When I first started The Nerdware Store, I spent so much energy, time, and even money, trying to get the perfect product photo setup. And sadly, most of it led to blurry, out of focus, bland, and harsh photos…photos that generally sucked.
But, overtime, all of the trial-and-error paid off. I have finally reached a point where product photos are quick, affordable, and even enjoyable. I’m writing this blog to hopefully save you all some of the frustration that I experienced early in my journey with taking product photos.
Here are some quick examples of how my photos have changed over time. The first photos of each product are from the first year or so of my business, while the second photos are more recent. To me, the newer photos are all warmer, crisper, with the whole product in focus, and (in the case of the sticker photos) a less distracting background. My early photos were okay, but took me much longer to take and often were blurry or failed to capture the color of the item well.
Below, I’ll share the tools, process, and strategies I use to take product photos I’m proud of.
What You Need
One of my first mistakes when trying to take product photos was thinking I needed lots of equipment to get things right. The list of random things I bought to take product photos work included: a desk lamp, loads of foam board, fun & fancy scrapbook paper, and a tripod.
Ultimately, getting back to basics got me better photos. Here’s what I actually use today to take quality photos (p.s. none of these are affiliate links):
Indirect Daylight – If you don’t have access to daylight indoors, taking photos outside in the shade works. It is almost never worth it to take photos without sufficient light. Everytime that I risk it, I end up with grainy, blurry, shadowy photos. Also, I specify “indirect sunlight” because taking photos with bright sunlight directly falling on products can lead to harsh shadows, making it harder to see the actual product. [FREE]
Large Poster Paper (optional) – I went to a local craft store to get 4-5 solid colors of 19″x25″ poster paper like these paper sheets from Blick. Great colors to start with are white or off-white, black, and some lighter colors that fit with your branding. If you prefer to take product photos in your natural environment, using tables and surfaces and walls in your space, you can totally skip these poster paper backgrounds. [$10-$15]
Foam Board – I use one to two 20″x30″ or smaller white foam boards like this cheap target option. Foam board IS useful to reflect light back on your products (see my set up later in this blog) and reduce shadows, but can also be a large horizontal surface if you don’t have a lot of flat surfaces near windows. [$4-10]
Camera(including phone camera) – I use a Sony camera with interchangeable lenses, but new phones these days take photos that are nearly as good as those taken by fancy cameras. Especially if you are getting started and don’t have a fancy camera, I definitely recommend starting with taking photos from your phone. My phone is from 2020 and it takes photos with plenty high resolution for products. [FREE]
Props (optional) – When I first moved to Baltimore, I had thinned out my personal belongings and was worried I didn’t have the right props to use in photos. First, I should say that many folks and brands take beautiful pictures without any props. I have been in a plant / thrift shop season, and so I have collected cute vintage knick-knacks and fun plants to include in various photos. With props, there isn’t really a right or wrong way to go. Pull things you own from around your room for photo sessions. Props can include plants, jars, vases, jewelry, flowers, wood, textiles, and more. [FREE]
Photo Editing Tool – There are so many options for photo editing. You can start with free and low-cost options like Canva and the photo editing software included with windows / apple systems. I use Adobe’s LightRoom photo editor for its many options and easy ways to bulk-edit photos. [FREE-$25/month]
Dust Cloth or Rag – If you are taking up close pictures of small items like jewelry, pins, or stickers, it helps to give each item a once over with a dust cloth or jewelry polishing cloth to catch any stray dust or (heaven forbid) cat hairs. There are few things more annoying than taking what you think are great photos and then opening them on a computer to find a prominent piece of fluff or dust on your product. [FREE-$5]
(examples of props I picked up from around my apartment)
Once you have what you need for your product photos, it’s time to roll your figurative sleeves up and get going.
(my set up)
Here’s the process I follow when taking my photos:
Gathering Supplies – Before I start taking photos, I gather my camera, poster papers, foam board, and whatever I plan to take photos of that day. Usually I will focus on a particular collection of items, for example a new batch of pottery or stickers or prints. Once I’ve got all my items next to where I get the best indirect light, I raid my apartment for a few plants and trinkets that complement the items I’m taking photos of.
Setting Up – I start with laying out the poster paper so that it leans against the wall and cascades onto the flat surface. For me, I don’t use any additional set up tools, but if you want a vertical background, you can use boxes and books as vertical backdrops, or you can lean up your flat surface against a wall. Usually I’ll put a book, mug, or something down on the paper to keep it from sliding down. Next I set up the white foam board to the side opposite from where the light is coming from. I want this foam board to reflect the light back on to the parts of the products that are in the shade. To keep the foam board standing up, I lean it back against mugs or push it against the wall and let it precariously balance itself. I like to live on the edge.
Taking Photos – To take the actual photos, I go product by product and take photos from at least 4 different angles or set ups of the product. If I was truly on top of things, I’d also use this time to take product videos, but I’m not there yet, lol. When taking photos, I’m making sure that the products are getting good light, in focus, and not catching glare from the light. I also make sure to take 2-3 photos at each angle, in case one of them is out of focus accidentally or has a strange reflection. As a quick note, some products with glitter, metallic surfaces, or holographic effects can be trickier to keep in focus with your camera, so it can help to get a few different versions of each angle. Examples of different kinds of photos to take include:
from the side
while holding the item
the item with props
several of the item together
the item in use
Editing Photos – Once you’ve taken the photos you need, the last big step is to edit your photos. I am a bit predictable in my photo editing, and tend to do the same few tweaks to each photo:
Brighten the photo & increase contrast. I have found that Etsy darkens photos significantly, so I lighten my photos more than I think I have to, to make sure they don’t look faded and shadowed online. While there is no replacement for good photo lighting to start, increasing the brightness can give your photo a little boost of faux sunlight.
Increase warmth. This is totally a taste thing, but most of my photos feel a bit cold, which could be the effect of my camera’s white balance settings, so I add a touch of warmth to most of my photos.
Removing specks as needed. While I try to fix this before I take photos, if I missed a speck of dust on a product, Lightroom has some real easy tools for removing small mistakes in photos.
Crop to square. I don’t know if this is standard industry advice or not, but I crop all of my product photos to square. Square photos work best for all of the platforms I use (Instagram, Etsy, WooCommerce) so I avoid having to crop photos later by making a square crop standard for all my product photos.
(examples of different angles you can take of a product)
Now that you have the tools & steps to take affordable and beautiful product photos, I wanted to share a few last tips & tricks that I’ve learned the hard way over time.
Go For Consistency – If you have many products in the same category, using consistent product photos can make it easier for customers to browse your shop. Consistency can come from:
using the same 2-5 background colors or setups for all your photos
using the same backgrounds for similar products
using props with the same vibes (for example, natural materials, antiques, pop culture collectibles, books, floral patterns, etc.)
using the same location (at similar times in the day) for photos to get consistent lighting
using the same angles / photos types for each product (I’m guilty of pretty much always taking a photo of my hand holding up products)
Avoid Digital Mockups – Digital mock-ups are product photo templates that you can add your art to. I’m sure there are brands out there that successfully use digital mockups instead of taking actual photos of a product. But, I have almost never seen examples of small businesses doing this successfully. Part of the attraction of shopping from small businesses is authenticity, and digital mockups tend to make customers (me) ask the question, “what will this product actually look like?” And trust me, digital mockups are noticeable. I spent a while agonizing over finding realistic mockups of prints to get easy product photos of all the prints I wanted to sell. In the end, the photos I took of my actual prints in actual frames beat anything I could find on the web. That being said, I don’t mean to hate on any small business owner out there who uses mockups, heck I used a mockup in canva a few weeks ago to show off a coloring page in my newsletter. But when possible, my advice is to avoid them.
Focus on Simplicity – While props can add whims to product photos, it’s definitely possible to have too many props. You want props to add to the photo, not distract from your product. Make sure your product is the star of the photo. If you take a photo with several props, maybe also take a photo without any props and use both. I regret a lot of the funky scrapbook paper I bought early in my entrepreneurship journey because I found they distracted from my products, messed with camera focus, and made it harder to have consistent photo styles. When it comes to lighting, this rule applies as well. One of the photography tips that has stuck with me since I attended a camp as a teenager is to limit the number of light sources for a photo. If you have to use a light source other than sunlight, try to use one light (unless you have a professional lighting kit in which case what are you doing reading this blog, lol).
Wait for the Light – Most of my not-so-great photos were taken when it was too dark outside or in harsh direct sunlight. When photos aren’t turning out or are too blurry or dark, my best advice is to wait for another time. I’ve spent hours on a product photo shoot before, fighting against terrible lighting, only to find out that I can’t use any of the photos. When things aren’t going quite right with a photo shoot, I recommend pausing and picking it up again later when the light or the vibes are better.
Put on Some Tunes – Speaking of vibes…it’s never a bad idea to put on some tunes or light some candles or whatever will get you in a good mood. Photo shoots can take as little as 15 minutes or can be up to an hour or two if you have lots of things or more complicated things to photograph. Setting the vibe will make for a more pleasant time and can put in you a more creative and free mood.
(gold luster on pottery is one of my fav things to photograph these days)
I really really hope this helps y’all to enjoy the process of taking photos of the products that you make and that you’re undoubtedly so proud of. It stinks to love what you make and then lose time & sleep over photos that do your artwork a disservice.
Photos are one of the most important ways to draw in customers, so having good product photos is crucial.
If you have tips or questions to add, please share in the comments! I’m still learning and improving my product photos and would love to know about your experience with them.
P.S. I still struggle a lot with taking photos of holographic or glittery stickers, and my photos often end up slightly out of focus. Anyone have some tips out there?