There are dozens of blogs out there explaining how to make good product photos. Most of those articles focus on equipment and technical requirements. But few talk about the most important part of a photo: the emotion we feel when we see it.
Yes, technique matters when taking a photo, but the best lighting or camera in the world won’t turn a bad photo into a good one. What the image shows and how it shows it based on context is what will get viewers’ attention. So we will touch on technical elements of a good picture in the later part of this article. But first, let’s get into what nobody else tells you.
1. Identify context
Before you start taking pictures of anything, think about what the pictures will be used for. Different types of pictures will work at different stages of the customer journey.
The discovery phase is when your customer hears about your product for the first time. It usually happens via online content, in the press or through advertising. At this stage, it’s important to show your product in context. Avoid plain images of your product with white background. Instead, show your product in its ideal environment, with people using it. The people and environment in the picture should convey the emotions of your brand. The image should establish your values while still showcasing important product features.
The learning phase is when your customer knows about your product, but hasn’t decided yet if they want to buy it. In this phase, you want to showcase the values of your brand. Explain why the customer should buy this product from you rather than another brand. Images at this stage should focus on brand values and emotions rather than features. Let’s say that you sell handmade sweaters made from fair-trade organic cotton. At this stage, you want to show images of the building process. It could be pictures of the cotton farmers at work, the handmade knitting process, etc.
In the decision phase, the customer wants to buy from you, but wants to make sure the product meets their needs. This is when you should display images focusing on product features. Show close-ups of your product from all angles with white background. Be super transparent and avoid pictures used in the discovery phase. No need to convey specific emotions here, we’re doing business now. The goal is to provide customers with the last bit of information they need to click on “Buy.”
2. Image Composition
Once you’ve determined what type of pictures you need to create, it’s time to focus on composition. The most difficult images to compose are the ones for the discovery phase. You want to convey emotions but also show subtle product features. Here is an ad by Nike featuring Serena Williams for instance:
The focus of the image is Serena. We see her determination, strength, athleticism and grit, which are all Nike values. But we also see the quality, comfort and style of the top she’s wearing, giving us a glimpse at the product features. That’s a perfect image for the discovery phase: Balancing the two in a way that is subtle and beautiful is an art. If you’re not sure how to do it, always ask help from a pro.
Photos for the learning phase are a bit easier to create, but also need to be subtle and eye-catching. The focus here is on your brand values, and finding the right image to convey those values. Here is another example from Nike:
We don’t see a single Nike product in this image – all the focus is on the brand’s values. The woman in the shot seems driven, determined, and ready to take on the obstacle that is in front of her. She’s brave and won’t let anything stop her. Nike wants you to feel that supporting their brand means being all of that.
The decision phase is the easiest from a photographic composition’s standpoint. Put your product features front and center on the image. If there are different features you want to showcase, create several pictures. The customer will appreciate having a set of pictures to go through to make their decision. Choose a white background to prevent distractions from the features. Here is one last example from Nike:
A lot of the things that make a photo beautiful are intangible and subjective. Try to take the same picture in different ways until it makes you feel the way you want other people to feel when they see it. You can change the angle, lighting, environment, until you get it right. If you follow the technical guidelines below, it should get you 80% of the way there, but the remaining 20% are your own creativity. Follow your instincts. Ok so now let’s get to the technical stuff.
3. Follow the Rules (or Don’t)
Here are the five guidelines you should follow when making your product photos:
a. Have decent equipment
Some blogs out there tell you that you need a DSLR camera to take product photos, while others say a smartphone is enough. Although there is no single rule, the more expensive the camera, the easier it will be to add emotion to your shots. A DSLR will add depth to your picture in a way that isn’t possible with a smartphone. It makes it easy to play with depth of field, and to catch a range of light that will add depth to your shots. But, using a DSLR also requires more technical knowledge of photography, so you’ll need to be ready to learn. You’ll make more mistakes and will need more time to create a good picture.
The issue is similar for lighting. Having a good lighting set will require you to learn how to use it, but will provide more depth to your shots. The difference is that a lighting set can be much cheaper than a DSLR, so you have no excuse not to buy one. Watch a few YouTube videos on how to light your set based on context, and you’ll be good to go. Feel free to also buy a few bounce cards to bring your lighting to the next level. A bounce card can help hide an unwanted light source or “bounce” light back onto your products. It may not be enough to get you the perfect shot, but it should help a lot.
Now for the thing that you really have no excuse not to buy: a tripod. Whether you shoot on a smartphone or a DSLR, the tripod will help you frame your shots with more accuracy. It will also make your images more crisp and prevent movement blur.
b. Use the rule of thirds
Now that you have the good equipment, let’s talk about framing. Following the rule of thirds will almost guarantee to produce a balanced picture. What’s the rule of thirds, you may ask? It means to imagin a grid of nine rectangles of equal size within your picture. You want to make sure the important elements of your photo are placed at the intersection of these rectangles, like so:
The rule of thirds is an easy way to ensure your pictures are easy to the viewer’s eye. But it doesn’t always make sense. So follow your instinct and be creative.
3. Play with lighting
Natural light will be the most flattering for any image showing humans using your product. So if you’re outside or shooting close to a big window, feel free to use that. Avoid direct sunlight though, as it can be a bit harsh. Instead, use light that is bouncing from other surfaces, such as a wall.
If you’re shooting indoors with limited lighting, you’ll want to use your lighting set. A set usually comes with two lights which you’ll want to place opposite to each other. A class on how to use lighting can be a blog post on its own, so we won’t dig into that right now. A quick search on YouTube should get you all the info you need (stay tuned for a Gravitr post about lighting soon).
4. Don’t use props
Props are an attractive way to try to “fill ” a picture, but the result is often cheezy. That’s especially true if you’re not a professional photographer. Novice photographers tend to place props in unnatural ways that make the setup look fake. So instead, try to find real life environments in which you can place your product. A real, inhabited house, or a real desk, for example. Of course, don’t use your roommate’s messy, dirty desk. Make sure the environment is flattering and inviting, but still looks real.
5. Ask a pro
At the end of the day, taking gorgeous product pictures that convey your brand values and product features in subtle ways is an art. And you already have a company to run and a product to build. So our biggest recommendation is to hire a professional who will know how to make your product stand out. On the Gravitr platform, you can hire a professional photographer in 24 hours and get your shots within a week. Sign up to get started.