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Product Photography for Social Media 101

When it comes to showcasing your products on social media, quality product photography can make a significant difference to conversions and to follower count. As opposed to brick-and-mortar stores where customers can physically see the products they’re buying, potential followers and clients rely on the imagery you display on your socials. While you can write in-depth product descriptions to tell them all about it, customers are savvy to dishonest companies and false advertizing and simply won’t buy unless they feel confident that they know what the product looks like. Similarly, they won't follow if the quality of the photos being put up on your social media is poor.

What is product photography?

For any business with a social media page, product photography is crucial for showcasing the products you sell. Using specific strategies and techniques to capture images of your products, product photography lets your customers see the details of your merchandise and entices them to buy. Not only will you use these photos on your social media, but potentially in marketing campaigns and on your website as well. Your product photos should reflect who your business is and instill a sense of confidence in your customers. There are two main types of product photos:

Minimalist Product Photos These are the photos you’ll most likely find as the first option on a product page - and on many minimalist Instagram feeds. They are high-quality, detail-focused images of the product against a solid colour background—usually white. This little jar pyramid is a fantastic example of this.

a pyramid of three jars

Minimalist product photos allow 100% of the focus to be on the product with no busy backgrounds or exterior elements to detract attention. They can be a great way to add some negative space to your Instagram feed, especially if you're curating a minimalist feed.

Active Product Photos

These product photographs showcase your items in the context in which they’re used. As opposed to focusing on details, these images let customers imagine themselves enjoying the product - this is important. Part of effective selling is creating aspirational imagery. The goal is to have potential customers look at your photo and think "that's the life I want".

They are also an effective way to help customers gauge the size, fit and use of the product. So in reality, the effects here are twofold. First, you're creating a desire, and secondly, you're helping people to see how that desire could fit into their current lifestyle.

grey and green living room

Why is Quality Product Photography Important?

Product photography is more than just showing your products to your followers. For better or worse, it's expected now. Even people who aren't brands (personal or otherwise) are using only high-quality photos on their social media. Instagram has become the online version of an art gallery and poor-quality photos simply will not do. Some of the perks of investing in high-quality product photography include:

  • Letting customers imagine the value this product will bring to their lives

  • Building your followers’ trust and confidence in your brand and in your business

  • Boosting conversions

  • Building your social media following, people love aspirational content

Still not convinced? Here are 4 statistics from a statistics collection on Justuno that show how important professional product photos are to your online presence:

A whopping 83% of smartphone users in the U.S. say that product photography influences their purchasing decisions "very" and "extremely."

The visual appearance of a product is a key deciding factor for 93% of shoppers - aesthetics matter!

22% of returns happen because the product looks different in-person than in the product photos. A great way to combat this is to allow customers to post product photos. It’s quite simple really: If customers are able to see and understand the products you’re selling, they’ll feel more confident to give you their money. Using Smartphones for Product Photography

While it is always useful to have professional tools, there’s a lot you can do with just your phone, some knowledge and some creativity. Most new phones have excellent photography capabilities that can capture your products in their full glory. Not only are they equipped with hardware that’ll allow for high-quality, detailed photographs, but the newest smartphones also provide users with tons of features to make the most out of your specific product, angle and lighting. Couple all of that with an app like VSCO that allows for high-quality photo editing, and you're in business. For expert product photography, it’s all about setting the photos up carefully and using the tools (many of which you can DIY) you have to showcase your product.

So what do you need to know in order to take great product pictures? Here are a few expert product photography tips:

Lighting is Key

Whether you want to photograph your products in a studio or outdoors, you first need to familiarize yourself with lighting. In essence, photography is all about finding and mastering the right light for each and every occasion. Let’s explore the two main types of product photography lighting you can use:

Soft lighting Soft lighting creates a delicate, diffused halo-like effect that illuminates the object from all angles. This method will shine a light on all the details of the product and eliminate any harsh shadows that can obscure the details and edges of the product. This is especially important when photographing three-dimensional objects.

Hard lighting Hard lighting adds more contrast between the light and the shadows. In hard light, shadows have harder edges and greater definition. This method is great for adding drama to your photograph and in certain instances can be useful for taking active product photos.

Pictured: Top two examples of hard lighting, bottom two examples of soft lighting.

Soft lighting is the more commonly used type of product photography lighting and can be achieved in several different ways. For example, if you’re working with a natural light source, try to avoid direct sunlight (which can cast harsh shadows) and instead, use a diffuser. This is any material that diffuses or scatters light in order to soften it. If your light source is coming from a window, lamp or light, cover it safely to make it softer - think glow rather than beam. Here are some examples of materials you can use to soften the light:

  • Thin, white t-shirts or linens (Or use coloured ones to create mood lighting)

  • White garbage bags

  • Printer paper

Just remember that putting flammable materials on a lamp could be a potential fire hazard, so be sure that your materials maintain a safe distance from hot bulbs and check them periodically to make sure they don't get too hot. Never leave a covered light source turned on and unattended. Another great option to create a soft lighting for your product is to buy or create your own reflector. Reflectors are an easy and inexpensive way to ‘bounce’ or flag natural and artificial light. This can be accomplished with any high-shine material such as the shiny side of tin foil, or a mirror.

A lightbox (also known as a light tent, macro photo studio, or light cube) is a photography accessory that gives your photographed products a translucent surface and illuminated background. It doesn’t have to be an expensive investment, and you’d be surprised to see that with simple materials (a cardboard box, tape, transparent paper and scissors) you can make your own box which will give you the same result as a professional studio setting for a fraction of the price. Plus, it’s easy to set up and carry anywhere. Work Your Angles When it comes to photographing your products, getting just the right angle may have huge implications on how the item will be perceived by the shopper. Here are the angles that are most commonly used for minimalist product photographs: Face to face If the item stands up, this will usually be the main product image angle you’re looking for. Here's an example from Citrus High:

three hair products from the brand Citrus High

Bird’s eye Also known as a flat lay, this is great for photographing objects that lie flat, like clothes, shoes or pizza or to showcase many items lying next to each other. Here's an aesthetic example of a flat lay of wellness products:

skincare product flat lay

45-degree angle Just between the two angles above, this angle is commonly used for emphasizing dimension. The depth and intricacy showcased on these gorgeous vintage pieces from an antique shop are a great example:

antique bronze items

Curating a gallery on your Instagram or product page with a variety of photos is important. Include photos from different angles, active product photos, and even a short video that showcases the product in action. You don't want your feed to become boring or repetitive. Variety is the spice of life, and of your feed.

Tripods: Three Legs are Better Than Two

To keep your product photos looking professional, it's important to keep your camera steady - blurry or unfocused photos aren't what you want. Create a consistent feel for your product photos with a tripod to ensure a clean, organized look. You may be tempted to save money and just lean your camera against the wall or hold the camera yourself, but as your business grows and your product gallery widens, having your own tripod can make life so much easier. This is especially true because it can be difficult to maintain the same angle when propping your phone up or just holding it.

For this purpose, some fantastic, inexpensive gadgets are available. If you're buying a tripod for your smartphone, expect to pay between $20 and $60spend between $20 and for a decent one. Once you have your camera set up in its tripod, use a countdown timer or a remote (if you have one) to help you snap pictures without accidentally moving the tripod or mount. If you don't have a remote, this is another thing that can be inexpensively purchased online and connected to your phone through Bluetooth if you're so inclined.

Choosing Your Background

While product photography will obviously focus on your product, consider what’s going on behind the subject of the image and make sure it enhances the product itself. It doesn't have to be a slap-in-the-face focal point, but it should at least subtly draw the eye. In many cases, minimalist product photos look their best with a clean, white background as it eliminates any disruptions. Remember, you want customers to focus their eyes on your product and pay less attention to the background. That being said, some products pop out more against a dark background so don’t be afraid to experiment. If black is too dark for you, try dark grey or navy. The colour of your background can evoke various emotions so try to think about your target audience and the goal of the end result. If your product is one colour, choosing a contrasting background can really make it pop. Keep in mind that the right background can make your products look expensive while the wrong one can make them look cheap. This is broad advice, and again, it pays to keep your target audience in mind when making these decisions.

Generationally speaking, Gen Z is being shown to gravitate towards bright, punchy colours that make a statement. Millenials often prefer more natural, softer colour palettes. Specifically shades of peach and salmon, as well as the aptly named 'millenial pink'. Gen X has been shown to prefer violets and reds, while Boomers prefer calming colours such as pale blue, maroon, and plum. Whatever you choose, what matters is that your imagery fits your brand and speaks to your customer.

Sweeps A good way to keep your background clean is to use a sweep. It eliminates the line between the table and wall and prevents you from accidentally capturing any blemishes in the background that you didn’t notice with your naked eye. On camera, the sweep's curve is invisible, emphasizing key product details and allowing the item to own all of a website visitor's attention.

Create a sweep by using a large bendable paper that curves from underneath your item to act as the base and a flawless background for your photo. An easily accessible option for this is a poster board from the dollar store or a roll of thicker plain wrapping paper.

Pictured: In the first photo containing the Jo Malone fragrance, you can see the line of deliniation between the floor and the wall. The second photo of the Iphone uses a sweep, eliminating that distracting line.

Active product photography For active product photography, consider the feeling and experience you want customers to associate with your product - remember, you're trying to create aspirational imagery. Use the background and the setting to help your customer imagine themselves using or wearing your product. For example, snap a picture of the lush bouquets you sell in an attractive living space or the streetwear you design against a painted brick wall in the city.

One way to put emphasis on your product while taking active photos is to use portraite mode, which will automatically focus on the subject of the photo while gently blurring the background. Another is to rely on simple context. For example, a seller of houseplants and a furniture store could post the same photo and have followers focus on either the plants or furniture simply because it's attatched to their username.

Play with Composition

Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in such a way as to complement each other or to create contrast. If you are photographing multiple items together, rearrange them as many times as you can think of. Sometimes within this process, you might realize that it would be better to photograph your items separately or land on a composition you never would have thought of.

Need inspiration? Don't hesitate to look at what works for others. Often we learn by watching others do, and putting our own spin on it. Everyone is inspired by someone. Using props or decorative materials to make your product look its best or to showcase different ways to use it can be a fantastic way to practice visually informative selling. Green plants can liven up your skincare product photo, make your item feel fresh and can showcase the natural ingredients in the product. Brass stands can make your items feel either more earthy or take on a dark academia vibe depending on the surroundings.

For example, if you’re selling whiskey, photographing a bottle or glass in front of the dark wood barrels can make a compelling shot. If you’re selling products that are small or won’t stand up, use your props to support the product. For example, place a box behind books to keep them standing up. Or, for more impact, use book ends or a pleasingly arranged shelf to add visual impact. Earring stands would be another great option for product photos, though photographing them on a person and in a flat lay would as well would provide good variety.

Let's take a look at three examples and why they work. The first, the whiskey glass is a gorgeous, moody shot using natural elements and a dark background to evoke a cozy, effortlessly sexy image. The photographer has added movement to the photo with the thoughtful addition of smoke. The photo feels like an experience, rather than a product.

Secondly, the skincare products are enhanced by a bright background that allows the juicy colours to really pop. The addition of contrasting green of the face sculpting stone allows the vibrant orange to take center stage.

Lastly, the black and white packaging of the boxed water allows for a bright background of any colour. The blue here gives the subtle message that water is thirst-quenching while still drawing the eye to the photo.

Experiment with Macro Settings

Have you ever seen a close-up photograph of a butterfly where you can see the scales on each wing or marvelled at a picture of a meadow where you can count the droplets of dew on delicate wildflowers? If so, you’ve encountered macro photography. Macro lens product photography allows you to capture photos of extremely small objects in sharp focus, detail-rich quality and perfect resolution. It does this by allowing your lens to focus on tiny objects that are very close to the lens. This photography style is especially ideal for photographing intricate products, such as jewelry, electrical parts (like a microchip), food and more. Even if you don’t have a DSLR camera with a macro lens, you can use your smartphone - most smartphones have a macro setting represented by a small flower icon. Check out this example of macro product photography of sour gummy worms:

macro shot of gummy worms

Add Accompanying Text

Adding an interesting caption is just as important as the image itself. People often forget that Instagram is a microblogging platform and that your caption is just as important as your image - it's what provides value for your customers. As obvious as it might seem, your shoppers rely on your caption to tell them why they should care.

That may sound blunt, but the core of selling is providing value to your customers and followers. If they don't see the value, they won't follow and they won't buy.

When it comes to using your product photos on your website, keep your text short and to the point. Don’t overcrowd your product pages with unnecessary information that will detract attention from the product - there's a reason many product descriptions are point form. If you need some inspiration, look to big companies with a similar look and feel to what you want your store to be and see how they lay out their product page. Don't worry, you aren't copying (as long as no plagiarism occurs) - it's market research. A side note for when using images on your website: don’t forget to add alt text to all your images. Google can’t see what your image contains so you need to explain what the image is by adding alt text. It’s a good idea to use optimized SEO-focused keywords when writing your alt text so that your site will show up and rank on search engines.

Alt-text (and captions on video content) are also just good accessabillity practice. Alt-text can be read out loud to folks with visual imparement to help them better understand the content on your website. Captions on video not only help those who are hard of hearing, but are expected by hearing people as more and more people view video content without sound.

Tips and tricks

Finally, a handful of tips to help you get going:

  • Tuck out of sight or remove any product or price tags before taking photos. They detract from the image and look unprofessional

  • The judicious application of photo retouching can elevate your photos. There are many excellent tutorials online about how to do it well.

  • Don't be afraid to take test shots or to switch things up and play a little bit. Learning is a process and practice makes progress!


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