6 Tips To Help You Step Up Your Product Photography
There are a lot of things that I wish I knew when I first started my business (hello, taxes are confusing and heck and the work/ life balance still sometimes eludes me) but like with a lot of things in life I dove into Honey and the Hive head first and learned along the way. I've been doing this for just about five years now (wow that seems crazy to say) and I've learned a lot throughout the process, made a lot of mistakes, and found rhythms and processes that made sense. One thing that I really, really wish that I had nailed down sooner was product photography - whether it be for my actual website, or advertising through platforms like my newsletter and Instagram, or for press opportunities - consistent, quality product photography is almost as important, if not as important as having consistency within your product line it's self. When we are selling items in the digital realm we lack the ability for a customer to be able to see them in person, touch them, and examine them, so we rely on our photographs to fill in the blanks and let folks know exactly what it is that you have to offer.
I know that a lot of us hate the phrase "having a branded look" but it's honestly quite important and product photography is a huge tool to get there. I've been doing my own product photography for the bulk of my career (though I have hired it out in the past too) and while I can't stress enough that I'm not a professional photographer, nor do I know it all, I have learned a lot about creating beautiful images that tell the story of my brand and help me to promote my work online. I'm going to share some tips and tricks that I hope help you to create beautiful product images to show the world all of the awesome things that you're making. So, here we go!
If you can, use an actual camera.
Smart phone cameras are now able to give us quality images like never before, however there is still a lot of value in shooting with an actual camera. For a long time my DSLR intimidated me and I would opt to use my phone camera just because it was easier (and it still gave me some great images, don't get me wrong) but nothing compares to the quality of the photos that I'm able to take with my DSLR. I will tell you loud and clear, I am very much a beginner in the realm of photography. I do shoot on manual mode, but I'm still learning the mechanics of my camera more and more every time I shoot. However, the quality of the photograph I am able to get from my camera far surpasses the quality of the photograph I am able to get from my phone every single time. Being able to manipulate the settings and aperture allow you to take photos that are so much more visually interesting. If it is available to you, or an investment that you're in a position to make, I cannot recommend enough shooting with a DSLR. There are so many free resources out there (search Youtube or do a quick Google search for articles written by other photographers) to teach you the exposure triangle and other ways that you can use your camera to manipulate lighting situations, and create beautiful photographs. (For reference, I shoot with a Canon Rebel T5 and am still using the stock lens. When shooting with my phone I had an iPhone X so I *know* how cool the camera on it is too)
Lighting, lighting, lighting.
No matter how much or how little experience you have with photography you're bound to have noticed that lighting is the cornerstone of a great image. Sure, editing software is great and you *can* brighten up an image that was taken in a lighting situation that wasn't ideal, but nothing compares to good natural lighting in the first place. When I take photos I do as much as I can in-camera so that I really don't have much that needs to be done in the realm of editing once the photos have been taken. (I'll talk more about editing later!) While I'm not here to teach you the mechanics of your camera, I am here to tell you that shooting in natural light will make all of the difference in your product photography. I'm blessed with a beautiful bay window in our living room and take the majority of my product photos there. However, before we moved to this house (and my husband will totally attest to this and tell you all the hilarious stories) I would literally take my products, a poster board, and any accessories outside with me and take my photos on our porch to get good lighting. Now-a-days I have a nice set of photography lamps so I don't have to be out in snow boots and subzero Michigan temperatures just to get a good photo for the 'gram, but even still I seldom use the lamps and almost solely rely on good ol' (free) sunlight. A good tip in scheduling your product photography is to stop trying to do it when it works best for you, and do it when it works best for the photos. Think of times of day that the lighting situation in your home is at it's best (mid-morning, afternoon, and golden hour - the time right before the sun starts to set are great times to get good light!) and take your photos then. I made the mistake for a few years of forcing it and taking photos when I could instead of making it a priority to schedule them at an opportune time and just dealt with the not-so-awesome outcomes I'd get. Another option is to invest in a light box (or make your own!) I don't personally use one so I can't talk much on experience but I do know a lot of folks that use a light box for their product photography and swear by them.
Be Thoughtful With Your Accessories
It's important when taking photos of your products that you create images that are visually interesting, and adding in accessories that compliment your product is a great way to do this! Adding in plants, stationery accessories, frames, etc is a great way to create a photo that is really beautiful and unique and will get your customer's attention. A few things to keep in mind when selecting accessories to use in your product photography:
Create a consistent color story.
Choose accessories that either match, or compliment the colors in your product. Don't overwhelm your images with things that are all different colors with no rhyme or reason, it will weaken the impact that your photo makes.
Less is more.
Just as too many colors can weaken your image, too many objects can have the same effect. There was a time when I'd take a photo of a print sitting next to my cup of coffee, with a candle burning, my paint tray and brushes out, a plant in the lower corner, some cute craft scissors, yarn, a banana, a dog riding a bicycle (okay, maybe not those last two, but you get the point) and it was just really visually overwhelming and didn't make a bit of sense. Your photos don't have to be bare bones minimal to be effective, but do be strategic with the accessories that you include. Everything in your photo should be working together to bring your eye to your product - if you find something isn't, take it out! I absolutely stage some of my product photos even when they're taken in my own house. I'll move around plants, add a stack of books where there wasn't one, remove things that are normally there, add things in from different rooms, etc.
Avoid logos, and other "recognizable" accessories
When selecting your accessories it's important to avoid using items that have logos plastered all over them or that are very recognizable (i.e.: sharpies, bic pens, etc) These types of objects can be really distracting in your photos and take away from the focus … your product! Instead opt for items that feel more "anonymous" like a cute pink marker, or a little bowl of paper clips if you're shooting stationery. You want to pick items that build your product up, not take away from it.
Composition is key!
Incase you've missed it the first few times I mentioned it, I am by no means a professional photographer. However, I have a great eye for composition - so even though I am still learning the mechanics of my camera, I can almost cheat a little bit because my compositions are on point. Play with different ways to display your product in a combination of flat lays and organic settings (i.e.: a print is going to be hung on a wall, displayed on a shelf or side table, more than likely framed) Make sure that no matter the setting or arrangement that your product is always the star of the show. You can and should be manipulating your accessories to bring more focus and interest to your product - play with the layout until you get it how you want it.
Create Depth In Your Image
A really popular style of product photography is the flat lay. While flat lay photos are a great way to showcase your product they can sometimes be really visually boring. When shooting a flat lay I encourage you to create depth by literally raising your product above the accessories in your image. One way that I do this for example is when shooting cards, I will find a small, flat item that I can stick underneath my card so that it is raised above the envelope creating depth and visual interest in the photo. This also helps to pull your product closer to the viewer's eye making it more prominent in the photograph. Tips to create depth in non-flat lay scenarios include pulling your product to the front of a group of objects on a table for example. You can also create depth in your photo by manipulating the aperture settings on your camera.
Tell a story
Let's think about photographing a card for a second. You could take a nicely styled photo of your card alongside the envelope that it comes with and call it a day, right? It's a great quality photo and works perfectly for a website listing (and I encourage you to take photos like this of your products for this very reason!) But, what if we took it a step further? Maybe put yourself in the mindset that you're going to send a card to your best friend who has moved away. What does that look like? Did you grab a cup of tea and your favorite pen and sit down at your desk? Maybe you've got your stamps out and you're listening a song that you and your friend loved thinking of all the things that make your friendship so special? Now, take those feelings and turn it into a beautiful photograph. When people are scrolling Instagram or shopping online they want to see how these products that you've worked so hard and put your heart into fit into their lives and we have been given this incredible opportunity to show them through our photos. I encourage you to take a mix of photos that showcase your product prominently and that also show people how it fits into their lives too. A website listing should have multiple photographs so that your customer can see your product from different viewpoints, in different environments, and fall in love with it just like you have.
Last, but definitely not least, let's talk about editing. As I mentioned earlier in this post I try to perfect every detail that I possibly can in-camera so that when it comes time to edit photos there isn't much left to be done. To be completely honest with you, my photos hardly ever even make it into Photoshop (I do however use the app A Color Story to make a few minor adjustments to my photos when they need it and give them a little extra umph if you will). When you're editing your photos I cannot stress how important it is to not stray too far from the original photo (that's why keeping things like lighting in mind from the start is so important!) As you layer on different presets or filters, dramatically alter the coloring of an image, or heavily manipulate the brightness of an image it's not only going to change the look of the photograph in it's entirety (and I know that those super pink photos are just so cute right now) but it's also going to do one thing that you absolutely want to avoid - it changes the way your product looks. Imagine being a customer and falling in love with something you've seen online only to receive it and have the colors look completely different in person … chances are you're going to be pretty bummed, huh? Above all else we want to use product photography as a tool to show our customers what our product is, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how it fits into their lives so as with most of the things I've mentioned in this post, when you're editing your photos less is more (no matter what the trend at the moment may be).
Another thing to keep in mind when editing is consistency. You really do what your images to have a similar look to them - just as you want someone to look at your product and be like "well that's definitely Kelsey's work!" you also want them to look at your photo and think the same thing. Avoid using too many different presets or filters on your photos and try to find an editing style can tie your photos together - it just strengthens your brand's appearance so much when you can do this. When I'm editing my photos I will actually save all of the steps into a custom filter that I can then run the rest of the photos in that batch through to ensure that they all look at feel consistent.
I really hope that some of these tips help you to step up your game when it comes to product photography! If this post has helped you please let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!