How I generated stunning product photography and twelve months of Instagram gold in a single afternoon, without spending any money out of pocket and never touching a camera (or Photoshop).
An Introduction to DIY Product Photography
In this guide I will share the single most reliable DIY product photography method I have discovered to generate world class photos without spending any money out of pocket. However, let me be clear: This is not another clever tutorial on how to rig up a professional studio with a handful of items found in the lawn and garden center at Walmart.
In fact, my method is exactly the opposite of that. You can find dozens of DIY product photography posts elsewhere on the Internet.
In this guide I’m going to show you how I generated twelve months worth of Instagram content and a complete lineup of stunning product photos without ever picking up a camera or spending any money out of pocket.
I will discuss a few of the finer points of product photography, but this is not a technical how-to. You won’t learn how to build a backdrop or a lightbox. You won’t get any tips on which camera or lens you should use. And I won’t discuss how to build a lighting rig out of common household items. This is the DIY product photography guide you won’t find anywhere else.
Rather than focus on the technical aspect of photographing your products, I want to impart business acumen I used to produce a professional quality photo shoot, complete with studio lighting, models, and a photographer at no out-of-pocket cost to me. And it didn’t require any special talent either, just a bit of research and planning (and one ridiculously inexpensive web service I discovered along the way).
Not only will my method produce far better results than following one of those clever DIY product photo tutorials (I’ll share some of my product photos and let you be the judge), but it will allow you to hone a practical skill set that will become critical in other areas of your business as you grow.
If you follow this method, step by step, you’ll achieve jaw-dropping product photos you previously thought were beyond your ability…because in fact they are. But you should also consider this a beginner’s guide to “outsourcing and negotiations”. The method I used to produce a professional photo shoot is the same method I would use to tackle almost any business project that is beyond my current capabilities. And let’s be honest, we all want a business that is beyond our current capabilities.
When launching an ecommerce business, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the many roles you play — designer, accountant, sales, customer service, photographer, etc. — and lose sight of your true role as President, CEO, and chief negotiator. This guide, on top of being the ultimate DIY hack for product photography, will call your attention back to your role as an executive, not a laborer.
When I launched my first ecommerce business in 2014, I made lots of mistakes. But one thing I got right from the very beginning was the photography. And I was lucky I did, because that’s what allowed me to ultimately develop the Instagram method I shared in my post An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Generating eCommerce Sales from Instagram. You could go so far as to say all of the successes I’ve had as an ecommerce entrepreneur flowed out of my first photo shoot.
So how can you generate dozens of beautiful, consistent photos of your products for under $100? Let me show you.
Knowing the Beautiful Photography When You See It
In order to generate beautiful photography of your products, you don’t need to take a course on photography. All you need is to know the difference. You need to know the difference between great photos and bad photos. If you can simply recognize the difference between the two, you already possess the technical ability to produce a world class photo shoot.
Although this sense is stronger in some than in others, we were all born with it innately hardwired in our brains. Tell me, which dish would you rather eat?
If you chose the dish on the left, congratulations you’re ready to produce a photo shoot. The sense that made you choose the dish on the left is just like a muscle. Let’s train it and make it stronger. The more you develop this sense, the better your photos will turn out. You can follow a simple two-step exercise to train your “photography” eye to a world class level. All you need is a free afternoon and a yellow notepad.
i. Research aka “Keep Your Enemies Closer.” (This is a great business exercise at any time, but it will be crucial to executing your photo shoot.) Make a list of your competitors. This list may comprise other companies selling the same products as you, or just other companies who sell to a similar demographic.
Next, organize the list from biggest to smallest. You won’t know the companies’ actual sales figures, but we all know who the alphas in our industry are. Use your best guess to rank each company on the list, then rank yourself on the list. Now cross out anyone on the list who ranks below you. They won’t be helpful for our purposes.
Finally go to each remaining company’s website and download your five favorite product photos. This collection of images will be the basis of step 2.
ii. Reverse Engineering. This is where the yellow notepad comes into play. Grab it and make a lengthy list of exactly why their photos are better. It’s not always obvious why at first glance. You’ll need to study the photos closely for several minutes before the differences become apparent.
Next, make a written list of everything that makes the photos attractive. Your list should include everything from shadows, to backgrounds, to model poses, everything. Ask yourself, honestly, what makes these photos better? Then write down the answers and hold onto it for later. This list will be the blueprint for your photo shoot.
Repeat this process as often as you like. The more you do it, the easier this method will come to you.
Creating Powerful Product Photos
Yes, product photos can be powerful. Again this is something we all instinctively know but rarely consider. Product photography can be the difference in thousands, or even millions, of dollars in revenue. Let me show you two examples.
First, I’ll use myself. I promised earlier to show you photos from my first product photo shoot ever. So here they are. My first (and only at the time) product was a pair of athletic pants made from specialty fabric that make them great for Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and Crossfit:
Let’s compare them to a picture of a similar product that I just snagged off of eBay:
Which pants do you want to buy? What’s ironic is the second pair of pants is made by high-end athletic designer Lululemon and retail for around $120. But, because of poor photography, look hardly worth $20.
Yet the second photo is what I see most often when reviewing others’ ecommerce stores. (I review stores strictly on a volunteer basis when the mood strikes, so please don’t ask to hire me.)
I’ll give you one more example from a fellow Shopify store owner. She posted a public request for other store owners to review her store to try to determine why her sales were so low. When I checked out her site, I immediately knew her problem was her photos.
As you can see, these two products are very similar. Both photos depict a silky, floral swim cover up in similar colors. I have friends who would absolutely love these. Both photos are high resolution and were taken by talented photographers, but one picture makes you want to buy something, while the other leaves you feeling confused about what you’re looking at.
The photo on the left is from Nordstrom.com (who I consider grand masters of ecommerce), while the photo on the right was taken from a startup ecommerce entrepreneur. The kimono on the left is flying off the shelves at $139, while the kimono on the right is not selling at $75.
I don’t share this example to shame the photo on the right. I’ve exchanged messages with the owner of that store, and she’s a creative genius and talented designer. I share it to illustrate that powerful product photography is more than just having a good camera or even being a good photographer.
Below are the few basic product photo rules to live by.
Quick and Dirty DIY Product Photo Guide
The following covers the basic rules of thumb to follow to create truly stunning photos. Remember, these rules aren’t for you; they’re for your photographer (who you’ll hire later in this guide). But they are critical to keep in mind while “directing” your shoot.
Use a true white background. This is the most important rule. Many people feel that they can get away with choosing a “nice” background, like hardwood flooring, a table, or a brick wall. Let me be blunt: you can’t. A white (or other neutral color) is non-negotiable.
In the past this meant you had to learn Photoshop. But remember that ridiculously inexpensive web service I mentioned at the beginning of this guide? It’s a little company called Pixc, and they have completely eliminated any need for Photoshop in my life.All you do is upload your raw photos, and 24 hours later you download them completely edited on a bright true white background. And it costs less than $2 per photo.
A task that would normally take me two full days now takes me less than five minutes and costs under $100. Plus, they’ll edit your first photo for free, and if you install their Shopify app on your site, you’ll get an extra five photos free.
Sign up here: http://www.pixc.com
The product, the whole product, and nothing but the product. The reason why an empty background is crucial for product photos is that it centers your focus on the product itself. However, background details are not the only thing that can distract the customer’s attention from the product.
If you were selling a car accessory, say a tow hitch, you wouldn’t want a panoramic view of the entire truck…being washed by a girl in a bikini…on the edge of the grand canyon…at sunset. You want a photo of just the tow hitch itself, and possibly one close up shot of tow hitch installed on the vehicle to help the customer visualize using the product.
The Nordstrom photo achieves this principle masterfully, while the photo next to it leaves the customer confused. If your product must be paired with various accessories, use the plainest accessories possible.
The action shot. The one exception to this rule is the action shot. When planning my first photo shoot I knew that in addition to product photos, I needed lots of action shots in order to implement my Instagram strategy without having to continually reshoot.
Plus, action shots are key to visualization of your product, which is one of the five essential steps of any sale (but that’s another article in itself). In one afternoon, I had my photographer take enough photos of my product that I didn’t have to plan another shoot for an entire year!
The Power of Asking
The final and arguably most important component of my method is simply to ask. Most people assume that to plan and execute a high quality photo shoot would cost tens of thousands of dollars, but that simply isn’t true.
The photo shoot that generated all of my product photos and twelve months of Instagram content cost me nothing out of pocket. But I didn’t follow a DIY guide either. I didn’t DIY at all.
Instead, I leveraged my own personal network of friends and contacts to achieve something pretty spectacular– I asked.
My personal “network” is embarrassingly small, I’m from a small town, and frankly I’m not that friendly. Yet I’ve been able to achieve a lot from very little just by asking. Imagine what you could achieve with your network?
Everyone’s first photo shoot will be different, but I want to give you a basic skeleton to use and a few ideas on how to effectively leverage your network.
Most photo shoots will require the following:
- Your product
- Minimal photography equipment
You’ll want to start by recruiting your model(s) — it will be the easiest. Most people are flattered just to be asked and there is no need to offer compensation. If it comes up, politely explain that that’s not in the budget and you understand if they don’t want to participate.
This can be a touchy subject, but don’t choose your best friend. My product was athletic apparel, so I chose the fittest, most attractive people in my circle of friends. Look, we all know full well who the prettiest people we know are. Ask them first, then work down the list.
Next, recruit a photographer. This part is trickier but can still be done. Don’t approach your friend who is a professional photographer. He will want to be paid, and it would be rude to ask. Instead ask your closest friend who is the best amateur photographer they know.
Maybe find some who has considered doing it professionally but is too busy. Or somebody who’s just getting started and is eager to fill out their portfolio. Or just someone who does it as a hobby but is really, really good.
Then send them an email describing the project and asking them if they would like to be apart of it. Here is the actual email I sent to my photographer:
He said yes, and the rest was history. The truth is I know at least five “photographers” off the top of my head, who would have said yes without hesitating. But were they the best choice? Nope.
Get out of your comfort zone. Identify the best photographer you could ask, not the easiest. He is the most important component of the shoot. Work around his schedule, not your models’ or the venue’s.
Show him your blueprint and let him know you have given some serious thought and planning to this shoot. He’ll appreciate that you appreciate how much work goes into effective photography.
Venue / Equipment
Once you have your models and photographer in place, you’ll need to arrange a venue and some basic equipment.
Rely on your photographer here. Ask him what sort of equipment he will need to pull off the “$2K photo shoot” look you want. The more serious the photographer, the more equipment he’ll already have. This is another reason why you should go after the best photographer instead of the easiest.
Using your uncle who has a DSLR camera might save you an uncomfortable email, but it will cost you in quality and all the equipment you have to rent to execute the shoot properly.
Venue choice will be important for action shots. Otherwise any place with bright lighting and room to set up a backdrop will work.
And remember, there’s no need to rig up a fancy backdrop. Grab a white bed sheet from your closet and hang it behind your subject. Once you’re all done, upload the photos to Pixc, and they’ll take care of the rest.
If your photographer is good, he’ll already know this, but basically you can’t have too much lighting. Pick a place that is already brightly lit and then bring more. Ask your friends if they know anyone who has studio lighting.
Tip: Sometimes bigger churches will have expensive lighting for shooting videos. If they won’t let you borrow it, ask to hold the shoot onsite! Be creative, be bold, and don’t be afraid to ask.
Following these basic steps, my photographer captured dozens of beautiful photos that made people want my product bad, and at the same time gave me enough content to post to Instagram (almost) every day for an entire year. (Yes, I rerun photos on my Instagram, and you should too. But that’s a topic for another day.)
This guide is probably not what you expected when you clicked on the link, but it is far and away the best method for achieving stunning photos of your products.
I have used this method myself repeatedly, and I would credit 90% of the success of my company to the quality of my photography. In fact, while I was putting the finishing touches on this article I literally received two orders from my website for a total of $167.95. That sale came in thanks to a photo I just posted to Instagram a few minutes ago — snapped almost twelve months ago during a professional photoshoot I planned and executed for free.
I hope this was helpful, and I hope you’ll consider sharing it on your favorite social media site.