Product photography tips for styling and shooting traditional products
There are lots of product photography tutorials out there that focus on photographing contemporary products which are minimal or modernist. Usually, the photography takes its cue from the products and is also quite minimal, focussing on the art of photography, particularly the lighting. In contrast, this step-by-step guide looks at how to photograph and style more traditional products and features practical advice on how to create imaginative backdrops, build sets, make interesting surfaces and choose the right props.
1. Determine what the photograph is for
Before starting your shoot preparations you need to know what you need the photograph for. How are the images going to be used? If they’re for a product listing, they’ll have different requirements from an image that’s advertising a craft fair or exhibition. For example, a listing for your Folksy shop (or an Instagram post) needs to look right when cropped to a square, whereas an image you’re using for a poster might need to be portrait-format and be higher resolution. Another difference is that product shots are generally taken in a series and, to create a brand identity, are consistent in style and props, with only minor variations between each shot in a range or collection. Shots for adverts don’t have the same restrictions so you can play around a bit more. There are lots of ways to use your imagination, but keep in mind that strange angles and overly creative framing can be distracting for a potential customer.
2. Consider what sort of images will appeal to your customer
Think about your target audience, who they are and what their interests are. This will help when considering colours, themes and moods for your shots. Should you put the product in context or focus on the design elements?
Putting the product in context is helpful as it allows customers to visualise it in their home or wherever it’s meant to be used. Or is your customer someone who would like to see your product in your workspace? Photographing it alongside your tools emphasises its handmade nature and your skills as a maker, which will make it particularly appealing to people who value craft. Or could you focus on a theme that is popular with your audience, for example if you are based by the coast and your audience knows and loves you for your coastal jewellery, it makes sense to choose props and backgrounds that tie in with that.
How you style your product will be dictated by how the image is going to be used, your own taste and aesthetics, your target audience and what props and items you already have at your disposal.
3. Gather your kit
Aside from your products, you’ll need:
- a camera or good camera phone
- a background
- a surface
- a way of lighting the shot
I talk about how to light your product shots in this post – https://blog.folksy.com/2019/03/15/product-photography-basics
4. Decide on the style of your shoot
There are various ways of styling products. Inevitably, there is a certain amount of overlap between these. Here are three options:
This is when you photograph your product alongside items that aren’t directly related to its use, inspiration or design, such as plants, ribbons, vintage finds and books.
The image above shows an example of generic styling, where I have photographed a range of wedding invitations for a client with flowers, ribbons and pearls on wooden boards. In this case I made the wooden surface by stripping an old pallet, but you can buy the planks already stripped and separated. Gypsophila is a useful flower to have in your styling tool kit as it lasts quite a while and dries well.
Context styling is when you photograph a product in a lifestyle or home style setting. It could also be the context of how or where you made the item. These type of product photographs are intended to give the customer visual clues about how to use the product or, in the case of a studio setting, assert your skills as a maker and underline the value of the piece as a one-off, hand-crafted design.
When styling shots that reference their handmade context, think about how you make your work. Do you have instructional or technical books or have any objects on your shelves that inspire you? What about the materials and tools that you use to physically create your work, like brushes, pens, needles, thread or scissors? The aim here is to communicate your process of designing and making.
The header image for this article shows a pet portrait by Jo Scott Art styled with her ‘tools of the trade’. In this case they were supplied by me, but any artist would have plenty of materials to choose from.
If you’re using or replicating a home setting, think about the room in which your product would naturally live – would it go in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or the lounge? You don’t necessarily need to replicate a large scene, sometimes a cup of coffee and some biscuits is enough, it depends upon your product and its size.
In the image above, I photographed the coasters with a coffee cup, coffee beans, biscuits and a notepad to show what the product is and how it would be used. In this case I chose not to place the cup of coffee on the coaster as it would hide the design.
This is when you take your cue from a design element of the product and create a theme around it, pulling that theme into the props and materials. Examples would be a coastal theme, a London theme or an organic theme.
With these type of photos, the props relate to the design so there could be many different types. In my work, I’ve sourced props from forests, woods, beaches, industrial areas and so on. Books can be very helpful for these shoots, particularly ones with simple titles on the spine related to your design. For the photograph of the Spitfire Card above, I was lucky enough to have a model of a Spitfire handmade by my Grandad, which I used along with silver baking balls to represent bullets.
Choose props that are in proportion with your product, so they don’t overshadow it. This also helps gives your customer an idea about its size. Small props are actually really easy to come by – think stationery, beads, buttons, confetti, shells and pebbles.
5. Find a location
Once you’ve decided how you’d like to style your product, think about where you’d like to photograph it. What locations or settings do you already have at your disposal. Do you have traditional sash windows that could be used as a backdrop? Fireplaces always work well, either as a background element or using the mantle piece. Or is there a corner of a room where you could place a small chest of drawers, a bedside cabinet or a chair? The corner can break up the lines of a standard horizontal background and provide a more dynamic image.
The picture above showing the Pheasant Cushion and Lampshade was taken in old studio of mine. As space was limited, I used a piece of foamcore (paper-faced foam board) on the right hand side to create a wall. I could also have placed another piece of foamcore over the back wall, or cut a matching piece of skirting board. Foamcore is available in many different colours, as is mountboard.
Even simple interior features can be used to good effect. Architraves, door surrounds, skirting boards and cast iron radiators are all great as background features and for reinforcing the context of being in a home. If you’re lucky enough to have your own studio, perhaps there are industrial features such as stripped brick walls, desks or lighting that could be used.
6. Construct your setting
The traditional way of constructing a setting is to use a tabletop and then bring in different materials to form the background and surface, but you can also replicate a home setting by building false walls. All you need is a couple of sheets of foamcore, rigged into place at a 90 degree angle to create a corner, or three pieces to create a larger setting with a background wall.
You can buy tables specifically for product photography (from Manfrotto and other manufacturers) that incorporate an infinity curve but I’ve never found these to be flexible enough. I prefer to use a standard square metal table with the top removed, to allow for lighting from any direction, but any sturdy table (preferably on castors) will do just fine. Ikea’s Melltorp table works well – you can buy it without a top, it’s sturdy and you can also buy replacement feet with castors already attached. Alternatively your kitchen table will work just fine.
There are so many options you can use to create your background and surface. A textured background cloth can really add a sense of depth to the image – try wrinkled cloth or old curtains. Or you can create an interesting surface by painting MDF boards with two layers of paint in a similar colour, then sanding ways selected parts of the upper layer to reveal the lower. Try Googling “rag rolling” or “DIY photo backdrops” or watch this video for more inspiration.
The surface for the Birthday Card photograph above was created by gluing together five sheets of laminate flooring, painting on several coats of chalk paint, and a combination of Annie Sloan Craqueleur and a heat gun.
For the photograph of the Mermaid Sculpture above I used a simple ruffled sheet to create an ocean scene with breaking waves, inspired by the product itself.
- Before gathering items for your shoot, think about what type of shots you need and who your target audience is.
- Choose props and settings in proportion with your product.
- You don’t need to spend lots of money. Look around your home and workspace for things you already have, and keep any eye out for props, surfaces and backgrounds in DIY stores, second-hand shops and even skips. Sometimes discarded items that have no value to others can work really well in photographs.
- It’s great to be creative, but certain aspects such as camera angles need to be quite consistent and standardised, otherwise they can be distracting.
- Remember that although you want to create interesting unique images, they have a job to do: they need to sell your product or get people to your event.
- Always make your product the HERO of the shot.
Product Photography Offer
If you’d like to see what Richard can do for your products, there is a special offer for Folksy sellers on his introductory product photography shoot. This shoot provides you with a set of unique product photographs, using any of Richard’s existing props, surfaces and backgrounds. It’s a great way to get sample shots and see how your work could look when styled and professionally photographed.
Folksy sellers can get 7 product photographs for £120 rather than the usual 5 – that’s two extra shots for free!