6 Professional Tips for Awesome Product Photography

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of shooting some product photography for my friends over at HDK Snowmakers. They are a snowmaking machine manufacturer for some of the country’s largest ski resorts and specialize in hyper-efficient machines that keep skiers on the slopes, while not guzzling up tons of water.

While I spend most of my time shooting business headshots at HeadShots Inc in San Francisco, this was an opportunity to help a friend and buff up my product photography skills.

Particularly in the era of COVID-19, when most in-person services are suspended, I thought I’d team up with my good friend, entrepreneur, and photographer Hannah Pobar of Home Studio List (an on-demand photography space rental platform) to share some tips for professional-looking product photos without crazy-expensive gear.

I’ll be covering tips 1-3 with a focus on industrial/functional products, and she’ll be covering tips 4-6 with a focus on consumer goods.

Here are our tips for great product shots:

Simple setups will allow you to focus on your photography and get started quickly.

Tip 1: Simplify Your Setup

You don’t need super expensive gear to get started with product photography.

While many of us aspire to get “Apple-esque” product photos for our clients, the truth is that you can get into the top 5% of end-products with thought, practice, and some basic gear.

Depending on the product, you’ll likely need:

Fill Lighting: 1 Speedlight + 1 Soft Box (Approx $300)
Background: 1 Speedlight + 1 Paper Backdrop + 1 Backdrop stand for the background (Approx $200)
Gear: Camera + Prime Lens + Radio Transceiver to trigger the speedlights (Approx $2,500)

Total Cost: ~$3,000

If you’re charging enough, you could pay for all of the above gear with 5 to 10 entry-level shoots. When you’re really good, you can make that investment back in just one shoot.

By minimizing the gear your use in your product photography shoots, you’ll learn to focus on more important elements like composition, client communication, and lighting.

Product photography is also easy to practice, because you probably already have a ton of pretty products sitting around your house. If you’re game to network, email a bunch of local small businesses and offer a special rate for your first sessions.

So if you’re just getting started, don’t worry too much about your gear and setup. Focus on getting the most out of a minimal set of gear, and then upgrade when you’ve started to book some clients.

An exact shotlist, either kept in a notebook or a Google Sheet (easier to share with the client), is a lifesaver for efficient shoots.

Tip 2: Plan an Exact Shot List Beforehand

There’s a tendency among some creatives to “wing it” when it comes to shoot planning — and for product photography, that can be disastrous.

You don’t want to be blindsided by equipment that you need but don’t have, completely run out of time, or forget a shot.

A little planning with an excel sheet including specs (crop, lighting, desired impact on the viewer, etc.) can save you a bunch of time on-site.

The last thing you want is your client calling up their boss during the shoot while you’re burning billable studio time. It’s a pain in the butt, and the client may wonder afterward why you didn’t better prepare them.

Particularly for industrial/functional products, close-ups of features that convey unique selling points can be just as valuable as shots from a distance.

Tip 3: Capture Unique Selling Points

During my shoot with HDK, one of the coolest sets we did was of a tiny, intricate nozzle piece, unique to this line of products in the industry. The mechanical piece allows for the hyper-efficient creation of snow, which is both a money saver and better for the planet.

Big win-win.

However, according to the client, some customers didn’t even know that the piece was unique, and some would use the product for years without fully understanding the specific benefits of using HDK.

Individual components of your client’s products likely have unique selling points that will improve their sales (making you a more valuable photographer).

In these contexts, you need to first take your “photographer cap” off,then put your “marketing cap” on, and think about how you can best show/sell this feature of the product.

The same would apply for apparel, technology or any other field. But for industrial/commercial products, capturing unique selling points is particularly important. Your client’s customers may make big decisions based on the unique product features demonstrated by your product photography.

I luckily had an HDK salesperson in my studio, so he showed me exactly how he’d demonstrate the product to a client in-person.

It was critical to communicate in the photos that the tiny bored holes in the nozzle would lead to more efficient snow creation. So, we took super-close macro shots of the nozzles.

There’s a big difference between a “product shot” that shows the overall look of a physical product and feature-specific closeups that you know matter to the end-user.

Your photography doesn’t have to do all of the work, as these photos will usually be accompanied by marketing copy to drive that point home for the buyer.

But too many product photos are taken from far away, and thus don’t show the individual features close-up to allow potential customers to understand and remember the benefits.

As a result of these close-ups, my client is thrilled to show these photos off to customers, because he knows that they care deeply about efficiency AND that the feature is unique to his products.

Same purse. Different vibe.

Tip 4: Context Is King (Background/Vibe)

Styling & Vibe

Like Dan mentioned, product photography plays an integral role in purchase decisions, and it is essential that you communicate the company’s ethos/branding in the way you shoot a product. It is critical that each product photo establishes trust and communicates the company and brand ethos.

According to a study by the Nielson Norman Group, the average webpage visit lasts less than a minute. In that valuable minute, users are unlikely to read and digest the entirety of page copy, meaning it is extra important to help visually convey the brand ethos and product features and benefits visually.

Product photography is one way to really elevate and communicate a brand story through the way you style and shoot.

Take special consideration when styling product photos. Each detail is important, so be mindful of the light, composition, focal points and tones.

In Context or On-White

One of the most important considerations in shooting a product is how it is used and how you would like to show the product visually. One of the biggest decisions is usually if you want to show it on a model or in-situ, or more simply on a white or seamless colored backdrop.

Shooting in-situ is a great way to demonstrate a product in use, to help communicate specific features, or to show it in size relative to a body. This style of product photography can really emphasize the brand and convey emotion. Because of this, it is a great option for clothing and apparel.

Finding a beautiful, styled indoor location with great natural light can be challenging. Home Studio List is a great alternative to commercial studio space, and each location comes styled to perfection with usable props and decor to easily help bring your product photography to life.

Shooting on-white or with a colored, seamless backdrop can help visually emphasize the product with super-clear focus. It is often less distracting, and potentially less polarizing, than shooting in-situ.

Choosing a Background

Think carefully about how you would like your product photography to express the physical products. A t-shirt could be shot as a flat lay or shown worn on a model. Consider different angles or shooting the product alongside another item to show scale.

Negative space on either side of the product leaves room for text/branding. Using bed sheets vs. paper creates a more natural look.

Playing With Negative Space

In product photos, less really is more. This is definitely the place to get creative with negative space. Negative space also allows designers to drop in text or pull out the background to create striking hero images.

Incorporating Props

Props can be used, but I would recommend only doing so sparingly. Pay special attention to ensure that the props being used are not the focal point or adding visual clutter; the product should really shine here.

Don’t use filters

While it is important that product photography feels on-brand, I like to keep away from filters on these photos, as customers look to these to be accurate depictions of the color and textures of products. If the brand uses a filtered look on editorial imagery, I would still recommend shooting product photography in a more true-to-life look and feel.

Shooting tethered to a laptop improves your communication with clients and your ability to spot aspects of your photos you’d like to change.

Tip 5: Try Tethering

When shooting product photography, tethering is an easy way to really step up your game.

Seeing images on a larger screen helps capture the details and make sure you’ve nailed focus.

Once I got in the hang of tethering on product shoots, I started using it while shooting portraits too. People love to see themselves, and it really helps when there are other decision-makers who want to see the images live. This improves communication, feedback and overall client happiness.

With many shoots happening remotely now given the pandemic, tethering is a great way to work with remote teams as well. Many programs allow you to shoot and share images live with people who cannot be on set.

Can you tell which version of this photo has been compressed? Neither can we (or your clients). But one of them is ⅕ the file size of the other, which leads to faster website load speed.

Tip 6: Optimize, Optimize, Optimize

Last step, but certainly not least!

Shooting high-quality product photography can really run up the file size.

While it is important that your images are high-quality, you also want to be mindful of gigantic files. They can run up page load speed, and in e-commerce, every second really matters and has a huge impact on conversion.

Take the time to optimize your product photos so that you maintain the best quality but at a reduced and manageable file size. One tool I use for compression is tinyjpg.com. There are many similar free and easy-to-use online tools on the internet.

Most e-commerce platforms like Shopify or Squarespace will have specific guidelines as to image dimensions and file sizing. Stick to the recommendation from your platform for the best results.

And while it may seem minor, make sure to name your images with the product name, SKU, variant names, or other meaningful keywords. This extra step makes it easy for internal teams to search for specific images and helps search engines understand what the image actually is. In turn, this helps improve your SEO and boosts your ranking in organic traffic!

That’s a wrap! We hope you found this guide helpful. The knowledge here comes from years of experience in commercial photography. If you have a product shoot coming up soon, follow these tips and the images are sure to come out spectacular.

About the author: Dan St Louis is the owner and head photographer at HeadShots Inc, a San Francisco-based photo studio focused exclusively on professional headshots for individuals and companies. When he’s not taking business headshots, he’s likely surfing or playing the latest video game. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.