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JACK'S TIPS: Product Photography

Jack The Hat's Simple Guide To Product Photography

The most common question we get asked is how to photograph items properly for listing on eBay or similar websites. We hope this completely free step-by-step guide will help answer some of your own queries.

"Hi folks, just switching on your camera and pushing the shutter button is how most people take a photograph of an item they intend to sell on eBay or their own website. While this will give your prospective customer a rough idea of what they are buying, it will hardly do the item justice and you may end up selling it for much less than its true worth."

"For the following examples I have used my now ageing Canon Powershot digital compact camera. You don't need a 10 megapixel SLR to get good product photos. A relatively basic 2 or 3 megapixel compact will get great results if used correctly. Almost all of the products we sell are photographed using a basic digital compact camera."

LET'S GET STARTED

"It's no good just plonking your item on your kitchen table and firing off a couple of shots. You must choose a suitable background and, most importantly, photograph it in good quality light. That means taking pictures at night are a big no no if you're using a digital compact! Take your photos in bright daylight, either outdoors or on a well lit windowsill or table in your home. Contrary to popular belief, you will get far better results on a bright overcast day than you will on a hot sunny day. When it's cloudy and bright you get a nice soft even light without harsh shadows. For this example I chose a brightly lit windowsill near the top floor of my house (See figure 1 below)"

"OK, I've selected the location. You can see it's nice and bright and well lit. Now I need to move my wife's sorry looking houseplant and replace it with a suitable background. (See figure 2 below)"

"I've chosen one of our Super Pro backgrounds and just laid it on the windowsill and smoothed it out a bit. To stop it sliding off I weighted it down with the first two objects I could get hold of - my mobile phone and my cup of Yorkshire Tea (milk with 1 sugar). For this example I decided to photograph my battered old Timex watch."

"Just for fun I took a picture of it straight away with the camera set to its usual fully automatic mode. This is the way most people will do it and, as you can see in figure 3 below, the result isn't bad but it is hardly spectacular. The camera decided to fire the flash which has resulted in the watch appearing far too bright and most of the fine details have been lost."

"My golden rule for product photography using a digital compact camera is to TURN OFF THE FLASH at all times. Some cameras won't allow you to turn off the flash when in fully automatic mode. If that's the case then you will need to switch your camera's basic operating mode to an alternative mode such as Program Mode or Aperture Priority etc. If your camera has a macro mode then you may find it useful when taking pictures of small items. To turn off the flash on my camera I need to change out of fully automatic mode. I chose Aperture Priority mode instead (or Av for short). Then I just need to press one button to turn off the flash (see below). Check your instruction manual if you don't know how to do it on your camera."

"So, now that my flash has been turned off I am ready to try taking the picture again. See figure 4 below for the result."

RESULT: "What's happened here? Surely that looks worse than ever! Well, you're exactly right. It looks terrible and all blurred. The reason for the blurred image is because my camera has now had to keep its shutter open for much longer because of the reduced amount of light available. When I turned off the flash, I effectively gave the camera no option but to use only daylight to produce the photo. Because the daylight isn't as strong as the light that comes from a bright burst of flash, my camera had to hold open its shutter much longer in order to gather the same amount of light. Even though the shutter was only open for approximately a quarter of a second, it was long enough for the camera's sensor to pick up the swaying movement from my wobbly hands which has resulted in a blurred image."

SOLUTION: "There are two easy ways I could have avoided this blurred image. The first way would be to mount the camera on a tripod or even rest it on something solid to avoid the camera shake. The other way, and the easiest way, would be to alter the ISO setting on my camera. By increasing the ISO setting, I can effectively increase the light capturing sensitivity of my camera's sensor. A more sensitive sensor means that the shutter doesn't have to stay open as long to gather the same amount of light. With the shutter open for a shorter period, the likelihood of a blurred image is reduced. It sounds a little complicated but it is really easy to do. As you can see below, I change the ISO setting on my camera from 100 to 400. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes."

"OK, so now I have increased the ISO from 100 to 400 and have the flash turned off I am ready to try taking the photo for a third and final time. See figure 5 below for the result."

"And there you have it! OK, so it isn't a complete masterpiece but that wasn't what we set out to achieve. The finished photo clearly shows all the details of the watch. The watch appears sharp and reasonably well presented with a pleasant and non-distracting background. Following simple steps like this can greatly increase the selling chances of your items. You can expect higher selling prices and more customers. The method I have described isn't time consuming and can be done in well under a minute with practice."

To sum up, here are my top tips:

1. Find a suitable area that is well lit, preferably in strong daylight.

2. Choose a nice clean background that will complement your item.

3. Turn off the flash on your camera.

4. If your pictures suffer from camera shake, increase the ISO setting on your camera or use a tripod.

USING A WHITE BACKGROUND

The only other difficulty you may come across is if you are photographing something against a white or very bright background.

If you do want to photograph objects against a white or bright background please have a read through the following guide:

"I've chosen one of our Super Pro white backgrounds and just laid it on the windowsill and smoothed it out a bit. You may be wondering why I need a white background when the windowsill is already white. The reason is simple: The windowsill is painted in white gloss which will give a nasty reflection. Also, the windowsill has a few noticeable marks which will show up on the final image."

"I took a picture of it straight away with the camera set to its usual fully automatic mode. This is the way most people will do it and, as you can see in figure B below, the result is fairly poor. The camera decided to fire the flash which has resulted in a small part of the watch appearing far too bright. Not only that, the whole image is far too dark."

"My golden rule for product photography using a digital compact camera is to TURN OFF THE FLASH at all times. Some cameras won't allow you to turn off the flash when in fully automatic mode. If that's the case then you will need to switch your camera's basic operating mode to an alternative mode such as Program Mode or Aperture Priority etc. If your camera has a macro mode then you may find it useful when taking pictures of small items. To turn off the flash on my camera I need to change out of fully automatic mode. I chose Aperture Priority mode instead (or Av for short). Then I just need to press one button to turn off the flash (see below). Check your instruction manual if you don't know how to do it on your camera."

"So, now that my flash has been turned off I am ready to try taking the picture again. See figure C below for the result."

RESULT: "What's happened here? Well, the bright spot has gone but the whole image is still way too dark. The reason for the dark image is because the bright white background has fooled my camera's exposure system. Almost all cameras, including expensive digital SLRs, suffer from this phenomenon. Some cameras are worse than others but there is usually a very easy way to correct it."

SOLUTION: "Almost all digital cameras have a facility to allow you to manually increase the exposure. This forces the camera to gather more light than it normally would in any given situation. Check your camera's user manual to see how to adjust the setting on your camera. On my camera it is simply a case of pressing one button and then selecting how much you want to adjust the exposure. Exposure is measured in something called STOPS or EV. When photographing against a bright background we need to tell the camera to increase the exposure. For this example I am going to increase my camera's exposure by +1 STOP or +1 EV (see below). The more you increase the exposure the brighter your final image will be."

"OK, so now I have increased the exposure by +1 STOP or +1 EV and have the flash turned off. I am now ready to try taking the photo for a third time. See figure D below for the result."

"And there you have it! OK, so it isn't a complete masterpiece but that wasn't what we set out to achieve. If the photo was still too dark I could have increased the exposure even more and kept trying until I got it right. The finished photo clearly shows all the details of the watch. The watch appears sharp and reasonably well presented with a pleasant and non-distracting background. Following simple steps like this can greatly increase the selling chances of your items. You can expect higher selling prices and more customers. The method I have described isn't time consuming and can be done in well under a minute with practice."

To sum up, here are my top tips for photographing objects against a white background:

1. Find a suitable area that is well lit, preferably in strong daylight.

2. Turn off the flash on your camera.

3. Increase the exposure setting on your camera if necessary.

4. If you are using a black background then you may need to decrease the exposure instead.

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