Product Photography… tips for beginners

Hullo! I feel like a bit of a fraud posting this as I’m still not that happy with our product photography and still feel like a novice, but we get such very lovely comments about our photos, and so many questions asking for advice… and objectively, I do think our photos have progressed and improved over the years, so I thought I’d do a post about it. There is lots of information out there, but I’ve never found much from an amateur, written for amateurs, without anything too technical in there, so I really hope this is helpful for someone.

I thought I’d post a few of our photos from over the years and document what we did differently, and any tips we’ve picked up along the way.

This is the earliest product photograph I could find of our work…. it dates back to about 2006? Something like that 🙂

11998955_964659216932310_7811179752306286309_nIt’s not too bad, but the surface takes some of the focus off the jewellery. The lighting is good and even, if a tiny bit harsh. It looks a little cold, because it’s has a slightly blueish tint. It was taken with a Fujifilm FinePix A600 point and shoot. At that point, I had no idea about photo editing… didn’t even know it was a thing! If I did, I would have added a bit of warmth to it (done by adding a little bit of yellow to the tone.)

11401395_923523524379213_5375222268644334852_nThis one was from 2010, and I know that because I started using my wedding bouquet as our background 🙂 This one, again, isn’t too bad, but the lighting is harsh. You can see it coming in from the right side. It looks a little grey and dingey… if I was taking the photo again, I’d hang a piece of white voile/gauze/muslin in front of the window to diffuse the light. Diffusing light is how you’ll get that gorgeous drifty-light look.

Like the one before, I would also put it through photo editing to warm the tone a little. I won’t talk about white balance in this, but later on in this entry, I’ll talk about my favourite photo editing software (most of it is free and online) and quick tips.

That one again was taken with the Fujifilm point and shoot. It didn’t have a manual setting, as I recall – or, at least, if it did, I never used it. I always used the Auto mode, and it worked fine, so don’t feel pressured to go manual.

197373_431827746882129_1893207037_nThis was taken in 2011 or 2012 and there are a few issues with it. The first is the extreme lighting – on the left side, it’s blown out by the light, and on the right side, it’s too dark. The best thing would have been that fabric again, to diffuse the light and soften it. Can you also see that the photo is super grainy? It looks fuzzy? I had recently discovered photo editing, and I made some rookie mistakes!

I took the photo in the late afternoon (not a great time for taking photos!) so the light was already going. I then had to lighten it some editing software. Taking photos in the dark leaves photos grainy (it’s called “noise”) unless your camera is incredibly fancypants, so when you lighten, you just end up making it look even grainier.

If I was doing this one again, I would have waited a day, and taken the photo the next morning instead. Assuming I couldn’t have waited, I still would have lightened it (increased the exposure), but I would have lowered the contrast. The contrast makes lights lighter and darks darker – by lowering that, I would have made the difference between the light and dark parts of the photo less extreme.

When you’re lightening photos, do it by single degrees at a time… less is more with this, and it’s reeeeeally easy to go way overboard.

248720_458709287527308_2006878407_nThis was in 2012 and the problem here are the filters I used. I guess I was going for a vintage-y look but they ended up looking a bit grubby and dark. You can also see from the wee photos on the right that the shadow was extreme against the white surface because, again, I’d lightened it too much and set the contrast too high. Also, the fact that all of the photos have such different lighting makes it look a big slapdash. Having cohesive lighting in photographs is one of the best ways of branding them.

547466_508110299253873_722253803_nThis was from the winter of 2012 so the lighting was difficult. Also, we moved to a place with awkward windows… to this day, natural lighting is the bane of our photograpy life! The very top tip I would give for product photography is to use natural light. We’ve tried light boxes and sunlights and camera flash and they all ended up looking awful. Natural light is so the way to go. Just diffuse it if it’s too bright, and try to have it coming from the side.

Back to the daisy chain! As you can see, I’ve lightened it so much you can’t really see it too clearly, so to balance that, I’d also increased the contrast, which made the pollen bits look almost orange. That’s actually a really difficult piece of jewellery to take a photo of, but this photo was terrible. I think, actually, it was this very photo that forced us to get a new and better camera – we were beginning to think Buttonsy might really be something, and we knew that having better photos was becoming a bit necessary.

1724255_665781750153393_1543072883_nAt this point, we upgraded to a Canon Powershot SX500. It cost us £140 which for us, at the time, was A LOT to spend on a camera. I really honestly didn’t understand that with a camera, you literally get what you pay for. You really, genuinely do.

Anyway, as you can see, the light was coming from behind, and showing through the flowers, which diffused it enough to make the lighting gentle, which is the look we like. There is still a lot of noise, though. (Noise is that graininess I mentioned earlier.) This is because the photo was too dark again. The light being filtered through the flowers diffused it wonderfully, but if you’re taking a photo facing the light source, anything in front of it will be darker. S’why cameras coming with flashes – but I learned veeeery quickly that using the flash on product photography is an absolute disaster. It will blow out your photos completely.

So, I again lightened this photo so the daffodils inside were clearer… that worked fine, but it made the photo be grainy.

If I was to do this one again, I’d change position so the light was coming in from the side, then diffuse it with the fabric. I know I keep mentioning it, but it’s pretty much our secret weapon! If I would have changed position, I wouldn’t have needed to lighten it so much.

I know I keep harping on about light, but that’s just everything in product photography. At least, for someone like me who doesn’t know a lot.

10690138_852367131494853_1542377047656974009_nThis is from 2014, and I started thinking about how to make our photos look more professional… you know those amazing photos that look so very, very stylish? This was my attempt… and it’s awful. I bought a white wooden shutter, painted in chippy white paint and, in person, it really was white but in the photos, it looks blue-grey. I still didn’t know about “temperature” (I’ve just edited this photo now to show you a before and after – I’ll show that next.)

Also, can you see that it’s grainy? This is because I took the photo from quite far away, so I had to crop it a lot, and it lost a lot of its definition. I actually don’t think the original was THIS grainy – I copied it from our FB page, so it lost more of its quality when I did that. Facebook compress images to save bandwidth and the more you compress a photo, the smaller the file will be, but the lower the quality of the image.

Here’s the same photo with a little bit of warmth added:

10690138_852367131494853_1542377047656974009_n (2)It’s a lot better.

11041827_888914207840145_6641193200221721162_nAfter the wooden shutter debacle, I tried some other woods… I LOVE driftwood so I went looking, and I actually bought them off the internet. The gorgeous blue piece… we still have that, actually. It’s a beautiful piece of chippy, rustic driftwood – perfect for Instagram photos, but terrible for product photography. It completely took away from the jewellery piece. I so wanted our photos to look professional and stylish, though, and I had already spent years literally pulling my hair out struggling with this stuff.

I so very much do understand the frustration of not being able to get your photos to look the way you want them to.

With the photos above, I’d also started trying to make the backgrounds look blurry – all the best photos have blurry backgrounds 😀 I do love a blurry background! I’ll give the links to the online editing software I used at the end of this. The problem with manually adding blur where there wasn’t any is it’s incredibly hard to make it look natural. It can so easily look like you’ve got your focus wrong, or manually added blur. Argh, so frustrating!

At the time, I was completely miserable because we had taken, by this point, upwards of 30,000 photos in total, so we were getting practised enough to see all the problems, but not practised enough to know how to fix them.

I knew, though, that we were going in the wrong direction… so we simplified.

11822603_949167455148153_8637240955585183811_nThis was better… I again messed up the blurring, but it wasn’t a catastrophe. The problem with this photo, though, and all of these with this styling – we kept to this for a few months – was it didn’t say anything about us. There was no character, or branding… or love. It was just very functional and slightly joy-less. Taking photos has always been a lot of hard work, but I’ve always LOVED it. At this point, though, it became a chore, because it did feel joyless. So, again, we knew something had to change. I started looking at other jewellery photos and saw things I liked and tried to emulate the styling I liked. Everything I tried was a disaster:

12043085_976999895698242_366362635149826825_n 12294733_1001368029928095_3660212193256032740_nThese aren’t good because they don’t feel like us. They’re not great photos anyway but – I truly believe this – because I tried to emulate the spirit and feeling of other photographs, it went wrong. It wasn’t our spirit or feeling, so it didn’t work. Vintage books are often mentioned as a brilliant background for jewellery, and I’ve seen some gorgeous examples, but ours weren’t successful.

I think this was my low point with photography, actually, so I took an online course. Or at least, tried to. It was run online by webcam with a large group of us and one tutor, and it was bad. The feed kept messing up and the tutor had different lighting to us and was talking about things we didn’t really understand. We actually logged off halfway through and I cried.

At this point, we’d also started using Instagram, and I found that demoralising, too, because I didn’t know how to make our Instagram page pretty. (I still don’t… it’s something we’re working out at the moment, actually.)

Anyway. I actually took time last September to think about what our business is, and the feeling of it. I decided to stop trying so hard to make our photos look like something I’d seen, and just decided to make them look the way they ought to.

We plumped for a small white dish and some small white flowers. Nothing more complicated than that.

I’d started learning more about our camera, so I was able to use it on the manual setting, which meant I could alter the amount of light and the amount of background blur. It made a huge difference!

il_fullxfull.865706012_3trrI still added to the blur using “tilt shift” – link coming up! – but the Canon SX500 did have some ability with depth of field (this refers to the part of your photo which is in focus, meaning the rest of blurry) so it was much easier.

The lighting isn’t that good, however. I wanted our photos to have that drifty, gentle lighting so I lowered the contrast (remember, this lessens the difference between the light and dark parts of the photo.) I lowered it too much, though, cos it made the photo too grey. At this point, too, I was using Photoshop – I’ll give you a link at the end for the best way to use it.

Anyway, the photo above was taken a few months ago and I think hubby could see that I was fast approaching the end of my rope with photography. He would constantly catch me online looking at cameras; we’d go to the supermarket or to buy a cooker from Currys, and I’d make a bee-line for the cameras. I spent hours researching them, and daydreaming about them and learning about the theory of them and looking at beautiful photographs. At the beginning of February, my wonderful husband told me we were buying a good camera. My dream camera was a professional DSLR, and that’s what we got. It’s our first “proper” camera, and it has made an enormous difference:


IMG_7849 (2)I’ve barely done anything to either of these… I cropped them, and maybe lightened them a little but that’s about it.

Am now learning properly about aperture, ISO, f stops and all things like that – all of those things change your photo hugely. They determine how light it will be; how clear and how blurry. It’s an ongoing process, but am enjoying it so much. Am having to do it after work and on weekends, but I know that it’s worth the time.

Having a good camera made a big difference, but hopefully you can see that our photos did progress even with the basic point and shoot. If you’re struggling with your photos, I hope you find it encouraging knowing that it *does* get better. It took us 10 years to get our first proper camera and Buttonsy was flourishing even without it so, honestly, remember your success doesn’t depend on your camera. Photos are so important nowadays, there’s no denying it. Instagram and Pinterest mean we’re all super-aware of that stuff now. But it’s possible to take really good photos with a decent point and shoot.

My top tips would be:

  • Use natural light – not direct, though. A cloudy day is pretty much perfect. Avoid your flash like it’s the plague.
  • Make the thing you’re photographing the focal point of the photo… a nice background (eg, pretty fabric/driftwood) isn’t nearly as important as your product
  • Use photo editing software to tweak your photos – don’t just apply a pre-made filter.
  • Don’t try to emulate other photos you’ve seen… it will never feel natural for you. Think about what your designs represent, or how they make you feel, and you’ll find your style.
  • Keep taking photos. Take them of anything and everything. Change the settings on your camera, if you’re able to. Change a setting, take a photo, and make a note of it. Change the setting again, take the same photo, and make a note of what changed.
  • My main tip would be: know that your products are worth good photos. I am often amazed by how many product photos there are out there with a gorgeous handmade item, on a rumpled piece of cloth, or on a piece of kitchen towel, or where it’s so dark you can’t really see it. It may take a lot longer than you thought, but it is so worth it. I’ve often spent entire days editing photos – it’s worth the time.
  • Also remember that if you see someone whose photos you love, chances are they have put hours into it. They likely took 50 photos of the same thing and whittled it down to the best 5 or so. There’s no big secret that you’re not a part of – it’s just something that takes a lot longer than you expect it to.
  • And, lastly, just when you’ve seen improvement, you’ll probably want to change things again 🙂 I’ve learned to see our photography as an ongoing thing – constantly being re-worked and improved upon. (We’re in the process now of re-taking *all* of our photos for the 3rd time. I can either see it as a blessing, or as a horrible, horrible chore. It’s totally a blessing!)

My favourite editing software:

The photoshop link above is to something brilliant called Creative Cloud. You pay around £9 a month and have Photoshop, Lightroom and a dozen other things. It’s tremendous, and if you’re willing to spend a few quid a month on this stuff, Photoshop is the benchmark for photo editing.

My most used-tweaks:

  • lighten – just remember to do it gradually so you don’t bleach your photo
  • temperature – if your photo looks a little blue, add a touch of yellow; if your photo is overly yellow, cool it down a little with a touch of blue.
  • crop – there are all sorts of rules with this. A lot of photography advice talks about the rule of thirds:200604301314You’ll often read that the thing you want people to focus on in your photo ought to be where one of the red crosses is… but don’t worry about that. I know am not qualified to say that, I really do – but I used to work myself up into such a tizzy trying to do that, and it never improved our photos. Crop your photos so your product is first and foremost – even if it’s in the middle of your shot.
  • sharpen – this is a tricksy one because over-doing it can make your photo look really bitty! But just a little sharpening can really bring out the details.
  • tilt shift – before we got the 7D camera and Photoshop, the tilt shift function at befunky was the thing I used the most. It will blur the front of your photo, and the background of your photo and keep the middle clear. You can adjust the angle and position of the clear section, too.
  • re-size – most cameras allow you to set your photo size but if you want your photos to be good quality, they need more pixels per inch, and they need to be bigger. This, though, means they will be several MB (megabytes) and most websites won’t let you upload photos that big. And if they will, it will take ages. Unless you’re going to be printing your photos, making them around 1000 pixels across the longest side is good.

I’ve just looked at the wordcount and it’s above 3000 which is an awful lot. And, honestly, I don’t know if any of this has been helpful… but I so hope it helps someone out there who is feeling the way I used to. I’m very obviously not an expert, but it’s something I care about *deeply* so if you have any questions, or just need someone to cheer you on, please leave a comment and I’ll try to answer, point you in the direction of someone that can help if I can’t, and cheer you on at the top of my lungs 🙂


11 thoughts on “Product Photography… tips for beginners

  1. Thank you SO much for giving out your time and experience to write this. It is such an encouragement and came just as I was ready to throw my camera out of the window. Well done xx

    1. Aw, am so pleased if it was helpful, Cathy. I *completely* understand that feeling. Today’s a lovely day for taking photos – I don’t know about you, but am gonna spend the afternoon practising! 🙂 Thanks so much for leaving a comment, it was really encouraging.

  2. Thanks for taking time to share your product photography ‘journey’. I can so identify with what you’ve experienced. I’m working hard at getting close ups looking right but tearing my hair out trying to photograph complete quilts! You’ve encouraged me to keep going! Thank you.

    1. Thank you, too, Allison! Have just spent the last 4 hours watching camera tutorials on Youtube… one day, this will click into place for us both. It will.

  3. Your photography is lovely, but if you are looking for any help with improving your lighting setups, let me know over on my Facebook page, I’m looking for content ideas to drive my photography and videography venture, I would be grateful for any suggestions you can give 🙂

  4. Really informative. I only have a phone camera and truly hated my last phone, I’ve now returned to a Sony and if and when I start making again I look forward to using it, and will promise myself that I need to improve my photos

  5. Fantastic post, I really struggle with my photos as well. Slowly learning. Love your acorns you have pictured.

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