Product shots 101

Simple techniques make for better product shots

Since the days of the first printed catalogs, merchants have appreciated the benefits of good quality product photographs. Not only do they help customers understand exactly what it is they are buying, but appealing photos are also known to improve sales. While most small businesses don’t have the resources to invest in professional-quality images of their wares, taking clear and appealing product photos is not particularly difficult.

Here are a few basic techniques that can improve the quality of most product photos intended for web use. (I’m using my favorite cookie jar as an example).

Close, clear and sharp

Most modern ‘point-and-shoot’ and DSLR digital cameras are capable of producing good-quality product photos of everything except very small items, for which more specialized equipment may be required. In any case, it’s important to fill the frame with the subject. Get as close as the minimum focus distance of your camera will allow.

In the case of my cookie jar, I rotated the camera 90 degrees so my vertical object would more closely fit the camera’s frame, resulting in a clearer, more detailed image. I also took a number of shots, from different angles and focus points, to see which resulted in the clearest focus and most appealing picture. An effective focal length of 50 to 90mm will normally provide the most natural-looking perspective. It’s also helpful to try to keep the camera level so that the scene doesn’t ‘lean’ left or right.

Avoid cluttered, distracting backgrounds

A clean, uncluttered background helps put the buyer’s eye squarely on the product. In practice, a neutral white or light gray background is best for most items. Professional photographers use coved translucent plastic light tables or rolls of heavy seamless backdrop paper to make clean backgrounds, but two pieces of typing paper provide much the same effect for almost no expense.

One piece is laid flat (on my kitchen counter in this case), and the other is taped to the wall behind so that it overlaps the flat piece by about an inch or so. This approximates a ‘seamless’ backdrop, especially if your kitchen counter is like mine, with a bank of lights situated under the cabinets. The lights illuminate the product while killing shadows on the backdrop.

‘Light is the magician’

Turning a clear photo into an appealing image usually turns on the qualiy of the lighting. A lighting rule of thumb holds that the light source should be as large as the object photographed. It’s also usually helpful to angle the light from the side at approximately a 45-degree angle which helps reveal detail and texture.

Generally speaking, built-in camera flash provides light that may be clear, but is rarely appealing, and often puts a distracting shadow on the background. Most digital cameras have a setting that will turn the flash off.

In the case of my cookie jar, I placed a white card that’s a bit larger than the subject about 6 inches away, angled so that it reflects the overhead light onto the right side of the subject. The card also provides a reflection that helps show off the jar’s glossy finish.

Sizing and improving your pictures

There are a number of free or inexpensive image-editing programs that will resize the final image from the very large files the camera produces to a size that’s appropriate for a web page. Many of these programs can help improve your images as well. One such package is Google’s free Picasa, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers, others include Adobe’s $100 Photoshop Elements and Apple’s iPhoto, which comes free with many Macs. Picasa and software like it allow the user to crop and straighten photos as well as adjust the brightness, contrast and sharpness of images.

Going farther

For people who find themselves photographing a lot of objects (e.g. for eBay auctions or web catalogs) it may make sense to investigate simple, inexpensive lighting and studio tools and to spend some time learning basic techniques .

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