Get the Picture

5 common product photography mistakes, and how to correct them

by Cindy Shebley
- Mar 08, 2010

In my last article, I discussed the various stylistic approaches to product photography, and what types of images really catch buyers' attention. But to consistently produce good-quality product shots, you first need to have a few basic elements in place. All too often, sellers take these for granted. As a result, their listings lack the kind of impact that entices lookers to buy.

Here, I've summarized the five most common product photography mistakes, and how to correct them.

Mistake #1: The camera is not up to the task

Don't worry; I'm not going to tell you that you must have a super-fancy, very complex and expensive, professional-grade DSLR camera to photograph your items. Today's cameras can create good-looking photographs automatically, without too much participation on the photographer's part. Simply point and shoot, and let the camera decide the rest. (Actually, there are a few settings on a digital camera that are important for eBay product photographers to know about. Generally, these settings don't come on older, cheaper cameras).

I am going to tell you that you should buy the best camera you can afford. And, if you are still using a digital camera you bought several years ago with only 2 or 3 megapixels of resolution, you definitely need to upgrade. eBay now accepts higher resolution pictures—which means those 2- and 3-megapixel images run the risk of being very pixilated (or out of focus) if you do any cropping.

What should you look for when upgrading or purchasing a camera for online product photography? Here's a quick list:

  • Make sure the camera has manual settings that allow you to control the shutter speed and aperture openings. Your camera should have enough manual overrides that you can turn the flash off, control the exposure and change the ISO settings. That probably means purchasing a "hybrid" or DSLR-type camera. They're a little larger than most pocket cameras, but contain many customizable settings. If you don't understand what those settings are, a camera class is in order. I recently taught a basic digital camera class on the Web Sellers' Circle, which covers all these settings and more.
  • Look for a name-brand camera with good quality optics (or glass). You're not going to get a clear, sharp picture with a $50, no-name camera with plastic lens optics.
  • With video marketing exploding, it's a good idea to buy a camera that will allow you to take short videos as well.

Mistake #2: Not using a tripod

Move in close with your camera. Don't be afraid of your subject

Hey, I've tripped over tripods, too. Yes, tripods can slow down the picture-taking process—but they are essential to getting a sharp photo. Without a tripod, any minor movement (when you're shooting at the slower shutter speeds indoor photography requires) will cause the final results to be blurry. Fuzzy photos will not help sell your items. So stop and smell the roses. While you're at it, take a little extra time to compose the picture.

Tripods come in a number of sizes. Pick one that works best with your needs. If you only use the tripod when taking indoor product shots, a small, lightweight tabletop tripod will be perfect. If you shoot outdoors, on location, you may need a full-size, heavy tripod that will give you lots of stability.

Mistake #3: Not getting close enough

Buyers want to see a nice close-up picture of the item they are considering buying. Move in close with your camera. Don't be afraid of your subject. If you cannot move physically closer with your camera, use the zoom lens feature.

Strive to fill the viewfinder (or LCD screen) with the item you're photographing.

Mistake #4: Cluttered background

Before your click the shutter, focus your eye on the areas behind and around your item. One sure way to ruin a sale is with a cluttered background. Or, worse yet, a background that makes your item look ordinary. No one wants to know that their precious purchase came from your dusty basement! Buyers have romantic notions about the items they purchase and seeing the collectible they love sitting on top of a washing machine, kitchen table, living room floor or your bed just doesn't cut it.

Even if you have limited space, you can create an uncluttered background and isolate your item. I like to use a 20 X 24-inch posterboard. I'll tape the poster board to the back of a chair and bend the board gently forward to create a sweeping backdrop. My buyers would never know I used a kitchen chair to photograph my items.

You can use fabric as well. The idea is to just put up a simple background so the surrounding area doesn't show.

Mistake #5: Bad lighting

Your photos look gray, so the photo must need more light, right? Not so fast.

I actually get this question frequently, in some form or another: "I have a two-light setup, and I'm using a soft box, but my photos are still muddy and dark. How much light do I need?"

If you have two 100-watt lights (the equivalent of 200 watts bright) and a tripod, your camera has enough light to make a nice, bright exposure. The reason you're not getting bright photos has to do with the camera's metering system.

Changing the exposure setting will get you those proper all-white shots without extra lights

Without going too far into the technical details, let me explain what happens and how to fix it. When you press down on the shutter button, you tell your camera, "Wake up, it's time to make some decisions and take this photo." The microprocessor in the camera looks for something to focus on, takes a reading on what type of light you're shooting with, and makes a correction. During the same sequence it looks at all the light and dark values in the scene.

The camera reads all those light and dark tones to come up with an average (thus a good exposure). The engineers who create the camera metering systems set up those microprocessors to average the values toward a neutral gray color. This averaging works great for the typical scenes we shoot—kids at the parade, graduations, parties, etc. The problem is when we start taking pictures in extremes.

An extreme would be an all-white (or light-colored) background surrounding an item. Your camera sees all that white, and tries to turn it into a nice, neutral gray color—and we get those ugly, muddy photos.

To fix your camera's over-compensation, you need to change the exposure settings. If your camera has a "sand and snow" setting, try using this setting while shooting against a white background. If you have a DSLR or hybrid camera that allows to your set the exposure compensation (called exposure value or EV; it looks like a little +/- symbol), try taking a few pictures with your exposure set to over-expose by a half-stop to one stop. You'll have to experiment a little, but eventually you'll find the best exposure for your item and background.

Changing the exposure setting manually while taking your product shots will get you those proper all-white shots without extra lights.

A quick word of advice here: Professionals use lots of lights when they're shooting product photos. But understand this is less out of the need for brightness than for producing highlights, catch lights and, to some extent, shadows that make the item appear more dimensional. This produces great results and it should—especially for the $10,000 magazine advertisements. For a single eBay auction item, it's overkill.

Always weigh the value of your time versus the value of the item when you're photographing items for sale on eBay.

Mistake #5.5: Not using photo-editing software

Good photos don't just come out of the camera—they always need a little touch up. I'm calling this mistake 5.5 because I'm going to leave it here and pick it up next month with a few common and necessary photo-editing techniques you must learn.

Until then, if you'd like to learn more about cameras and photo editing, please visit us at the Web Sellers' Circle.

About the Author

Cindy Shebley is an eBay Certified Business Consultant, Education Specialist, Store Designer and author who teaches throughout the Northwest. The recently released eBay Marketing Bible is available in bookstores everywhere. Cindy’s Web Sellers Circle program helps sellers grow their businesses and stay competitive in today's marketplace.

Opinions expressed here may not be shared by Auctiva Corp. and/or its principals.

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