As the owner of a small start up company, I'm required to be 'Jack of all trades'. Fortunately, I have a talented husband with a good eye for design, who has helped considerably in creating our brand logo, catalogue designs and layouts, business cards etc. However, the remainder of the 'day to day' running of the business falls to me, including role of 'photographer', which is where I've had a steep learning curve.
Good photographs and visual aids are vital for any online business, a poor photograph can deter a customer from purchasing a product they are already familiar with, let alone encouraging the purchase of something new or unknown. But as with most start-up businesses, the stakes are high, but 'budgets' are low, so we have to develop lots of new skills and fast!
So after many, many, many hours of Robins and Sons products photoshoots, some productive, some not so productive, I've learnt a few things which I hope may be of use to others.
You do not need a high end camera for great photographs - many smartphones have superb built in cameras, many of which have editing software so there's a lot you can achieve with existing tools. Failing that, a great free, online image editor is www.Pixlr.com.
Personally, I've found Pixlr.com a free, reliable and easy to use piece of software. In addition to amending the overall appearance of a photograph, it has 2 invaluable tools, the 'Eraser' and the 'Spot heal'. These can seriously save your sanity, especially when you realise the 'perfect' image finally achieved after 2 hours of moving things to the left, then right, adding a prop then removing it etc, has a 'mark / scratch' smack bang in the middle of it.
If using Apple software, the 'Tools' option in 'Preview' is also great for adding text and tweeking colour and brightness, which brings me to the next vital component, light.
For many items a light box (purchased or home made) can produce great consistent results, making perfect lighting conditions possible whenever you need it, day or night. However, food is best photographed in natural light (artificial light can make it look a little 'unreal', subtle differences and shading in natural light give a fresher, more vibrant appearance).
A table in front of a large window or door which lets in plenty of light, is perfectly adequate, or if practical to set up outdoors, that's ideal. Unfortunately, the major problem with natural light is that it's governed by the weather - bad weather equals bad light. We hail from a very beautiful part of South Wales close to The Gower, renowned for it's beautiful beaches, landscapes and luscious greenery, however, this is largely attributable to the plentiful supply of rainy days that we have! Oh well, goes to show you can't have it all!
Early mornings / dusk results in poor light, but also 'grey' rainy days, even at midday, can result in photographs with a 'grainy' appearance, and there is no amount of photo editing that can sharpen up the image enough to save it.
Both artificial light and natural light can cause significant 'glare' on some types of packaging (e.g. cellophane / plastic), which can then obscure the view of the product inside. It's difficult to get rid of this glare altogether, but can be minimised by using a dark background - black or grey.
Beautiful sunny days with a clear sky, can produce a 'bluish' hue on photographs with plain white backdrops. Also, when the clouds pass in front of the sun, an unexpected heavy shadow can be thrown across the product just as you take your shot, resulting in uneven, large darkened areas.
The solution - late morning / lunchtime on an overcast day, then use photo editing tools to brighten and / or reduce shadows on your finished photo. As there are great regional variations in the weather and therefore where and when you can have a photo shoot - plan ahead (see #3).
I am happy to offer my story as an example of a cautionary tale. Due to my inexperience, early photographs were often carried out under the guise of 'I'll just squeeze in a few photographs while I'm waiting for this to finish', or 'the lighting is good', or 'I have a spare hour' etc. There are 2 ways of looking at this depending on whether you're a 'glass half full' or 'glass half empty' kind of person. Did I waste hours of time taking photographs that didn't quite make the grade, or deciding upon reflection that a different prop / background would be more suitable (and therefore re-photographing the lot)? Or, did I spend time honing my skills to the extent that I'm now able to write this guide from genuine first hand experience (rather than a quick google trawl and bit of plagiarism)? Probably somewhere in between, depending on the day I'm having :)!!!
If products are not positioned consistently within the shot, confusion can arise as the same size items can look different in size. Perspective will not be adequately conveyed, leading to potentially unhappy customers. Ideally, place products in the same positio, in your photographic scene (if on a white backdrop, place a 'dot' or 'cross' where your product will sit). Then, be sure to position the camera in the same place - a camera tripod can help, they're fairly reasonably priced and readily available online. Failing that try and use a point of reference to ensure you / your camera are positioned roughly same distance away from the subject e.g. props can be helpful as you can ensure the prop is equally visible in each shot.
Props are also great as size indicators in themselves - we try and include common items that people are familiar with e.g. fruit, flowers.
Have your props ready and in position so the scene is set and you are ready to take the perfect photograph when the opportunity presents. Or if this isn't practical (e.g. fresh fruit used / photography area doubles as a workable space), take a photograph or your desired 'set' in advance, and refer to it when the time comes. What 'works' when viewed by the naked eye, does not always 'work' when viewed down the lens of a camera. It can take time to tweak and adjust what, where or how many props you should have in your shot.
When photographing subjects with a highly reflective surface (e.g. metals, glass, cellophane packaging), try and avoid picking up unwanted images in your camera shot by having a clear or darkened area behind you (and therefore behind the camera). There'll be fewer potential images picked up in your reflective surface.
Wearing a dark coloured outfit devoid of patterns is also advisable. I once spent ages trying to figure out why there appeared to be excessive 'glare' on one of our 'Boxed Bars', only to discover that it wasn't glare, but the reflection of the light coloured jumper I was wearing at the time. The solution, a black polo neck jumper with long sleeves pulled down over my hands, leaving just my finger tips free to press the button and take the shot.
This guide is by no means exhaustive, I am sure there's a whole variety of previously un-encountered problems and issues just waiting for me - which will probably result in this being renamed 'Chapter 1' of my 'mis-adventures' in product photography. However, apart from the technical know how, simply coming up with ideas for backdrops, knowing which format, props, photographic angles will / won't work, is a definite skill, which is achieved through experience and knowledge. I can honestly say that as a result of my own endeavours, I've developed an enormous respect for professional photographers. Pointing a camera and 'clicking' is easy, good photography that accurately portrays any subject in all it's glory, certainly isn't.