Pixc’s Ultimate Guide to DIY Product PhotographyOctober 30, 2015 - Paula
When it comes to eCommerce, high-quality product photography is key to increasing your sales. With this DIY product photography guide, we’ll provide you with our top tips on how to choose the best camera, create the right setup and edit your photos to give them that professional, retail-ready touch.
1. Be prepared
A lot of eCommerce store owners overlook this step, but an organised shoot can make all the difference.
Create a list or spreadsheet of products you need to shoot and the photos you need of each product (e.g., different angles, close-ups). This will ensure you don’t miss anything and have to set everything up again. You should also group similarly sized products together so you can spend as little time as possible adjusting the studio setup.
Make sure your products are ready to be photographed. Clean, polish, iron and dust before you shoot, not while you shoot.
I also recommend putting a ‘Photographer’s Toolbox’ together. You will need:
- Tape for keeping things in place (clear and double-sided tape works best)
- Pencil and paper in case you need to scribble notes or plan a setup
- Clamps to hold equipment in place (like your sweep or a reflector)
- Fishing line to hold up smaller products, particularly jewelry
- Pocket scissors to cut the fishing line or any loose fabric threads
- Glue dots for keeping smaller products in place
- Non-damaging hooks if you want to photograph clothing on hangers, or towels/sheets in a hanging position
- Spare batteries or a charger for when your camera decides to die in the middle of a shoot
If you’re shooting clothing, here are a couple of other things you might want to have on hand:
- Clothespins/pegs to make the clothing fit perfectly — you can pin clothes from the back to make the front look better
- Safety pins for smaller adjustments, like pinning collars in place
- An iron — creases always seem to magically appear, don’t they?
- Coat hangers to keep your products nice and neat while they’re not being photographed
2. Choose a camera
You don’t need a state-of-the-art camera for DIY product photography. You can use anything from a smartphone to a point-and-shoot to a DSLR. The latest smartphone models (such as the iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S6) will definitely produce high-resolution images suitable for an eCommerce store, so before you splurge on a great camera, try your hand at product photography with what you have.
There is no denying that you get what you pay for — a professional camera is definitely capable of taking better photos. But that’s only if you know how to use it. If you’re starting to get serious about product photography, investing in a DSLR will make the entire process much more efficient and effective.
Knowing how to manually adjust the camera settings to match the shooting environment will save you time on photo editing, and if you get the setup right a DSLR will ensure you take flawless images every time. While it’s great to shoot on a professional camera, you don’t need anything more advanced for DIY product photography than a basic body with a kit lens. The resulting photos will depend greatly on your studio setup. For a few great cameras, look into the Canon EOS 70D or the Nikon D3200.
3. Set up a white product photography backdrop
For best results, you want to shoot your products against a ‘sweep’, which is a white backdrop that seamlessly transitions from the vertical to the horizontal surface.
Why is shooting on white important?
Shooting on a white backdrop will help you reduce the amount of photo editing you will need to do later on. A white sweep will reflect white light onto your product, giving you a well-lit product photo that needs few or no brightness and contrast adjustments; a black backdrop will have the opposite effect.
The sweep will also ensure your camera’s white balance calibration is as accurate as possible. Put simply, the light sources that we come into contact with every day are not pure white. They all have color temperatures, measured in Kelvin, and our brains can adjust to different light temperatures and process colors for us. For example, a white piece of paper will look a little yellow under warm light and slightly blue in the shade, but in both lighting environments we know the paper is still white.
Digital cameras guess what the true colors are based on a white element in the photograph. The sweep will ensure the photograph accurately represents the product’s true color and prevent any color spills. Make sure if you’re using a point-and-shoot or DSLR to set your white balance to ‘AWB’, or ‘Auto White Balance’. If you’re on a smartphone, make sure you’re shooting in a normal mode, and not in one with predefined filters.
How to create a sweep
If you’re photographing smaller products, the easiest way to make a sweep is to build your own DIY shooting table. It’s an all-in-one sweep solution for smaller products and will give you a lot of flexibility and control when it comes to your light sources.
Grab a small table, spring clamps, two pieces of scrap wood (about two feet tall each) and some white paper. White wrapping paper works really well because of its shiny and reflective texture, but you can use a sheet or purchase a long roll of white paper from your local office store. There are plenty of options on Amazon; you can buy a 200-ft. Spectra ArtKraft Duo-Finish roll for around $20. A roll like this will last you ages, even if you use a new, clean sweep each time you shoot.
Nail the bottom of your planks to the back edge of the table and clamp your sweep material to the top of the planks. Let the material ‘sweep’ down to the table surface.
You can also buy a professional shooting table — LimoStudio, Cowboystudio, Neewer and Calumet have portable shooting tables with sweeps ranging from $40 to $140 on Amazon. These are great if you’re selling accessories, crockery, shoes, etc.
If you’re photographing larger products, you will need a larger sweep. A sweep must be larger than the product itself; ideally, you want the sweep to fill the entire shot frame when you look through the camera lens. If you’re not on a tight budget and you’re after something more sturdy and professional, you can always purchase a white sweep from a photography store. The benefit of buying one is sweeps usually come with a stand, so you can set up your studio anywhere provided there is enough room.
If you have limited funds and are shooting large products, you’ll need to improvise. I’ve thrown a white sheet over an old DVD rack before — you gotta do what you gotta do!
4. Choose your light sources
Before you do anything, turn off your camera’s flash. Whether you’re using natural or artificial lighting, your product needs to be sufficiently lit without the camera flash.
Next up, choose whether you want to use natural or artificial light sources.
Natural lighting is the simplest and cheapest light source, especially for DIY product photography. The key is to use the sun as an indirect light source, so your best option is to set up your studio near a window. The window should be on the left or right of the product. You’ll need to balance the lighting with a fill light on the opposite side.
In the two photos below, the photo on the right was taken with a reflector; the shadows are distributed evenly.
If you find the light is too intense, you can diffuse it by covering the window with a white sheet or taping white paper over the window pane. Any sheet of a different color will affect the color of the light, which will ultimately affect the final product image.
Your other option is to use artificial lighting. In all honesty, unless you’re setting up a permanent studio and want to invest in professional lighting, I would not recommend using artificial light sources. They’re very fiddly and you need to know what you’re doing if you want them to work correctly. If you still want to use artificial light, though, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
An ideal basic setup has three lights. You will need two lights, one on each side of the studio, to light up the entire product. Place them closer to the front and lower to the ground to avoid getting harsh shadows near the bottom of the product. You also want to place a third light above and slightly behind the product to give it some dimension — it’s good to have a balance between the light that shines directly on the product and the light that lights up the entire setup.
There are two important things to remember: You can’t mix light temperatures (it’ll throw off your camera’s white balance calibration) and you need to cover up all the windows.
If you can’t use natural lighting and have limited funds, you can use everyday light bulbs. Go for 15-watt fluorescent bulbs and 60-watt incandescent bulbs. Note that incandescent bulbs are less energy-efficient and also much warmer than fluorescent bulbs, so you may need to play around with some custom white balance settings. Use adjustable desk lamps or grab some clamp lights and spring clamps from your local hardware store.
If you want to upgrade to better-quality studio lights, I highly recommend you buy a lighting kit. You’ll find lots of different kit options online — Amazon has a range of studio lighting kits, as does Digital Camera Warehouse.
You’re also going to need some kind of method for diffusing or reflecting light if you’re taking photos with artificial lighting, regardless of whether you’re using studio lights or a cheaper alternative. It is important to use indirect or soft light sources; direct lighting can create harsh shadows and light glares, and leave your products overexposed.
Reflecting the light involves shining the lights in the opposite direction from where you want the light to fall and having your reflectors cast the soft light onto the desired spot. The most efficient way of doing this is to use an umbrella-style reflector (a basic one will cost well under $50).
You can use anything translucent and white to diffuse light, but a thin white sheet or tissue paper works best. If you’re serious about product photography and already own studio lights, I highly recommend purchasing a softbox. A softbox fits around your lamp; the outside walls are dark, the inside walls are reflective and the front wall is made of diffusion material. It’s really easy to attach and quick to set up and adjust. If you’re starting your DIY studio from scratch, buy a kit that comes with a reflector or diffuser.
5. Stabilize your camera
You need to stabilize your camera to ensure crisp and sharp product images. You can do this by placing it on any kind of hard and stable surface (like a pile of books), but a tripod or smartphone mount will make your life a lot easier if you plan on photographing products frequently.
When it comes to tripods, you get what you pay for and the more expensive ones do tend to provide a lot more stability. However, remember you’re taking product images and not extreme action shots in the great outdoors, so a cheaper option will suffice. Ravelli, AmazonBasics and Dolica all sell tripods on Amazon for under $60. If you’re after a smartphone mount, check out Joby.
6. Adjust the image settings
Though the settings on each device are different, all you need to remember is you should shoot the largest and highest-quality photos possible; you can always compress files and make them smaller later, but you can’t increase the size or improve the quality.
On a point-and-shoot or smartphone, the camera will capture the best-quality images it is capable of by default. On a DSLR, the size settings often range from large (L) to medium (M) to small (S) — always go with large. The quality settings usually range from superfine (S) to fine (F) to normal (N) — always go with superfine.
7. How to shoot Manual (M) if you’re using a DSLR
The benefit of using a DSLR is having the ability to adjust some of the more advanced settings. These settings might be overwhelming at first, but there are only a few key things you really need to know: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
The perfect combination of the three will depend on your studio setup, but if you have a basic understanding of each one, you’re sure to find the best settings in no time.
The aperture is the hole within the lens that determines how much light travels into the camera. The size of this hole is measured in f-stops. By increasing the f-stop number, you make the aperture smaller and as a result let in less light — this will make the image darker.
The aperture setting determines how much of the shot is in focus; the technical term for this is your depth of field. A large f-stop number (small aperture) clearly captures everything in the frame while a small f-stop number (large aperture) isolates the foreground from the background by making the foreground very clear while blurring the background.
When it comes to product photography, you want to set an aperture that’s small enough to clearly capture the entire product, but large enough to give you a well-lit product. I like to shoot with an aperture of around f/8.
While your aperture refers to the amount of light the hole in the lens lets in, the shutter speed is the speed at which this hole opens and closes. This is measured in fractions of a second. Using a small aperture means your camera is taking in less light, which means the shutter needs to be open longer to produce a well-lit photo. Experiment with different combinations, but here’s a tip: You’ll find that a small aperture combined with a slow shutter speed will produce the best images.
The ISO determines the camera’s sensitivity to light; the higher you go, the ‘granier’ your image will look. This is referred to as camera noise and will lower the quality of any photo, so keep your ISO as low as your lighting conditions will permit. Try not to exceed 400.
Once you’ve set everything up, you’re good to go! When shooting, you want your product in the center of the frame and taking up the majority of the canvas. If you need to get closer to the product, move your tripod or use the optical zoom on your DSLR, which is adjusted by rotating the lens left and right. Never use a digital zoom on any kind of camera (this is where you press the ‘+’ and ‘-’ signs on the device). A digital zoom lowers the quality of the image because it just crops the photo while you shoot.
Once you’re happy with your exposure and your frame, set the camera on a two-second-timer mode. This will give your camera enough time to re-focus after you press the shutter button.
9. Take multiple photos
A recent post by Tictail suggests that the more product photos you publish, the more you’ll increase sales. This doesn’t mean quantity over quality; rather, providing enough photos to help people visualize your products will increase your sales. Take photos from all angles and provide closeups of any details, special features or textures you think visitors to your store should see.
10. How to remove the background in Photoshop
So now that you have your awesome shots, it’s time to make them retail-ready for your eCommerce store. Removing the background from each photo can give your product images that extra professional touch. It’s a fiddly process, but practice makes perfect and it’ll be worth it in the end. To remove the background from your product images, follow the steps below. I’ve used a photo of a shoe to help explain the process.
1. Open your image in Adobe Photoshop.
2. Select the pen tool by either pressing ‘P’ on your keyboard or selecting it from the tools palette on the left side. The pen tool links together different line segments (‘anchor points’) to create a ‘path’. The anchor points are created whenever you click on the image with the pen tool.
3. Choose your starting point by left-clicking on the product where you want the path to begin. You’ll see your first anchor point show up.
4. To start creating your path, left-click another point on the product’s edge. The most logical place to put your anchor points is when the product changes shape distinctly.
5. Work your way around the product by creating new anchor points, starting with the easy straight edges of the product to get them out of the way. By default, the path created between anchor points is straight.
6. When you get to an edge of the product that requires a curve, this is where it gets a little tricky. Hold down the mouse as you click and drag the path away from the anchor point. You’ll see two ‘bezier handles’, which allow you manipulate the shape of the line. The handles will affect the line on either side of your anchor point, so if you want to adjust them individually, you need to hold down the ‘Alt’ key and drag a particular handle. It might take you a while to master this as it requires a steady hand, good coordination and a bit of time to get a feel for how the bezier handles work. If you get any of the points or curves slightly off, don’t worry! You can change them later. If you’re way off, undo an action by pressing ‘Command + Z’ on your keyboard and try again.
7. Continue to work your way around the product until your last anchor point catches up to the first.
8. To adjust any existing anchor points, you need to use the ‘Direct Selection Tool’. To do this, hold down the ‘Command’ key, click the anchor point and drag. Alternatively, you can select the tool by clicking on it in the tools palette or hitting ‘A’ on the keyboard.
9. Make sure the pen tool is selected again and save the current path by clicking ‘Selection…’ in the paths palette above the workspace. Press ‘OK’ and you’ll see a selection line (‘marching ants’) appear around the product exactly where your path was.
10. At the top of your Photoshop window, click ‘Select’ > ‘Inverse’. This will invert the path so the background is selected instead of the product.
11. Hit ‘Command + X’ on your keyboard, and voila! The background is white! If you want a transparent background, continue to the next step.
12. At the top of your Photoshop window, click ‘Select’ > ‘Re-Select’. This will place the marching ants around the white space.
13. Click ‘Select’ > ‘Invert’ to place the marching ants back around the product.
14. Hit ‘Command + X’ to cut away the product. Don’t panic, it’s supposed to disappear! You’ve just placed it in your clipboard.
15. At the top of your Photoshop window, click ‘File’ > ‘New…’. The dimensions will default to the size of the item in your clipboard, i.e., the product.
16. Change the ‘Background Contents’ to ‘Transparent’ and hit ‘OK’. A blank canvas will appear before you with a white-and-gray checkered background. This represents transparency in Photoshop.
17. Hit ‘Command + V’ on the keyboard to paste the file and you’ll see your clipped and clean product on the new canvas.
18. When saving your image, do not overwrite the original file with a background as you may end up needing it again. Save the image as a PNG or JPEG; JPEG is the most compatible file format for websites but, unlike PNG, it doesn’t support transparency, and the transparent parts will automatically turn to white when saved.
11. How to create a product image template
What’s the point of having great product images when they don’t look great together? The last step is to create a template and apply it to your product images. This will ensure they look consistent are the perfect size for your website.
To create a template:
1. Open Photoshop.
2. Click ‘File’ > ‘New…’.
3. Give your new file a name.
5. Ignore ‘Resolution’. This only matters when you’re printing photos.
6. Set the color mode to ‘RGB Color’, ‘8 bit’.
7. Make sure the background contents are ‘White’.
8. Click ‘OK’ and you’ll see a blank canvas has been created.
9. Create center guidelines to help you nicely position your product in the middle of the canvas. At the top of your Photoshop window, go to ‘View’ > ‘New Guide…’ and create a horizontal guideline at 50%. Repeat the process but this time create a vertical guideline at 50%. You should now have a ‘cross’ on your canvas.
10. Create guidelines around the edges of your canvas so all of your products take up the same amount of canvas space either vertically or horizontally. The general rule is the product should take up 80-90% of the frame. For a square canvas, just go to ‘View’ > ‘New Guide…’ and create both horizontal and vertical guidelines for 10% and 90%. For a rectangular canvas, you’ll need to do a bit of math; work out 10% and 90% of your width and height, then type in the exact pixel amount when you create the guidelines. Note that you need to put ‘px’ so Photoshop doesn’t default to another measurement. For example, a length of 1500px should have guidelines at ‘150px’ and ‘1350px’. Play around with different percentages — try 80% and 20% if you’re after more white space, and 5% and 95% if you want less.
11. Open your product image in Photoshop. Hit ‘Command + X’ on the keyboard and watch it disappear from its canvas (it’s now on your clipboard).
12. Go back to your product image template and press ‘Command + V’. Your product image appears!
13. Press ‘Command + T’ to enable ‘Free Transform’ mode, and resize your product by holding down the ‘Shift’ key, clicking one of the little corner squares, and moving your mouse in the direction you want to go. Move the product around and keep resizing it until it’s sitting in the centre of the canvas and touching both horizontal or both vertical guidelines. Only ever shrink your product — enlarging it will pixelate it. If your product is too small for the template, make the template smaller.
14. Save your file as a JPG; this is the most compatible format for websites, and the product image you upload to your eCommerce store doesn’t need a transparent background.
15. For a super-speedy site, compress your image to a web file. Go to ‘File’ > ‘Save for Web…’ and set your quality to 60. You won’t notice much of a quality difference and you’ll be able to reduce your image to under 500KB, which can make a huge difference to your website’s speed when you’ve got hundreds of product images.
Why so big?
You’ve probably realized your website’s product image template is much smaller than 1000px, so you might be wondering why I specified those values above as the perfect size. This is because the image you upload to your website becomes the ‘base image’, and it’s then resized to fit the differently sized templates you have on your eCommerce store (the product listing, the shop page, the thumbnail for alternative product images, etc.).
Having a base image larger than the templates will let you enable a zoom function, which is a great way to improve your customer’s online shopping experience. The secret behind the zoom function is it simply displays the image at its full size (the base image size), and for an effective zoom function you need a base image that’s larger than the product image templates.
If coded correctly, your site will resize your base image perfectly if the product image template and base image have the same width-to-height ratio. For example, 1000px by 1000px will resize perfectly to 500px by 500px.
Now it’s up to YOU!
Now is the time to get started and take your DIY product photography to the next level! After all, your product photos will have a lasting effect on both your business and your overall brand image.
Don’t be discouraged if your results aren’t perfect straight away — product photography is a skill that will take practice and patience. If you have any questions or need any help, feel free to reach out! We love helping eCommerce store owners with their product images. 🙂