Handmade selling is on the rise and with it comes an increasing number of new product photographers. Quality product photography is essential for marketing your goods, but it doesn't need to be expensive or overly technical. In fact, there are some easy things that you can adjust that will help elevate your product photographs to the next level!
I recently started selling my photographs on Etsy as a way to bring in some extra cash and I am definitely not alone in taking on this new venture. According to Etsy, the number of active sellers in 2020 grew 63.5% compared to 2019. In the process of figuring out the platform, I joined lots of groups for Etsy sellers to get tips on Etsy-specific marketing tactics. In these groups, and on Etsy's Instagram page for sellers, one of the most common things I see is requests for help with photographing products. It is pretty well recognized that you need quality images in order to successfully market your items, but how to achieve those quality images can feel like a giant hurdle for new sellers, especially if you don't have experience with photography.
Luckily, product photography doesn't have to be difficult. It doesn't require fancy (or expensive) equipment or extensive setups requiring loads of space. You don't even necessarily need to get lighting equipment. Some simple tools and tips can boost your product photography, helping to market your goods in a more professional manner and therefore attract more customers.
Choosing the right background setup is one of the most important things for product photography. If you photograph in your home, making sure that your background is free of clutter or distracting items is key. Clearing a space that is for photographs will help your images look much more professional, as opposed to photographing your products with items from your home in the background.
Choosing a color is also important. I like to stick with white, in part because it looks nice and clean, but it also helps images feel brighter and more inviting than darker colors. Brighter images tend to stand out in search results as well. Your product and who you are marketing to should drive this, however. Some products will call for blacks or grays as backgrounds, or perhaps your brand calls for something more colorful like pinks or blues. The important thing is to choose something solid and free of busy patterns or textures so that your product can be the focus. You don't want your item to compete with your background choice in any way.
Your background and shooting surface don't necessarily need to be the same, either. In my case, I photograph on a smooth white drawer unit that is on wheels with a white wall as the background. You could, however, use a white surface for your items and have a different color as the background. You can use large sheets of poster board or colored paper to play with this. Again, the important thing is that the color and any color differences don't become distracting. It is best to keep things subtle and neutral most of the time, but sometimes going bold will help you stand out from competitors.
One other key tip for arranging your shooting setup is to create space between your product and the background. If you place your item right against the background, it will be in focus just as much as the product itself, which can be distracting and look flat. It can also look less professional. With my setup, I simply roll my surface away from the wall by a few feet and place the product towards the front of the surface. This creates separation and lets the product be the focus. The wall that I photograph against is textured, so it is extra important to pull away from that as the texture of the wall could look busy and messy if it were fully in focus and next to a product. If you using a seamless backdrop (a single sheet of paper or other material that curves from the shooting surface up to the background so that there are no lines), you will still want to pull away from the background to create depth and separation.
While there are lots of different (and affordable) lighting setups out there, and just as much information on how to use them for product photography, sometimes all you need is sunshine. Natural light can be an extremely successful type of lighting for product photography, and the best part is that it's free! For those just getting started, or not wanting to invest in special equipment, natural light is a great solution. It is worth noting, however, that if you want 100% consistency in terms of your photographs for different products, natural light is not the way to go (unless you can wait for the right conditions). Natural light varies based on the time of the year, time of day, and of course the weather, so you need to be okay with differences in your photographs when it comes to lighting if using natural light.
If you are okay with subtly different lighting conditions, there are some easy ways to harness natural light to work best. Shooting next to a window is going to be your best bet as it will provide soft, even light. As you can see in my setup in the image above, I have two windows just feet away from where I am photographing. These mostly south-facing windows fill the area with plenty of natural light, even on somewhat cloudy days. Generally speaking, I photograph when there isn't direct light coming in the window, but instead when the sun is high in the sky, creating more diffused light coming through the window. But, if I want to make things a bit more interesting, I can also photograph at a time of day when more direct sunshine is hitting my shooting area.
A reflector is also a great tool for this type of setup. You can use just a white piece of poster board or buy a photography-specific reflector, but putting that on the opposite side of the window will help bounce light back into the shadow areas, giving your more even light on your product. I didn't use one in these example images as I enjoy the shadows, but for some window areas and setups, a reflector will be key.
Depth of Field
If you are using a DSLR or mirrorless camera (or a phone that gives you control of this) for your product photographs, another thing you need to consider is the depth of field. For those new to photography, depth of field is, put simply, the amount of your scene that is in focus. Shooting with too shallow of a depth of field will leave parts of your product out of focus, which isn't ideal. On the flip side, using too deep of a depth of field could result in the entire setup being in focus, which may take attention away from your product. Finding a happy medium that allows for your entire product to be in focus but not the background will make your product photographs more successful. Of course, if your products are flat items, such as shirts or art prints, then you don't need to worry about this as much, but it is still worth paying attention to depending on how you are setting up your products.
When it comes to composing product photographs, simple is best. In most areas of photography, you will want to avoid centering your subject, but with products, that's exactly what you want to do. Your product should be, well, front and center, and composing with the product in the middle of the frame will help do just that.
For platforms like Etsy and Instagram, you also need to consider how the thumbnail will be cropped in search results. If you are too close or crop in too much on your product, it will get cut off in search results, preventing you from truly showing off your work. I have seen plenty of images of necklaces on Etsy ads that only show the chain, and not the actual handmade part of the necklace. Placing the most important part of your product in the center of the frame and allowing plenty of space around it will help make sure that you aren't falling victim to the crop of search result thumbnails. Make sure you don't allow too much space, however, leaving your product small and hard to see within those thumbnails. As with most things in life, finding the balance is key.
Use a Tripod
While you can get away with not buying expensive gear, for the most part, a tripod is one piece of equipment that I highly recommend. One of the worst things I see in product photography is blurry images that result from too slow of a shutter speed and hand holding the camera. Product images should be perfectly sharp and clear or they will not do a good job of selling your product, both because they look highly unprofessional and because it makes your product tough to truly see. A quality tripod ensures that you will have images free of camera shake or blur from movement. It also makes it easier to photograph as you can set up the camera in one spot and focus on arranging your items. You won't need to pick up and reframe your image every single time. Lastly, a tripod also makes it easier to have your images completely straight and level, which is extremely important for that professional-looking image.
At the end of the day, the point of product photographs is to successfully market and sell your items. Identifying what works for you as well as a brand style is key. The important thing is that they portray a professional product and brand and that they accurately represent your product, whatever it may be.
You may have noticed that all of the examples I gave are extremely simple product shots with no staging. While having basic product photographs is important, also including images staged with relevant props can create an emotion or set the scene for the item and as a result, be very successful at encouraging purchases. That's a topic for another day, however.