How to Take Great Product Photos for Your Online Store

When you're selling items on shopping sites such as eBay and Etsy, presentation and marketing are just as important as producing a high-quality product. Customers are bombarded with images of goods of all shapes and sizes. Since they can’t try things on or test them out, it's important for you to provide a clear, accurate, and appealing representation. Even if the cashmere scarf you knitted is beautiful in person, no one will want it if it appears out of focus, looks poorly lit, or sits wrapped around your unshaven friend’s neck.

Luckily, you don't need to hire a photographer or use a professional studio to take great product shots. Simply follow these steps to cast your product in the best light and please the eye of would-be buyers.

Choose Your Equipment

A DSLR, such as this Nikon, offers more controls than a compact point-and-shoot does, but you can be creative with any camera.
A DSLR, such as this Nikon, offers more controls than a compact point-and-shoot does, but you can be creative with any camera.
When you're on a shoestring budget, the best camera for product photography is the one you have. The cameras on modern smartphones are of extremely high quality--the Droid Razr and iPhone 4S, for instance, each pack an 8-megapixel camera. You can find many options for camera accessories, too, such as external lenses and tripods for smartphones--especially for iPhones. (For details, check out our list of must-have iPhone camera accessories.)

If you can afford new equipment, an interchangeable-lens camera or a digital single-lens reflex camera is the best choice for high-quality shooting and easy manual focusing. Both camera types usually come with a kit lens designed for zoom versatility; for the best results, however, a dedicated macro lens or wide-aperture portrait lens might be worth the extra cash. (See the “Choose Your Lens” section on the next page for more information.)

Joby's flexible Gorillapod comes in various sizes.
Joby's flexible Gorillapod comes in various sizes.
Between those two extremes are your standard point-and-shoot cameras, which are much more affordable than the average DSLR or interchangeable-lens model. Most basic snapshot cameras cost around $200, but at that price they usually don’t offer significantly better quality or controls than a high-end smartphone camera. For about $300 to $500, you can buy a higher-end point-and-shoot camera with a wider aperture, manual controls for focusing, and a zoom range that provides ideal focal lengths for both wide-angle (24mm) and macro photography (50mm and up).

No matter what kind of camera you use, a tripod is essential if you lack steady hands and want a consistent angle on the product while you change the lighting. Miniature tripods, such as the bendy Gorillapod, are handy and affordable. At the very least, find a solid, flat surface to rest your camera on while snapping each shot.

Understand Your Camera

Macro mode helps you show off details up close.
Some external lenses can make your photos look as if you captured them with a more expensive camera, but other lenses are suitable only for novelty effects. For product photography, stick to the macro lens attachments. If you encounter any distortion, blurriness, or trouble focusing, ditch the attachment and stay with your original lens.

You have no need to shoot in full-manual mode for basic product photography, but you should understand how to focus your camera manually and turn off its automatic flash. Check out PCWorld’s guide to camera basics for guidance.

If you are using a smartphone, try an app that lets you manually focus and edit easily. The Camera+ app for iOS and the Camera 360 app for Android, for instance, let you take and edit your photos right on your phone.

The Olloclip provides fish-eye, wide-angle, and macro lenses for the iPhone 4.
The Olloclip provides fish-eye, wide-angle, and macro lenses for the iPhone 4.
Be careful to avoid using distracting effects. A tilt-shift, blurring effect can make your product stand out in the frame, but a retro or comic book effect won't provide an accurate representation of your product. If you're using the default iOS camera app on the iPhone, make sure that HDR is off.

Once you have turned off the flash, choose a focus mode that allows you to select a single point in the frame--called “Single-Point” on Nikon cameras and “Manual AF Point” on Canon cameras. This mode is extremely common in DSLRs, and it's available in many higher-end point-and-shoots as well. In this mode, the camera automatically focuses on a point in the frame that you've chosen; an empty square marks this exposure and focusing point in the viewfinder or on the live-view screen. On iOS and Android phones, you can simply touch the on-screen objects to adjust focus and exposure automatically.

Choose Your Lens: Wide vs. Standard

With a point-and-shoot, extend your lens as far as it can go optically for the basic shot of a stand-alone product. Be careful not to zoom in digitally, as that will do nothing but compromise the quality of your photo. Many point-and-shoots have a “macro” mode in-camera that can be great for capturing details and shrinking the depth of field so that your product stands out in the frame.

If you have a DSLR or a camera with an interchangeable-lens, you may have different lenses to choose from. The classic approach to product photography is to use a longer lens (50mm or over) to avoid any distortion of the product’s appearance, but online entrepreneurs are becoming more creative. Long lenses are ideal for product photography because they can provide a thinner plane of focus and cause very little distortion--perfect when you're taking the basic shot of a product.

When taking secondary photos of your product, include objects that show your product in context and draw the viewer's eye to it.
But you'll also want to take secondary photos showing the product in a setting that suggests how it can be used. For these shots, a wide-angle lens can provide context since it allows more room for background objects and scenes. Be careful not to go too wide, though: Below about 24mm, you start to enter fish-eye territory.

If you have some cash to spare, you may want to splurge on a macro lens for your DSLR or interchangeable-lens camera. They’re top-notch for getting in extremely close to show the intricate details of your handiwork.

Choose Your Background: Natural vs. Studio

I took the top photo using the Auto-Macro shooting mode (the flower icon) on a Nikon D90 with dynamic-area auto focus and the automatic flash on. I took the bottom photo with single-point area autofocus and the flash off, exposing for the mug.
Aim to show your product in an environment in which it would be used, or on its own against a simple, blank backdrop. For my examples, I wanted to show off my cousin Lexie Fisher’s handmade dinosaur mugs.

Natural Lighting

For a naturally lit photo, push a table up against a window on a cloudy day, or cover the direct sunlight with sheer curtains. You want the light coming through the window to create a bright, natural, blank background. The curtain will create diffused light that won't cast harsh shadows or cause glare. Place your product on a surface with an interesting texture, such as natural wood for a rustic, handmade item.

One popular technique used in tech-product photography is to capture the product as well as a bit of its reflection in the surface it’s sitting on. This is an easy trick to pull off: Putting the product on any dull, reflective surface, such as a dark, glossy piece of paper, will work for this effect.

Turn off all the light fixtures in the room to prevent color contamination from lights, which normally cast a different color temperature than daylight does. Then, set up some mirrors and a large, white surface to shine the window light back onto your product. You could spend hundreds of dollars on professional reflectors; for most purposes, however, a white posterboard and some makeup mirrors are perfect. Light your product so that it appears slightly darker than the light coming through the window. Then, set the exposure for a medium-to-dark spot on the product, and shoot away.

For secondary photos, use a wider lens (between 24mm and 50mm) and pair your product with items that match the aesthetic you're trying to convey. For example, to shoot a handmade mug for sale, I placed a shiny red teapot out of focus in the background, and a crossword puzzle in the foreground. I poured hot water in the mug to create steam, and I made sure that the angles of my props led the viewer's eye toward the product.

Studio Lighting

Here's the lighting setup I used to take the previous shot of the mugs alone. I simply used my dining table, San Francisco's fog (the perfect light diffuser), makeup mirrors, and a three-sided posterboard.
To create a studio situation, you can make a backdrop out of any large, thick piece of paper and some duct tape. Place the paper so that it makes a soft angle, to avoid showing the hard edges of the paper in your shot. To create dynamic lighting, turn off all unwanted lights and black out your windows. Use two lamps with the same type of bulb, set at alternating angles. (I used two 20-watt fluorescent bulbs from my desk lamps.) You can use any bulbs available, just as long as they both give off the same color so that your camera can automatically adjust and portray your product in its true color. Therefore, don't have more than one type of bulbs, such as incandescent, fluorescent, or LED, in one shot.

To prevent glare and harsh shadows, you can diffuse the lights by placing a piece of 8.5-by-11-inch printer paper between the bulb and the product. Don't attach the paper directly to the bulb, which poses a fire hazard. Instead, ask an assistant to hold it, or prop it up with clamps between the bulb and your product. You can also “bounce” the light to make it appear softer: Simply direct the light toward a large, white, reflective surface, such as the posterboard I used in the natural-light example, and angle the reflection toward your product.

For my DIY studio setup, I attached a large piece of construction-grade paper (used to cover floors during painting) from the top of the back of a chair to the bottom of the seat, and rested a letter-size sheet of paper on that. I used lamps with 20-watt fluorescent bulbs, blocking the harsh light with paper. This is a potential fire hazard if you leave it unattended. You can buy heat-resistant light diffusers and bulbs; but for a few shots here and there, this setup will work.
A long lens is best for studio situations because it will keep the shot tight enough to exclude the edges of the backdrop. If you have a large backdrop, you can include contextual objects for secondary photos.

Go Easy on the Editing

Any basic photo-editing software, such as the free Windows Live Photo Gallery or the $99 Photoshop Elements, can help you level out and color-correct your photos manually. Though it's fine to run your product images through Photoshop, keep your editing simple. Be careful with Auto-Fix, HDR, and retro filters that might manipulate the color of your product or darken the clean white background that you rearranged your furniture to create. And resist the temptation to cut and paste your product image into a celebrity's hands.

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