Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Product Photography, Part 3: 5 Steps to Staging & Taking Photos

Taking photos of products available for wholesale or retail sale is a specialized field, referred to as "industrial photography" (even if your product is not "industrial" in nature) - as opposed to landscapes still lifes, or portraits. That's because it takes a specific skill to photograph an inanimate object and make it look appealing, even exciting. And that's exactly what you want to do - bring out all the best qualities in what you have to sell. You don't want to portray anything false or misleading to your customers, but you do want to lure and seduce them to pull out their credit cards because they simply MUST have this fabulous looking item.

So, what's the best way to stage and photograph your items for sale? Well, there's obviously some variation based on (a) the product line you carry, and (b) your selling venues. But the basic rules apply across the board.

Stage for a white background, free of distractions, props, or textures. If you have small items, I recommend a lightbox - particularly for watches, jewelry, or other metal/glass items that reflect their surroundings easily. If you have medium- to large-sized products, a table or floor space with a white matte drop cloth behind it is ideal. If you have the capability of removing the photo's background in PhotoShop (known as "extraction"), that's great - but you'll still want to make the process as quick and easy as possible by staging properly.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions to the "white space" background. For example, some pieces of crystal or glass itesm show up more clearly when photographed over a black background. (In that case, make sure you have a lint-free surface that doesn't pick up lots of dust particles!) I've also seen some very nice photography that uses textured backgrounds (i.e., a slab of marble) or natural elements (i.e., flowers or leaves) to add color and interest to the images. In some rare cases, this can be very effective. However, generally speaking, studies overwhelmingly show that buyers prefer to see JUST the product in an image, with a white or transparent background. This is why nearly every professional eCommerce website displays their product photos this way, with almost no exceptions.

Take a quick study of the above photos. All 3 of these images were pulled from the first few pages of an eBay search of live auction listings for "women's black dress". All 3 feature nearly identical styling and are listing within the same price range.

Image 1 shows the dress spread out on the floor, which makes it look large and flat, not at all appealing. The background texture is distracting, and if you look at the enlarged photo, there is visible debris on the floor, including a (dirty?) white sock in the top right corner. Not very appealing!!

Image 2 is better, showing the dress upright on a hanger with a nearly neutral background, free of distractions. However, the scrawny wire hanger subtly conveys "cheap" and the flatness of the dress does nothing for its visual appeal.

Image 3 is perfect, and looks straight out of a high-end catalog or eCommerce site. Think you can't get your images to look this good? Think again! With a bit of practice using the techniques discussed today and that I'll discuss next week, you can absolutely get your product images looking much more like example #3 than #1.

Now here's the big question: Ask yourself what you would be willing to pay for dress #1? How about dress #2, and finally dress #3? I don't know about you, but I would pay about 3 times more money for dress #3 than the other two, even without knowing the brand name or the materials! And so would most buyers.

You've heard that the secret to real estate purchasing is "location, location, location"? When it comes to product photography, remember this secret: lighting, lighting, lighting! As I said last week, you really can't have too much lighting. Invest in several small, affordable clip-on lamps that can be easily placed all around your object, and full-spectrum ("natural"/"daylight") light bulbs. You may also want to experiment with diffusers or light tents to remove glares, especially if your product has highly reflective surfaces. View the object from several angles to make sure you don't have any stark shadows.

Now that your background is blocked and your lighting is adjusted, set the white balance on your camera! This is an amazingly important step that most people don't know about - after all, in everyday photo snapshots of your friends, family, and that music concert you went to last weekend, "white balance" is not something you need to know about. But when it comes to product photography, it can make a significant difference in the quality of your image's clarity and color.

Most digital cameras have a white balance feature, and it's very easy to set, requiring just a few steps and 15 seconds to get right before you start snapping pics. Read your camera's manual for specifics on how to do this simple but critical step.

Check your distance requirements. All cameras have an ideal range of focus - too close or too far and you'll end up with fuzzy edges. There's a lot you can do in photo editing software to improve an image, but there's almost nothing you can do to really improve focus - it needs to be right from the get-go. If you're photographing small objects up close, get that camera manual out again and spend 5 minutes figuring out how to "macro zoom" so you can really show the product detail to your buyers. If you have larger objects (i.e., clothing on a mannequin, furniture, vehicles), experiment with wide lens options. Taking the time to find the optimal distance for best photo clarity is a one-time investment that will pay BIG dividends.

You're ready to start snapping pics! Now here's where that large memory card and the rechargeable batteries I recommended last week come into play, because you want to take LOTS of pics. Even if you'll ultimately only display a single image of your product on your website, take about 10-20 images of the item. Step in a little, step back a little, make slight changes to your angle or to the lighting. Once you get your pictures uploaded, you may be surprised to see odd angles, reflections, or shadows that you weren't aware of originally, so having a selection of images to choose from will come in very handy and save you considerable time over having to go back and reshoot.

Yes, all of these steps are a time investment. Keep reminding yourself that the quality of your product photos will dramatically affect both your sell-through rate and the sales price you can command, for either the better or the worse - and by as much as 40% to 80%! That's no small impact. eCommerce is a visual medium, so work with that, and learn how to visually stimulate and lure your buyers into loving and wanting your products, and you'll see your success online soar.

Next week I'll discuss how to edit, crop, and prepare your product images for optimal online viewing. As always, I look forward to your comments and questions, or feel free to share your own product photography secrets and tricks!

No comments:

Post a Comment