What is this guide and who is it written for?
This guide is a set of tools and step-by-step recommendations on how to take the best product photographs you can, by yourself and at home.
It's the first in our Retail Resources, developed especially for our retail stockists, but relevant for those of you who are:
- just getting started with selling online
- already selling online but want to upgrade the look of your products through better photography
- already selling online with images from a freelance photographer, but want to do the photography yourself to reduce costs or increase your flexibility and independence.
The product styles we’re focusing on here are those that we make and shoot ourselves: scarves & wraps, textile jewellery and clothing.
Why is this important?
“The perceived value of your products is directly impacted by the quality of your product photography.” Shopify
The success of your entire e-commerce strategy depends on good product photography - this is the only way to build confidence in your customers, and this is nowhere truer than for textile-based products.
Product photography (and video) is the only visual communication tool you have for connecting your customers with your individual products. To present yourself as a professional, reliable and trustworthy brand, your product photography should be clear, consistent and true to life.
Many of us will be scared off by the expense of investing in a photographer; and for one of a kind products it is often completely unrealistic to invest in one. But! with a bit of practice and patience, you can make excellent product photography by yourself, at home, with very limited and simple equipment.
Who am I to give advice?
Aside from being a hobby travel photographer, I have no qualifications in this area. What I do have, though, is almost a decade worth of learning product photography by trial and error since setting up House of Wandering Silk.
Over this time, I’ve personally shot literally thousands of product photos - until last year, we did all our product photography for both wholesale and retail in house, by ourselves in our studio or outdoors with my friends with almost no equipment. Our business was completely built on these product photos - that’s how we communicate with you, our wholesale partners, and our retail customers.
I had a steep learning curve, balancing image quality with efficiency - speed and efficiency is specifically relevant to the thousands of one-of-kind products we've shot. The only reason we’ve been able to sell so many one of a kind products over the years is because we found the sweet spot in this balance. Since most of our partners who I'm writing this for are interested in product photography for retail, that will be the focus of this guide.
Getting into the flow! Scarf product photography for our wholesale customers. I run my business for years based on product photography made in a very limited space, with slightly dodgy lighting and only my trusty mannequin by my side.
Enough talking, let's start!
Step One: Take a step back and brainstorm
You have two goals: to convey to your customer clearly what the product is, and to create/build into your brand aesthetic. Keeping these in mind, have a think about how you can describe the following using images.
how is it worn and what possibilities are there for other ways it can be worn?
how does it hang/drape, how does it close/open/tie?
what is the size/proportion/length?
what is the colour/texture/print?
what is the finishing/detailing?
what are the USPs/key elements that make this product special/unique?
what questions might the customer have when they see the product that you can anticipate and answer with images?
how will you convey your brand aesthetics through the image? What emotion do you want to convey? Product photography needs to be clear and showcase the product very obviously, but you can still play around with styling.
are you shooting a stand-alone collection of your products, where they can be styled with a certain mood or prop throughout, that may differentiate them from your other products?
where will be using your images (website banner, website product that customers can zoom in on, instragram, etsy, facebook, newsletter, whatsapp) and are there any constraints you need to keep in mind (landscape vs portfolio, size, proportion, resolution)?
how many images will you use per product (Tip: we’ve learned that 3-7 is a good number)?
Make a checklist for yourself that you can keep to hand when you’re doing the actual photography, that lists out all the photos you want to take of each product.
Take our Sari Bead Necklaces as an example. When selling these, there are 3 main aspects we want to highlight:
The colour, pattern and hand finishing details. For this we use a cropped, close up image.
The size of the necklace, and how it can be worn. For this, we take a more distant image.
The adjustable closure. A back shot shows this.
We let the uniqueness and colour of the necklace speak for itself so always shoot our necklaces win a fresh, white setting.
When we launch a new collection of necklaces, we like to take a few "editorial" style images that convey the mood of that particular collection. For diwali, we used a simple and cheap prop - flowers!
Step Two: Preparation, tools & equipment
In order to standardise the look of your products, ensuring they look like a collection and sit cohesively alongside each other on your website, you’ll want to ensure all aspects of the shoot are well planned in advance. A consistent look in your images will appear more professional, and will make it easier for your customer to view and compare products.
Camera & tripod
We’ve taken most of our product photography with an iphone which absolutely provides more than good-enough shots. I prefer these days to use my DSLR with a 50mm lens as it just elevates the photography a fraction.
We’ve never used a tripod. If you don’t use one, you just need to be conscious about having a consistent frame around the products, and ensuring a consistent and good angle of the photos.
This is everything. Play around with test shoots in different lighting around your house/garden and find which gives you the truest colour.
A well-lit room should do. You want to make sure there is a lot of ambient light that will reduce shadows cast by you or the mannequin. White light resembling natural light is best and will give truer colours.
Avoid spot lights that blow out the colours or create stark shadows. If you’re using spotlights, have several of them from different angles that will cancel out shadows. Move them back far enough so the light isn’t too intense.
You can also shoot outdoors in natural light, but note that lighting across different times of day and different weather will change the lighting colour and angle of the light source. If you shoot outside, I recommend you do your shoot all at one time to ensure consistency.
For smaller products, you can easily home make a light box. Use paper or card to create a sweep across the back and bottom of the product. This will avoid any lines or shadows in the picture and give a very clean look.
If you’re shooting larger products, a backdrop of a plain wall, large roll of paper or well-ironed sheet will do the job.
This also gives you the option of using coloured or textured backdrops, that fit with the aesthetic you’re trying to create.
Flat lays vs mannequin vs live model
Flat lays are the easiest to take in terms of requiring no additional equipment/people. One key element to keep in mind is indicating clearly the size/scale of the product. When using a mannequin or model, the size of the product is very clear; this can be harder to show in a flat lay. Pay attention to getting enough height so that you can shoot a straight on image, down onto the flat lay.
Japanese brands are masters in flat lays. Here @arts_and_science show effective use of simple and cheap options for beautiful clothing photography.
A quality mannequin is one of the most valuable pieces of equipment worth investing in. She will give you a more realistic shape, and I advise a white, cloth covered one that won’t reflect any light, though you’ll need to take care to keep her clean. I bought my beloved mannequin for around AU$400 (a good one is not cheap!) in Australia in 2010 and dragged her over to India when I started HOWS. She’s still in constant use and one of the best investments I’ve ever made! We use her to shoot scarves, necklaces and clothing.
Mannequin vs flat lay shot. The Mannequin shot is significantly faster and easier in terms of shooting and editing.
Gradually, we moved onto using actual human models; products are more relatable when modelled on a person. Additionally for clothing, a model shows the size/fit and drape of the item much better. But this doesn’t have to be expensive. For most of our business life, I’ve depended on some wonderful friends to model for me. Some of our best photography was done on my girlfriends. If you or your model friend doesn’t want the face shown, get creative with cropping the images below the nose, or from the side or back, or use a fun prop throughout the images to hide the face.
Home shooting with a friend to model can generate some of your most authentic, joyous product photography!
An alternative when shooting clothing is to get creative with hanging products on coat hangers (which you can customise to match your brand aesthetic), or on bamboo/wooden poles.
Spanish brand @_matka_ use cheap and simple materials to photograph their products, that nevertheless enhance their brand aesthetic.
With styling, unless you’re doing an editorial style shoot, keep it simple so that the customer doesn’t get confused about what is actually being sold, and can see the product clearly and without distraction.
If you want to convey a certain brand aesthetic or emotion, you can play around with colours and textures in the lighting and backdrops, while still keeping the images clean. You might want to convey a sense of spring, and style your shoot with flowers, or against a pink backdrop. You may want to showcase your use of natural materials, so shoot your products on a rustic wooden bench.
The addition of hands into product photography can go a long way towards adding a personal touch. Especially if you’re selling handmade products, it adds a relevant, human element and also helps with indicating the size of the product.
Adding hands or another human element to your product photography goes a long way. Here, @waltergtextiles makes their product photography much more personal.
Prepare the shoot site
You’ll want to get as much as possible perfectly arranged in advance for the shoot, rather than relying on editing later on (as that’s a much more time-consuming process).
Once you’ve prepared the site where you want to shoot, take a few test shots.
Check the lighting - is it clear and does it give you a true colour?
Are there any distractions falling into the frame? Any lines or creases in the backdrop? Stark shadows? Correct these before shooting.
Do you have enough space around you to get a good frame of the product from all the angles you need?
Step three: Shooting your products
Obvious but easily forgotten, especially when shooting on phones: make sure your lens is clean!
Be sure to get a consistent and good angle; a straight on shot is best to give the most accurate idea of the proportions/size of the product. Be careful not to tilt the camera (unless it’s deliberate).
Colour balance is very important, and you may find - especially when shooting on a phone - that certain colours are over- or under-compensated by the automatic white balance. The easiest way to adjust this is to incorporate a small white square of paper into the shot, that will make your camera adjust correctly. You’ll have to crop this out during editing.
Check the frame - are you getting all the product in, with a well-balanced space around the edges? You don’t want your product photography to be crowded or squeezed. Nor do you want it to be too distant.
Quality trumps quantity. Take your time to get carefully thought out, good shots. This will save you time later on in the editing process and help you avoid going through hundreds of pictures.
Is there an “irregularity” in the product, maybe due to the product being hand made? Don’t hide it - you want to avoid any surprise from your customers when they receive their order (except a joyful surprise!) and you want to build honest, long-term relationships with your customers. Shoot the irregularity or at least mention it in the right up.
Go through the checklist you created in step one, to ensure you don’t forget any shots that you want for each product.
Now is also the time to make some video. Even a simple video, for example, scanning around the product or going into a close up to show some detail, can engage with customers. We sprinkle this kind of product video into our Instragram stories to add a little dynamism.
Super simple video - a quick scan across the fabric with an iPhone - that gives a high impact visual complement to your product photography.
Step four: Editing your photos
If you’ve taken time and care in the processes above, you won’t have much editing to do in your final images. The editing I do is: increasing brightness to help the images pop a little, occasionally increasing shadows to give more depth, adjusting very slightly the white balance to offset the pink in our “white” walls, and cropping. While adding additional filters can make the images look better, and may be useful for more general promotion, they’re usually not a good idea for product photography as they can significantly change the colours of the product.
I use an excellent, free photo editing tool from Google called Picasa. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is available anymore for download. But there are plenty of other free and cheap options for editing your images, such as:
VSCO - free version and inexpensive paid version both available. Intuitive and easy to use, but only for use on phones.
Google photos - free and easy to use.
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop - inexpensive monthly subscription. Basic editing is straightforward, plus they have many more tools available for more in-depth editing.
Canva - free and easy to use.
Step five: sell, sell, sell!
Now that you have beautiful, clear and consistent product images, you’re ready to sell.
Wherever you’re selling your products, you’ll most likely need to add a product description along with the images. After years of trial and error, I’ve learnt that short, succinct product descriptions are best. Focus on the style (a few key points) and the size (be very clear about measurements and fit). Throw in some creative styling suggestions that suit the needs of your target customer. Colour descriptions are less important: one person’s tomato red is different to the next person’s tomato red, and at any rate, your perfect product photos should convey this information for you.
Think outside the box
With so much technology available, you can get really creative about how to use your product photos to sell your products. Of course having your own website is great (we use the Wix and highly recommend it), but there are plenty of other avenues to reach your customers.
Etsy in another obvious choice, where good product photography is crucial to standing out. Email newsletters to your customers are the best, proven way of reaching them. Instagram and Facebook both offer free product listing that you can link to your web shop (via Facebook shop catalogue). Alternatively, just sell via your instragram feed or Instagram stories; through WhatsApp groups; or even TikTok videos.
Use your customer base to create additional product images: encourage customers to post images of them wearing your products that you can share. Maybe offer discounts or a competition that will encourage customers to submit images to you?
Highlight the one-of-a-kind nature of your products, or create a limited-time online popup on your website or social media platforms - this will give a sense of urgency to your customers.
Thanks for reading - I hope this guide has been on some help!
Have suggestions on improving this guide? Please let me know.
Was this useful? If yes, please let me know. We’re always looking for ways to support our retail partners. If we find that this resource was helpful to some of you, then we’ll know it’s worthwhile working on more tools!