Picture Perfect Auction Photography

Pictures say a thousand words. What will yours say about your listing?

by Auctiva.com staff writer
- Mar 21, 2008

It's a fact: The most successful auction listings include good pictures. A jazzy title might lure buyers in, and a stellar description may woo them. But ultimately, pictures sell the product.

Think about it. No matter how amazing the sales pitch, would you pay good money for something sight unseen—to someone you'd never met? (We might have a bridge to sell you). Even the most basic or universally recognized items sell better if buyers can see what they are bidding on.

The good news is you don't have to be a professional photographer to take good auction pictures. The basic rule is this: Strive to use sharp, straight-forward images that provide a good representation of the product you're selling.

If you opt to use a digital camera, almost any model will do the trick, but try to use one that:

  • Has a minimum of 3 megapixel resolution
  • Offers good macro ("close up") capability
  • Is easy-to-use

Megapixels measure image quality—the more megapixels the better the image. Newer digital cameras offer upwards of 8 megapixels, but before shelling out top dollar for a new camera, scout around eBay for deals on used or new old-stock models. Whatever your camera resolution, you'll want to adjust the image size toward the smaller end of the range to reduce byte size—and loading time. Make picture viewing as quick and easy as possible for potential bidders.

Auctiva templates, for instance, start with 400 x 300 pixels, and the Supersize option is automatically enabled. Unless you're selling something with a lot of fine detail that you need to show, you will rarely need to go larger than 800 x 600 pixels.

Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of money on equipment to take professional-looking pictures. There's a saying that goes, "Buying a Nikon doesn't make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner." Having a good quality digital camera is a fine starting point, but there is more to taking effective photographs than the camera alone.

See the light

Let's start with lighting. Any experienced photographer will tell you that lighting is the most important element in taking good pictures. Too much, too little, or poorly placed lighting results in an unflattering image that incites less than the "wow" response you hope to bring about.

Now you may be asking, "Isn't that what flash is for?" The answer is, yes, under certain circumstances. If you're snapping a picture of Aunt Bea at the Christmas party, flash can be a handy way to compensate for inadequate lighting in the room. But how many times have you taken a picture of someone and gotten the red-eye effect? That's the work of flash. And it can produce a similar outcome in your auction pictures, in the form of reflections that distort or obscure features, or by creating a washed-out effect.

While that red-eyed photo of Aunt Bea may be acceptable for your memory album, it won't be portrait quality. And portraits are really what we're discussing here when we talk about auction photography.

Do yourself a favor and disable the flash on your camera (you can turn it back on for Bea's close-up later). With proper lighting, flash isn't necessary.

The surest approach is to use indirect but bright lighting. Unless you're planning to launch a big-time eBay auction business, you probably don't have any professional lighting equipment lying around. Not to worry. Strong overhead kitchen lights, or a couple of 100W incandescent lamps set on either side of the item will usually work fine. Just avoid using fluorescent lighting. It can give your photos an unflattering hue.

Photography Dos and Don'ts


  1. Start with a clean item.
  2. Use good lighting and a solid-color or uncluttered backdrop.
  3. Use a tripod to get sharp, focused images.
  4. Include close-up shot of interesting detail or features.


  1. Use flash.
  2. Copy images from the manufacturer or another online seller.

Natural light is best for attaining good color representation, so photograph items outdoors if possible, away from direct sun, or near a window in a sunny room. Cloudy or overcast conditions tend to produce better picture quality (without harsh shadows) than bright sunshine.

By the way, make sure the item you are photographing is clean and dust-free. Grimy objects are not attractive to buyers. A sharp, clean item infers a newer, reliable item. Particularly with crystal or glass items, silver, jewelry, or anything that should gleam, dirt leaves a dull finish and diminishes the perceived value of your item.

Use your judgment, though. If you are selling an antique copper fixture, the "patina" may be part of its worth. It might suffice to gently wipe down the item with a soft, lint-free cloth.

Keep it simple

Try to use a solid-colored backdrop to keep the attention on your item, not its surroundings. For most products, a white background works best. But if your item (or its packaging) is white or light-colored, a darker background is a better bet. Use a solid-colored blanket, towel or paper to create a backdrop. Hardwood floors or a solid-colored counter or tabletop are other good options. Let logic dictate, but in all cases, opt for a clean and uncluttered setting that won't obscure or distract viewers from the magnificence of your merchandise.

One piece of equipment that's worth the investment is a tripod, particularly if you are going to be taking a lot of pictures. Digital cameras can pick up even the slightest movement, resulting in out-of-focus photos. A tripod provides a stable platform for your camera, allowing you take sharp pictures. Prices run the gamut: You can spend as little as $5 for a perfectly adequate tabletop tripod or upwards of hundreds of dollars for a larger professional floor-standing model. But you should be able to find plenty of sufficient options for less than $25.

A good rule of thumb is to provide at least two photos of the product: one full image and a detail close-up. You'll want to start with a good overall shot. Get as close to the item as possible and still capture the whole item in the frame. Play with different angles for more interesting effect: shoot from above, on the horizon or from the side.

Zoom in on any unique markings or compelling features in other shots. Photograph the box or package, user manual or accessories where applicable. Remember, honesty is the best policy: If the item has any visible flaw or damage, document it with a photo.

It may be tempting take the easy way out and capture a product image from the manufacturer's site or use another eBay seller's image. Yes, other sellers do it all the time—but if Johnny jumped off a bridge… This form of "borrowing" is known as copyright infringement, and it's clearly called out in eBay's list of no-nos.

You can include as many pictures as you like, but upload time and cost increase with each addition. Don't post umpteen photos of the same scratch or dent. Just one image that clearly represents the characteristic you want to document should be plenty. If it takes too long to open your listing, you could lose potential bidders before they even get to see what you're selling.

Save, edit and upload/host

Once you're satisfied with the images you've captured, transfer them to your computer and save the original files as JPG (.jpg) or GIF (.gif), the most commonly used picture formats on eBay. You can now edit the pictures. Images can be cropped, rotated and resized. In some cases, you may want to adjust the contrast up or down—but don't alter the image so much that it's deceptive or obscured to the viewer.

TIP: When using JPG format, try to minimize saves. Each time the file is saved, image quality is reduced.

Various image storage options are available. With the eBay Picture Hosting feature, eBay will host one picture for free, but you can include up to 11 pictures for an additional fee. If you'd rather keep selling costs to a minimum, try one of the free unlimited image hosting solutions, such as the one offered by Auctiva. Or you can select the Self-Hosting option, assuming you have a domain on which you can post images. Simply click the Add Pictures button in the Sell Your Item form, select the Self-Hosting tab, and enter the URL, or Web address, of the image in the Picture URL field. Search online for "free image hosting" and you'll turn up plenty of sites that will provide you a unique URL for every image you upload.

Most digital cameras come with some basic photo editing software, but third-party tools are widely available from third-party vendors, as well as from eBay itself.

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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