Like so many of you, we shop on-line. Whether we need new toner for our laser printer or a BBQ smoker for the home backyard, shopping online is how we find what we want to buy.
Unfortunately, so many on-line stores make it very difficult to make a purchasing decision. We’ll discuss other reasons in future posts, but for now let’s focus on my primary disappointment: poor product photographs.
One of the advantages to shopping off-line is the ability to see a product up close and personal. Online shopping strips us of the tactile survey of a product, but there’s no reason we cannot get a complete sense of the product through photos.
For small, emerging e-commerce stores, there are a variety of ways to inexpensively increase sales through better product photographs.
Manufacturers, suppliers and distributors are gradually learning that providing great product photos to their retailers is a low-cost way of helping sell more products. Not enough are realizing this, though, but it seems to be getting better. I consistently find large, multi-national companies that still do not realize the impact of supplying professional photographs.
For the manufacturer, the ability to control the representation of their products should be paramount.
For retailers, check with your manufacturer or distributor. Request the highest resolution photographs available so you have plenty to work with as you re-size and crop them for your use. You can always reduce the size of a photograph and retain the detail and quality, but you can’t increase the size of a photo and expect the same.
I’ve worked with great product photographers in the past. A skilled, experienced (and the key here is experienced) product photographer can take dirt and make it look delicious. They have the equipment, skill and artistic ability to do wonders for almost any product, from toothpicks to locomotives.
The downside is the cost. Professional photographers usually charge over $100/hour (some much more than that) to shoot your products. Depending on the product you’re selling, this might be well worth the investment; if you’re starting out in e-commerce and trying to maintain a manageable budget, it might not.
A nice euphemism for saying “do-it-yourself.” Yet, for many, doing your own photographs can be a great last resort.
The key to taking photographs of products is lighting. The more light you use, the better your photos will be as your camera can capture more detail. Increased lighting also allows you to do some creative things with field of depth or the way of keeping, for example, the front of the product in focus while allowing the focus to blur with distance.
There are kits available for setting up and photographing small products, such as jewelry, toys, electronics, etc. However, we’ve found these kits to be much more restrictive than helpful. The lights are usually low-wattage halogen lights and the “box” into which you place the items in order to diffuse or soften the lights is small. We don’t generally recommend these.
When we need to do product shots of handheld electronics, for example, we use a very simple, but effective set-up: a roll-up shade, three clamp-style lights, three fluorescent bulbs, and a tripod.
In our garage, we have a built-in workbench. From the cabinet above, I hung the roll-up shade – the type used on windows. You can buy fairly wide ones at a home improvement store. I would suggest you use as white a shade as you can get. White will blend out well in the background; you can even delete it in a photo-imaging program and replace with with your own color later. Any backdrop will reflect into shiny areas of your product, as well as tint the overall photo; white is a good neutral color. A light-medium gray can also work, but most beginners should stick with white. The shade, when pulled down, laid across the workbench and draped across the front. With enough slack in the shade, it created a very nice seamless backdrop. This means there is no line cutting through the background where the wall meets the floor or table.
You may have to play with various schemes, but the clamp lights should be set to illuminate your product from the front and the back. You can use more than three lights, but these give you a basic three-point lighting scheme. Point one light at your product, approximately 45 degrees above and about 30 degrees to either side of where you camera will be pointing. This is your key light. Take another lamp and place it at about camera level, 30 degrees on the opposite side of the camera and further back than the key or use a lower wattage bulb. This is your fill light and helps to fill in the areas the key light is missing.
The third light should be behind or above the product, preferably about 30 degrees behind the top of the product and about as far up as the key light is in front of the product. This back light will give a bit of a kicker to the product and help define its edges and depth.
I use the highest wattage daylight balanced fluorescent lights I can find at the store. I have been able to find the equivalent of a 150-watt incandescent, which is about 27 watts fluorescent. If you place them close enough to the product, you’ll get a good amount of naturally diffused light.
Always try to use a tripod. Even with this amount of light, you want your photos crystal clear.
To be sure, your photos won’t look anything like those of a professional photographer, but with some experimentation and patience, they can look quite acceptable. Don’t settle for small or missing photos for your products. Take the initiative and get all the photos you can.
If you take your own, take photos of every angle, every detail of the product. Use as many as you can in your on-line store to give people an idea, not only of the overall look of the product, but the details.
Here’s a hint that will make a big difference to some: if your product’s size, relative to other items, might be hard to determine from a photo of the product alone, include something common in the photo. If your product is portable, show it being held in someone’s hand.
You might consider including other objects as well, such as common furniture, to give your customer a much better idea of relative size.
And here’s yet another hint worth gold: use photos of people using your products. If you sell teddy bears, include a photo of a child holding your bear. This gives the buyer a sense of relative size and helps to create an emotional connection. Who can resist a smiling child hugging a furry animal?
If you see Web sites with good product photography, let us know. We’ll share your findings with others and together we might all learn a thing or two.