When I began my career in ecommerce, I was working a 9 to 5 job at UCLA and now I am work from home mom of two little ladies. Neither of these jobs have allowed for me to shoot photos consistently during the day with ‘natural light’ like many online tutorials call for.
The past decade of experimenting with my own natural product photography at home has taught me that IT IS POSSIBLE to create lovely photos WITHOUT the need for ‘real’ natural light.
Mompreneurs and side-hustlers, rejoice!
In this tutorial, I am going to cover:
- What product photography is (and is not)
- Some really embarrassing pictures of my own photography journey
- Six MUST-HAVE natural product photography tips
- An online resource that will provide value to the beginner AND master photographer
The provided photography methods have helped me to scale my line of natural skin care and wellness products (check them out at Treesnail Natural Essentials) to the point where I can comfortably be a stay at home mom while continuing to nurture my passion for natural living.
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What is Product Photography?
Product photography is a specific type of photography used for advertising products. For those of us in ecommerce, these are the photos that you add to your product listing description to entice viewers to click and purchase your item.
This type of photography is fairly structured and thought out in advance. A product photo should clearly represent your company’s brand and be as close to perfect as possible.
As you can see in this organic lip balm example, product photography highlights the product itself without any distraction.
Photos should be well lit, clear, and look similar to other product photos in your line for continuity.
If you go to my ecommerce site and click on the main organic lip balm page, you will see that all of the photos are very similar and ‘belong’ together. The lighting is the same and similar props are used.
Check out this photo I used on Instagram to highlight my sustainable packaging.
Compared to the product photography example above, it’s quite different. The background is dark instead of light. The shot is taken at an angle instead of flat lay. I used actual sunlight here from my living room window instead of diffused lighting.
It is not as important to me that all of my social media photos ‘match’ one another exactly (though some accounts swear by it!).
As a solopreneur with two toddlers at home with me, I have to pick my battles and priorities.
Oh hey. Speaking of social media. You should probably follow us. Pick your favorite:
My Evolving Natural Product Photography Journey
After a decade in the ecommerce industry, I have come to embrace the fact that the photography portion is never done. Advertising styles will change, your product line will grow, and your aesthetic & skills will continue to develop over time.
I’m going to share just a few examples of what I’ve tried over the years, and it comes with blushing cheeks and wanting to legit HIDE under a blanket. That being said, I know everyone has to start somewhere, and I do enjoy looking back to see what I’ve learned (so far).
Here goes nothin’!
Product Photography with Real Sunlight
When I first started my natural product company, I lived in sunny California and took the concept of ‘natural light’ very literally. I placed my products right by a window and snapped away. I worked a day job, so I took all of my photos on the weekends and then edited during the week.
This is what my setup looked like. I had natural light, my products, a natural prop, and some texture.
That’s all I needed, yeah?
Looking at this now, I say, “WHOOOAAAA YIKES.”
But I remember feeling SO STINKING PROUD of myself that I was learning and just doing it.
While this wouldn’t be an altogether horrible social media photo (minus the scissors and candles in the shot…what the???), it is not suitable as product photography for a listing description online.
- The actual window reflection in the bottle is not lovely.
- While the plant is cool on its own, the jagged edges are somewhat jarring and don’t jive with the ‘Peaceful’ spray I was trying to highlight here.
- The angle of the camera made this look like a fisheye lens somehow, not at all easy to read.
- Though you cannot tell from this picture by itself, the lighting was not consistent with the rest of my product photos.
- Crazy shadows. Enough said.
I learned that if I was going to have consistent photos, I was going to have to be able to control as much as I could.
Product Photography with a Light Box
After grabbing a quick tutorial from a friend that is a professional photographer, I started using a light box and fluorescent lights on stands for the first time ever. Let me tell you, I felt faaaancy.
These lights had no way of changing the color/temperature. They were either ‘off’ or ‘on’ which was great for me while I was learning.
I angled the lights at about a 45 degrees to reduce shadows.
And the result was…better.
As you can see from the Clove Tangerine Lip Balm product photo, this resulted in a really washed out, intensely bright composition that looks overly edited (though better than before for SURE).
While trying for a unique comp, my props ended up covering my label details, which I think we can all agree defeats the purpose of product photography.
My biggest issue was that I was still shooting during the day while using the lights and light box.
Unless you have complete black out curtains, you’re going to have color variations in your photos if light is entering the room.
Because the light was still a bit inconsistent, my photos were as well. Additionally, I didn’t use a tripod for my camera because I was shooting one product a time, trying to get the perfect studio shot and then the up close detail shots.
In hindsight, I should have taken all my studio shots first with a tripod (for the first product photos customers would see on my ecommerce sight), and then gone in without a tripod for the detail shots.
If you are interested in trying out this option, I was sent home by my photographer friend with these settings for my DSLR:
- Manual, AF
- Shutter Speed 100
- F 5.6
- ISO 400
It is important to note that these settings worked while at his home in his specific lighting situation. It will be different with yours. (And I clearly should have adjusted it a bit in my own home.) However, as a beginner, it is helpful to at least have a starting point.
Give these settings a try, adjust slowly for your situation, and then WRITE THEM DOWN so you can recreate the same look repeatedly.
Product Photography with Video Lights
Fast forward six years and two babies later, and I can ONLY shoot my product photography at night. My husband and I work as a team one night a month and edit in between.
I have switched over to having a flat lay composition for my studio shots, so the light box isn’t needed for every photo.
We use one light above the products, shoot straight down, and have decreased the number of props we use immensely.
These diffused lights are nicer than the standard fluorescent ones I previously used, as the hubs is a videographer during the day so I get to bank on his equipment. #husbandpoints
(Wine during photo shoots is another good tip…I see you eyeing that glass.)
Using flat lay makes it SUPER simple to keep everything in the exact same spot and have consistent composition.
Having fewer props is also much more friendly on our budget and requires less prep time.
ALWAYS LEARN & GROW!
There is no doubt that my product photography will look different in a few years as we get different packaging, products, and equipment. Seeing the HUGE change and improvement since I started my handmade biz makes me look forward to seeing what we come up with!
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Natural Product Photography Tips
Even as your style and equipment changes over time, there are some basic rules you need to consider across the board. In this section, I’ll cover the necessities and a few tricks along the way.
1. Consider your branding
What is your overall branding as a business owner? Who is your target market?
Is your product line light and airy? Dark and rustic? Fun and playful? Luxury boutique?
Everything else below will follow these ideas.
Check out the three product photos for lip balm below. Each company uses natural ingredients and sells lip balm in sets.
What does each style say about their target market?
Which elements stand out to you?
Which ideas can you use in your own product photography?
Your target market and branding ideas should also help you to decide on a background for your product photography.
- If you have a handmade, country rustic feel to your brand, consider using driftwood or burlap in your photos.
- If your packaging and labels are transparent, as in the first example above, look for a background that has a little bit of color to provide some interest and contrast.
- Scrapbook paper is a popular background choice, as it can be found in a large variety of colors and patterns. Just make sure you choose something that won’t distract from your product or label details.
THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP I can provide in this section is to make sure the background is at least a slightly different color or texture than the edges of your product.
As you begin to edit your photos after the shoot, it will be important for your editing software to be able to see where your product ends and where the background begins.
My background is now a really thick piece of condensed paper pulp (I was a Fiber Artist once upon a time and have a million pounds left over), and this gives enough contrast for my various editing programs to make out the difference.
3. Natural Product Photography Props
Thinking about composition and props is one of my favorite parts of natural product photography…but it can also get expensive!
As you consider the suggestions below, remember that you will most likely be recreating these photos for your entire product line and they should look consistent.
- Will you have to buy some props over and over again for every photo shoot?
- Is this sustainable for you and your financial situation?
- What props can you mix in that won’t have to be repurchased?
SEO is starting to ‘read’ images
While you should be thinking about SEO as you name your photo files, also know that images can be found online even without the file name and alt-text. However, the bots need the objects in the image to be identifiable.
This means that if your lip balm is nestled in between flowers and branches and boxes and fruit and ribbon and #alltheprops, the search engines WON’T BE ABLE TO FIND the actual product you’re selling in the image.
And that means you have lesser chance of being found and promoted.
Keep your props simple while still providing a splash of texture and depth.
You need a variety of photos for each listing
At least ONE photograph is required to be able to list an item for sale on ecommerce, but many platforms have enough space for you to include 10 images (and sometimes more!).
Since your customer is not able to see your product in person, it is important to give them as much information as you possibly can through the power of photography.
The 5 types of photos below are five highly valued shots that you should try your best to include in every product listing:
Plain background with lots of natural light
A studio shot is basic photo of your product on a white background with no props (or at least very minimal). This is important for your own portfolio as well as giving other platforms the ability to feature your product so that it matches with others.
In its environment/being used
The lifestyle photo is important for conversions because it allows the customer to imagine how they would use it themselves.
Lifestyle photos also effectively show the scale of a product and possibly even where to store it.
With other items in product line or gift set
If a customer is interested in this one product enough to click through your photos, they’ll also be interested in other items in your line. Use their attention to your advantage! Show off the other things you sell or this item with a gift set option.
Regular packaging and/or gift packaging
Showing packaging solidifies the deal. The customer can imagine how it will arrive to their home (or to the recipient they’re sending it to). If you offer gift wrapping or packaging, this is also a time to upsell that option.
Many people don’t read closely enough to know that gift wrapping is an option until they see a visual.
You making it, packaging it, labeling it, etc.
Showing process photos of you actually making your product is essential in the handmade industry. It gives ‘proof’ that it isn’t actually coming from a factory.
This is also crucial for customers that ended up on your site from a blind internet search and aren’t already aware that you are a handmade shop.
Natural Prop Suggestions for Personal Care Products
- Already grown herbs & botanicals from your yard or a garden supply store
- Bonus: You can replant or use for cooking
- Obviously can still consume if the surface you’re using is clean
- Tip: If you cut a piece of fruit and it starts to look dried out after a while, brush some corn syrup on with a pastry brush and it will look freshly cut & juicy
Dried herbs & spices
- The BEST trick in the book…dried herbs & spices
- I purchased an herb sampler bag of 25 or so bags from Amazon back in 2009 and I still use them for EVERY photo shoot. If you store them well, you will always have props on hand.
- Not only is this great on a budget, but it will also save you trips to the store while prepping for your photo shoot.
4. Keep Your Camera in the Same Position
One of the most IMPORTANT things to remember for product photography is that your photos will be displayed RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER on your website.
If you want to look professional, they should all look similar:
- Same lighting
- Similar props
- Same distance from products
The easiest way to do this is to keep your camera in the same position as much as possible.
Use a tripod
Always use a tripod when you can. It doesn’t have to be fancy at all, just secure enough to hold your camera safely.
This aluminum tripod has a quick release plate and adjustable feet and is super affordable.
Using a tripod will keep your pictures more clear, ensures that the same amount of light is being let into the camera, and your shots will be lined up the same.
Allow plenty of distance
Put distance in between yourself and your products either by standing on a stool or putting your items on the floor and standing over them.
You can always crop in for more detailed shots while you’re editing.
Giving a bit of space allows for enough light to come into the shot, and also gives you more freedom in the future.
By shooting further away, you can use one photo for multiple things, cutting your time in half:
- Use the entire photo for a studio shot
- Zoom in for a detailed label shot
- Add space to the side for a cool Pinterest infographic
- TONS of options
5. How to Eliminate Shadows in Product Photography
Diffused light is the answer to beautiful product photography with minimal to gentle shadows. Diffused light is light that has been softened in some way so that it is not harsh and direct.
Clouds create diffused light because it is a barrier between the sun and the object the sunlight hits. Diffused light can be created for inside photo shoots with either a light box (also known as a tent) or with a cover over the actual light itself.
- Serves as a background when shooting products upright to create depth
- Can be used with direct fluorescent lights which is a bit more economical
- Very affordable
- Easy to store
- The box/tent itself can be somewhat cramped and difficult to arrange props in, depending on the size you get
- You either have to iron the fabric on the inside before each photo shoot or edit out the wrinkles
Light Stands with Covers
- You aren’t contained to a specific space, so you can move your product and props around more easily
- Large enough to use for product photography and lifestyle & portraiture shots
- A bit bulky to store
- A slight investment (though the light stands pictured here are still amazingly reasonable)
6. Always Shoot with the Same Settings
I’m sure you’ve caught on by this point that CONSISTENCY IS KEY for your ecommerce shop to look good, but…
CONSISTENCY IS KEY.
Even if your photos need some work (and I’m here to tell you that you’ll probably always think that they do), your shop as a whole will look TEN TIMES BETTER if your photos at least MATCH one another.
You don’t want your ecommerce store to look like a community garage sale that multiple people contributed to.
If you have already downloaded our Product Photography Checklist, there is a spot on there for you to write down your camera settings so that you don’t forget from shoot to shoot.
If you have NO IDEA where to begin, here are the settings that we are using for our flat lay setup with the light stands:
- 85mm lens
- Shutter Speed 1/40
- F 7.1
- ISO 250
- WB 5500 (temperature for the light stands)
I must say again (as I did in the light box examples above) that these exact settings most likely will NOT work perfectly for you since every environment is slightly different.
My videographer husband has actually urged me not to share these settings so that you don’t use them blindly.
But I remember what it was like to have no clue what I was looking at on my camera, and it was so very helpful to at least have a starting point and then adjust from there.
More Photography Tutorials
The information above is enough to get you thinking about your branding, backgrounds, props, composition, and a bit of tech. Doesn’t cover it all, by a long shot.
I actually haven’t found ONE tutorial that DOES cover it all.
But I HAVE found the one RESOURCE that covers it all…and then some.
The latest package from Ultimate Bundles covers ‘photography everything’ from beginner to master. iPhone photography to DSLR manual mode. From food photography to portraiture.
It’s massive. But you get all of it for less than $50 (all 40 products individually would be $2,327.74)…which means the likelihood of you needing to find additional tutorials elsewhere is pretty dang slim.
- 19 eBooks
- 14 eCourses
- 1 membership site
- 6 tools
The portraiture tutorial is going to be my first undertaking, because I really need to start taking pics of people actually USING my products to diversify my photos.
Check out the Photography Super Bundle to see which tutorials you can use for your natural product photography needs.
Strive for perfection, but realize that you will have a different style and technique as your brand and situation evolves.
For more ecommerce tips and resources, check out my FREE 17 page ebook below, available for instant download. I received some crazy awesome feedback on it and am beyond thrilled to share what I’ve learned on my journey with you!
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What is your favorite natural product photography tip?
Share in comments below 😃