There's no denying it; product photos are a huge part of your online success. They're visual ambassadors to your customers, showing off your wares and persuading them to "Add to Cart." At their best, product photos increase sales and improve customer satisfaction, as well as help tell your brand’s story. And although we strongly recommend investing in professional camera equipment, we understand that this isn’t an option for everyone.
The good news? Your smartphone can serve as a great interim camera while you save up for the real thing.
It may seem an unlikely choice for product photos, but your smartphone can be an incredible asset if you know how to use it. Smartphones have drastically evolved over the last few years to include cameras advanced enough to snap professional quality images, especially for viewing on the web. But just because your smartphone can take high quality pictures doesn't mean it's going to turn out perfectly the first time around.
Here are some simple guidelines on how to improve the product photos you take on your phone:
Know your device
The first step in shooting professional photos is knowing your device inside and out, your smartphone included. Learn everything you can about the internal camera and how much you can control out of the box. Many smartphones come equipped with several manual settings, including exposure controls, white balance and post processing. Take the time to understand how to use each of these tools to enhance your images. If you use a smartphone that doesn’t include these features, consider adding an application like Camera+, Camera ZOOM FX or VSCOCam. These tools provide helpful manual controls, include editing and sharing capabilities, and are used by many professional photographers.
Know the basics of manual mode
Although shooting on automatic can save time and yield great pictures, it’s much better to control your shot as much as possible. Although a smartphone won’t offer as much control as a professional-grade camera, understanding the basics will help improve your pictures. Here are the essential parts of manual mode:
Exposure is the amount of light that you capture with your camera. It’s controlled by three tools: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
- Shutter speed is the length of time that your camera’s shutter opens to take in light. This controls the amount of light captured and any movement in the frame. Although it’s unlikely that your smartphone has an option to control shutter speed, you can expose for different areas of light in your picture. To do this on most smartphones, tap your screen on the area that you would like to feature. Your camera will then automatically adjust its settings based on the amount of light in that area.
View of focus and exposure controls on VSOC Cam application
- Aperture is the opening of your camera’s lens that controls the amount of light you take in and your depth of field. (The depth of field determines the sharpness between the foreground and background of your picture.) A low aperture takes in more light and provides a blurrier background, while a high aperture takes in less light and provides a sharper background.Depth of field can be controlled by manual settings on your camera, as well as your distance from the object that you’re shooting. Shooting close to your product provides a larger difference between the foreground and background, creating a blurry background and crisp foreground. Shooting far from your product provides a smaller difference between foreground and background, which will contribute to a sharper image all around.You can control aperture on your smartphone camera with the focus tool and your distance from the object. For example, if you want a blurry background (low aperture), get close to your product and tap the area you wish to focus on. Your background will automatically blur, while your foreground remains sharp. If you want a sharp background (high aperture), then stand farther away from your product (a few feet at least) and tap the screen on the area you wish to be the focus. Your background and foreground will remain sharp.Note: When shooting your products, don't use digital zoom. It's notorious for reducing photo quality. Instead, physically move yourself to be closer or farther away from the product.
- ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO (100-200) is a low sensitivity, meaning you’ll capture less light. A high ISO (800-1600) is high sensitivity, meaning you’ll capture more light. High ISO settings will increase the graininess of your photographs and result in poor quality. If you have manual control, I don’t recommend going higher than ISO 400.
- White balance (WB) is a setting used to correct camera color effects, which helps keep the objects in your image as close to their natural colors as possible. If your smartphone has this option, it'll typically look like a button with the letters "WB" on it. Because your white balance is largely affected by the kind of light in your picture, make sure to adjust it whenever your light source changes. (For example, you may switch from daylight to fluorescent light when heading inside to take some indoor pictures.)
Examples of white balance corrections from Cambridge in Colour
Look for soft light or consider building a lightbox
When it comes to shooting product photos, nothing beats soft or diffused light. It's less intense, spreads evenly over the product (causing fewer shadows) and better brings out details, making it ideal for putting your products' best foot forward.
Luckily, soft light is easy to find if you know what to look for. If you’re shooting products in your home or office, set up a shoot near a window on a bright but overcast day to avoid harsh rays. Then, use a piece of white paper or poster board to reflect the light coming in and eliminate any shadows on your product.
Example setup courtesy of Veggie Belly
Another great option is to build your own lightbox. This way, you can shoot with any kind of light and at any time of the day without spending a pretty penny on a pre-made one. I built my lightbox about six months ago, and it works like a charm.
DIY lightbox on Strobist
Create an effective background
An effective background is essential to drawing attention to your products and reinforcing your brand. Many business owners choose a white background for a clean image that showcases their products. Others prefer a black background or even a staged scene. If you’re thinking about introducing colors to your product photo backgrounds, take some time to research color theory so you'll choose options that'll make your products pop.
Don’t forget to edit
Your shoot may be over, but your product photos aren't done yet. It's time for editing to take the main stage, bring out your photos' best qualities and help you convey the perfect brand message. Most of the camera programs listed above offer intuitive editing tools. If you’re looking for more, Photoshop Touch and AfterLight are great choices as well.
To get a head start on getting that perfect product photo, try playing around with these basic settings:
- Brightness: Increasing the brightness of your image will hide any imperfections and give it an attractive glow.
- Contrast: Increasing the contrast will help your image pop against the background.
- White balance: Sometimes your camera doesn’t get the white balance adjustment right. Playing with this scale to get the most natural colors in your image is a quick and easy fix.
- Sharpness: Increasing the sharpness of your image will help highlight the intricate details of your product and improve image quality.
Product photography isn’t a skill that develops overnight, so don’t feel discouraged if your first few shoots seem like a struggle. Just like everything else, practice makes perfect. If you keep these tips in mind and shoot regularly, you’ll be on your way to professional photography in no time.