The perceived value of your products and the trustworthiness of your brand are often judged based on the quality of your visual presentation. That means having high-end, beautiful product photography can go a long way.
However, not every online store owner can afford to invest in a professional photography studio when they’re just starting out. DIY product photography provides a great alternative, and as long as you know the proper tools and techniques, taking compelling product photos is well within your grasp.
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At-home product photography studio—what you need
Showcasing your ecommerce products with high-quality images can be the winning difference between a conversion and no sale at all. This is particularly true if you’re distributing your products on marketplace sites like Amazon, where they are displayed alongside those of your competitors, or on social media, where people interact with your brand.
The perceived value of your products is directly impacted by the quality of your product photography.
When you’re just starting out, getting your product images shot can be an intimidating prospect, because good ecommerce photography can be expensive. But there are hundreds of product photography tools to help you get the job done yourself.
As retailers with lean start-up roots, we understand this more than anyone, and as a company that works with small businesses everyday, we also know that sometimes the money’s just not there. If that’s you, and your budget is tight, have you thought about taking the DIY approach to taking your own images? It’s not as hard as you might think.
There are lots of techniques for shooting successful product photography, but the one I’m going to show you is commonly known as The Window Light Technique.
From someone who takes products photographs everyday, this tutorial has been specifically crafted for business owners on a budget, and it’s been designed to be simple, while producing excellent, professional product photography that gets results.
Gear is at the heart of photography and can be really exciting but, typically, it’s the aspect most people become confused about.
There’s no necessity to spend a large portion of your budget on high-tech equipment, so keep an open mind and try not to overspend on gadgets that do the same job lighting your product as a $5 piece of card can do. You can probably do this natural light setup for $20 or less if you already own a camera.
What you're going to need:
- A camera
- A tripod
- A white background
- White bounce cards made of foam board
- A table
- The right room with a window
You don’t need a crazy full-frame DSLR camera system. While shooting images with a Nikon D810 (~$2K) sporting a 105-mm f/1.4 lens ($740) is awesome, it’s also totally unnecessary.
Still, if you’re feeling excited and have the budget to stretch for a new camera system for this project, I suggest reading a post I wrote on Quora, which offers tips to help you pick out a good camera for product photography. If all you have is your smartphone, that’s OK too: check out this helpful guide to smartphone product photography.
When I did the test images for this, I started with my older model (2008), beat-to-hell Canon G10 point-and-shoot. I love the Canon G series point-and-shoots because they can go full manual and they shoot a really nice raw file. I picked this camera because it’s definitely not top of the line anymore, allowing me to demonstrate that, with even modest equipment, good results are attainable.
So what’s the best camera for product photography? I would just start out with whatever you have handy and see what the results are. It’s a common myth that it’s the camera that takes the pictures. In reality, the camera is only one piece of the whole. A photograph is made up of a series of choices that incorporates lighting, exposure, styling, and post-processing decisions.
Not to get too technical, but you’re going to set your camera to a very small aperture so you can have the most depth of field your camera is capable of.
The width of the depth of field defines the area of sharp focus, and to get to that you need the largest f-stop number your camera can obtain. Shutter speed and f-stop are related, and since a larger f-stop number like f/8 lets in less light, you’ll need to counter that by using a slower shutter speed to allow more light through.
When a camera has a slow shutter, you can’t hand hold it or the subject will be blurry—so a tripod is your answer. If you’re interested in learning more about the fundamentals of photography, check out this video I did with Harrington College of Design. I realize that most point and shoots may not allow you to choose your f-stop. That’s OK, and there are ways to get around this, which we’ll discuss in the step by step.
Again, you shouldn’t need to spend a whole lot of money on a tripod at this point in your adventure, and there are many, many options out there that cost less than $30. I did a quick search on Amazon and found something that would work for $20.
3. White background
There are lots of options for a white background, and if you’re going to be shooting a lot, you may want to get a white sweep from Amazon. I prefer a paper sweep because sweeps get dirty and you can cut off the dirty part and roll a new piece down.
A really cheap option is to go to your local drug store or art store and buy some poster board. I’ve seen it as low as $7 for 10 sheets. Remember to look for pure white, as off-white or cream will be more difficult to make pure white.
4. White bounce cards made of foam board
When you’re lighting with window light, there will be a bright side where the light is striking the product, and a shadow side. This shadow side will typically be too dark and so we use something white to reflect the light back into the shadows and brighten it up. Foam board makes a great bounce card, because it’s rigid and white.
Alternatively, you can use black foam board to make the shadows deeper. This is particularly helpful if you’re shooting a white product on a white background. Adding black foam board to the sides, just outside of the photo behind the product will create a dark edge on the white product. Combine a white bounce card on the front and black bounce cards behind the product for a more sophisticated lighting setup.
You can buy foam boards on Amazon or at a local drugstore. Keep in mind, this is just a white card, so you might be able to simply balance a sheet of white printer paper or use a piece of poster board.
A standard folding table works best, and a width between 24 and 27 inches is ideal.
Depending on the table you end up with, you can use tape or clamps to secure down your board so it sweeps properly.
7. The right room
A room with windows next to a wall is perfect, and the bigger the window, the more light you’ll get in. Being closer to the window will create a softer light with darker, softer shadows. Being further away will give a more even light but with sharper, lighter shadows.
How to take professional product photos on a white background
The visual appearance of products is a key deciding factor for 93% of consumers. If customers can understand and envision the products you sell, they’ll feel more comfortable giving you their money. Let’s get into the step-by- step process for shooting your product photos.
- Set up your table
- Set your sweep
- Adjust your camera
- Set up your product
- Set up your reflector card
- Take the picture and evaluate
- Retouch your pictures
- Optimize images for your website
Step 1: Set up your table
Once you have collected your gear together, it’s time to set up your shooting area. Place your table as close to the window as possible without intersecting the shadow from the windowsill. You’ll want to start with the window 90 degrees to the right or left of your setup. The closer you are to the window and the larger the window, the softer the light will be.
Also, remember to turn off all other lights inside the room you’re shooting in, as other light will contaminate the set. This is very important and is the most common mistake.
You can try rotating the set so the window is at a 45-degree angle to the set, or try it with the window straight onto the set for a different style of natural lighting. Food photography is often shot with a window behind the setup and the camera shooting into the window for a more dramatic effect. Another variation is setting up in a garage with the door open—it will have the same qualities of light as a window, just without the glass.
You do not want direct sunlight hitting your set. Direct sunlight is harsh and looks bad on most people and products.
Step 2: Set your sweep
There are a lot of ways to do this, but the ultimate goal is to have your mat board sweep from being flat on your table to being vertical. You may need to roll up the board to help it reach that shape.
In my setup, we placed the table against the wall and taped the sweep to the wall and the table. If you don’t have a wall, you’re going to have to make something to secure the back of the sweep to. Some bricks or a wooden block would work well.
Place your product in the center on the flat part of the sweep and leave enough room to sneak your white reflector card in later. In this case, our product is a cool Skyrim and Doom toy available from Symbiote Studios. Thanks, guys!
Step 3: Adjust your camera
Every camera is a little different. Some cameras are fully auto and some have the ability to make adjustments. The beauty of this The Window Light setup is that you can set all camera settings to auto if you must and it will work.
1. Set Your white balance (WB) to Auto.
2. Turn your flash setting to Off.
3. Set your image settings to the highest quality. Most point-and-shoot cameras don’t have a raw setting, but if yours does, use it. Raw is the largest file a camera can shoot and utilizes the full bit depth of the camera. You will have to edit in software that reads raw imagery though, such as Photoshop, Bridge, Lightroom, or Aperture.
If you don’t have a raw setting, set it to the largest JPG setting you have. On my Canon there are two settings to look out for:
- Size. Sometimes L (Large), M (Medium), or S (Small). Pick Large. This setting determines the file size, and you almost always want to shoot it at the largest size for optimal image quality. You can always shrink an image once it is taken, but you can’t make it larger.
- Quality. S (Superfine), F (Fine), N (Normal). You should always set it to Superfine. This setting determines the number of pixels that are used on the camera sensor. Not using all the available pixels will render a lower quality image.
Set your ISO to 100. The ISO controls the sensitivity of the sensor. The higher the ISO the more noise there is. Typically, the lowest ISO you can set your camera to is ISO 100, so set it there if you can.
Option A: Set your camera to Manual (M)
This is the best setting for this type of work because nothing will be moving or changing as you take your pictures. In manual, change your f-stop to the highest number, which will give you the greatest depth of field.
Preview the image on the back of the camera through liveview. Everything is probably pretty dark, which is OK. Now, switch to your shutter speed and rotate the dial to make it bright enough that the image is properly exposed. Your shutter number should be going up. For example, your number may go from 1/60th to ¼ . These are fractions of a second that your shutter will be open for, and as the number lowers it will let more light in. Adjust this number until the preview of the image is correct.
Option B: Use Aperture Priority (AV)
Your camera may not have this either, but if it does, change the f-stop to the highest number. This should automatically adjust the shutter to be what the camera thinks it should be. This may be wrong, and you may need to use the exposure compensation dial to add light.
Option C: Auto Exposure
If you’re stuck in the all-auto world, there may not be much you can do. Don’t fret, it’s not a big deal. If you have an exposure compensation dial, you will most likely need to add +1 or +1½ to get the correct exposure. If all you have is the running man images to choose from, try picking something like Sunset. With the iPhone, just tap the area you want exposed properly.
Use the histogram on the back of the camera. You’re looking for the slope to be closer to the right hand side, like in the image above.
💡Exposure Tip: Don’t trust the image on the back of the camera. Instead, pay attention to the histogram to know if your exposure is correct. The far right hand side is white, and left is black. In the example image there is a little gap on the right hand side, which means that there is no pure white. Adjust the exposure till the part of the curve representing the white background is touching the right edge without going over. In this example, you would probably need to add 1/3 of a stop, or one click, for more light.
Cameras typically have an optical zoom and a digital zoom. Don’t use the digital zoom, as this will lower the quality of the image—it’s essentially just cropping the digital image. If you have an optical zoom, try zooming in as far as you can without using the digital zoom. A longer zoom will remove distortion caused by a wide angle lens. Cellphones have a very wide angle lens, which is a common issue.
Step 4: Set up your product
Setting up your product is one of those things that seems simple but can take time to position correctly. If it’s a bottle, pay attention to keeping the label type centered. Many times there are lots of tiny movements needed to get everything lining up perfectly.
Step 5: Set up the reflector card
This simple white card is the single most important light modifier we have in our photo studio, and we use it with everything. The light will bounce off the card and fill in all the shadows. How you position this card is a matter of taste, so try it at different angles to the product.
Step 6: Take the picture and evaluate
Once you take the picture, take some time and really look at what you’ve created. This is where experience and education come into play—what’s working, what isn’t working, and what can you do to make it better. Experiment with different ways of making your image better, and over time your skills will improve naturally.
Upload your images onto your computer to get a better idea of how they look. The back of your camera is never very accurate. I suggest using Adobe Lightroom to organize all your images. It can be used to do almost all of your editing except very advanced processes. You’ll no doubt need to make some adjustments to the images to get them to look right.
Post-production software like Adobe Lightroom is very in-depth, and we don’t have time to go into the details of using it.
Step 7: Retouch your pictures
Once you’ve got a final image you’re happy with, it’s time to get it retouched. If you photographed your product correctly, the product should be exposed properly and your background a light grey. It should look something like the un-retouched image above, and comparing it to the retouched version shows you how important this step of the process actually is.
The retouching tasks associated with on-white photography, for someone without a lot of training, can be tricky, and tend to be the weak link for most people trying to photograph products themselves. So, instead of trying to teach you advanced Photoshop, I’m going to show you how to outsource it.
You’d be surprised how affordable this can be. From around $3–$5 an image, you can have a professional retouching company improve your images for you.
Finding a good company can be tough, but one company that works well for consumers, in my opinion, is Pixelz. Its software allows you to upload and manage your retouching from start to finish. Pricing starts at $1.45 per image, with a $25 minimum, but you get three free test photos.
Step 8: Optimize images for your website
Search engine optimization (SEO) is crucial for all online sellers. One thing that is important is the load speed of your ecommerce website, and large images can really be a burden on this. There is a delicate balance between image quality and optimization, because if you over optimize, it destroys the image. As a rule of thumb, I try to make my images no larger than 200 KB, but shoot for the smallest image I can.
Resize your image for the container
The first way to optimize your image is to resize the height and width of the image. When you look at an image on a webpage you are actually looking at an HTML container with an image dynamically scaled to fit inside it. If the container on my website is a 648 px square and the actual image is 1500 px square, it will be displayed at 648 px, but the image it’s referencing will still load at 1500 px. That’s a lot of extra load time, especially if you have many images.
1. Figure out the HTML container size
You want to resize the actual image to fit the container before you upload it to your website. I usually resize my images 1.5x larger than the container so it looks good on a retina screen, which in this example would be 972 px square.
To discover the image container size, you will need to access your web browser’s Developer tools. Right click on the image and choose Inspect Element. On the sidebar it will show the pixel dimension of the container.
2. Resize the image
There are many free tools to help you resize your image. I recommend using Mac Preview or Microsoft Picture because they’re built in and easy to use.
After you’ve re-sized the image, export it and save it to the desktop as a jpeg at 100%.
3. Compress the image
Once you’ve saved the image at 100% quality in preview, you’ll notice that the file size is actually fairly large. This is because we don’t want Preview to compress the image, because we can’t see the results of moving the jpeg Compression slider. When we compress an image it actually removes data that’s not being used—compress it too much and the image starts to fall apart and it looks blotchy.
So instead, we want to compress the image smartly. In the past I used to recommend Adobe Photoshop’s Save For Web function, because as you lower the slider you get a preview. Recently, I discovered a software called JPEGmini that uses an algorithm to determine the best compression for your image. After running a couple thousand images through it, I’m impressed with how quick and easy it is.
- Image size: ~1 to 1.5x the HTML container the image is in
- Format: jpeg
- Colorspace: srgb
- Compression: compressed using JPEGmini after export.
Product photography tips
Did you know that 22% of returns happen because a product looks different in person than in photos? It’s clear that high-quality images can not only increase revenue but also save you money on returns. Let’s look at a few tips to keep in mind when taking product photos.
Use window light vs. lightbox
The number one question I get is, Should I get a lightbox? Window light is easy because it is a one-light setup, plus it is cheap and easy to do. When shooting with a light tent, you enter into a multi-light setup, which adds a level of complexity, usually requiring education beyond a simple article.
Multi-light setups introduce the following issues:
- You have to buy lots of extra gear, which can get expensive. The cost of the lightbox and lighting can add up, possibly costing more than hiring a professional.
- You’ll need to understand how to balance the exposure of the different lights and how to position them properly. Learning how f-stops and shutter speeds work in relation to lights can be challenging.
- Color balancing lights become a concern, as each light source has a different color, which is called color temperature. Extreme color can greatly affect your image.
- If you decide to use flash instead of continuous light, be prepared for a challenge beyond basic exposure. Flash exposure is determined by f-stop only, has limits on sync speed, and requires special equipment to trigger.
- The quality of light from a light tent is very even and often shadowless. Shadows are important because they create the shape of a product and provide a sense of place. It is my personal opinion that the image resulting from window light is more dynamic and interesting than a light tent.
If you still find yourself wanting to purchase or build a light tent, be prepared to learn how f-stops, shutter speeds, ISO, and color balance are set on the camera and with individual lights.
Limitations with this setup
DIY window light setup vs. professional studio.
One issue people have with this setup is that their photos don’t look perfect. For example, some people have struggled with reflective products using this method because it reflects the background behind the camera, like in the examples below.
Only a professional on an advanced set can achieve perfect results.
Like anything, there are limitations to DIY without getting serious with education and investing in professional equipment. Most people can shoot great photos in a single-light shooting environment, like with the natural window light strategies discussed above. However, to photograph difficult products like clear and reflective products perfectly requires a multi-light studio setup and a deep technical knowledge of photography.
Learn basic photo editing techniques
Once you’ve got the hang of taking amazing product photography, it makes sense to learn photo editing to polish up your images. It’ll save you money because you won’t have to pay for a service or professional editor. And it gives you complete control over the look and style of your final image.
A good place to start would be Adobe Photoshop Tutorials. It has an emphasis on using Adobe products, but the lessons are easy to understand and you can apply them beyond using Adobe Photoshop.
After you learn the basics, choose a photo editing software for retouching your photos. This will help you prepare them for publishing on your website. You can also use a tool like Taler to make ads and social media content with your product photos. It offers tons of filters, overlays, and other editing features to create branded images for your marketing campaigns.
Shoot multiple angles
The point of shooting multiple angles is that it’s a change for shoppers to see products from different perspectives. Some shoppers may prefer close-up shots. Others may want to see items straight on. Everyone can envision themselves using your product in different ways, which can lead to more sales.
Some camera angles to try are:
- Eye level, which shows your product as you’d see it straight on
- High angle, which shows your product as if you’re looking down as it
- Low angle, which shows your product as if you’re looking up at it
- Bird’s eye, which shows your product as if you’re standing above it
Make sure to keep your camera and tripod in the same position during your shoot. Rotate the product if you want to change angles. If you rotate the product only, your final shots will have the same frame effect. This ensures consistency and reduces image editing after your photoshoot.
Try other types of product photography
You may want to try different types of product shots besides on the white background. There are many options available to you once you’re comfortable behind the camera. Let’s look at a few.
Lifestyle. Lifestyle shots help tell the story behind your product. They work for website content, but you can also use them for social media, blog posts, emails, and other channels to attract new customers.
This gives shoppers context for where and how people actually use its products. If you sell hiking boots, you can show a scene of them on someone's feet out on a beautiful hike. If you’re selling clothing, you might show your apparel on someone walking around town or at a classy event, depending on what you sell.
Detailed. Detailed images give shoppers a closer look at specific product features. Leather retailer hardgraft uses detailed shots to show zippers, handles, and other unique features of its goods on its product pages.
Group. These shots show products grouped together. You’ll want to use this style when offering kits. It’s a common tactic brands like Beardbrand use to showcase the variety of products offered in their bundles.
If you’ve reached your limitations, you may want to consider hiring a professional photographer instead. The average cost of getting a professional white background photo is around $30–$40 per photo, and there are many options online. This could be a worthwhile investment, as better photos do sell more products online. Start by running a Google search for local product photography services.
Write good product descriptions
Lastly, make sure to write good product descriptions. Product photos and descriptions work together to help customers understand your products. They also help influence purchasing decisions to increase sales.
Your goal is to give as much information as possible so people are compelled to buy. New entrepreneurs often overlook product descriptions. But they are the backbone of a high-converting products page—along with beautiful photos, of course.
Learn more about product descriptions by reading 9 Ways to Write Product Descriptions that Inform and Persuade Your Customers.
Using your product photos
The best ecommerce sites have one thing in common: beautiful product photos. By following this DIY product photography tutorial, you too can produce amazing images for your website. As you get more comfortable behind the camera, you can branch out into different types of photography. You can get as creative as you want!
The best part? You’ll have full control over how you build your brand and showcase your products online. Done well, you’ll increase sales and conversions on your website and grow a successful online business.