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Taking product photographs for online stores: How to take and showcase effective product images

16 minute read

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If you sell goods over the internet where shoppers cannot physically handle and examine your offerings, using an appropriate selection of clear and informative images of the goods in question is essential to making sales.

Failing to supply product images with your listings or using pictures that are poor quality, unclear, or otherwise unable to provide the information your prospects need will not only cost you sales but is also likely to lead to a higher level of customer returns from the people that do buy from you too.

Creating unique and informative product descriptions is no one’s favourite task and this can be time-consuming and challenging, particularly if you are listing a huge variety of products and many of them are very similar. However, strong, unique and SEO-friendly product descriptions can both bring in prospects to your website and incentivise sales when they get there, and their accompanying images form an integral part of this.

Despite the numerous advantages of using excellent, unique product images to sell goods online and the problems that can arise from missing the mark, this is still something that many businesses (particularly SMEs) fail to achieve.

Just as writing excellent product descriptions can be challenging and time-consuming, so too can sourcing or taking, choosing and editing product pictures, and this is often one of the first casualties in the life of the busy eCommerce store owner who is wearing many different hats and trying to keep all of the wheels turning.

In this article, I will outline the importance of using good product photographs to support online product descriptions, along with some guidance on how to take, choose and showcase product images to support sales in the most efficient and appropriate way.

The role of images within product descriptions

Think about the last time you bought an item you hadn’t purchased before from an online store – would you have proceeded with the purchase if there wasn’t at least one accompanying image of it? There are very few situations in which most of us would answer “yes” to this, and even when it comes to products that are completely utilitarian and standardised (such as say, a certain size of nuts and bolts) most of us find it a lack of images of them unusual and somewhat jarring.

In physical retail stores, we can see what is for sale up close and often, handle it (or sample testers) in order to make our purchasing decisions. Whilst an online store image can only provide a limited amount of information for a prospect (it will not tell them how the item might look in different lighting, nor how it will feel, smell, or sound, for instance) this image helps to support the information your prospect reads and allows them to get more information to incentivise their purchase.

Whilst there is no substitute for an informative, well written product description when it comes to converting a prospect into a buyer, this is only half the story; the written description needs accompanying visuals to support and enhance it, and to enable the buyer to build up a mental picture of what is on offer that is sufficient to incentivise a purchase.

Product images enable online shoppers to connect with what is on offer, review how well it suits their needs, and even get a feel for the quality of the item in question too. They can help to demonstrate the size (or fit) of an item, its scale and its functions, and serve as an instant, at-a-glance summary of the product on offer.

Product images also help to keep shoppers on an item’s page just that little bit longer, which in turn, helps to invest them in their purchase and also makes them remember your site later on when they’re ready to shop again.

Product images incentivise clicks through to a product description in the first instance, and can even bring people to your website via Google image searches with the appropriate tags and keywords.

Absent product images or those that aren’t fit for purpose have the opposite effect, and can even lead to dropped leads from prospects who were otherwise primed to buy immediately.

How effective is visual content?

Visual content like photographs and images are highly effective at promoting products and other types of content, and more likely than text alone to draw the eye and incentivise action.

The stats back this up too, and 67% of consumers state that the quality of product images is a “very important” factor in their final purchasing decision. Additionally, 63% of consumers state that the accompanying images are more important than product-specific information, whilst 54% class images as more important than the product’s description, and 53% of consumers hold them in higher esteem than product reviews and ratings too.

Even when it comes to businesses that advertise or take orders online but sell from their own physical retail location (like restaurants) including product images next to descriptions (such as menu items) increases order values by 30%.

Looking at the value of images across all applications in broader terms, 90% of the information received by the brain is visual, and most people only read around 20% of a website page’s content, but view every image within it.

An image tells a story instantly, whilst reading a description alone makes the prospect work to create a mental picture of what they need to see; a mental picture that might not match the reality of what they actually receive if they buy. Images are more memorable too, and whilst a text description or the idea of a product might slip from the memory relatively quickly, images have a much better chance of making a lasting impact.

Why do so many businesses use poor product images, or fail to use them entirely?

Even if most of your website’s software is automated and enables you to add, edit and update product descriptions quickly and easily, taking, selecting and showcasing product images can be very time consuming; even if you’re a reasonably competent amateur photographer and can take good, clear shots without too much hassle.

A lack of time or motivation to take and fine-tune product description images is often the first cause cited by business owners to explain poor or absent product images, but a lack of appreciation for the importance of images and the roles that they can fulfil often plays a significant part too.

Few business owners would knowingly leave money on the table if they knew how to incentivise a purchase more effectively, and yet the importance of using good product images is still widely ignored or overlooked.

However, once you understand the basics of how to set up product photoshoots, get the right images and process them efficiently, taking and showcasing the right type of product images gets easier. When you begin to see the tangible benefits of this in an uptick in sales and cart values, the inherent value of using good images becomes self-evident.

How poor images or missing product images can result in lost custom in both the short and long term

If a product you are selling doesn’t have any pictures incorporated into the description or its pictures are too small, unclear or cluttered to get the message across, you will lose sales – both in the short and the long term.

In its simplest terms, people are unlikely to buy something they cannot see; not only because they aren’t sure what they will actually get, but because the glaring absence of an image also causes prospects to question why no image is present.

The most obvious reason for this is that the retailer hasn’t bothered to add an image or fails to see huge value in doing so; at best, the prospect will read this as laziness or inefficiency (which is not the type of association that incentivises a sale from your site) or worse, as if you are trying to hide something because of concerns that the product itself isn’t strong – or even doesn’t really exist.

In retail stores, people want to touch, handle and inspect goods, and this all helps to incentivise a purchase. For instance, people buying makeup are much more likely to buy a product that has a tester available for them to check and try, but would be much less likely to buy, say, an eyeshadow palette that was sealed with not even an image of the shades within on the packaging, because they cannot tell whether or not it is what they want.

Whilst product images will never replace the tangible experience of handling a product, their absence can and will reduce the incentive to buy from you and result in prospects choosing competitors instead. It will also cause frustration for shoppers and hamper perception of your brand.

This makes would-be buyers much less likely to bother checking out your store in future when they want something else as their prior experience of browsing your store was sub-par. Poor or absent images can result in lost sales today, and lost revenue in the future too. It’s that simple.

Should you use manufacturer-supplied images within product descriptions?

Many manufacturers and wholesale suppliers will provide their own product images for retailers to use within product descriptions, and these will often be professionally taken high quality, and more than up to the task of showing your prospects everything they might need to make a decision.

Using official supplied product images is definitely an option for the owners of online stores to consider, and they can certainly make life a lot easier for the owners of SMEs who are time-poor or not confident of their photography skills.

Using authorised stock images or manufacturer-supplied images is preferable to using poor quality images or no images at all, but there are a number of disadvantages to this approach too.

One of the main disadvantages of this approach is that all of your competitors in the UK and further afield that sell products from the same source are also likely to have access to the same images, which means that they are likely to be duplicated in other stores and across the wider web.

Original content remains king, for images as well as text; if several online stores use the same images, prospects are likely to view all of the stores as on a par with each other (or even as connected businesses) and fail to identify and recognise each one’s individual USPs.

This eye-tracking study supports this claim, indicating that detailed photos are more attractive than (and so, incentivise longer viewing times more than) generic or stock images.

This also means that if a prospect has already seen the image in another store they visited, they won’t spend as long examining it in your store, instead going directly to making a price comparison and removing another opportunity to demonstrate your USPs and incentivise your desired action.

Finally, the stock product images you are supplied with may not be editable, may be too small to be expandable, or may not demonstrate the types of things that your own prospects are looking for and that you want to show them.

What should an effective product image show?

So, what makes a good product image? First of all, one lone image of a product is again better than no image at all, but multiple images of each product (each showing something notable or unique) are even better.

For most products, a minimum of three shots will be required to show all of these things, and some items will need several more. The more detailed an item is, the higher its cost or the harder it is to sell, the more supporting images it is likely to need to incentivise a purchase.

For instance, if you are selling nuts and bolts as I mentioned earlier on, three shots will often be perfectly sufficient (one would do in a pinch). Of those three images, one should show a broad overview of the goods, one should show a different angle or the fine detail and quality of them, and the final image might perhaps indicate scale.

For contrast, if you’re a fashion retailer, a woman looking to buy a new dress will want to see more and will take longer making a decision. Most clothes shoppers will wish to see several clear shots of the dress both on its own and on a model or mannequin to see how it hangs, as well as close-ups of any details of the item and how it will look when worn.

Regardless of the type of products you are selling, your product images should show all of the following:

  • A clear overview of what the item is.
  • A sense of scale indicating the item’s size, measurements, fit, or applications.
  • A detailed shot of any highlights or key features that also demonstrates the quality of the item.

Depending on what product you are selling and who is likely to buy it, this is only the beginning, and several more accompanying images may be warranted too. However, working with these three basic benchmarks can help you to build up a strong core library of product description images, as well as helping you to identify other potential shots and features to showcase.

Taking effective images for product descriptions

If you’ve got a lot of items to photograph and list, you can streamline the process to make it more efficient and cost-effective by having a plan from the outset for how to conduct your shoot, and this is also more likely to result in a higher number of good quality and usable shots too.

What type of camera do you need?

You don’t necessarily need a professional camera to take good product images. Today’s smartphone cameras are often good enough to compete with pro equipment, giving every online retailer a chance to produce professional-looking shots for their store.

However, ensure that the camera you will be using produces good, clear shots in a large enough file size to be useful and that it is appropriate for your applications. For instance, if you need to take a lot of highly detailed close up shots of small items, you may need to invest in special equipment to enable this; although this is once again something that most good-quality smartphone cameras today are capable of doing.

Setting up your shots

When it comes to setting up a shoot, many online stores that list a lot of items and that regularly add new stock keep a dedicated area as a set to take photos in that is all ready to go immediately, saving time and effort when a new product image is needed. This is something anyone can do, and even if you’re only planning a one-off shoot, getting things right in this regard is very important.

Your images need to show the items you’re selling as their focal point, which means that they shouldn’t be in competition with other things in shot. If people are looking straight past your product to marvel over how messy the room is or to work out what that dog in the background is doing, your photos won’t work for your purposes (but they might end up an accidental meme) and so you need to get the basics right before you start.

Backgrounds and lighting

Use a plain background that won’t clash with or distract from the product shown against it, and ensure that the lighting is appropriate too. Natural light usually works better than using a flash if you’re an amateur, so bear in mind that if your shots are poorly lit or too shadowy, this is not something that the average person can correct later when editing.

How you present the items you photograph is very important too; they need to not only show the item but tell its story, in such a way that draws the eye and invests the prospect in the lifestyle or impression that you want your product to portray.

This means that the angles, shots you take, details that you concentrate on and the final impression that the image portrays all need to be chosen with your buyers in mind. You may well also wish to add props and accessories to further enhance your shots without detracting the focus from the product itself.

Indicating the size and scale of items within a shot

Giving prospects an idea of the physical size and dimensions of what they are looking at is important for most people and products, to incentivise a purchase and avoid disappointment when the item arrives.

This is obviously important for items for which it can be hard to determine scale, such as items of jewellery, but also vital for more or less everything else, from clothes to gadgets.

There are a number of ways to indicate size and scale within a product photograph, and providing exact dimensions for most goods within their written descriptions is vital to support this.

Showing the items next to a ruler or tape measure for scale is one way to approach this, but there are also others. For wearable items like clothes and jewellery (and for many other items too) showing them presented within their usage application can achieve the same effect; showing earrings or a dress worn by a model, with, if relevant, accompanying detail for context (such as the height and dress size of the model for clothes).

Demonstrating the item in use can also demonstrate its size and scale too, as can using familiar items such as a certain type of coin within shots for scale.

Keeping things rolling: How to set up an effective and efficient product photoshoot

If you need to photograph several different items or regularly need to take new shots, it is wise to take some time to plan this in order to save you time during and after the shoot itself.

Begin with setting up your set, background and lighting and have all of the products you intend to work with to hand, ready to go and in the order that you wish to work with them.

It is also a good idea to make some notes on the type of shots you want to take for each item; the angles and highlights you want to capture, how many different features you want to showcase, and what you want the prospect to take away as the core message after viewing your images.

Having some help to keep things moving, present each product ready for shooting and to move away and process items you have already covered can be really handy, and also give you a second pair of eyes to help you to spot anything amiss too.

Try not to get too hung up on photographing each item; spending a lot of time creating an artistic, atmospheric shot may potentially help to incentivise certain sales, but if you’re going to dedicate several hours to doing this ensure that it will be worthwhile in terms of the yield that this will produce.

Take several different shots of each angle or feature you want to highlight so that you can select the best one later on, and don’t be shy about trying something new once you have your core pics, like experimenting with new shots and angles.

Review your shots after every few pictures to ensure that nothing has gone wrong before you start on the next item (such as the images being darker than you hoped for, or something on the camera lens ruining the shots) but save your detailed inspection and final selections until after you are done.

Keeping things rolling: cataloguing and identifying images for a photoshoot

If you’re photographing and later, processing images for more than a few items, you need to be able to catalogue and identify each of them accurately before, during and after the shoot, to ensure that the right images accompany the right description.

There are numerous ways of doing this, from choosing a different file to save each product’s set of images in to stopping and uploading images after each product is finished, and you will probably find that the best and easiest way for you to work becomes self-evident over time.

However, if you’re just getting started and aren’t sure how to begin, here’s a simple way to go about things:

Assign each individual product with a unique number that correlates with its store page and/or the written description you have lined up for it, and when you’re getting products for your shoot together, keep a copy of this number with the product in question before the shoot.

The next step is to ensure that you can easily match the photos you take to the correct product and description, and so putting each product’s number within the shot but distant enough from the product itself that it can be cropped out later keeps things simple and avoids any mistakes later on when you need to match a picture to a product from amongst many similar offerings.

Image selection and editing

When you’ve completed your photoshoot, the next stage is to select the appropriate product images and edit them for use within your store.

The images that you choose should be crystal clear, immediately identifiable, and of a good enough quality to support both sales and your prospect’s perception of your store’s quality and value. At this stage, you should refer back to your cheat sheet of the type of images you wished to show for each picture, and pick the best example of each of them.

Remember that whilst the quality and tone portrayed by your image is really important, it has to provide the viewer with what they want and need to know to make a decision; so something that is arty and atmospheric might be a brilliant image in and of itself, but is it really clear enough to show the item in question appropriately and give the right impression to the viewer?

When it comes to editing your shots, keep this to a minimum, and don’t assume that poor or questionable shots can be improved upon later with Photoshop.

Very minor colour and contrast corrections and of course, cropping is about as far as you should go in terms of editing for most shots and types of items; if you’re tempted to go further than this, first consider if this is in an attempt to save a sub-par image that won’t ever really pay off and if it is genuinely worth your time and effort.

Integrating images into your online store

When it comes to integrating your product images into your store, how you do this is just as important as how you take and process the pictures in the first place.

Make sure that when your shots are uploaded, they appear to the viewer in the appropriate order; ie., with an overview or main image first (and within the thumbnails used for the product) and with more detailed or supporting shots displayed later on.

Ensure that all of your images load quickly and clearly and don’t add lag time to your page loads and that they provide a number of viewing options to enable your prospects to see what they want to look at. For instance, each image should be zoomable or expandable to allow prospects to view the item in detail, and it should also be easy to view the other images within the set (and of course, to be able to see that there are other images available in the first place).

Providing even more options for prospects where images are concerned can also help to keep shoppers on your site and browsing or buying, such as providing a choice between a default setting of viewing clothing on a model or as a standalone item.

Make sure that you add an appropriately keyworded alt description for each image, and use the appropriate tags for your pictures too.

Video product descriptions and demonstrations

If you want to take things to the next level and gain an edge over the competition, you might also want to consider adding video product descriptions, demonstrations, or 360-degree product views into your store’s listings as well as pictures.

Pictures are hugely valuable for demonstrating things to prospects and incentivising sales, but video can take this even further, providing the nearest online equivalent to physically handling and examining a product in a store.

A video product description could be as simple as a close-up surround view of a product or go further by demonstrating the product being worn, in use, or in context with accessories or other products that complement it.

Whilst this article is designed to help businesses to get the basics down when it comes to still-life photograph product images as a basis for creating strong descriptions, if things are going well and you want to explore the video route further, the knowledge that 73% of prospects are more likely to make a purchase after viewing a video should help to sway your decision, as may learning that 57% of prospects are less surprised with the reality of the item they receive after viewing a video of it than they are after viewing pictures alone.

Best practices for taking product images for online stores

Here are a few of the core takeaways you should remember when taking product images for any online store:

  • Always keep your prospects at the forefront of your mind when taking shots and selecting the best images to use; what do buyers want to know and see before they make a purchase, and how can you show them this to best effect?
  • Ensure that your images are clear, good quality, and suitable for online use. If one of your product images starts to rank well in Google searches and becomes the flagship image showcased when people search for your site or an item of that type, would it incentivise a purchase or let you down?
  • Show all of the key features of the item effectively, including indicating its size, scale, and USPs.
  • Enable viewers to see thumbnails of the other product shots you have available, and ensure that they can navigate through them and expand and minimise them quickly and easily.
  • Add appropriate alt descriptions and tags for every image you use.
  • Don’t over-process or heavily edit your shots; concentrate on taking good quality images in the first place.
  • Have a system in place to ensure that you can identify each product and its relevant description from the images you take.
  • Always keep your finger on the pulse of what your customers and prospects want, and invite feedback from them at every stage. Integrate an option to report a broken link or an image that fails to load, and make it easy for prospects to contact you if they would like to request more information. If you find that customers are repeatedly asking the same questions or asking to see more detail on a certain thing, think about how you could improve your photosets to provide this.

Finally, look at your competitors too and the types of images and shots that they use; if they’re doing something that you are not or you see something that makes you think “that’s clever,” use this as a catalyst to up your own game and improve your own eCommerce store’s presence.

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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