How to Take Product Photos for Under $25

Store-Build-Case-Study-5

The entrepreneurial journey is filled with ups and downs.

You get your first sale and you’re euphoric. Or you get your first refund and you’re bummed out for the rest of the day.

If this is your first time joining us in this series, I’ve set out to build an online dropshipping business. Each week, I walk you through the steps of building an online store.

In week 1, I showed you my process on how to choose a niche. In that first week, I told you that ‘anything can go wrong.’

week 1

When I wrote that I figured it’d be a product quality issue or I’d get a really angry email or the product I chose didn’t sell. Unfortunately, what happened was far more unpredictable and devastating than I could’ve ever imagined. I was completely blindsided. And I honestly thought about scrapping the rest of this case study.

But before I get into that, let’s make sure you’re all caught up with the whole journey so far.

In week 2, I dived into setting up your Shopify store. I went over the basics of creating your account, choosing your name and picking a theme.

In week 3, I chose products to sell and walked you through the process of ordering product samples.

Last week, the products I ordered arrived and I showed you what they looked like. Aside from a bit of dust, I was pleasantly surprised with the product quality. And I gained confidence in the letter boards I was going to sell.

This week, I’ll go over what went wrong and how it almost destroyed this business. I’ll also walk through my process for taking my own custom photos with my phone.

Feel free to skip ahead to the How to Be Resourceful section if you want to dive right into the product photography component of this article.

When Tragedy Strikes

On Saturday, May 19th, I suddenly woke up at 5 a.m.

It smelt like burning hot dogs.

Weird.

I was home alone, my long-term boyfriend was out of town for the night.

I got out of bed and looked around to see if something was on fire.

It smelled horrible.

I walked out of the bedroom and started looking around.

Nothing was on fire.

Phew.

I instinctively grabbed my phone to Google what the smell was.

I had a text.

Someone in my family had died two hours earlier.

My boyfriend and I were planning to go on a trip to Berlin, France and Italy the next day, for a little vacation, to celebrate our five year anniversary on June 2nd.

This was supposed to be a happy time…

But now we were planning a funeral.

I had been battling depression for a few months.

This sudden death made the depression a lot worse.

It made me realize how short life is.

And I started to lose interest in the work I was doing.

I didn’t want to get out of bed to go to work. I was crying in public, with no shame.

How could I come up with a witty or clever quote for letter boards?

I was such a downer.

I honestly just wanted to scrap this entire project.

I figured no one would notice anyway.

Entrepreneurial challenges aren’t always directly related to business.

Sometimes the biggest challenge is improving your mindset.

This isn’t going to be fixed overnight.

And now I’ve fallen behind schedule for my store build.

Back to Work

The Monday after the funeral I went to the office to work on my store.

After being there for one hour, I started crying.

I decided to work from home.

While walking home, I was a nervous wreck, I couldn’t stop shaking and crying.

Suddenly, I dropped my phone on the sidewalk (and no, I didn’t have a phone case).

Shit.

My phone was completely smashed and I had to somehow take product photos for my store within the next couple days.

I cried even harder.

I was having a really bad week.

Unfortunately, there’s no rewind button in life.

You can’t change what’s happened.

All you can do is take a deep breath (or in my case 20) and pull yourself together.

When I finally got home, the first thing I did was test my camera. After taking one picture, I sighed a breath of relief. The camera wasn’t cracked.

‘It’s going to be okay,’ I told myself.

Still, I wasn’t in the right mindset to be coming up with clever sayings for my letter board graphics.

So, I turned to Google.

I started looking up positive quotes.

This solved two problems:

  1. Helped me get in a better mindset
  2. Gave me content ideas for my letter board photos

At this point, I wasn’t even really sure if I wanted the general theme and feel of the store to be positive, funny or make references to pop culture.

But I did know, that if I tried to come up with something myself, I’d literally bum everyone out.

So browsing through motivational quotes about positivity and optimism helped.

How to be Resourceful and Stay on Budget

With our vacation being cancelled and our trip costs being non-refundable, I needed to bootstrap this project more than ever.

I had already spent $217.01 on ordering the letter board samples from AliExpress so I needed to keep my photography costs as low as possible.

I could’ve invested my money on a new camera to ensure the best image quality. But truth is, depending on what smartphone model you have, your phone might actually work really well. I actually bought my Google Pixel because I had heard from so many people how great the camera is.

In other product photography articles, you’ll find recommendations for tripods and gooseneck phone holders. But truth is, if you’re only going to be taking new product photos occasionally, you can find creative ways to get the shots you want. Like standing on a chair for an aerial shot. Or hunching over to get a side view. It’s not ideal, but it still works.

So when I finally got around to taking photos for the first time, I started looking around my home for props I can use for my photos. By using things like….

Construction paper…

rainbow

And books….

books

Some clothes…

clothes

And even my bed sheets…

Long story short, I am SO not a photographer.

But creating these pictures was pretty fun.

Still, if you compared my work to a full-time photographer’s, it kinda sucked.

Although I kinda liked the construction paper one I did. It was bright and colorful. Basically, everything I needed right now.

So I decided to head to the dollar store to buy some products that would help bring my pictures to life.

Since the construction paper had the look I was going for, I decided to buy a bunch of wrapping paper.

While I was browsing the store, I found a white canvas. I figured I could use this as the background for my product photos. It was about $16 for a large canvas.

As I continued browsing the store, I found a white bristol board for only $1.50. Woohoo! I just saved money. It was even larger than the canvas I wanted to buy making it a great background for my product photos.

In general, it’s easier to Photoshop the background out of photos if the background is that off-white/greyish color. Back in the day, I was the person who Photoshopped the background out of images for an ecommerce brand I worked for so it was just what I had the most experience with.

I could’ve shot the images directly on my kitchen table but the table has a wooden top. And the letter boards had a wooden frame so it wouldn’t contrast well.

In total, I spent $21.02 CAD. I bought four flowers, 7 rolls of wrapping paper, tape, and four bristol boards.

Learn from my mistake: Don’t let the cashier wrap the bristol board in an elastic band as the creases won’t look good and you’ll need to run back to the store to get more bristol board.

I ended up using the following things for my photography set-up:

  • Google Pixel (to use as my camera)
  • Kitchen Table (flat surface to lay products on)
  • Chair (to stand above the table for an aerial shot)
  • Tape (to hold down the wrapping paper)
  • Window (for natural light)
  • White bristol board (for the background for product photos)
  • Light blue bristol board (for white products like the letters to see the product clearly)
  • Wrapping paper (for colorful background for lifestyle shots)
  • And of course my products 🙂

Taking Photos Part 2

With my new photography props in hand, it was time to experiment with lifestyle product photography.

I decided to start by making graphics that I could eventually use on the homepage or social media. I focused on that first, instead of images for the product pages, mostly because I knew it would require more work. I’d rather get the tough stuff out of the way.

This was the first picture I took with my new props.

I didn’t really like that my table top matched the wood of the letter board. I also thought that the picture looked too dark. I have ceiling to floor windows and the sun was shining down on me making me feel like I was in a sauna but this picture doesn’t really show the natural light that was actually in the room.

Since I was standing on my chair, to take an aerial shot, I was obviously looking down. And it hit me, why not try the floor? I have a really light color flooring in my condo which might help brighten up the picture.

I thought it looked a little bit better than the wooden table so I decided to try it. Normally, I would use Photoshop to edit an image but I figured some of you following along might not have Photoshop so I decided to use Canva for a little bit of retouching.

I uploaded the image with Canva’s Photo Editor. I liked how the Festive filter brightened up the picture. I ended up sticking with that filter for all the photos. When it comes to main product photos for your product page, you shouldn’t really use filters so people can know what they’ll actually receive. But let’s be honest, top online retailers enhance their product photos a lot more than you realize.

For this photo, I also played around with the brightness, contrast and saturation of the photo I just wanted a brightened image.

Keep in mind that I normally use vendor photos so I’m still totally figuring things out as I go along. I figured by taking my own product photos, I’d get to have a bigger impact on the look of my brand to increase my conversions. But I obviously still have a long way to go before I’m a master photographer. But it’s been a fun process to experiment with.

The next photo I took used a pink wrapping paper, a green vine, and a flower head I ripped off a plastic stem. I played around with the greenery a bit to create the perfect shot. I ended up taking 15 pictures for this one alone. Different angles, positioning, shots. I tried a little bit of everything. Once again I edited this picture in Canva using the same filter, with a focus on brightening the image.

Here are a couple other photos I took using a similar strategy as the previous photos.

smile

After playing around with a few letter boards, I realized why taking photos was so much tougher than I realized. I couldn’t figure out how to do the spacing and styling for the text on the letter board. I kept having to move all the letters around. And even then, sometimes I just really sucked at it. It made taking these photos so much more tedious.

Fortunately, I had a 90s pop playlist on Spotify that was blasting while I worked. It ended up making the whole process more fun. Who doesn’t want to dance while they work?

When it came to taking these photos, I’d spend as much as 30 minutes on a photo. I had to remove the letters from the plastic it came in, then arrange the letters, then rearrange the letters because I was almost always off with my spacing, then I had to set up the background, play around with different angles and more. It gave me a greater appreciation for the hard work product photographers do.

Part of me wanted to hand this work off to someone else so I could start focusing on marketing. But I was on a shoestring budget and delegating this type of work doesn’t make sense so early in the process. Plus, it was pretty fun. I hadn’t done arts and crafts since I was 10. This give me a chance to be a kid again.

When it comes to taking product photos for the product pages I’ll be streamlining the process a bit more.

Taking Product Photos for the Product Page

By the time I got around to creating the product photos for the product page, I was exhausted. I wanted as few letters on the letter board as possible. So I stuck with one word: deluxe. To save time, I added the text to all the letter boards first so I can just crank out as many photos as possible.

I needed to streamline the process. Our air conditioner was broken and having our blinds open (for natural light) with the sun shining down on it, made the temperature unbearable. At one point, it was 33 degrees celsius in the condo. I’ve never drank so much water in my life.

This is what my set up looked like. I literally put the white bristol board on my kitchen table and plopped the letter board on top. I hovered over the table by standing on my chair, you can even see my shirt peeking through. Some people prefer to buy tripods or gooseneck phone holders to take these shots but I wanted to keep my costs low. This image will need a bit of Photoshop to get it ready for the live website but at least the white bristol board makes that process a bit easier.

I took a few other angles as well to cover my bases. I figured someone would want to know what the thickness looks like so I shot that and the back of the letter board. I also ended up taking pictures of accessories like the letters and letter bag it came with.

I ended up capturing the same front, side and back shots for all styles. I ended up taking a total of 39 shots. I played around with flash and without, angles and retaking photos that just looked bad.

Unfortunately, I had to use Photoshop for the next part of the process. If you don’t have access to Photoshop you can use the Shopify app Pixc, they remove the background from product photos within 24 hours.

For about a year, my job at a previous online retailer was to remove the background from product photos. I used to Photoshop up to 500 pictures a day. But I hadn’t really used Photoshop in a couple years so I literally had to play with buttons to figure out how everything worked again. Apparently, if you stop doing something for a long time, you can start to forget everything you once knew.

After spending some time in Photoshop, the final image looked like this:

product photosNot bad for a picture with my phone. I made all the main product photos 500 pixels by 500 pixels so that the square shape was consistent among all the product pages. I also did a closer crop so that customers can view the product image a bit better. It can be hard to know how close to crop it if you don’t do this often. I had to redo the cropping once I saw it on the live website to ensure that it was zoomed in enough. While you can use a zoom feature app, it’s still good to have a close crop too so that customers can clearly see the fine details.

A few extra product photography lessons…

  • Take advantage of tape. By taping the wrapping paper or bristol board to your table’s ends, you help ensure a straight edge. Plus, it keeps the paper in place in case you accidentally fall off your chair while taking an aerial shot.
  • Take advantage of your phone’s camera settings. On my Google Pixel, I chose a 3×3 grid type. This basically added ruler lines to my phone so that I could center the product in my picture. I used this feature on all my photos.
  • Turn off flash. I found that for me personally when I turned off flash my pictures looked better.
  • Use natural light. When I first started taking pictures someone on the Oberlo team told me about a major faux pax I was doing with my photos. I used a combination of artificial and natural sunlight which made the picture look lower quality. After that, I focused on moving my kitchen table closer to my windows to get more natural lighting so that the image quality would improve. All the lights in my home were turned off. Thanks Jessica!
  • Every product will have different needs. For these letter boards, I was able to lay them flat on a surface but if you’re shooting a mug you’ll likely need to have a vertical sweep.
  • The goal isn’t to take the perfect picture on the first try. You’re going to have to take a few different pictures to find the one that works best. My process involved taking a picture, zooming in to see if it was good, taking it again, and trying out different angles. It’s better to have a variety to choose from than to be stuck with a mediocre picture or having to do the whole process all over again.
  • Your images will have to be retouched. Whether you’re removing the background from your images to maintain a consistent look on your product page or enhancing the color of your product image, some edits are necessary. Even though I had an amazing camera, I still found that the lighting in my room still made my pictures look kind of dull. If you find yourself in the same situation, you can use filters within Canva or Photoshop to improve the image’s brightness. It helps give the product an extra pop of color which makes it look more appealing.
  • Resize your images. The photos for my product page were all 500 pixels x 500 pixels. The average product collection page showcases products in square images so you’ll need to resize your pictures to be square shaped. It also doesn’t hurt to compress your photos with a tool like Compress JPEG so that they load on your website faster. Store visitors don’t want to wait an extra second to watch your page load.

Next Week

Next week’s focus will be around copywriting. From writing product descriptions to crafting an about us page, we’ll be putting the pieces together to complete the look of our store’s theme. So you’ll get a first look at what the finished online store looks like.

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