How to take your own professional product photos

You need great product photos to help sell your physical product and that does come at a cost – either time, money, or both.  Today I’m speaking to an expert, to find out the pros and cons of taking your own product photos and, if you do decide to take your own, how to ensure they look professional.

Georgina Little is a photographer who specialises in Personal Branding and Product Photography – helping businesses uplevel their brands with images that sell.

Can you take your own product photos?  How do you get them to look any good?  And, if you do decide to hire a professional, how do you get the best from it?

Here’s what I learnt.

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The benefits of taking your own product photos

It’s cheaper!

Some of the other pros of taking your own photos at home is that you’ve potentially got all the props you want, so you don’t have to post them to a photographer.  At the moment, people often have to send their products to a photographer and they then either need to get the photographer to buy props or they send the props as well.  This is adds extra cost and time.

The downsides of taking your own product images

It’s going to take longer and can possibly get frustrating if you’re not getting the extra shots you want. 

Depending on your camera and experience the quality might not be exactly what you want either, i.e. perhaps they’re a bit blurry, too dark, or the wrong size of image for your website. 

Unless you know how to resize your images then that might be a sticking point as well.  

The pros and cons of hiring someone to do your product photography

If you’re going to hire someone the only real downside is the cost but, then again, it’s not taking you the time to do it.  You need to think about how much time it’ll take you, versus what it would cost you to pay someone else.  If you’re spending three or four hours taking photos, then editing, how much is that time worth to you?  Paying someone else to do it might actually be more productive and cost effective.

The pros of hiring someone is you know you’re going to get good quality.  The composition is going to be correct, so it looks creative, it’s going to be the right colours, etc.  As long as you’ve got a good brief for a photographer you’ll get what you need. Plus, if you need a specific file size for social media, or for your website they can give you that very easily.

If you were using a product photographer, would they do your editing for you and provide images in the size and formats requested?

Absolutely.  If you’re employing someone to take the pictures, they should be editing them, so all the editing will be consistent.  Sometimes you might take a colour in one room and it looks quite blue, and you might take it in another room, and it looks quite yellow, so a photographer will make sure that it’s the right colour across your images. 

Plus if you say to them, I need it in 2048px for example (which is a really good web size file), they’ll do it in that size for you

How will I know what’s included?

When you’re looking at photographers, we all work differently. Some people offer packages and you need to check what’s included. They should be editing and they should be giving you a certain amount of images that you’d agree upfront.  

Some will give you all the images, but if you have one product and you want three different shots then you need to be specific about what you need.  Those shots will take time to set up, so it will cost the photographer more time which they’ll factor into their quote. 

Some photographers have packages, so they might say you get ten images and you can have full resolution, web browser resolution or a certain resolution you need.  Some photographers will give a bespoke quote and you can go to them and say I need fifteen images, how much will you charge me.

The main thing is to know what you’re getting upfront.

What do you need to have to take your own photos?  Do you need a special camera, or can you use your phone?

You can use a point and shoot, if you’ve got an entry level DSLR, as long as you know how to use it. (i.e. You know how to get a sharp image, which isn’t blurry or fuzzy.)

With phones these days the cameras on them are actually really good.  If you’ve got the right set up, which I’ll talk through in a minute, you can take a decent picture with your phone and the file sizes are large enough that you can use them.  

Tips for using a phone to take your product photos

I would suggest getting yourself a very small tripod.  It just means that it’s still and that will help make sure that you get a very sharp image so it’s not blurry.  

The key thing with any photography is getting the right light.  It’s the light that’s going to make or break a picture.  

How to get the lighting right

My top tip for getting a good product shot is to find natural light.  Find a window in your home, set up a table (if your product is able to go on a table) and get a white background.  

You can get large pieces of white card, preferably non reflective, either from a high street shop or online.  If you’ve got a very large piece of card you can bend it so the product sits on it and in the background you can’t see any creases.  

If your window light is directly hitting the product you should get a very nice flat light.  If you’re after shadows and that kind of thing then you need to have a play. 

How to avoid shadows (if you don’t want them)

If you’re finding that you’ve got shadows on one side of your product, put white card on all sides of your product.   If you haven’t got a lot of card, find anything that’s white in your house.  Card works best because it will bounce the light a bit better, but anything that’s white will reflect the light back onto it, so that you get an even tone and a much cleaner, sharper, more professional looking shot

You can also use white walls, depending on the product and how big it is. If it’s a small product I would still suggest getting a table and getting some white card and putting it closer to your window.  The problem with a wall is how close it is to your window light.  If you’re using your home lights you will get a very yellow looking image, which you can edit out but it’s not that simple if you don’t know how to edit.  If you’ve got a room full of natural daylight and you’ve got no harsh shadows coming in you can absolutely use a white wall.

How do you position your product, in relation to the window?

It really depends on how narrow or big your room is.  You could play around; you can put it a little bit further away, then move it closer and have a look.  You’ve got to look at where the light’s hitting your product and where the shadows are.  The more you think about it, the more you’ll start to see it, even without a professional photographer’s eye.

If you’ve got more than one product my top tip is to do everything at the same time so you’ve got the same light and the same set up.  You’ll get consistent images then.  If you wait another few hours the light might have moved, which means it will change how your image looks for another product

In terms of set up, you, as the photographer, would have your back to the window.  Obviously you don’t want to block the light and that’s where the tripod comes into handy.  Rather than standing in front of the product you can use your camera to have a look through, test it and then shoot.

How about taking your product images outside?

Obviously the light is better outside, so it really depends upon the product. You could set up a table if it’s a nice day.  As long as it’s not windy and you’re not trying to shoot in direct sunlight, you’ll get enough light.  

Find a piece of shade, whether that’s underneath a tree or whatever you’ve got, and set up the table and put out the white card.  Or, if it’s a product intended for outside then shoot it on the grass, or wherever’s appropriate.

The main thing is no bright sunlight.  If it’s very sunny make sure you’re in the shade.  If it’s cloudy and you’ve got flat light, it’s actually a bit easier because you don’t have to worry about hotspots or shadows or bright sunlight hitting part of the product

Using light to your advantage

If you’re shooting inside you could get a ring light which will set up some light but personally, to save on money, I would use daylight every single time because it will give you a natural look that you can have a consistency with as long as you shoot your images at the same time.  

Learn how to use the light to your advantage.  If you’re going out for a walk with your kids and it’s a sunny day you’ll see where light hits the ground.  The more you start to think about light the more you’ll start to notice the light on your bag on the floor and how the light hits it.  If you’re looking at it and it’s got a bright sunlight patch on it, you know that you wouldn’t necessarily photograph it there.  So get used to looking at light – that’s my top tip.  

Can you explain a lifestyle shot?

Say your product is a bowl for a baby.  If it’s dishwasher proof, that’s a really good key selling point, so show a picture of the bowl in a dishwasher.

The key when you’re selling products is to try and put it in a lifestyle situation so the people that are buying it can see themselves using it. They’ve got a baby, they need to be able to wash something quickly; it goes in the dishwasher, great, I don’t have to wash it by hand.

How do you plan out what images you need? 

Look for inspiration on Pinterest.  Go to product shots, have a look, use loads of different searches, create a board for yourself and start to look at the different styles that you really like.  

You’ll start to notice that you’re picking the same type of pins with the same look, whether it’s a white background, whether it’s a lifestyle background, whether it’s got people in it, etc.  You’ll start to see a real theme come through about what you ideally like and you can use that to start to think of ideas.  You might take an idea from one pin and merge it with another idea from another pin, but a really good way of starting that first planning process is to get yourself a board on Pinterest and start thinking about the creative side of how you want to shoot it.

You also need to really work out where your images will be used.  I.e. are they for your website, or social media?  For social media you might want more lifestyle shots, for your website you might want the clean white background shots as well as the lifestyle shots. 

You’ve really got to think about what you’re using them for, so you can plan the shot list. 

If you do decide to work with a photographer, they’ll help you work out exactly what’s needed.  We’re very good with our time as photographers because we have to make sure that we’re not spending hours, but only charging a certain amount, because that’s our time and our business.  

It’s great if you can say here’s what I’m shooting, these are my props and this is where I’m shooting. If you’ve got a really good plan, you don’t miss anything and you’re not then going back and redoing it all because it’s more time, which would be better spent potentially somewhere else.

 Do you need professional software to edit your own photos?

Editing is needed a little bit, but you don’t have to be a super wiz at editing, and you certainly don’t need to use Photoshop. 

If you’re using your camera on your phone, there are lots of free editing apps you can use, Snapseed for example.  Also another one which most photographers use is, in terms of an actual editing programme, is Lightroom.  It’s part of the Adobe family but you can get it free for mobile.  

The main point of the editing is ensuring it’s the correct exposure. If you’ve got one shot that’s a little bit lighter than another shot, adjust the brightness to ensure that they’re consistent.

Another way of looking at your exposure is perhaps the colours are a little bit yellow, so you’d put a bit of pink in.  It’s just a case of tweaking it until it looks right and your photos are consistent.  My top tip with the editing is to save your original, making sure that you’ve got a copy of it, so you’re just editing the copy and you can have a play with it.  

If you’re using an editing tool you also can make your images square for Instagram or you can make them a certain size that you need for your website, etc. 

Also remember to straighten them.  I’m a photographer and whenever I do a shoot, I still always have to straighten everything!  An editing app will give you that option and a lot of it is actually automatic and it will straighten it according to the lines in the actual shot. 

The final thing to look at is your exposure and your shadows.  If you’ve got something that’s very black you can bring that shadow up or bring the blacks up, if there’s a big shadow you can bring the shadow up and you’ll be amazed at how much of a difference it actually makes to the overall picture

Download an app and have a play and have a look at the different features. If you’re not sure how to use it then go on the internet and just double check all the features that it’s got and what you ideally need to use.

If you wanted a different coloured background, would you shoot on that colour, or shoot on a white background and edit it?

Unless you’re a super duper editing wiz and you know how to change the colour, then I would suggest shooting on the background colour that you want. 

Just be aware it’s going to change your product colour, so you’ll need to do some editing to be sure that what the customer is seeing on your website or social media is the product colour. that they get.  

A photographer can change the colour of the background very easily for you.

Can you hire someone to just help with the editing?

Absolutely.  There are actually quite a few companies that you can search for online.  Just search for editing companies, or photo-editing companies.

If you do decide to use a product photographer, how would you go about finding one?

Firstly, Google!  At the moment, you’d probably have to send your products to a photographer, so it might not matter if they’re local to you or not.

 When you’re looking for a photographer just make sure you like the style of their work.  So if your brand and your vision of your product is kind of a light, airy, bright look then look at a photographer who has that style of work  If you book a photographer whose work is generally shot on black and is quite dark, moody and quite edgy you’re not going to get what you want because that’s not their style.  

If budget is a big concern, a tip is to find photography students. Go to a college and say ‘I’m looking for a photographer for product shots, have you got any students that I can pay?’  I wouldn’t say do it for free because if you pay, you’re invested and they’re invested, It will be a minimal cost because they want to build their portfolio but you’ll still get someone that knows how to use a camera, even if they’re still learning.

How do I brief a photographer?

When you start working with a photographer, even if they don’t ask for it, get a Pinterest board together and say this is the kind of thing I’m thinking of.  No photographer will actually mimic those photographs but it gives them an idea of what you’re thinking creatively. 

Having a clear idea of your shots you want is great, but if you don’t know most experienced photographers can help you with a product shot list and ideas.  

Practice makes perfect

 If it doesn’t work straightaway don’t just give up, and if you don’t have the budget to employ a photographer just keep practising, eventually you’ll get there.  And if you get frustrated, walk away, have a cup of tea and come back to it!

If you feel that some of the product shots aren’t good enough quality for your website, they might be fine for Instagram, for example.

Final tips

The biggest mistake that I see many businesses make is that they only post typical product shots to the website and online stores.  You know we talked about just a white background, or just a very clean shot, which shows the product beautifully but doesn’t necessarily sell it. I really do think that whilst these shots are obviously important, really missing out on a huge opportunity with the lifestyle shots.  So if you’ve got a combination of both product and lifestyle shots they help tell the story of your brand and they can show how your product fits into customers’ lives.  

Plus images of you with the product can help put a very personal touch on your story and just let your audience get to know the face behind the brand.  So when I shoot products, I always make sure to take some lifestyle shots to round out the experience.

You can contact Georgina and see her work at Georgina Little Photography