As Pretty As A Picture

As progressive as the world of online shopping is, many shoppers still prefer to buy certain things in store – where they can see, touch and demo the product before indulging in a large outlay.

So, although it is clichéd, pictures can be worth a thousand words when filling your website. They need to be crisp, professional, and provide your visitors with the closest possible representation of the products you have on offer.

But product photography is not as simple as point and click, and even the most basic items can be massively enhanced simply by using the correct equipment, lighting and positioning. Improving e-commerce product photography can be crucial on your site.

Therefore, art editor Matt Smith says it is important to learn the basics: “While it might be easy and comforting to leave your camera on automatic and let it do all the dirty work for you, an understanding of the manual mode can immediately resolve some annoying issues you might be experiencing, and open doors to the potential for creativity.”

The three key components of shooting in manual are shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity, and balancing between these will dictate whether your image is successful or not. When using flashes, shutter speed should not rise above 1/200 or you risk the flash not syncing up with the camera.

Increasing ISO can help in lower light conditions, but is not a replacement for good lighting. Altering aperture will change the depth of field, bringing parts of the image in and out of focus.

“It should be set to a high number (up to f32) if all the detail of the image is wanted in focus, though it is almost impossible to keep the entire image in focus if, for instance, looking down the barrel of a gun, which has huge depth, compared with a side-on shot, where the entire item is in one flat plane,” says Matt.

In addition, one of the most crucial aspects to product photography is nailing the lighting. No amount of filters or photoshopping can ever make up for a badly exposed image, often characterised by the presence of ‘noise’ in the image (the image looks grainy when brightened in post-production).

Excluding a few specific cases, most photography benefits from the use of soft lighting, avoiding harsh shadows, which can be achieved with soft-boxes, diffusers, natural lighting or bouncing light off walls.

Many cameras have a function that will highlight any areas that are under- or over-exposed, making it easier to spot when the picture is missing vital digital information. When shooting dark or shiny objects, try moving the light around the subject to pick out specific details and avoid large areas of reflection. Guns are particularly tricky subjects, due to their length and shiny, reflective surfaces.

Matt explains: “When photographing a gun in a studio, I use a combination of studio flashes, soft-boxes and reflectors to light the entire gun, showing off as much of the detail as possible. I generally shoot one side of the gun, from a short distance away, taking in the entire length, without resorting to using a wide angle.

“I then go in for close-up shots as well as the ‘hero shot’ of the broken action. This is achieved through a flash pointing towards the camera, along the barrel, and another as a fill light. Clamps and stands can be useful here to hold the gun in position, but will need to be removed in post-production.”

Wherever possible, products should be shot on a matt, white backdrop. The contrast between this and the subject will help the item stand out and make it easier for a designer to ‘cut out’ for editorial, online or adverts. It also prevents any extraneous colours from bleeding on to the product, adding colour casts, which would need to be removed in post-production.

“If you don’t have a real studio backdrop, a large piece of white card should suffice. It may also be a good idea to block out any natural light entering your ‘studio’ as this can interfere with the colour balance of your image,” advises Matt.

Shooting on black (and other colours) can give your product a classy, high-end appearance. An easy way to achieve this is by lighting the item from the side and back, producing a rim-lighting effect, where the areas not lit are just as important as those that are.

A cheaper option would be to experiment with torches and a higher ISO. Studio photography can end up being a costly business, but can be relatively cheap and easy to rent equipment or studio space for a day. The key pieces of equipment in a studio are the flashes, but there are also flash attachments (soft boxes, honeycombs, snoods), reflectors, clamps, backgrounds and diffusers to think about.

With enough online searches, a basic studio can be set up for couple of hundred quid. Depending on the items being shot, most rooms can be converted fairly quickly. Matt adds: “If you don’t have the money or space for a full-blown studio, some easy, cheaper alternatives are available to you. Natural light is often overlooked, but an overcast day is basically like having a soft-box covering the entire sky, using reflectors (large pieces of white card can be used for this) or onboard flash to fill in darker areas. A quick fix is to fold a business card in front of the on-board flash, for a quick and simple diffuser. If shooting models outdoors, the best light is in the morning and evening, when the sun emanates that rich, golden marmalade hue.

“For the more adventurous photographer, you can also try off-camera flash guns, which can be arranged on tripods, around a model, and set off simultaneously by using remote triggers. Other options to consider are filters (ND, ND grad, UV), HDR and multiple exposures.”

Some aspects of shooting in a studio are easier since there is no movement and you have time to prepare, but it also presents its own challenges. A lot of product photography ends up being cut out, in which case the composition takes less importance, so long as it’s clear where the product ends and the backdrop begins.

“Trying different angles is a fun way to experiment,” says Matt, “but ensure you reset the lighting every time and think about how the image is to be used at the end. Wide angles (a low focal length, less than 35mm) are usually to be avoided, since they tend to warp the image, giving it artificial curvature.

“Although automatic focus has greatly improved, lots of studio photographers still use manual focus to ensure the image ends up pin sharp, but this usually requires a tripod (most DSLRs have a preview screen, which can be zoomed in to check).”

Finally, make sure to check that your product looks good, and nothing is blocking the view to the product. Grass is a common offending item. Every mistake made in-camera can take hours to remedy in post-production. Give the item a quick clean and polish, checking for scratches and dirt.

When you finally have your range of images, make sure your website displays them in the highest quality without causing the page to lag. Around 1MB or under is ideal for optimising your new snaps for the web. Online shoppers may not be able to physically touch the items you’re offering, but with good product photography you can give them the next best thing.

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