An Effective Guide to Product Photography

28 April 2021Ashley Maxwell10 min read

You no doubt need photos of your products for your website, your online adverts, and your paper-based marketing material. This is a guide for people who do not have any professional experience with photography, product arrangement and lighting, but who also want to fake it before they make it. This guide is for people who want professional quality product photography without having to pay professional prices.

Warm and Cool Lighting

The very best lighting you can get is from the sun on a sunny day. In most circumstances, you are going to have to provide the light yourself, and your overhead lights are not going to cut it.

Experiment with cold and warm light. There is a notable difference. Remember that strength and/or how close the lights are is going to make a massive difference, especially with regards to light colour intensity and how dark your shadows are. Here is a coldly lit picture.

Cold Lighting

Take note that the lighting is not very good in this picture above. It is too one-sided and there is a need for multiple lighting sources. Nevertheless, you can see how the cold light looks. Below is the warm light photo.

Warm Light

To make things fair, this image also suffers from bad lighting choices. However, you can see the warm light and how it differs from the cold lighting. The warm lights have a yellow and orange tinge, whereas the cold lights are blue and violet tinged. These images above have had no edits applied and no filtering. Below is an image with both warm and cold light applied.

Warm and Cold Light

The mixed lighting image automatically looks better because it has more light, which is a little unfair. Nevertheless, you can see how a mix of lighting colours adds a little more depth and atmosphere to an image. If you look at the mixed lighting image, you can see the colder tones near the top left, and the warmer tones near the bottom right. Here are all three images for the sake of comparison.

Cold Warm Mixed

The top image uses cold lights, the middle image uses a warm light, and the bottom image uses both warm and cold light. The point is that you should experiment with colder and warmer lights. Sometimes a colder light makes your image look far better, and other times a warmer light is the way to go. This extends all the way from products into full scenes. For example, a clinic may be shot with cooler lights, whereas a winter fireside lounge may be shot with warmer tones.

The Right Camera For The Job

The truth is that Smartphone camera technology has come a long way, and you can get some good pictures. But, if you want truly detailed pictures, then you are going to have to spring for a more professional camera. This doesn’t mean spending thousands on a camera, or even tens of hundreds, but you will need one that is well reviewed, that offers professional looking pictures, and that has a fairly good lens.

Camera Comparison

The images above are from two different cameras. They were taken very quickly to try to avoid any photo-taking bias. At first glance, they both look okay, despite being poorly lit. However, the top one was taken with a Kodak Pixpro AZ421 with a 16mp camera and a decent lens (bought for approx £130), and the image on the bottom was taken by a Samsung J5 2016 Smartphone that has a 13mp camera.

Note how the image on the top is more detailed. On close inspection, you can see that the image on the bottom is a little fuzzy. The truth is that you can take a very good and very professional photo on your Smartphone, but it is far (far) more difficult than if you have a more professional camera. Plus, there are times when picking out very fine details is more difficult with a Smartphone camera than it is with a professional camera.

Lose the Flash in Most Cases

If you are taking a photo from a distance away, then try shots with the flash on. However, if you are taking product photos and the object is fairly close to you, then lose the flash.

No Flash Flash

The image above shows two lighting examples. The first image is lit poorly. It has background lighting but needs light sources from other angles to highlight and pick out the details on the front of the owl. The image on the bottom is an example of too much lighting because the flash was on. The colours are all washed out, and there is a sort of bloom that blurs some of the image.

The image below is of a lawnmower. Sunlight in summer is the best light source, but the image below was taken in shade.

Flash On

The photographer used the flash to help pick out the details that the shade was obscuring. It is a good use of the flash, though it would have been a little more effective if the photographer were standing a little closer.

Take a Great Many Photos

Probably the best advice for any amateur photographer is to take tens and tens of pictures. Take them from all sorts of angles with all sorts of configurations, poses, positions, and so forth. The truth is that taking good photos takes years of experience, and you don’t have that sort of experience. But, there is a chance you will “Luck” out and get a few amazing photos if you take a great many photos during your shooting session.

It is one of those weird quirks of life where somehow all the elements line up perfectly, and almost by accident you get a great shot. Take the time to go through your shots on your computer and make a shortlist of the best ones. Then, compare them side-by-side to pick the best of the best.

Turn Off Image Stabilizing Settings

If you have a tripod, or you are resting your camera on something, then turn off the image stabilizing function. It doesn’t seem like it, but it actually affects the details in your image. You can get a far better picture if the image stabilizing functions are turned off. There are only two downsides.

The first is that if you are taking photos by hand without the image stabilisers, then you will have a very hard time taking the perfect shot. The second downside is that even with a tripod, the further in you zoom, the more motionless your camera has to be because even a slight nudge when you press the button may blur the shot.

Keep Editing to an Absolute Minimum

The ultimate goal is to take the perfect picture, which means taking tens of pictures and then picking the best. The more you edit your photos, the worse they look. It is a universal rule. Even the best Photoshoppers cannot compete with an image that was perfectly taken. The point of photoshopping and editing your product photography is to alter the tiniest of details, such as to make the tiny details stand out a little more here and there. If your shots need serious editing, then go back and take them again. To repeat, the more editing and photoshopping you do, the worse your images will look.

Do Not Delete Until You Get To Your Computer

Amateur photographers often look at their images through the small screen on their camera and start deleting the ones they do not want right there and then. This is a very bad idea. The tiny view screen cannot convey how good or bad an image is.

It works the other way too. There are features and view screens on your Smartphone that makes your images pop. They look great, and it is a little disheartening when you get them home, put them on your computer, and they look pale, or yellow, or they look poorly defined on your computer. It is even worse when you pass them through something like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram, and they turn out looking worse.

These are the reasons why you should only pick, choose and delete your photos once you have them on your computer. Anything else is going to cause disappointment. Plus, you really shouldn’t be deleting photos during the shoot. You should be concentrating on getting great shots, not wasting time trying to delete the bad ones.

Consider a White Background

You commonly see product photography done with a white background. This is done for two reasons. The first is because it is easier to snip a product out of an image if it is on a very white and very well lit background. The second is because a white background will reflect the light back up, which helps to soften the shadows under your product.

Some people shoot on green screens so that they can easily snip out the image, or more easily add transparent layers so the image can be transplanted into other images. Though this is fine for some types of product photography, know that it is not suitable for most types. Greenscreen often reflects onto the product itself, which gives it a green tinge. Greenscreen can cause harsher shadows, and it limits your lighting options.

Photograph All Sides Of Your Product

This is not baby’s first guide on product photography, but it is infuriating how even larger and very successful brands fail to show all the sides of their products. Perhaps we don’t need to see the back of a tin of beans, but on the other hand, what is the harm in showing us? Also, under what circumstances would showing people the other sides of your product be a bad thing?

Do not forget that people need to feel they know a product and have researched it before they feel comfortable buying it. They may have made the decision to buy already, but they need to feel like they have researched it and examined it so that they may justify the expense in their heads. Seeing all sides of a product may not make them feel as comfortable as if they had just read 200 online reviews, but every little helps when it comes to the buying process.

Photograph All Configurations Of Your Product

Again, this is not an article for beginners, but again, there are large and successful companies that simply fail to show us all the configurations of their product. Probably one of the best examples of this is with baby high chairs. It is simply jaw-dropping how many high chairs have several sitting positions, and yet only three are shown on the online adverts. It is even more infuriating when you realise you have to go online to YouTube to watch people in their own homes trying out the high chairs because the manufacturers and sellers themselves couldn’t be bothered to correctly photograph the chair in all its configurations.

With that little rant over, even an outside observer can see the benefits of photographing your product with all its configurations. Just use your common sense. For example, if you were selling a baby’s pram, then show all its positions, including with its hood down, with the rain jacket on, sat up, laid down, open and folded, etc.

On the other hand, if you are selling a chest of drawers, let’s see from the front, back, sides, and from above. Show us a photo with a drawer open, but do not take a separate shot of every drawer on the object. Do not take pictures from underneath. Just use a little common sense.

Experiment With Arrangements

This is the second-best tip in this entire article, and it was saved until very last. For your information, the best tip was the one that told you to take a great many photos because you will probably “Luck” out and get a few amazing ones.

This is the second-best piece of advice because it also increases your chances of “Lucking” out and getting a great shot. Take the examples pictured below where I simply experimented with object arrangements.

Line of candles

The image above shows a line of candles. You will often find that the first thing people do when they arrange objects is to try them out in a line. It is not a bad arrangement, and even though the picture is a little dark considering the subject matter, it isn’t a bad photo. Sadly, the image doesn’t draw the eye or pop. A better arrangement would have been good, but also, lighting the middle candle would have added both a focal point for the image and would have added some nice lighting that would have made the image stand out a little better.

V shaped candles

The image below shows candles in a V shape. It is fair to say that this image has more character than the candles in a line. It is not a bad picture, but again, it doesn’t have a focal point. The two candles to the far left and far right are too dominant. They are fighting for attention, and the other candles almost blur in comparison. This image could have been improved by staggering the height of the candles so that the lighter blue candles were higher than the darker blue candles, and the purple one in the middle was the tallest of all (as if on a pyramid). This would have added more dimensions to the image and would have allowed the eye to move easily from the dominant candles on the left and right, all the way up to the purple candle on top.

Candles with attitude

Here is a very good arrangement of candles. It has a strong focal point, but the first image doesn’t dominate so much as to make the other candles look less impressive. It has plenty of character and pop while allowing the user to see the details in focus for the first candle. It’s a shame the first owl has a slight imperfection, but I took these images in a hurry. This could stand as another tip, i.e. make sure you show off your best products without any imperfections.

Experiment with product arrangements and positions because as you can see by the examples above, you can change an awful lot about your product photography by how your products are arranged.

Arrange Your Product Through Your Camera View Screen

Set up your products in the display and arrangement you desire. Then, position your camera. Look through your camera, and then go back and re-position your products so that they look fantastic through the camera view screen. It sounds odd, but you have to set up your scene, and then tamper with it to make it look good on the photo.

Take the image below. It shows the end result, and it shows the actual arrangement of the candles.

Candles and their arrangement

You would intuitively think that the candles for the image were arranged as a perfect V, but a perfect V didn’t look very good through the viewscreen. To capture the shot, I had to arrange the candles as you see in the image below.

The candles were arranged to create a feeling of depth. A perfect V looked stale and clinical. As I tinkered with the arrangement, the V became more disfigured, but the image started to look better. Even though I was rushing, I think the shot turned out pretty nice in the end.