DIY Guide To Product Photography For More Sales

Threecolts
Emma Ritson
Published
December 1, 2022
Modified
December 2, 2022
A DIY guide to product photography to increase sales.

So you're selling products online, and you want to up your presentation game. One of the best ways to improve your online store's visual appearance is by learning how to take high-quality photos. This guide to the perfect product photography setup will have you snapping incredible pictures in no time.  

Why good photos matter

With access to high-end photography, your products naturally look much better. This, along with effective affiliate marketing, can have a huge impact on your company’s bottom line. First-rate product photography on a site such as Etsy means a higher click rate on a search page—the golden difference between a winning conversion and no sale at all.

The problem is that photographers charge anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 a day. When you consider that you may need anywhere from five days to two months’ worth of professional photographer’s day fees—depending on the number of products you need documenting—it’s pretty clear that DIY photography is the best solution.

The good news?

It is 100 percent possible to teach yourself how to take photos that look high-end but cost a lot less than a professional photoshoot. And it's not just about buying an expensive camera. As we explain below, the camera is only part of the equation.

Other factors affecting the outcome of your product images: your studio setup, styling, lighting, and how you process and edit the photo. Yup, they all play a role in the outcome of your photography.

As a bonus, when your brand has a cohesive and confident visual style, your customers will come to expect quality and maintain loyalty and interest. After all, you took the time to learn about your customers… and this effort will show. Hopefully, this will result in return customers and more sales on sites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy.

Limited budgets

This DIY photography guide has been made explicitly for e-commerce store owners on a limited budget; it’s incredible what you can do without a lot of cash when starting off selling online. While you do have to spend money on things such as a tripod, white sheets, lenses, or a mid-range second-hand camera (if you can afford it), you will be spending thousands less than if you hired a professional photographer.

Follow the steps

The steps are clear and straightforward, and we've provided tons of links to help if you get stuck. Remember, if you are overwhelmed, then pause and breathe! And you’ll be taking high-end photos in no time.

Exposure

When taking photos for the first time, you must understand the basics of exposure. In photography, exposure is the amount of light that activates your camera sensor (or the actual film roll if you’re using an old-fashioned film camera); it’s a crucial aspect of how bright or dark your images end up.

The two camera settings that influence the  “luminous exposure” of an image are a) shutter speed and b) aperture. There is a third setting, camera ISO, that also plays a part in affecting the darkness or brightness of your image, and we will explain how to work with these settings below.

Get acquainted with the basics of exposure and the above terms now so you can keep up with the steps below.

1) Checklist of things you need

DIY product photography is something that you can teach yourself within a day or two, but you'll need a few things before you start:

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Table
  • White background (either a sweep or some card to make one)
  • White and black bounce cards constructed from foam
  • A room with good light and a large window

Let’s look at each of the items you’ll need in more detail.

Camera

We love the question—what's the best camera for taking photos of your products? Our answer? Use whatever you have available and look at the results; then, you can improve those results with post-processing.

Sadly, not all of us have the money to buy an expensive full-frame DSLR camera system, which comes in at more than $3,000. Even mid-range cameras aren’t strictly necessary. It's terrific if you have the money, but the fact that you're here reading this DIY guide suggests that you're on a budget.

Smartphones aren’t a terrible option

If your best option is your smartphone, don’t despair. There are countless apps and special after-effects you can use with your smartphone, along with lenses and tripods. You’ll still need to adopt the strategies used by traditional photographers—so read ahead.

Second-hand cameras

To achieve quality results while limiting your spending, professional photographers recommend an older model camera such as the point-and-shoot 2008 Canon G10. This camera can be used manually, and, as an added benefit, it produces images with a beautiful raw finish. The Canon G10 might not be top-of-the-line anymore, but it allows you to take lovely photos.

It’s not just the camera

When you think about it from a stylistic point of view, the camera doesn't solely take the pictures—instead, it is a part of a whole process that results in either high or low-quality product images. Photography is, essentially, a collection of choices and processes—from lighting, exposure, color saturation, styling, and post-processing decisions. You could have a fantastic top-of-the-line camera and still take photos lacking technical know-how and aesthetic brilliance.

Takeout: if you don’t have the money for a good camera, it doesn’t mean you can't produce incredible photos. You just need to compensate for your low-quality camera in the next steps.

Tripod

When you begin taking photos of your products, you need to set your camera to a small aperture so that you're maximizing the depth of field that your camera can deliver.

The width of the depth of field will help to define the part of your image that has sharp focus—to do this, search for the largest f-stop number your camera can handle.

Now take a breath because this is getting technical.

You don’t need to rush ahead to try and understand all this new information right now.

Go back and read the paragraph above carefully and absorb that information.

Take another deep breath.

Now read this next part carefully.

Shutter speed and f-stop are related

This means that a bigger f-stop number—like f/8—allows in less light. So if you want more light, you’ll have to adopt a slower shutter speed (aka the process of exposure which we explain below).

And what is the issue with this?

Image stability

With a slow shutter, if you hand-hold your camera, then your photo will be blurry–due to the micro-movements picked up as a result of the slow shutter speed. The longer the shutter is open, the more likely the camera will pick up on tiny movements that could cause blurring.

This is why a tripod is your answer. A tripod will stabilize your image and make the rest of your job much easier.  Surprisingly, there is no need to spend a lot of cash on a tripod at this point, with many options costing less than $30 at stores like Amazon.

As a side note, while most point-and-shoots may not allow any choice with the f-stop, you can still get around this as we explore soon.

Takeout: if your camera is low quality, investing in a tripod is a must.

White background        

The first point we need to make here is that when we say white, we mean pure white—not cream, beige or off-white.

And what needs to be white?

The background of course. If you're going to be shooting a lot, I recommend getting a white sweep from Amazon.

Homemade sweep

If you are low on cash, you can make your own handmade sweep. This is a last-ditch resort, however. If you're going to be making money from your products, then you ideally should be investing in a professional sweep.

So go on, head to your local pharmacy, drug store, or art store, and purchase some cheap poster board, duct tape, and clamps. You’ll get it from as little as $10 for around ten sheets. We’ll explore using a sweep in a few steps, but read on.

The ultimate room

Regarding lighting, the best room for product photography is one that presents with windows next to a wall—the bigger the window, the more light you have to work with. The closer you are to the window, the softer the light and shadows. The further away you are, the more even the light and the shadows.

White bounce cards made of foam board

When working with natural window light, you’ll soon discover this results in one bright side of the item—the side where the light is striking—along with a shadow side that will often be too dark. A bounce card helps to reflect the window light onto the shadows to lighten things up.

You can also use black foam board to help the shadows balance out in tone. This can be very helpful when placing a white item on a white background. When you reflect the black foam board to the tableaux, it will help to darken the edges of the white product. Perfect!

Table

Every good product photographer needs a folding table offering a width of between 24 and 27 inches. This is an adaptable and cost-effective solution for product photography.

2) It’s all about the light

A little primer on light—to help you understand the fundamentals of photography.

Good light can make your photos stand out to your customers for all the right reasons, while bad light can turn them away from your store in droves. In photography, the photographer is the artist, and the light is the paint and the paintbrush.

In a brick-and-mortar store, buyers get the best look at an item in person, where everything is in plain sight. When customers are going off an image in an online store, however, good lighting helps to persuade them to buy.

What might be good lighting for one product and set-up could be terrible for the next. So when you set up your online e-commerce store, you need to become a light expert—how to use it, work with it and manipulate it. Your products need to sparkle and shine, after all.

Importantly, there are two types of light you can choose as your primary light source: natural and artificial light.

Natural light

Look up in the sky. Sunlight is described as soft light because the sun casts a larger, softer range of light than a globe shining directly onto your product. Usually, items shot inside with natural light don’t look great—but there are always exceptions to the rules.

Natural light can work for your products if it is shot outside and meant to be used outside. Say, if there is a person in the shot either using or wearing the item or the emphasis is placed on the surroundings rather than the item itself.

Artificial Light

Photography folk call artificial light hard light because it offers a smaller but more focused light surface. Photographers use this light when they want to emphasize details on an item in order to grab the customers’ attention. Artificial light is excellent for crafts, products, ceramics, and other accessories.

3) Taking product photos with a white background

So now you have the list of things you need to take great photos and you understand how light works—it's time to get to work. Remember, you are bound to make mistakes the first few attempts, but as you go along, you'll see what works and then make adjustments and improve your technique.

i) Set up your table

Place your table near the window without intersecting the shadows from the source of the light. Make sure the window is 90 degrees to the right or left of your table, and look at the section above to figure out whether you want softer or harder light.  

You can try rotating the set at a 45-degree angle from the window—see what works best. Some close-up photography is shot with a window behind the table, so the camera faces into the light for drama and intensity. For sites like Etsy, it’s unlikely you’ll need this level of intensity.

Tips:

ii) Set your sweep

Place your sweep, so it starts horizontally and ends vertically against the wall. If you don't have a wall to rest the sweep against, you’ll have to improvise. This is where duct tape comes in handy.

Now place the products in the center of the horizontal part of the sweep. And presto!

iii) Adjust your camera

If you're working with an automatic camera, the table and window light set-up (above) will be great if—in a moment of stress or sudden deadlines—you put the camera on its auto setting.

Every camera is different, however, so you may well need to make adjustments.

The three elements of camera exposure

As discussed before, proper exposure is crucial in photography. Badly exposed images look cheap and tacky, losing critical detail in shadow and light. To take good images, you must become an expert in the process of exposure.

Exposure might seem tricky, but when you get down to it, it’s pretty basic. Three camera settings affect the photo brightness; your goal, as the photographer, is to adjust and refine all three settings so that they are balanced.

As we explained, the three exposure settings are:

  • Aperture: the size of the opening in the camera lens
  • Shutter speed: the length of time the shutter stays open
  • ISO: the sensitivity applied to the image taken by the camera.

Read on to see how we work with these elements below.

iv) Camera instructions

Now that you understand the elements of exposure, it’s time to get to work.

Firstly, place your camera’s white balance (WB) to Auto.

Then turn the flash off.

Put the image settings on your camera to the highest quality.

Most point-and-shoot cameras don’t have a raw setting, but if yours does, use it.

All DSLRs, most point-and-shoot cameras, and some smartphones now offer the option to take pictures in raw mode. If you're hoping to utilize the full scope of post-processing with your images (we recommend this), then raw is the best option.

Alternatively, the JPG setting means the camera runs the pictures through its own processor. In this mode, the camera processor makes the decisions on contrast, color space, white balance, and so on. (Again, with raw, you make all those decisions in post-production). Unfortunately, this can result in uneven quality since the capabilities of an in-camera processor vary with each brand.

If you don’t have a raw setting on your camera, then choose the biggest JPG setting offered. This describes the file size.

So if the options are labeled L (Large), M (Medium), or S (Small) then pick Large.

Essentially, the bigger the file, the better quality the photo.

When choosing image quality (the number of pixels that are used on the camera sensor) you can choose between S (Superfine), F (Fine), N (Normal). Always pick Superfine.

Once you've done this, set your ISO to 100.

ISO controls the sensor’s sensitivity. With a higher ISO, there’ll be more noise. Usually, 100 is the lowest ISO setting possible, so set it there if you can.

v) Exposure settings

Option A: Manual mode (M)

We prefer using the manual setting on a camera because it means nothing shifts or adjusts while you're taking your photos.

So using manual, place your f-stop to the highest number possible, thus ensuring a bigger depth of field.

Now you can preview the picture through the back of the camera in the little previewer.

Switch back to your shutter speed—and then adjust the dial so that it is bright enough that the image is nicely exposed.

The shutter number should be increasing, say from 1/60th to 1/2.

These numbers describe the amount of time the shutter will be open—which means the higher the number, the more light is let in.

Experiment with this number until you can see a preview of the image that works.

Option B: Aperture Priority (AV)

If you have Aperture Priority on your camera, place the f-stop on the highest number. This should automatically adjust the shutter to be what the camera thinks it should be.

Option C: Auto Exposure

While it's not the best option, if you're stuck with an auto camera, find the exposure compensation dial, then add +1 or +1½ to get the correct exposure. If the only option is the running man images, pick something wide like sunset.

Option D: Smart phone

With the iPhone, just tap the area you want to be exposed.

Histograms

Histograms are found in most current digital cameras and image editing software.

Many beginner photographers get easily thrown by histograms. If you're struggling to figure out how histograms work, you’re not alone.

Essentially, every picture file possesses a unique histogram—a graph that measures various aspects of your image. It is shown on your camera display and within all post-processing programs.

A histogram is helpful for a few reasons.

While you can always look at your image’s exposure by referencing your camera’s LCD screen or electronic viewfinder, the histogram is a more objective way to assess your image’s tones.

You’ll need to consult your camera’s histogram to ascertain if your exposure is correct. If the histogram is skewed to the right, then it suggests overexposure, meaning there are too many light pixels in the light.

A left-skewed histogram often shows underexposure (too many dark pixels).

A balanced and nicely centered histogram suggests a beautifully clear, well-exposed image cushioned with ample mid-tones.

In this photo, the histogram is skewed to the right. In this case, do reduce your exposure (try boosting the shutter speed) and retake the image

vi) Set up your product

It's time to set your product on the table in an eye-catching position. This usually takes a lot of refining and many little movements to get it perfect, so go ahead and play around with your table and product setup.

vii) Set up the reflector card

The white board or reflector card that you use to adjust the light in the photo is your friend. You can use it to your heart's content, letting the light bounce off the card and into the shot. Again, it's a matter of taste. Experience is your teacher here.

viii) Take the picture and evaluate

Now you can take the picture—look at it very carefully, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. You can experiment in various ways. Over time you will learn, through experience, how to improve your photography.

If you’re not sure it’s working it probably isn’t, so go back and shift things around a little and take the photo again. It’s all about getting the balance right between all the various aspects.

4) Time to use your computer

Transfer your images onto a computer to get a better idea of how they look, since they will be displayed in a bigger format and the flaws will be more obvious. We recommend Adobe Lightroom to organize your pictures and images. It does some great editing, allowing you to adjust tones and other features on your pictures to look professional.

5) Retouch your pictures      

Once you've chosen your final image, you can now retouch it.

It can be tricky to retouch a photo, which is why we recommend outsourcing this to someone who is an expert. Surprisingly, it is relatively inexpensive to do this. You can find companies to do it for around $5 a photo, which is not a huge amount considering you're making a massive difference to your shop’s visual presentation.

To find a good company in your city, search for some working photographers on Google or Instagram and message them. You can also look at sites such as Reddit, or you can approach photography schools and ask the teachers there.

6) Final steps

Now you've taken some great photos for your website. The next step is to optimize them for your website using SEO principles. After that, you can resize them for the container on your website using the best height and width. You’ll find plenty of resources online to help you with this.

Once done, you can compress the image, getting the smallest file size without compromising image quality or changing your workflow. Compressing images saves lots of hard drive space, improves the customer viewing experience, and helps your website load faster. Adobe Photoshop’s Save For Web function is great. JPGmini software, meanwhile, uses a smart algorithm to figure out the best compression for your photo file.

And you’re done! You have professional-looking photos to impress your potential buyers in your online store. You’ll be amazed at the difference this will make to your store’s visual style, market presence, and sales.

About us

Threecolts acquires, launches, and grows eCommerce software with a robust suite of offerings such as Old Street Media, HotShp, SellerBench, Tactical Arbitrage, Bindwise, RefundSniper, ChannelReply, and FeedbackWhiz.

Old Street Media supports businesses with advertising, inventory management, and other eCommerce services. We collaborate with over 4000 brands and have generated $600M in sales in the past year.

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About the author
Emma Ritson