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The Power of Compelling Photos: a comprehensive guide on excellent product photography

Back in 1999, I got my first camera. It was an old-school Nikon film camera. Frankly,  I really wanted one of those tacky oblong shaped polaroid cameras, with the expensive sticker film. But I was stuck with this Nikon.

Those were the days when unlimited photographs were costly – that however, did not deter me; I wasted a lot of film. I took pictures of my friends, family, and I had a fascination of doing close-ups on plants in my backyard (no joke – I have a stack of photos, every single one is a green blur). I really liked taking pictures. I eventually realized that my true calling was, and is, taking candids. If you want an unflattering double-chin-while-consuming- noodles photo I am your woman.

But product photography is a whole other ball game. You cannot use my candid-photography approach with your products. Which mostly consists of the following three step process: “stealth – speed – and hide”. I have often been called the poor-man’s paparazzo.

I digress.

Taking product images with love, patience, and thought will do them justice.

Anshu, a maker who photographs her own products and sells on Etsy and I wrote the following guide on taking your product pictures. Anshu comes in with a lot of product photography experience, and we did a lot of testing to see what works and what doesn’t. 

Let’s go:


This post is for people who take their own product images. We’re making a few assumptions here – you’re working with a small budget, an average camera (point and shoot or your phone), and limited equipment.

We’re also not trying to make things complicated. We’re aiming for the “least effort” and “highest return” product photography.


There are literally hundreds of articles out there on how to take good photos for your online store.

To make this a really comprehensive post we will go over all the basics (lighting, angles, camera settings). We are going to go a step further than all the other articles out there and show you how you can take your product photography to another level and make your online shop look killer.

If you’re good on the basics scroll down to Part 2: Branding.

But first, let’s really break down why your product photography needs to be spot on:

“Product photography could well be the single most important design aspect of any e-commerce website. Without the ability to touch, hold, smell, taste or otherwise handle the products they are interested in, potential customers have only images to interact with.”

Peter Crawford

Well put. When you’re selling online the image is all you have.

Part 1: The Basics 

[1] Consistency – we made this the first point to stress how important consistent product images are.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

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Okay, we really like this example. This Etsy seller has taken a variety of creative images and they are consistent. They have the same off-white and light yellow tones and most of her images are taken in flattering natural light.

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The style of the images in this example are consistent. Same angle. However her lighting is not, as seen in the shadows against the wall.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 11.49.58 AM.pngPerfect, cloudy outdoor lighting

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There is room for improvement here. This seller can improve lighting and the camera angles.

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Good – consistent angles would be better. I like the focus on the details.

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We like how consistent the style of these images are – with the jar of wood chips in almost every image. Also her photos aren’t perfect (which is fine) but they’re still appealing.

Now that we’ve gone through a few examples let’s start with the easiest thing to fix and the area people make their biggest mistake:

[1.1]   Lighting

Take your product photos in natural light, with the light reflecting directly on to the product, overhead, or on the side of product (of course not from behind!). This will limit the amount of unseemly shadows.

Here’s a quick experiment we did:

We took this image at night (i.e. no natural light), in a room with artificial light (i.e. light bulbs), with flash, and no mannequin or human being modelling the accessory:


Okay, so not the best image. We can’t really guess how long the scarf is, we can barely tell what the fabric is, the wrinkly background is kind of throwing us off, and frankly the flash is making the scarf seem a bit gaudy.

We then went on FotoFuze and blanked out the background, and got this:

IMG_1362.JPGA bit better. Still having difficulty deciphering the material.

Now here’s an image with the scarf on a person, next to a window using natural light (mid-day sun), and no flash:



Do you see the difference? We can clearly see the material, we can imagine how this scarf would look on, we can guess the length, and it doesn’t look too gaudy. By the way, for this particular session we choose to take this image against a white wall, but you don’t have too. We’ve got more on backgrounds below.

We took a close-up in this environment too:


Cool! You can see the gold thread accent in the scarf.

By the way, we took all of these images using a basic iphone camera.

Alright – ready to do your own? Here we go:

(A) First lest define natural light: As the name suggests it is the daylight but the harsh sun can render strange shadows or harsh lighting on the subject. To avoid this, shoot your objects in morning/evening or when its cloudy. The easy test is to look at the shadow of your arm, if you can see a clear dark shadow then it’s probably not the best time to shoot outdoors.

(B) Hold the camera as still as you can (or use a tripod).

Even a slightly shaky hand could blur and ruin a great picture. Tripods are a cheap and an easy solution to the problem. If you don’t want to buy a tripod, try to hold the camera as still as possible, use a stack of books, or Macgyver your own tripod using a water bottle.

Just to give you an idea of how important this is: Scott Kelby author of “Digital Photography” recommends using a remote even with a tripod. This is because when your press the camera button there is a slight shake.

For smaller items with any camera use “macro mode”: This is an easy way to highlight details in small items.


This is the symbol given to “macro mode”

(C) Play with the backgrounds:

Yes, white is good. Yes, its a no-brainer and works in most cases. And yes, you should still experiment with other alternatives. To wet your palette:  Brick-walls, faded graffiti, a rusty trailer, wooden fence (this is what I use). Even on a white background you could sketch something like a city skyline. They could all give a dimension and emotion to your items that white may not deliver. The keyword here is experiment.  The idea is to not take away attention from your items but make it look even more attractive. Ever wondered why so many photographers use ruins or deserted buildings to show off their models?

If you have smaller products you should consider playing around with a lightbox. Here’s how to create one:

NOTE*** The following lightbox method,first appeared on Handmadeology

Studio Quality Product Photography With a $12 Set Up

Handmadeology’s  resident product photography pro Mariano, has put together a $12 product photography set up that will help you acheive studio quality product photography .

Product Photography Tips

I took this picture in my kitchen. It looks like a photograph I could have done in the studio, using complicated lighting equipment. I did not. Here is a step by step guide showing you how you can to do it.

Product Photography Tips

Here’s what you’ll need for this product photography set up.

1. A cardboard box you can use to cut a piece from.

2. A roll of aluminum foil, it’s easier with a wider one.

3. A piece of tracing paper of at least 20” of width and 3 feet in length. You can also use any white, no color, translucent material that you have around your home.

4. One 6” spring clamp.

Product Photography Tips

This is one of those times when bigger is indeed better.

Cut a flat panel from the box that is much bigger than the thing you want to photograph. Make it as big as you can but not so much that it becomes unhandy to move around.

Read the rest of the post on Handmadeology

[1.2] Image Editing

I encourage you to take the photo with the product centered, ignore the frame size and crop out stuff later.

I also encourage to limit the use of filters and enhancing the image. If your picture is a bit on the dark side, go ahead a brighten it up a few units.

Part 2: Branding

[2] Similar branding

Having similar images means your brand is consistent, it acts as an extension of your product, and makes your shop look more refined. These little subtle details vouch for your product quality and create greater trust for you as a seller.

 Here are a few things that will make your images look consistent

(A) Angles and background: take the main image in the same angle. Like this:

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(B) Watermark: consider adding your brand to the image, the user will continue to see your name and you’ll stay top of mind.


Keep the font size small, and stick it in the bottom left or right hand corner. I did this using PicMonkey.

Picasa and Pixlr are other great free and very intuitive softwares for editing pictures. They are not as powerful as Photoshop, but you do all the basic editing and it is very easy to use.

[2.1] Truth

Your product images should convey the truth. That is they should be an extremely accurate and honest representation of the actual product.

Again the customer cannot hold, touch, or smell your product. The image has to do all that work. Having an “honest image” and shipping a product that meets the expectation of the customer will increase your credibility.

Also, give the product it’s due credit. Taking an excellent photo is doing justice to your hard work.

[2.3] Style

You may be the maker not the stylist, but as a business owner the onus to show your products in the best light (pun intended) lies on you.

Play with props. Selling aprons? maybe a cake slice in the hands of your model would make your product more appetizing. Selling beach themed accessories? Maybe a starfish or shells would really set the theme.

Take a cue from the magazines on how to style your products.

[2.4] Keep the customer in mind

Your product images must keep the customer in mind. In addition to taking honest photos you have to show your clientele how the product looks “in-action”.

Take close ups on details (beading, trim, and other areas of craftsmanship).

If you sell clothing and fashion accessories use models or a mannequin, show your customer how the product looks when it’s on. Try to take pics from front, back and profile so they have a clear idea of how the item will look from all angles.

Show your product in-use. For instance, if you sell candles, light a few candles and put them by the tub or the window sill.

Taking excellent product photographs is difficult. And we haven’t sugar coated anything. With a few conscious decisions: right lighting, steady camera, and honest photography, your product images will turn out well. If you’ve already been snapping great shots we hope we’ve inspired you to test out different things.

-Anshu of Blooms and Bugs, and Divya with Now In Store

If you’re still struggling with marketing, consider a multi-channel marketing strategy


Check out these fantastic Now In Store catalogs:

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