As an online retailer you’ll know that having great images on the site can make all the difference to a sale or no sale. Taking good pictures isn’t hard but you do need the right equipment and a bit of knowhow.
By Jerry Lebens, commercial photographer
In this first article I’ll highlight what you need to get started and we’ll cover how to shoot products in the second part.
In the same way that a product specification supplies an exact description, product photography should do the same job visually. So, it’s vital that your product images are sharp and clear, and the colours accurate. This doesn’t mean that product images can’t be creative, simply that creativity comes second.
What equipment do you need?
A DSLR is ideal, especially if your products are small. It’s hard to focus precisely, in close-up, with an electronic viewfinder and a compact or smartphone just doesn’t give you enough control to produce consistent results with smaller items.
If your products are about the same size, or larger than your hand, a cheaper ‘bridge camera’ or compact digital will do.
If your images are for a website, the pixel count isn’t critical. In fact, for a web image anything over 1 megapixel is overkill. However, if you intend to print images, you’ll need a camera with more megapixels. For prints, A4 equates to approximately 6 megapixels.
Your camera will also need the following features:
• manual focus (for small items)
• manual exposure controls
• custom white balance
• screw fitting for a tripod.
This is essential if you want to get good results shooting indoors without flash. A heavy tripod is best.
3) Background materials
If you’re shooting many items a consistent background colour helps. It gives ‘visual coherence’, helping the eye move smoothly from image to image.
If your products are large, genuine photographic background paper is reasonably priced; the standard widths being 1.35 and 2.72 metres. For smaller items, you can use artists’ mounting board. A good brand, such as Daler, won’t discontinue a favoured colour.
Better still, be creative: a piece of slate; textured fabric; a nicely weathered bit of wood….
4) Light source (and a location)
Small items don’t need as much light as big items. However, in order to maintain colour accuracy it is important that your light source is consistent. Don’t illuminate your product using, say, both daylight and fluorescent tubes, because the colours will reproduce poorly.
Using natural light isn’t great as it’s not consistent for every photo session. In practice, you need a location where you can block out extraneous light and a single light source powerful enough for you to see your product comfortably with the naked eye. Almost any type of source will do – halogen, fluorescent, tungsten etc – as long as it’s powerful enough.
5) Diffusion material
Putting diffusion material between your light source and the subject softens harsh shadows and reduces intense highlights.
Again, depending on the scale of your ‘set’, you’ll need to use different size diffusers. If you’re shooting small objects, a sheet of tracing paper taped to an old picture frame may do. If your product is big, a thin white bed sheet, hung over a line, can work wonders, too.
Any white translucent material will do as diffuser – but don’t create a fire hazard!
6) Grey card
Ask a photographic supplier for a ‘grey card’. Honestly, they’ll know what you’re talking about.
It’s used to calibrate colour accurately and, no, any old bit of grey coloured card won’t do…
Cameras – The best deals – new and second hand – are to be had online. An older model DSLR from eBay would be fine.
Tripod – Again, the internet is a great source. Look for brands like Manfrotto and Gitzo. The bigger the tripod the better! Try to find one with a ‘photographic head’ and not a ‘video head’.
Light sources- For small items a simple angle-poise lamp can work wonders. For larger items, consider the 400w builders site lights, on stands, from a builders’ merchants.
Backgrounds – Artists’ suppliers or, for the real thing, Creativity Backgrounds http://www.creativitybackgrounds.co.uk/
Jerry Lebens is a commercial photographer, qualified teacher and freelance writer. His courses include workshops and private tuition for retailers, manufacturers and artists on taking pictures that pop for websites and print.