“Take good photos!” ← WORST ADVICE EVER
If you’re selling on Etsy, you already KNOW that you need to have good photos. You’ve probably been told this 100 times over (or more) by well-intentioned advice givers, but no matter how many times people tell you to “take good photos!” they’re forgetting one important part to the equation-- they're not telling you how.
My photography experience on Etsy has been a loooooooong and tedious one (#notgonnalie). For my first shop (a customized stationary gig), I was so absolutely petrified of taking photos that I simply created my own digital mock-ups (I’ve since learned that you can actually just buy professional mock-ups for relatively cheap that look a million times more professional). They were pretty crappy….okay, really crappy. They were truly something awful. The fact that I sold 73 sets of these note cards in a couple of months is still mind-boggling to me. I am seriously still so thankful to every single person that purchased a note card from me with those horrible “photos!” *shudders*
(Yeah, they were NOT good.)
A couple more business “ventures” later (all of which focused on "mocked-up" product photos) and I had settled on starting my current Etsy shop, LittleHighbury, selling baby headbands. This was all fine and well until I realized (or stopped ignoring) the inevitable-- that I would actually have to PHOTOGRAPH these items to sell them-- no digital mock-up was going to cut it.
Let me also acknowledge that I started from square one in photography. I don’t even like taking photos for fun- so the amount of photography knowledge I had? Next to nothing. Enough so that I bet you already have WAY more experience than I did starting out.
The reason I especially bring these up (other than it’s fun to look at “before” and “after” pictures!) is because I want to let you know that I definitely WAS NOT perfect when I started out--but I still sold product (in fact, I think my first sale happened about 2 days after I listed my original photos) The important thing is to get your product photographed and out there so that you can start selling product.
You can’t sell anything until you have it listed, so get it out there!
ROUND 1 PHOTOGRAPHY:
So when I first decided that I was going to learn this thing and photograph my own products (funds wouldn’t allow me to hire out), my mom and I read all the tutorials we could find and settled on creating our own lightbox. This was seriously just a $20 + a little time investment and was a great set-up for our first Etsy shops.
We followed this tutorial and painstakingly cut out our cardboard box and inserted sheer white fabric soft panels into the sides. We then took a white poster board and curved it up against the back wall to give that seamless background look (curious as to what this actually looked like? Here’s the exact tutorial we followed)
I couldn't get the headbands to look good on the white background (and every time I would try to edit it, the headbands would end up looking extremely washed out), so I decided to make a chipboard holder for the headbands-- to help them pop up against the background. Not the prettiest, but at the time I thought I was onto something awesome :)
Again, thanks to a lack of funds, I used my husband’s super-old red Samsung point + shoot camera. Like 10.8 mp old. Definitely not the best option out there, but it definitely worked. I was pleasantly surprised at how even a basic point + shoot camera on automatic mode took such clean, crisp photos.
Ha ha, this is where you’ll find I was so clueless. I wanted to do this as cheaply as possible, so I went to Walmart and looked around for some small desk lamps that I could prop up next to the sheer panels of the light box. I didn’t bother to look at the wattage limits (35w in case you were wondering) because I didn’t even think that far ahead. I then bought some light bulbs that said “white daylight” on them at around 800 lumens (that is the brightness of the light— the higher the lumen count, the brighter the light) and called it a day.
ANALYSIS OF THIS SET UP
It was okay. It definitely worked for my first DIY product photography experience but, like I said, I hadn’t quite figured out the whole “editing” bit about photography, and since the lights weren’t super bright, the photos all came out really dim and I wasn’t really good at figuring out how to fix that. I played around Picassa (a free app you can download on your computer) because it seemed MUCH less overwhelming than Photoshop, and it was FREE. The learning curve on this program is seriously so easy, and I still use it as the final editing stage of my photos.
ROUND 2 PHOTOGRAPHY:
For round 2 of product photography, I knew a little bit more about photography, and, likewise, upped my game a bit:
I'll be the first to admit that beautiful white backgrounds were beyond me at this point. I had tried shooting and re-shooting on a white backdrop and couldn't get a crisp image to save my life.
To overcome this obstacle, I decided to hold the photoshoot on one of my glossy workshop tables (again, I didn't know any better at this point!). As you can see in the photos above, there's totally a glare from the lights I ended up using which I'm totally embarrassed to look at now! Ooooh-- and look at the clever placement of the business card-- NOT! At the time, though, it felt pretty awesome :)
I was able to afford an upgrade by this point, but I was SO clueless as to what DSLR I should by. Whenever I would check out photography websites, they would always recommend the best one available— for good reason— but that didn’t help me at all because I wasn’t about to drop 3-4K on a camera + have to buy the lenses. It just wasn’t practical for me because I would only be using it to shoot basic product shots.
I had been pleasantly surprised by that old red Samsung camera from our last go around, so I decided to use it this next time as well.
If you take a look at the photos from example 1, you can probably tell that I could DEFINITELY use some help in the lighting department.The only problem? The desk lamps I had bought at Walmart couldn’t handle any brighter lights.
So I decided to be creative and head over to home depot and see what I could figure out. I knew that flood lights were super bright and could hold large wattages. So I bought two cute flood lights and some light bulbs in 1600 daylight lumens. I actually liked shopping for for lights at home depot because I felt they have a MUCH bigger selection than Walmart.
ANALYSIS OF THIS SET UP
Much better than my first attempt, but still a little bit cringe-worthy to look back on. I definitely regret the major glare that the desk lamps gave (I should have used something to diffuse the light), but overall, it was a much better set-up than my first go, and it definitely sold product. So no, not perfect, but good enough for the time being :)
ROUND 3 PHOTOGRAPHY:
I was determined to get that perfect white background by this point, and I finally nailed it! I bought some poster-board at the store and set it up in a tri-fold (kind of like those science-fair displays) with one on the bottom as well (so 4 total).
I also borrowed my photo styling idea from a former customer who had posted a GORGEOUS Instagram photo with a similar layout. This worked out awesome because a) I use those kraft paper boxes for packaging anyways, and b) the boxes helped the headband to look more polished and professional.
I finally decided it was time to invest in a DSLR camera. No, I am not a photographer by trade (obviously!) and I still don't shoot in manual mode, but I do play around with the white balance and use the "macro" setting on this camera.
I have loved shooting with this DSLR simply for the quality of photos-- and also because it doesn't eat up storage space on my iPhone ;) And don't believe all the hype out there for fancy-schmancy cameras-- I use a Canon EOS Rebel T5 Digital SLR Camera- 55mm lens and it works wonderfully.
I finally bit the bullet and invested in some studio-quality lighting for my set up. That easily may have been the smartest business decision I ever made.
(I keep getting asked which professional lighting kit I use, so I thought I'd update this post :) I use these lights that I purchased on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2la2pLg and it has made taking photos so, so easy. It comes with these GINORMOUS and ridiculously bright white bulbs, built in soft boxes (I don't even use a popup light box all the time anymore), and are so easy to set up and use. Buy them-- you honestly won't regret it for a minute!)
This has been an absolute game-changer for me in terms of getting consistent, even lighting with every single photo I take. It was a bit of an investment (around $70), but the results have paid for themselves 100x over. Now I don't have to worry if it's cloudy or sunny or if it's 6:00 p.m.-- the lighting is consistent every single time. And as a seller who adds new product regularly, this is HUGE.
So this was a new addition to my photography set-up, but one that I absolutely love! I have always had a bit of a hard time getting shadows to soften (prior to post-edit), and having a reflector (positioned opposite the light source) has been HUGE in keep shadows minimal and soft. I currently have a professional set of reflectors, but I've been known to cover a piece of cardboard in tinfoil and it has worked just as well :)
ANALYSIS OF THIS SET UP
It still blows my mind that these are actually photos that I have taken! I'm not saying they are perfect--because they're not-- but they definitely hold their own in terms of selling product.
If I had to pick just one piece of equipment to invest in from the start, it would have to be the lighting. Hands down. I honestly feel like I wasted SO much time trying to get makeshift lighting to "work" when it would have been better just to invest up front and not have to deal with all of those issues. The lighting I use now has seriously changed my life and made snapping photos a breeze.
A word about photo editing...
Like I mentioned earlier, when I first started taking photos, I read ALL the tutorials out there. Like, all of them. The thing I didn’t understand was that EVERYONE said that you needed natural light or natural light (daylight) lightbulbs and yet, even adjusting the white balance on my camera, I STILL couldn’t figure out why my photos would always turn out to be some version of gray. No matter how many lights I added or how many bounce reflectors I threw in, there was ALWAYS a gray tint to my photos and they looked dull.
Here's an example:
The photo on the left and the photo on the right are THE EXACT SAME PHOTO. Same camera, same lighting, same set-up.
The only difference? EDITING.
One of the pet peeves I have about product photography is that all the DIY/tutorials out there come from people that would post the light box instructions, but would NEVER follow up with letting you know that you needed to edit them before they’ll be done. You can be the BEST photographer in the world, but you better believe that you’re still going to need to do a little editing to make your photos “pop” and sell your product.
Just like my photo-taking skills, I had no photo editing skills either, ha ha! I had taken a visual design class in college (oh the memories!) with a 2 week stint in Photoshop. In those two weeks, I basically learned how to take a photo in macro or micro mode, how to open it up in Photoshop, and how to change colors and go to b/w as needed (if the lighting was SUPER bad and no amount of editing could fix it). I’m sure they taught some other skills in the class, but that’s all I absorbed. I’m pretty sure there was a cute boy in the class, if that offers any explanation ;)
So when I say that I didn’t have much experience with Photoshop, I am being dead serious. I was a serious newbie to Photoshop, so if you are too— no worries! I’m going to let you in on my Photoshop secret-- it seriously saves me SO much time + makes my images POP like crazy. And it takes maybe 60 seconds to edit a photo. Seriously, so so easy.
So what is my number one photo editing secret? Foto Shopkeeper’s RX package. (and no, I'm not an affiliate-- I just love this tool SO much!)
I stumbled upon this little guy by accident and bought it on a whim. It’s a little bit of an investment ($100), but it is SO. WORTH. IT. It is absolutely the easiest set of Photoshop actions I’ve ever used. You seriously just have to click the action and click “play” and it will do the editing for you. It’s amazing. Each one is named after the action it does (ie- "Lots of light") and it's ridiculously intuitive. I promise you won't regret it.
If I can offer you one piece of advice, it would be that for photographing products, you don’t have to learn everything out there! You only need a few basic tips + tricks up your sleeve (and they’re fast ones to learn!) and you’ll have exactly what you need to get those beautiful, bright-white photographs that your target market will love.