Tips & tricks for e-commerce product photography

Image of household kitchen items, by c bay millin.

Image source: c. bay milin.

Businesses need eye-catching, impactful images of their products, whether they are just starting out or they're well-established institutions. With the increase of competition between online “DIY” small businesses, polished e-commerce product photography is key to helping shops stand out and define their brand.

But really, all products deserve to look their best when they’re ready for sale, and items should always be presented with dimension, character, and accurate details. It's a task that's easier said than done, especially with so many of us relying on work-from-home operations to make product photography happen.

I've spent a lot of time crafting and honing my at-home setup over the years. With some basic ingenuity, these minimalist considerations have helped me stay nimble and cost-effective when producing quality e-commerce photography. After the images are done and ready for post-production work, Adobe Photoshop really helps me express all manner of visions, from the simplistic to the fantastical. Whether you are a seasoned professional photographer or a "smartphone-tographer," here are some insights into what elements you may require for a home studio set-up — from concept ideation to e-commerce ready.

How to build your perfect e-commerce photography setup at home

In my experience with on-site professional product photography studios, there is usually an integral team who directly work in tandem with each other to produce amazing imagery. These include Creative Directors, Art Directors, Producers, Photographers, Props/Soft goods/Food Stylists, Assistants, and Retouchers.

In a home studio setting, you may need to fill all these roles! Knowing that there are inherent limitations to a home studio, it's important to get innovative. Existing items you have at home may be a viable stopgap between being able to afford more professional equipment.

Here’s a breakdown of how to create a simplified home photography setup for three dimensional e-commerce products.

Set up a table against a wall

This is what you'll use as your staging ground. Depending on the type and dimensions of the table, you want to set this up with enough space to place the camera in front of the intended set.

When you stand with the table between you and the wall, position the camera 3’- 4’ from the product. The idea is to place your objects on and shoot against a solid surface. Next, you'll need something to help isolate the product in your image.

Create a “sweep”

This is usually a large sheet of matte white paper that is smooth and not too rigid. Longer sheets or rolls are also known as seamless backdrops. You can find a large sheet or flexible poster board at a local art or crafts store, if you don’t happen to have large sheets or rolls of white paper in your home.

The plus of using a neutral white matte paper is that it will reduce any errant reflections and color casts onto the product. Feel free to play around with different textures and colors of backgrounds, as it could enhance aspects of your product. For the most part when you are starting out or just want to put the emphasis on the products' textures and nuances, there’s nothing like a neutral white background to draw eyes to the right details.

Pin or tape this paper against the wall and allow the rest of the sheet to “sweep” down and out to the front of the table. Placing some small weighted objects on the table at the front corners on the sweep will help to keep the paper in place. The seamless effect created by the sweep makes a softer background by not having a horizontal crease defined by a fold in the paper or one created by merely sitting the product on a tabletop against a wall.

This gentle sweep allows the product to stand out with no distracting lines that draw attention away from it. Using a sweep also helps in post-production by saving you time — no need to remove the effect of a soft horizon. Next, place the product or object on the sweep — we’re ready for light.

Set up your light source

You need a way to evenly light your object to define the form and details accurately. Most non-photographers do not have strobe or flash units, but you would be surprised what flexibility a strategically placed table or floor lamp will give you as a light source.

You can use the flashlight function on your phone to test out how the light falls on your product, moving it around to see what the ideal position is for you to place a light source (or lamp!). If you do have a strobe that is not an on-camera unit, set it up in this place.

Whether or not you are using a smartphone or digital camera, you will want to create a white balance for the scene with the light you plan to use on a white piece of paper. Balancing the camera’s white point will allow you to photograph your object in a neutral color environment, with no bluish-cool or yellow/amberish-warm cast.

Camera and lenses

You ideally will want to have your camera stabilized with a tripod so that you can repeat the same angles on different objects to create a more cohesive branding of your products.

Using a lens with a focal length of the standard 50mm at about f/8 - f/11, is an easy starting point for most product shots. This allows for a solid visual place to start to evaluate the look of your product, though you may choose to switch to something like an 85mm or 105mm lens to showcase details and highlights.

Using a zoom lens will also help you to change the focal length, allowing you to see the differences between shots. Be prepared to adjust the distance you are from the tabletop if you do choose to change lenses or focal length, as those differences will require you to potentially move further back to achieve the same spacing as the initial standard lens shot.

Depending on your access to a camera, a smartphone in the hand will do, the caveat being that no matter the increase in technology for smartphone imagery, the sensor will always be about the size of the lens housing. When thinking about the amount of detail, larger pixels on a larger camera sensor will likely present your products with a little more oomph.

Newer smartphones tend to have different choices of lenses — wide, standard, or macro. If you're looking to use your phone in lieu of a DSLR camera, play around with which type of lens suits your product the best.

Setting up your computer and post-production workflow

Having the ability to do a shoot of any sort at home obviously requires a camera of some type. Whether or not you are more a photographer or a post-production retoucher, chances are you do have a proper working camera, computer, and a working version of Adobe Photoshop.

When you are coming into the e-commerce photography mindset, just know that you will need access to these pieces of equipment and software in order to do it yourself. If you do have a remote team who could help out, it would make good sense in the long run to exchange knowledge and eventually up your expertises to include both production and post-production skills.

Following the suggestions below, you may begin to think about your workflow — the way that you go from photographing an image, and how that file will move through from the camera to the finished file.

How to do an at-home e-commerce photoshoot:

Now that you have your at-home setup all put together, here are a few simplified methods I've used to make my e-commerce photoshoots successful.

  1. Prep the product on the table, light it, and make the adjustments necessary until you find a desirable outcome.

    When you find yourself without the support structure of a studio team, think of the shoot as a whole as a creative opportunity. Instead of merely following a preconfigured look or style, you have the freedom to shape every aspect of the image.

    When you know a product — how it looks, the textures, how it is used, how it makes you feel — you are more able to find inspiration to showcase it in a way that may outshine the notion of “on-trend.” So take the time to really look at the items.

    Clean them up properly to make them look their best. Perhaps use a mini-steamer if you have one on hand to remove fold-lines and wrinkles if you are photographing clothing. Canned air when used gently, is a great way to remove errant dust.

  2. Photograph the product.

    After preparing the items, position yourself to make the best use of your lighting, which will enhance and express those notable attributes to your clients/customers. In the home studio environment, when you are able to treat these projects as creative exercises, you will eventually come to develop a style of your own. So be courageous and flex out your preconceived limitations.

    If you are just starting out or just “testing your eye” with a phone’s camera, perhaps taking the time to learn about what your camera’s settings and options are, is a great way to wean yourself off of merely the “AUTO” exposure function.

    Without going into great detail regarding basic photographic knowledge or camera setting details, you have many options with how you choose to represent your products. (You may choose to follow the setup suggestions from steps 3 and 4 above for light and camera settings considerations.)

  3. Bring the image into Adobe Photoshop.

    When your image files are made, it’s time to bring them into Photoshop where you may refine the style and look to better align with your vision. Whether there are certain elements to further adjust, or details to cleanup, the main objective is to make the product web-ready.

Image of a hat by c bay millin.

Image file open in Photoshop.

  1. Edit your images in Photoshop.

    The amazing thing about a powerful program like Photoshop is that for every style of creative there are infinite ways for us to manage our edits. Whether merely creating a unified look to mirror throughout a lineup of products, or removing unwanted dust and details while enhancing texture and correcting color.

    For me, I have an action which sets up my preferred starting point structure, including adjustment layers and a high pass sharpening regime. I used to create all the layers and adjustments for each of my multiple files, until I just created an action which took a lot of the unnecessary repetition out of my workflow.

    The way I have it set up now, is all designed to tighten up the image visually. The specifics will obviously be different for different photographers and retouchers, but it is important to research how to edit your files in a “non-destructive” manner.

Image by c bay millin.

Application of adjustment layers and initial sharpening.

Image by c bay millin.

Creating a white background layer.

The benefit of using the white matte sweep comes into play here, when you can use the subject selection AI tool to isolate your product (and its grounding shadow!)

Image by c bay millin.

Using the Select Subject AI tool to select hat and shadow.

Image by c bay millin.

After subject is selected, I invert it to select the background.

Image by c bay millin.

Feathering the inverted selection to create a softer edge around the hat and shadow.

Image by c bay millin.

Application of a mask to “knock out” the photographed white paper background, and float the chosen feathered selection over the white layer, creating the notable clean background.

After inverting the selection and feathering it to achieve a softer border (thus creating a nice transition to a completely clean white background), you can mask out the product over a white background layer.

Image by c bay millin.

Before final export and save, I usually group all my layers into a folder after creating a new layer combining all edits.

  1. Save your images in Photoshop.

    Always remember to intermittently save your progress or iterations, in order to more easily keep track of your files and adjustments (Photoshop will also do this automatically for you). Also important is to back up your files after you are finished. A solid back-up regimen is key for archiving purposes, so that you can always have a copy available in case the original file becomes corrupted or is lost by the client.

Image of two hats by c bay millin.

Comparison of the original “as shot” version (L) with the finalized Photoshop version (R); with a solid capture in camera before importing into Photoshop, the changes to this file are minimal and quick to edit; they mostly further tonality, removing of unwanted details on the product, and color fidelity.

  1. After checking the look and tonal quality, export a low-res version of the images into a folder to review and send to the client or stakeholders.

    If you yourself are the client, then it’s really up to you when the image is ready to go live!

Image by c bay millin.

Final edited vintage hat image.

Get creative and enjoy the process

The above is a very simplified workflow, but I hope it gives you a little insight into the equipment I use, the way I think about setting up a physical product, and the way I organize my workflow to suit my desired outcome. There are infinite ways to go about making an impactful image, but beginning with a clean and simple approach will allow your creativity to flourish alongside your technical know-how.

Like all creative endeavors, it takes a lot of integral basic pieces of equipment and know-how to begin. The more fun part comes when you can adjust, play, and start to see where you may stray from the norm. Perhaps that means using a stronger, more "contrasty" light. Maybe it means a vibrant sweep with a reflective surface? How about dreaming up a theme for the product shoot, then going about creating each image in the likeness of that theme?

I didn’t begin my career being a product photographer, but I do feel that there is an interesting challenge in making the ordinary into something extraordinary with interesting ever-evolving tools. When you can take something as simple as household objects, office supplies, or even random items that do not inherently belong together and make them into something fantastical, there is a great amount of satisfaction that is derived from this sort of imaginative play.

In this way, e-commerce product photography doesn’t have to mean just products, objects, clothing, and wares for sale. It can be a visual expression of a concept or an extension of a brand’s personality. Truly it’s an endless quest for images — they may start out as representations of a product, but they can end up as something impactful and deeply moving.