How to do Product Photography on a Budget: A Quick Guide

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Product photography is crucial for selling anything online. In the world of e-commerce, a potential customer can not touch or test your product, so the photos on your website must show your customer why they should choose your product over your competitors.

Because of this, having great photos is one of the most effective ways of boosting your sales. In fact, there are two important market trends to keep in mind for e-commerce:

  • Poor quality photos are the 3rd largest reason shoppers don’t buy
  • Highly detailed, close up shots triggers a sense of ownership by viewers

Because of that, your photo should reflect the quality and purpose your product claims to have.

This can seem a little intimidating, but taking great product photos doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. In this guide, I’ll tell you all the tips and tricks you’ll need to do professional-quality product photography on a budget.

What do I Need for Product Photography?

The basic things you’ll need for product photography on a budget are:

·       A simple photoshoot setup

·       Basic equipment

·       Editing software

·       Props

Most of the things you’ll need you may already have at home. If not, there are plenty of inexpensive pieces you can buy to help your photos look professional that can be found at a lot of craft/hobby stores.

Studio Setup For Budget Product Photography

To set up your photoshoot at home, you’ll need a few items to get started. You probably have most of the things you will need, but you can purchase some inexpensive equipment which will make your images more professional.

To get started, you’ll need a background and either natural or artificial lighting (we recommend artificial lighting).

Product Photography Backgrounds

For the background, you have two options: a solid background or a lifestyle background.

For a solid background, you’ll want to create a sweep. This is where there is no stark line defining the back and bottom of the photo.

To do this, take a solid-colored cloth, like a bedsheet (without wrinkles), and pin it to the wall about halfway up the cloth. Let the bottom naturally fall and create a seamless background. Another way to achieve this effect is by using craft paper and a chair.

A lifestyle background uses the space you have around you to create a relatable scene for your product or shows your product being used. You’ll want to have a tidy space that suits your product’s context.

They are especially good backgrounds for large items, like furniture and outdoor items. It gives the customer an idea of the size and a feel for what it would look like in their space.

Lifestyle backgrounds are also well suited for décor pieces and beauty products.

Lighting For Budget Product Photography

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of product photography.

Low lighting will not show the quality or detail of your product, and even lighting will cause your product to lose texture. Lighting that is too bright will wash out your photo and look unprofessional as well.

You also want your lighting to be consistent. Inconsistent lighting between photos will alter the appearance of your product between shots.

You can choose either natural light or artificial light. If you’re really on a tight budget, you can get away with natural light, particularly for social media. However, we prefer artificial light as it gives us the most control in how our product will look.

Natural Light

For natural light, aim to use a room with a lot of windows.

Be careful with windows that get direct sunlight as they may cast shadows from the grilles of the window, which may be undesirable.

Set up your shoot in an area where you or your other equipment won’t cast shadows on your background.

If your light is too harsh, you can diffuse the light by draping a thin cloth or piece of paper over the window. Cloudy days are optimal for having a diffused natural light source.

If you don’t have sufficient light, you can reflect light throughout the room with foil or another reflective material or supplement with a couple of artificial lights.

Artificial Light

There are two types of artificial lighting:

  • Continuous Light
    Your light source is low power and always on, like a light bulb or LED lamp, and mimics natural light.
  • Flash/Strobe Light
    Your light source is very bright, fast and syncs with your camera. Ambient light will have minimal effect on your product, allowing you to have the most control over how your product is lit.

When using artificial light, you want to use at least two or more bulbs.

Typically, your main source of light will come from the front 45-degree to illuminate the product. If there is only one source of light, this will cast shadows, so you’ll want a second light coming from behind or the side at 90-degrees. If you use three lights, you’ll likely have the third one aiming at the background to create a gradient, or aiming it at the product to create a rim light.

Typical lighting setup with 5 lights.

As with natural light, if your light is too harsh, you can diffuse it with cloth or paper.

For your setup, keep in mind the tips I mentioned above. If you’ll be floating your product or if you want to use plexiglass for reflection, make sure you prepare for this while you’re setting up your shoot.

Equipment to Get Started

For a simple product photoshoot, there are three critical pieces of equipment you’ll need: a camera, lens and a tripod. There are some other supplemental pieces you may want to try, so I’ll talk about those here as well.

Camera

This is where most people tend to worry about budget, as cameras can get quite expensive. Although it seems counter-intuitive, your camera is the least important tool in your arsenal.

Your knowledge and skill regarding lighting, composition, and the lens you use are what’s going to give you the best results.

So for basic product shoots on a budget, there’s no need to buy the best, highest quality camera and lens on the market unless you’re shooting for some of the biggest brands.

Your lighting and staging is what will set you up for a great photo. In fact, an iPhone or other smartphone camera can get you by as well, as long as it’s a relatively new model.

While DSLR cameras can be priced on the high side with some awesome features, mirrorless cameras are less expensive but still shoot great quality photos.

“Point and shoot,” or compact cameras, are the lowest priced, but I wouldn’t recommend them for product photos. They have fixed lenses, meaning they can’t be swapped for different functions, or upgraded in the future.

Low-Priced Options

Here, I’ve put together a few options that are low priced and good for beginners but are still high quality and great for product photography.

· Canon EOS 4000D Kit. This is a low-priced SLR camera that is recommended by many as an entry level camera that can also work for product photography. It has ease of use and many features that allow you to be creative with your shots. Go to the Amazon to check out a full kit, with lens and tripod.

· Nikon D3400. This Nikon is a surprisingly low-budget option, especially considering it’s a DSLR camera. It has step-by-step instructions within the camera, and to make the switch from smartphone to camera easier, the photos you take can be carried directly to your phone or tablet. These features and so many more make this a great camera for starting out.

· Sony a6000 Kit. This mirrorless DSLR camera from Sony is another great option, and at 24 megapixels it takes amazing photos too. For reference, the photo above was taken with our Sony a6600. Although the a6600 is more feature rich, this a6000 kit has several high-end features that makes it a great low-budget option and comes with a lens and tripod as well.

Camera Lens

An additional camera lens is optional, as you can take great quality photos with just the kit lens.

However, there are many different reasons why you would want to invest in a more premium lens, such as sharpness, speed, bokeh style and compression. Our preferred lens type for product photography is a 100mm macro lens, but those types of lenses can be very expensive.

Depending on the brand and specifications of your camera, the lens you’ll want to buy will vary. In many cases, a Zoom lens between 45-100mm is very versatile and would be your budget choice.

Tripod

A tripod is used to hold your phone or camera securely in place and in one spot. This is not only convenient, but it is critical for product photography because you will achieve the sharpest image and consistent positioning of your photos.

If you take a photo and set down the camera to adjust props or set up a new item, when you begin to take another photo, it will not be in the same place as it was for the first photo. Every time you change your angle, your composition changes and little adjustments you make will go to waste.

When you compare these photos side-by-side, the positioning of the products will be inconsistent, as well as the lighting. This looks unprofessional, especially if the photos are grouped together.

There are tripods available for both cameras and smartphones. They are relatively inexpensive and will last a long time, but are nowhere near as useful as an expensive studio stand.

If it just isn’t in your budget, you can prop up your camera on almost anything, however this isn’t the best way to do it.

Light Tent or Box

This is an optional piece of equipment, but it will be helpful if using artificial lighting and you just want something on a white background.

It is a small box covered with a thin, white fabric. This creates diffused light inside the box, perfect for product photos. It is essentially a mini version of the sheet on the wall background I mentioned before. You can buy one, or you can follow this DIY for a budget option.

Light tents are perfect for small items or food shots. These are too small to use for medium-size or large products, and we generally don’t recommend using them for professional work.

In fact, if you’re looking to shoot a lot of products on a white background, we’ve made a video on how to get the majority of your results in camera:

Editing Software

When it’s time to edit, ideally, you won’t need to do too much to the photo. There are a lot of product photographers who get one shot for every detail they want to capture, but our philosophy is to get as much of the shot as we can in a single image so we don’t have to composite so many things together.

With proper lighting, setup, and equipment, you should only need to do a few minor touch-ups.

If you edit your photo too much, especially the exposure and saturation of the color, the photos will not show the true representation of your product. This is misleading to customers and can affect your sales negatively.

In fact, one of the largest reasons why customers will return a product is because it doesn’t look the same as the photo.

If you already have Adobe Photoshop, that will work perfectly for simple and advanced editing. If you don’t have photoshop or don’t want to purchase an editing tool, there are lots of free tools online that are available in the app store on your computer or phone.

Gimp is a photo editing program available for free. Because of its many features, it is the closest to Photoshop you can get without purchasing a subscription. It has several professional-grade tools made accessible for beginners. This is the perfect tool for quick, hassle-free editing.

Props

Props are fantastic tools for livening up your photos. The ideas for props are endless, and they will depend on the product you are selling. You want your props to enhance your product and fit the context and theme you are aiming for.

These items should be practical and help your customers relate to what you’re selling. Items from around your home will be great props for most shoots, but you can find inexpensive props online or at your local hobby/thrift store.

I’ll list a few of my favorite prop ideas, otherwise check out our complete guide to product photography props.

Wooden Bowls or Trays

These are very versatile; they can be used for many different products and in various contexts. They are great for staging food or kitchen items, bathroom products, décor items, and books. I would recommend these for more cozy, casual shoots, such as for handmade items or home décor.

Plants

As with the wooden bowls and trays, plants are very versatile. They can be used for nearly any kind of shoot, as they create a homely image. There are many ways to stage them, from a single pedal or leaf to a large plant in the background.

 I recommend experimenting with different types of plants, like live plants, dried varieties, or faux versions of plants you don’t have in your area.

Risers

These are great for displaying items in front of a solid background. You can display one item on a single riser or display several items on different sized risers. This technique is perfect for different varieties of the same product and is a popular product photography style.

There are several different types of risers to experiment with, like cylinders and pedestals.

You can even make use of out-of-the-ordinary objects like rocks, coffee beans, or glitter.

With the limitless options for props, it’s hard to know where to start. The best place to begin is with the product.

Think about what the context of your product is and what items go along with the theme you want to achieve. Remember not to overcrowd your product with props, so the focus stays on the product.

What Camera Settings Should I Use for Product Photography?

There are several different settings within a camera, and they all serve an important purpose in the quality of your photo. You can have the most high-tech camera on the market, but if the settings aren’t used properly, your photos won’t be the quality you’d hoped.

Most cameras have an automatic setting, and this works fine for some purposes. However, in product photography we use manual mode. Switching to manual mode gives you complete control over your photos, yielding higher quality and consistent results.

Different cameras will have certain settings, and they may act differently; however, the tips I’ll list below will serve you well no matter the camera you use.

Note: If you’re using a smartphone, these settings are not applicable unless you use a pro camera app that lets you control the ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, etc.

These are settings found within DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

Set ISO As Close To 100 As You Can

The ISO setting determines the sensitivity of your camera to light. For high-light situations, like outside in the sun or with bright studio lights, you would set it to a low setting. For low-light situations, you would set it high, like for a nighttime photoshoot or in a dark room.

The issue with a high ISO setting is it can make your photo appear grainy or “noisy.” You’ll notice if you take a photo on your phone in a dark room that the photo is not as clear as if it was taken with the lights on.

That is the camera within your phone becoming more sensitive to light so that it can pick up images in the dark, similar to how your eyes adjust to the darkness.

In product photography, you want to avoid as much noise in your photos as possible. The images need to be sharp and clear, so when customers view your product online, they can zoom in and look at the detail.

When setting your ISO, make it as low as possible. Take a look at your image and heighten the ISO just until your product is illuminated clearly. Again, you want to avoid as much noise as possible, so don’t set it any higher than necessary.

Set Aperture To F/8 and Above

The aperture setting determines the amount of light let into your camera. It also determines the depth-of-field, which is what part of the shot is in focus. This setting is often called f-stop within the camera’s settings.

Think of the aperture as the “pupil” of the lens, with the numbers being opposite of the width.

The wider the opening, the lower the number and the more light is let in. The more light that gets let in, the wider the focus range, or depth-of-field. The smaller the opening, the less light let in and the smaller the depth-of-field.

ApertureDepth of Field (Blurriness)
1.8Highest
2.8High
5.6Medium
8.0Low-Medium
11.0Low
16.0Lower

For product photography, you want the entire product in the shot and in-focus, so you’ll set the aperture high unless you’re doing detail shots.

If there is a certain detail on your product you want to highlight, set your aperture lower, and focus on that detail. This will create a dramatic photo that enhances this feature of your item.

But again, for most circumstances, you want the entire product in focus, so set the aperture high.

Shutter Speed

This setting determines the speed that the shutters close when you take a shot. This is measured in fractions of a second.

Shutter speed is especially important for photographers who are in motion or capturing fast-paced events. The shutter speed will affect the amount of blur in your photo from movement.

Think of the shutter speed this way; imagine you’re taking a photo of a car racing past. When you go to take the shot, if the shutters close slowly, there will be more exposure to the car’s movement on the sensor; thus, it appears blurry or distorted in the photo.

On the other hand, if the shutters close quickly, there is less exposure to the car’s movement, making the photo appear clear and crisp.

If you’re shooting with a tripod, you can set the shutter speed low with no issues; this also allows more light into your camera which will work with a continuous lighting source.

There will not be any blur or distortion in your photo if there is no movement.

However, if you shoot freehand or when shooting with flash/strobes, you’ll want the shutter speed set higher to offset your movement and camera shake.

How Much Should Product Photography Cost?

This depends greatly on your budget and the quality you’re aiming for. Technically speaking, you can do product photography at home for free using your smartphone camera and a basic setup. This will do the job if you just need simple photos of your products for your website.

A low-cost setup may be a small space in your home near a window. Use either the sheet-on-a-wall method or the chair method for your backdrop sweep. If you don’t have a white or another solid colored sheet, you can find these cheap nearly anywhere.

Use your smartphone camera and a tripod and use Gimp to edit your photos for nearly zero budget.

If you’re looking for higher quality but still need it on a budget, use the DIY light tent I mentioned before and the tripod I linked above. The supplies you need for this are most likely laying around your house, but if you need to buy them new, the budget here would be less than $200.

If you have a larger budget, investing in a mirrorless or DSLR camera is a good idea. You have much more quality control using manual settings, and this will show in your photos.

You can still use one of the budget backdrop and lighting methods, or you can purchase backdrops and lighting for your studio space.

If you hire-out your product photography, this will cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the scope of work and usage. This can add up quickly if you are growing your business or have a lot of product listings.

The limits are endless when it comes to cost, and as you see, the budget can range from less than fifty dollars or high into the thousands. It comes down to how much you’re willing to spend, how much time you have, and how skilled you are.

Product Photography Tips

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when starting product photography. These are ideas that professional product photographers like us always have in mind.

The Rule of Thirds

When taking product photos, keep in mind the rule of thirds. For this, you’ll imagine there are two lines running vertically and two lines running horizontally on your photo, dividing it into nine segments (some cameras automatically have this). The areas where these lines cross are the best places to have the main focus of the photo, your product.

If you’re going to “break” this rule, the best placement for your product is in the very center.

Use simple props. If using props, keep it simple. The phrase “less is more” is key here.

You don’t want to overload your photo with props because it takes focus away from your product and may confuse the shopper. The props should add value to your photo by showing the purpose of the product, and each feature should be within the rule of thirds and draw the eye throughout the image.

Product Context

 When staging your photo, be sure the context of the photo matches the product. For example, a photo of a new coffee maker staged on a beach wouldn’t make much sense to a buyer, even though it may look nice.

However, setting it on a counter-top or in an office would be sensible and relatable. Or setting a coffee maker on the night stand next to a bed would be both relatable and comical.

Keep in mind the time of year and season as well, especially around holidays. Adding this context can make a big difference in how customers will relate to your photo.

The More Lights, The Better

Using two or more lights coming from different directions will help to eliminate unwanted shadows in your photos. If there is only one light, this will require you to use bounce cards to get light in other areas of your product.

If you aren’t able to get the lighting you want and you only have one light, then you will need to learn how to composite multiple images together.

Texture Wins

Speaking of having multiple lights, it’s also important to make sure your lighting ratios are balanced. Having the same level of lighting all around your product will make your image appear flat.

In product photography, we want to show dimension and texture. One way to do this is by never lighting the product from the front of the camera, but light the product from the sides to create shadows.

Check Product Color

Be sure your photos represent the true color of your product. Certain lighting or too much editing can alter the color of your product in the final photo. This can mislead customers and cause problems when they receive an item that is not the color shown in your images. This is especially important with fabrics and décor items.

Investing in something like the Passport Color Checker is what we use to make profiles of every lighting setup we have so that colors are accurate.

“Floating” Products

 For product only shots, you can make products “float” using a thin string or fishing line. This will give your photos a very professional touch and is a great way to grab attention.

This requires additional editing, but the results are well worth it. We’ve also made a video showing our process:

Use Reflection

With the proper lighting, putting a piece of plexiglass underneath your product will make a reflection of your product underneath it. This works great for most products and gives it a professional touch.

You may need to adjust angles or lighting to get the perfect effect.

Final Thoughts

Product photography is one of the most important skills you can have in the e-commerce world.

When done well, it gives customers a sense of your product; the quality, feel, and style it will give their space. All things they would not have if there were not quality photos of your product.

You don’t need expensive equipment either; in fact, your knowledge on lighting and composition will be what sets you apart. And for more on that, check out our post on the best books every product photographer should read.

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi, I'm Benjamin, Digital Media Strategist and product photographer for Skyline FBA.I have been involved in content creation for over 10 years and love helping people develop strategies to grow their business. My wife and I are Product Photographers that are experienced in Amazon FBA, eCommerce, Lifestyle, and Advertising photography.

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