Photography tips for mastering product shots

Publish Date: 
Jan 2, 2012
By Cynthia Furey

Lately, we’ve noticed that many dealers are making good use of manufacturer and OEM product shots on their websites. And why wouldn’t they? The shots are expertly taken and well-lit, depicting said products in favorable fashions that are designed to sell them.

But the problem with relying on these photos is repetition—if your competitors are selling the same brands that your store carries, chances are, most of them are utilizing the very same photos that grace your website, too. So if your goal is to set yourself apart from your competitors, you may want to consider taking your own product shots. And while having a cache of photography equipment definitely helps in achieving quality shots, you still can achieve them if you learn a few tricks of the trade.

Lucky for us, JIMS USA’s chief photographer J.T. Lapien has agreed to divulge some of these tips:

Point and shoot shouldn’t always mean “point and shoot.” “People think, I can just grab a camera, point and shoot at [the object], and the camera will do all of the work for me,” Lapien says. “They’ll throw it on auto, cross their fingers, and hope they get a good shot.” While this may yield a great shot sometimes, he says, actually spending the time to learn how to use the different settings of your camera will eliminate any guesswork. One of the handy settings worth exploring is the Macro mode, which allows one to take close-up photographs. This can be a blessing for those who want to take product detail shots.

Check your megapixels. Are your images a little pixelated? You might need to amp up your megapixels. “Typically, for product shots, anything higher than five megapixels is OK,” Lapien says. “And if you really needed to — if you’re not enlarging the image any more than a 4x6 size, 3.2 megapixels can work.” Keep in mind if you do plan to use your Web shots in future print advertising, the higher the megapixel count, the better.

When in doubt, shoot indoors. “Indoor shots are probably the best way to shoot products,” Lapien says, because you can control more of the elements, like lighting. If you absolutely must shoot outdoors, find a shady spot. “Make sure your location doesn’t have any reflections, and if it does, find something to cover it, like a white canvas of some kind,” he says.

Use a tripod. Sometimes, blurry photos are more about user error than camera or megapixel issues. “People can tend to push the button too hard, and it makes the camera vibrate,” Lapien says. “And that vibration will clearly be part of the picture itself.” If you don’t have a tripod, you still can prop your camera on a stationary surface, and set the timer, so that your shot can be taken hands-free.

Presentation is key. Wires and thin objects are tricky to photograph because they can look unruly or flat, respectively. When photographing products with wires, simple things like bundling them with zip ties can neaten up a shot.

Lapien also suggests that photographing a product from above rather than from its side can eliminate any stray shadows that could “muddy” the final photograph. “So it’s not too much of a 3D shot, it’s more a of 2D shot, because you really get to see the lines in the product itself,” he says. If there’s a product that would benefit from more of a 3D shot, Lapien suggests this: “If you’ve got some awkward-shaped part, like a Rubik’s Cube, don’t shoot it in a 2D shape, so that it looks like a square. Make it look 3D: Shoot from up above, slightly to the right, at an angle, so you can see more corners and visible shapes. That provides a bit more presentation.”

Also something to keep in mind: The shot’s background needs to be as uniform as possible. Having clutter or other objects in the background detracts from the main event, so try a white background, or neutral, one-color background.

Look into photo correcting software. Programs like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom are “vital tools to have,” Lapien says. There are free, downloadable programs you can use, like GIMP and Photoscape, to correct basic things like brightness, color adjustment, and white balance. Lapien recommends also working with the software bundles that come included with your camera.

A word of caution, however: Just because you have correcting software, doesn’t mean it’s an easy fix for a bad shot. “People will think, I can fix anything in Photoshop,” Lapien says. “But that’s something that’s going to nip you so fast it’s not even funny. Make sure everything you do is the best you can do with the camera before anything is processed with the software.” Use a light tent. For uniform lighting, Lapien recommends the inexpensive light tents. “The light tent is basically a pop-up type of thing, no bigger than a desk drawer, and inside are three different lights,” he says. “You can put your part or product in there, close the tent, and through the ‘peek door’ you take the photograph.” Lapien recommends a light tent when you’re photographing any type of chrome part, so that there’s minimal glare.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews January 2012 issue.