Product Photography: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

When you think about becoming a photographer, taking photos of products might not sound very glamorous or be the first thing you think of. However, product photography is one of the most in-demand genres of photography. And, if you’re good at it, can be an extremely lucrative career choice.

This guide will help you understand what product photography is; what gear you need; and we’ll give you several tips to get you started as a product photographer. 

Product photography
Photo by REVOLT on Unsplash

What is product photography?

Product photography is exactly what the name implies — photos of products. It’s everywhere you look. Scrolling websites, flipping through the pages of a print magazine, passing billboards outside, and walking through the aisles of a retail store you are inundated with images of products. 

Just think — for every photo you see of a product, a photographer was paid (in many cases a lot of money) to shoot that image! 

High-quality product photos are critical to selling products and helping companies with their branding. Imagine if you were shopping online and only had a written description to go by. Chances are, e-commerce companies like eBay and Amazon wouldn’t exist. And, many of your favorite stores wouldn’t have an online presence at all if it weren’t for product photography.

Who buys product photography?

Anyone with a product to sell needs a photo of that product. No matter if it’s a small business, a crafter, or a huge manufacturer. Examples of companies who are known to pay photographers for product images include:

  • Retailers: for direct mail and in-store advertising;
  • E-commerce: online stores like Amazon and eBay;
  • Stock image websites;
  • National print magazines: for use in articles;
  • Manufacturers: for their sales material;
  • Catalogs;
  • And many more.

Types of product photography

While there are endless reasons to use a product photographer, there are just as many different types and styles of product photography. It all depends on where the image will be used and the branding or “look and feel” of the product and the company it represents. Here are some of the most widely used types: 

  • White background shots: This is the most common type of product photography and for good reason. The studio shot with a white background is crisp, clean, and shows the product without distractions. It clearly shows the consumer what the product is and what it looks like. This type of photo is crucial for selling online and is a required image for many online retailers.
white background
Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash
  • In-Use photos: These photos show the product in context, being used in the way they were intended. They also show how big or small the product is. 
product photo in-use
Photo by Ashley Piszek on Unsplash
  • Product grouping: Group shots are used when there are multiple products in a line. For example, if there is a skin care line of products, or there are several color options to choose from.
group shot
Photo by Glow Repose on Unsplash
  • Detail shots: These are close-up images that emphasize certain features that wouldn’t show up on a shot of the entire product.
product detail
Photo by Will Breen on Unsplash
  • Lifestyle shots: Similar to in-use photos, lifestyle shots include the product in the photo but focus more on the feeling or vibe rather than the product.
Photo by Team Fredi on Unsplash
  • “Lay-downs” or “Flats”: Used mainly in apparel photography, these are shots taken from a birds-eye view that show the item laying flat.
product photography "lay-down"
Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

What’s the best camera for product photography?

If you intend to make a career as a product photographer, you’ll need a professional-quality camera. A DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows you to change lenses and manually adjust your exposure settings is a must. 

If you are taking product photos to sell your items on Etsy or a similar website, you can get away with a point-and-shoot or even the camera on your phone and a lightbox kit. But, a hired photographer should always use pro-level equipment.

What is the best lens for product photography?

Since products vary in size and shape, you’ll need a variety of lenses for your product photography kit. First, you need a true macro lens to capture small objects, close-ups, and detail shots. This is especially important for products like watches and jewelry, where tiny details are extremely important.

close up watch
Photo by __ drz __ on Unsplash

Then, consider adding a high-quality all-around zoom lens to your kit. A 24-70mm f/2.8 is a great option for shooting lifestyle and in-use photos. The low maximum aperture makes it great for shooting in most lighting conditions, not just under studio lights.

When shooting product photos, you want to portray the product as true to life as possible, so try to avoid shooting with ultra-wide-angle lenses, like fisheye lenses, as they will distort the size and shape of the product too much.

Product photography lighting

Most product photography is shot in a studio. This is desirable because you can completely control the lighting and keep your images consistent across the board. The key to studio lighting is making sure the product is lit evenly and that it is separated from the background. 

When photographing products in your studio, always use a diffuser. This will ensure even lighting across the entire product with no harsh shadows or hot spots.

Basic way to light a product in the studio using four lights:

Aim two lights at the background on either side of the product. This helps separate the product from the background. Then, point one light straight at the product and point one light above the product to avoid casting a shadow.

Other product photography gear

Other gear you’ll need to invest in as a product photographer at minimum includes a tripod, reflectors, studio lighting, backdrops, and photo editing software.

Camera settings for product photography

Your exposure settings will vary according to your unique situation, what lens you’re using, the lighting conditions, and what you’re shooting. However, product photographs should be true to life. So, photograph them in such a way that color and white balance are as accurate as possible. 

Use a shallow aperture, a high f-stop, so that the entire product is in sharp focus. Use the lowest ISO possible to avoid noise. In the studio, that means setting your ISO to 100. Outdoors, you may need to increase the ISO to compensate for the lighting conditions.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

10 tips for product photographers

  1. Take inspiration from brands you love

Don’t be a copycat, but do look to others for inspiration. Look at top brands and think about how a similar idea might work for the products you’re photographing.

  1. Follow the rules of composition

The rule of thirds, the golden ratio, symmetry, radial balance…these are all composition techniques that work. Learn them and then incorporate them into your product shots to improve your work.

  1. Keep it simple

Remember the reason for your work is to showcase the product. With that in mind, don’t distract from the product with complicated props and confusing composition. 

  1. Shoot from multiple angles

Taking multiple shots from different angles will show the customer exactly what the product looks like. You might not use every shot, but you’ll give yourself options when it comes to editing.

  1. When shooting for e-commerce, keep photo specifications in mind

Know ahead of time what the final image needs to look like. For example, many e-commerce sites require a square cropped image on a white background. It helps to know before you shoot if your photo will need to be square so you can compose for that.

  1. When shooting multiple products, use a tripod

We recommend using a tripod to get the sharpest focus. But if you’re shooting multiple images, it’s also a good idea to use a tripod so that all of your shots are consistent.

  1. Think about color theory

When it comes to advertising and attracting customers, color theory is extremely important. If you’re shooting product photos that aren’t on a white background, consider what other colors you’ll have in your photos and what impact they might have.

  1. Pay attention to reflections

If you’re shooting something glass, shiny, metal, or highly reflective watch those reflections! In other words, pay close attention to how your lighting (or even how yourself) reflects onto the product you’re photographing. As a matter of fact, reflective objects are some of the hardest things for beginners to photograph.

  1. Put your product in context

When shooting a lifestyle or in-use photo, put the object in context. This will make it easier for the consumer to envision themselves using the product. For example, if it’s a piece of wall decor, show it hanging on a wall above a sofa.

  1. Once you learn the rules, it’s okay to break them

That’s the thing about product photography. It’s an art form, just like any other genre of photography. And, art is subjective. 

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Editing product photos

Even the very best photographers edit their photos. But, when it comes to editing product photography, less is more. Simple edits, like cropping, resizing, white balance, removing blemishes, and correcting exposure are all that’s needed. 

Be careful not to do any photo manipulation that distorts or otherwise creates a misleading image. Remember, you want the product in your final image to be true to life. 

Final thoughts

Look around you and you’ll see just how much product photography plays a significant role in everyday life. For this reason, if you are good at it, you can make a lucrative career or a fun hobby out of it. The tips and tricks in this guide will help get you started on the path to becoming a product photographer.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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