As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so this month's column is going to focus on visual merchandising and product photography.
I'm going to describe taking pictures for their pragmatic, informational value: the ability of a picture to display or describe a product in ways that are impossible or too difficult and time-consuming to do with words alone.
Why is it important that you invest in the tools and processes necessary to take your own images, especially if you are selling products that have good imagery from the OEM or supplier? Because your Web site is trying to actually sell the product. You are (hopefully) the last hurdle between your site visitor's desire to own the product he's looking at.
If a visitor is close to buying from you, but needs to see how the bottom or back of that part or helmet looks, there's a high risk that he is going to go to another site or to a brick-and-mortar store to find out. If you have the photography or other visual merchandising (video, 360-spin views, etc.) to meet his informational need, you've just made the sale.
Driven by the requirements of a huge number of eBay-type businesses, the necessary equipment to take semi-professional product photography has become affordable. There are literally thousands of sites out there that will teach you everything you need to know to get started. And if you don't want to do it yourself and don't have someone on staff who can tackle it, Craigslist or your local college is a great place to find people with the basic skills who are looking to build portfolios and therefore have a vested interest in making your pictures look good.
To do the job right, you will need some basic lighting equipment, a good digital camera, an environment for your products, and the software necessary to make the images look good or to reformat them for your Web site.
You can get some decent lighting systems (either constant light or strobe-based) on eBay for very little money. Or you can go upscale and shop at places like B&H (www.bhphotovideo.com). Or you can build your own. Professional photographers out there are going to want to burn me at the stake for saying this, but there's really no reason to spend the big bucks for professional lighting gear for our purposes. You don't need the fancy $40 bulbs and the $300 tripod and fixture. A $3 full-spectrum compact fluorescent bulb in a $6 clip-on fixture attached to a 2x4 wood stand works just fine.
However, there are some rules of thumb to follow. Make sure that all of your lightbulbs are of the same brand and type. You can vary the wattage/output, but you will have problems with color if you use different types of bulbs. As long as all the bulbs are the same you can set a custom white-balance point in your camera or do color corrections in your photo software.
Next, invest in a good digital camera. You can get amazing digital SLRs with great lenses in a kit for around $500 and non-SLRs that have astounding built-in lenses for around $350. I suggest www.dpreview.com to learn more about what camera to buy. I recommend getting a camera/lens that is as "fast" as you can get (i.e., an f value as close to 2.0 as you can get, and that stays there across the entire zoom range). This will allow you to shoot with faster shutter speeds without needing super-bright lights, and will give you the ability to use depth of field (DOF) to your advantage.
You will need an environment in which to place your products. This could be a large light-box or light-tent you buy off of eBay; or you can build a tabletop display. Consider something like a small studio where a beautiful model can display that carbon fiber fender, à la QVC. Be creative!
You will also need software to crop and resize the images, correct color and add text. The big dog here is Photoshop. There's nothing you can possibly ever need to do that Photoshop can't handle either by itself or extended via plug-ins. However, Photoshop has an almost vertical learning curve. If the folks doing the work are not already well versed, you may want to look at some software that is more purpose-based for product photography.
A package that is getting some attention is Bling It (www.blingit.us), which offers simple capabilities to spruce up the product shots. It also offers a free download, so you should at least try it out. Bling It allows you to place the product on different backgrounds and even do basic retouching of the product to remove scratches, fingerprints, and so on.
Finally, you'll want to look at something that automates the workflow and produces consistent results. Look at the products offered by Ortery (http://ortery.com); they are a little pricey, but if you have several thousand products to take pictures of and want to do things like 360-spins and multi-angles, these setups will let you do it all and save a lot of time. Ultimately, all of the investment you are going to make in visual merchandising is going to be paid back by higher conversion rates and, therefore, more revenue.
If you are on a turnkey system, you are stuck. None of them allow you to change the product images that come out of the box. Pick up the phone and call the provider to request that it change its software to allow you, the merchant, to take more control over how products are displayed. That includes being able to change or add to the descriptions and the product photography. Maybe if those Web site providers hear from more of you, they will make these capabilities more of a priority.