This comprehensive guide to product photography will help you to understand what product photography is, what you need to be a successful product photographer, and potential markets for your work. Photography is a creative art, just like painting and sculpting. The tools are different, but the outcome is the same; an image that can inspire, motivate and engage. Whether you enjoy taking pictures for yourself, or sharing your images with friends, or are interested in potentially selling your work, product photography might be a great creative outlet for you.
What is Product Photography?
Product photography is a type of commercial photography that involves taking pictures of products for commercial use. The product may be an item or a food or prepared dish. Generally, though, a product in product photography is small enough to sit atop a table.
Product photography is intended to portray an object in an attractive or interesting manner. Most commonly, the image may be used to sell the product. The resulting image may be used in a catalog, brochure or in a website. Anytime you open up an advertisement, such as a weekly ad from your local grocer, or visit a website where items are for sale; you will see examples of product photography.
How Does Product Photography Differ From Regular Photography?
The ultimate goal in product photography is to capture a realistic image of the item. This enables potential buyers to be able to get an idea of what the product is like. This is important since the buyer will not have an opportunity to examine the item in person. They cannot touch or feel the item, so it’s the job of the product photographer to convey the look and feel of the item through the camera lens. To sum it up, the goal of product photography is attractiveness and realism.
In traditional photography, the photographer has more creative leeway. The subject doesn’t necessarily have to be portrayed realistically or even attractively. The goals of regular photography can be many; artistic expression, emotional response, realism, or maybe something else. In addition, in regular photography the subject could be anything; people, a landscape, property, animals, or a product.
Who Does Product Photography?
There are both amateur and professional product photographers. Theoretically, anyone can be a product photographer. With the advent of e-commerce and the proliferation of small business websites, more people are getting into product photography than ever before. They need to capture good images of products that they want to sell online, and they often attempt to take these product images themselves.
There are also professional product photographers. These are trained photographers who take product photos for profit. Typically, professional product photographers work on a freelance basis. They work for hire and take images for companies only when needed.
There are also professional food product photographers. These individuals may be paid by a food website company to prepare the recipe that the company provides, and then to photograph the results. Many of the most popular food and cooking websites pay freelance professional food product photographers to do this kind of work for them.
The Importance of Product Images in E-commerce
E-commerce is a multi-billion dollar industry that relies heavily on product photography. Whether a company is selling handmade wind chimes or a thousand dollar wristwatches, they all rely on great product images to sell their goods on the e-commerce platform.
Without high-quality product images, e-commerce sites wouldn’t be able to be very successful. Consumers rely on those product images to get a better grasp of what they are purchasing. Product images play an important role in e-commerce and are often the deciding factor in whether a consumer follows through with the purchase.
Product images can also help sell an item by the way it is portrayed in the image. For instance, if a product is just sitting on a table, it may not look very exciting. But if that same product is photographed while it is being used, the image suddenly becomes dynamic.
Think about a gas grill. The image would be pretty straightforward; a metal grill with four legs, some knobs, and a domed lid. Consumers might buy that gas grill since they already know what it does. But if a product photographer changes things a little, the image can be much more effective as a sales tool.
Picture the gas grill with the lid up. Now, the image includes a big fat juicy steak, already seared on one side, with obvious grill marks. Next to sizzling steak, which as smoke rising above it, are a couple of shish-kebabs. Onions, peppers, and mushrooms are skewered on the shish-kebabs, and there’s a sheen coming off them as if they are coated with a juicy glaze.
Which image is more likely to motivate the consumer to buy? The one with the steak, of course! Now you can plainly see the important role that product images play in e-commerce.
Types of Product Photography
As touched on earlier, there are lots of different types of product photography. The various kinds allow those who are interested in product photography to find a niche where they are taking product photos of things that are personally interesting or inspiring.
The most common kind of product photography is individual shots, where a single item is the focal point of the image. This kind of shot allows the product photographer to emphasize the features of a single product.
Groups shots in product photography are used when there are multiple products in a line of products, such as a skin care line of products. Group shots are also used when there is a relationship between the items, such as in a promotion where a consumer gets one product if they buy something else. Finally, group shots are utilized in BOGO promotions, where the consumer gets two for one on a product.
Detail shots are exactly what the name conveys. These are close up, detailed shots of one feature of the product. An example would be a jewelry box, where there is a detail shot of the lock and key mechanism on the jewelry box. Detail shots are used to emphasize outstanding features on a product that might not be available on a competitor’s product.
360 shots play a special role in e-commerce. These shots, which allow a consumer to see the entire product from all sides, are the next best thing to holding and touching the product in person. 360 shots require the product photographer to take multiple pictures, and then to weave them seamlessly into one continuous image.
Lifestyle product shots are those in which the product is shown as it looks when it is being used. The gas grill with a sizzling steak on it is an example of a lifestyle shot. A woman wearing a t-shirt product as she stands on a yacht, the wind blowing her hair, is a lifestyle shot. Lifestyle shots help consumers imagine themselves using the product, and are a powerful e-commerce tool.
Studio shots are very staged and sparse. Shadows are often heavily used in studio shots, and they are often a lot more artistic looking than standard product images.
Product Photography Necessities
What equipment do you need for product photography? In theory, all you need for product photography is a camera. In practice, the results will be less than satisfactory unless you have other equipment. As with any endeavor, having the right tools of the trade makes all the difference in the world. In the end, the right tools will save you time, energy, and give you markedly better results.
Product Photography Checklist
Taking photo images can be a very fulfilling hobby or profession. The results can be a powerful tool for selling online and in e-commerce. There’s no reason not to do everything in your power to ensure you get stunning images with every picture you take. Having said that, here is a product photography checklist to get you started in the exciting world of product photography:
- Product Photography Camera – You’ll need a quality camera to take the best product shots. Some people try to get by with their camera or tablet camera to take product shots. However, devices like that will never be able to mimic the intensity and dramatic effects that are achievable with a true professional grade camera. For product photography, you’ll want to use a DSLR camera with macro capability for close-ups, as well as several different lenses. If you’re wondering what is the best lens for product photography, there is no simple answer. You’ll need to have many different lenses at your disposal to suit the surroundings and the situation. At a minimum, you’ll need a zoom lens and a macro lens. You may also want to have a wide angle lens, as this can give you an interesting perspective with product photography. Your camera sales representative will be able to assist you with your lens purchase decisions.
- Tripod – A tripod is an absolute necessity for product photography. The tripod enables the photographer to get steady images, arrange the subject without moving the camera, and to take special angle shots that would be impossible to manage by hand. Consider getting a sidearm attachment for your tripod. This will give you more options for angles.
- Reflectors – Reflectors help to direct – or misdirect – light on or around the subject. You can purchase commercial reflectors or fashion DIY reflectors out of household materials such as aluminum foil and mirrors. Reflectors are also very useful when natural light is at a minimum. You may also want to invest in colored reflectors, which can illuminate the product in a variety of subtle colors without the use of a filter.
- Light – Light is the secret of some of the best product shots. For quality shots, both natural and artificial light can be utilized to illuminate the subject and capture all its appealing features. Commercial product photography lighting is especially helpful. These lamps feature full-spectrum bulbs, 360-degree articulating heads, and adjustable height mechanisms. As you progress in your product photography endeavors, you can experiment with lighting from different angles to see the dramatic difference the light can make.
- Backgrounds – Backgrounds can add a surprising level of texture and nuance to product photographs. Backgrounds can be made of almost anything; rolling velvet fabric, a collection of props such as river stones, a piece of weathered driftwood, etc. You can purchase vinyl sheets with pre-printed backgrounds in almost any pattern or style. If you invest in a portable photo studio, you’ll automatically have a background that will block out any part of the room you don’t want to appear in the shot. Even if you’re taking single shots that are to be published with a transparent background, it can be helpful to photograph against a green screen, so the image can be easily outlined in the software editing stage.
- Accessories – Light can also be manipulated with the use of unusual accessories such as umbrellas, scarves and the like, so it’s always helpful to keep an assortment of these things on hand during a product shoot.
- Photo Editing Software – Once you have finished your product shoot, you’ll want to download the images into a photo editing software. Photo editing software will allow you to format and manipulate the images so they conform to your needs and your stylistic preferences. Commonly used photo editing software includes Adobe Photoshop and its extension, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Obviously, you’ll also need a computer on which to download your images and editing software. There’s little to no difference between Mac and Windows computers as far as the results you’ll get from using photo editing software, so it’s not necessary to invest in a separate computer for your product photography.
Getting Paid for Product Photography Services
What better way to be validated with your skills as a product photographer than to be paid for your product photography services? There are a number of ways to earn money as a product photographer, either on a freelance basis or as a permanent salaried position.
Markets for Product Photography
E-commerce Photography Services
Large e-commerce companies with websites are always looking for talented product photographers. To find these kinds of jobs, search on job boards with the keyword “product photographer.” The e-commerce photography definition is simply photographs of objects that are intended to be sold online. Larger companies that hire product photographers generally do so on a salaried position basis.
Many brick and mortar companies now have a desire to sell their goods on auction sites like eBay in addition to their regular street store. Often, these smaller business owners don’t have the resources or knowledge of how to take quality product images of their inventory in a way that will get them sold online. You can find local companies like these simply by inquiring in person in your town, or by placing an ad in your local market offering to help eBay retailers with their product imaging needs.
Stock Image Websites
Stock imagery has been a lucrative and thriving business long before the arrival of the internet. Stock image websites are always in need of product images ranging from the mundane to the unusual. On a stock image website where you offer your product images for download, you could sell a picture of a pencil sharpener just as easily as you could sell a picture of a precious piece of jewelry.
Food and Recipe Sites
If I specialize in food photography, you’ll have no shortage of markets for your product images. Everyone from grocery store chains to personal foodie bloggers, well-known food and recipe media outlets and national food and wine magazines use graphics and succulent food product images to convey their message.
National Print Magazines
National print magazines also rely on quality product photographers to supply them with a steady stream of images. These product images may be used to better communicate a written article, or they may be the subject themselves, as in the case of a curated product page. Getting a job as a product photographer in a national print magazine is more difficult than other markets, but it is possible for a talented product photographer.
How to Charge for Product Photography
Depending on where you sell your product photography, you’ll be able to charge differently. Certain markets, like national print magazines and famous food and recipe media outlets, will pay more for product photography. The pay may be in the neighborhood of $500 or more per image.
Smaller, more accessible markets, such as stock image website, pay considerably less, in the range of $25 per image.
Local stores who need product images may pay by the hour instead of by the image, and these rates are best negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
There is generally a lot of room for negotiation with product photography pricing. Unless the pay is published online, you can expect to haggle a bit with your editor. When just starting out, it’s always better to settle for a lower number so you can build your portfolio. Once you become more established, you can charge – and will get – more.
Product Photography Ideas: Styles and Techniques
There are many different photography styles and techniques you can use to enhance the look of the products. Even if the product shoot is very straightforward, you can still get creative without taking away from your main subject – the product. This product photography style guide will give you some ideas for how to inject your personality into every frame.
Product Photography With Models
Models can make a fun addition to your product image shots. You don’t have to include the whole model. You can include just the hands or the hair, or the eyes. It all depends on the product you’re photographing and the model’s relevance to the product.
Models needn’t be human, either. Animal models make cute additions to product shots, especially when the product is animal-related, such as a pet collar, a dog house or a cat scratching post. Beware, though, that animals take direction poorly. By the time you set up the shot and return to the camera to shoot, your animal model may have wandered off in search of more exciting activities!
Product Photography With Juxtaposition
One interesting technique to use with product photography is the concept of juxtaposition. This is where two or more elements that don’t go together appear in the same image. For instance, you could take a product shot of an elegant wristwatch, using a background of a rainforest. The two don’t go together, it instills a sense of wonder and interest in the viewer.
Shooting From Above
For food product shots, a must-have technique to learn is shooting from above. This technique reduces or eliminates all shadows, and angles, allowing you to set the focus on the subject exclusively. To achieve this technique, you can equip your tripod with a sidearm, which enables your camera to hover over the subject. You may need to use a ladder to view the shot first, and a remote control to snap it once you have everything arranged the way you want.
In conclusion, product photography is an exciting and interesting hobby or profession. It plays a significant role in e-commerce, as well as traditional roles in print media. Whatever the future holds, there will always be a need for quality product photography.
Once you have made the decision to pursue becoming a product photographer, the next important step is to make the investment in professional photography equipment. You’ll be very glad you did once you start taking product photographs in earnest.
The markets for product photography will ensure a steady stream of income, should you wish to turn professional. Once you have mastered professional photography skills, you’ll find even more outlets for your work as time goes by.