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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Cook

DIY Product Photography: Pretty Pictures for Businesses on a Budget

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

A picture is worth a thousand words. I know that is a cliché start here, but we know it is true. These pictures tell a story, evoke an experience. And judgments are instantly made based on the quality of that story. What is exciting though, is that you do not need to hire a professional photographer to make sure your story is well told.

A business of any size needs high quality pictures

It doesn’t matter how big or small your business is, photos are used everywhere: your website, social media, ads, menus, online sales, review sites, and even on vehicles. If every photo is a representation of you and your business, and it is, then you owe it to yourself to make sure each and every image casts you in the best light possible.

So how do you make this happen without spending an arm and a leg?

Tools of the trade on a budget

Let’s address the elephant in the room. How much is this going to cost? You will be happy to hear that I am not going to tell you to go out and buy a DSLR. DSLRs are great, and if you already have one or are in the position to buy one, you should definitely use it. But many of us already have smartphones in our pockets, and the camera on the modern smartphone is truly impressive; you can absolutely take Instagram and Pinterest worthy pictures with a smartphone.

My recommendations for the most budget of photography setups:

And then optional, but nice additions:

  • A white bedsheet, a sheer white curtain or even wax paper to diffuse the light coming through the window

  • Aluminum foil wrapped around a piece of cardboard to reflect light

  • The free mobile app Adobe Lightroom CC (both iOS and Android)

Lighting up your pictures

Probably the biggest contributing factor to taking beautiful photos is your lighting. The wonderful part is that the best light is free! Natural sunlight is your best friend when trying to take pictures of any kind of product, whether it be food, art, clothing, furniture or people. Natural light will let your colors pop and create depth with natural shadows.

All you have to do is drag a table or the subject of your picture over to the window to be sure the light from the window is fully illuminating your subject. Yep. That is it for the super simple version. If you want to experiment with taking those beautiful editorial shots that you see online, you'll need to use the additions from the list above.

First, cover the window with a white bedsheet, or something else that slightly diffuses the light coming through. Then, use your aluminum foil wrapped piece of cardboard to reflect some light back at the subject at an angle. Play with this angle and rotate your subject to see the different combinations you can make. This is one of the fastest ways to make sure your pictures look good.

If there is no good sunlight available, you can use artificial lights. There are many types of light bulbs available at your local hardware store, and even the light bulbs that call themselves "daylight bulbs" differ widely. What you want to take the optimal photos are light bulbs with a high CRI rating (90+) and a temperature around 5,000K to simulate natural light.

Visual comparison of strawberries with lighting from CRI 75 and CRI 95 lightbulbs

Look at how much fresher those strawberries look with CRI 95, compared to CRI 75!

Staging and Angles

When you see a beautiful product photo on Instagram, you will often notice the artful staging of the product.

What you might not notice is the angle at which the picture was taken. These days, there are two very popular angles to take product photos, especially food: 1) from directly overhead and 2) from directly head on. And luckily, they are both very easy to achieve.

Directly overhead is pretty self-explanatory. One thing to stay aware of is the shadows that your phone and your body cast. Make sure that they're not blocking the lighting on your product!

Overhead shot of a teapot, cup of tea, spoon, and cupcakes on a gray, wooden platter

A tip for head-on pictures—particularly if you are using your phone—is to remember where the camera is on your phone. The camera is at the top of the phone, so make sure the lens is the part that is head on, not just the body of the phone.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you do not need to center the main subject in your picture. You can take it a bit off to the side or maybe have part of the subject going out of the frame. This is a great way to make your pictures look unique and stand out from the crowd.

But back to the staging. The simplest way to have a shot that is beautifully staged is to have only one or two props in the picture: a hand holding the product, the food in the dish with a single utensil beside it, some flowers or plants. This is an easy way to take chic, trendy pictures. If you want to get fancier, by all means, go for it! Staging the pictures can be a ton of fun! You can often find all kinds of interesting and unique props at your local Goodwill or second hand shops.

Don't forget about the background!

If you are taking your photos on a table, be aware that the rest of the room might be visible in the background. Make sure to have a tidy background so you do not detract from the subject. Also, if you are photographing something on a dish, wipe the edges of the dish to make sure it is clean and there are no smudges.

A pitcher and glass of milk in front of a colorful sunflower background

Check out this head-on photo. The sunflowers are pretty, of course. But does it make sense as the background of a pitcher and a glass of milk? Would you want to drink milk after it's been sitting outside in the blazing sun for a few hours? Keep in mind that the background and props that you're using should help to highlight the experience that you want your product to evoke!

Inspiration can be found everywhere.

You are not in this alone! Look online at what other people have done. What are your peers in the same industry doing? What is it that draws your eye to a picture, and how can you recreate it? Check out Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube tutorials, blogs, and professional magazines and periodicals for ideas.

Experiment with your photos!

This is the fun part! Take tons of pictures! Rotate your subject, move your props around, change up how the light is hitting, try things off center, take the shot from a different angle, use different points of focus. Really mix things around and take about 5 times as many shots as you think you will need. Practice makes perfect, and after a while, you'll get the hang of it.

So if I can do all this myself, why do people hire professional photographers?

I want to make it very clear that I have immense respect for professional photographers. The reason they cost so much is because you're not only compensating them for their labor and access to high-end equipment, but also for the years that they've spent to cultivate their expertise and artistic eye. Photography is an art. A professional photographer is able to create visual experiences that we just aren't able to do so on our own.

However, every business deserves to have the chance to shine. In my next post, I'll be covering some DIY lighting solutions to make your pictures look like they were taken in a studio—with a $50 budget!

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