s going to stress you out. Balance.

I also enjoy that he opened this list with “Three Rules.” Overdeliver!

Think anew, act anew, disenthrall ourselves

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.

Abe Lincoln, 1862

Via Sir Ken Robinson at TED 2010

This statement resonated with me in a couple of contexts: first in my daily work as I grapple with defining new commercial interactions (and attempt to avoid falling into existing patters) and then, later, as I recalled a moment yesterday when Shannon and I visited our obstetrician with Winnie in tow.

When the OB entered the exam room Win asked a ton of great questions about the various tools and equipment that adorned the shelves and walls. I was so proud that I transformed into a leering adult and asked “do you want to be a doctor when you grow up?”

“No, Daddy,” she shouted, suddenly intent on twirling the doctor’s stool with her hands, “I want to be a… a… spinning ball!”

Woodkid – Iron

A couple of weeks ago I found some old Elric paperbacks on someone’s stoop (that’s how we freecycle in BKLN – just leave your cool crap on the stoop for someone else). As an old school D&D player, I knew of Elric but hadn’t ever read Michael Moorcock’s tale of the nihilist young Melnibonean emperor who attempts to cheat fate and save the world despite his dual addictions to drugs and a demonic sword.

Stumbling on Woodkid’s Iron video as I journey through tales that informed so much of my creative aesthetic feels like a gift from Arioch himself: a wicked delight, an otherworldly scheme.

Daddy’s little Dexter

Drawing with Win is always a serendipitous adventure. We work together like Warhol and Basquiat, with me coloring inside the lines and her deconstructing contemporary cultural icons.

Here’s her latest work, and I think her best.
I call it “Sheriff Lecter”:
Sheriff Woody, eater of the dead
If you ask Win what her favorite color is, she’ll tell you purple. But when she reaches into the bucket of markers, you can always bet on red.

While I hate to be too critical of her budding talent, I am glad she’s past her “blacking out every princess’s eyes and mouth” phase.