The assumption for all these tips is that you’re using a basic point and shoot digital camera, handheld, with no access to image manipulation software.
Hold it right there
This may seem obvious, but you need to hold the camera as still as possible when you take a photo. Depending on the camera you're using, it may also be good to hold it still a second or so after you press the button, as some older cameras have a bit of lag time until they actually take the photo. Try and press the button down as gently as possible - you should have it halfway down already for the autofocus, so squeeze it down the rest of the way like you're taking out the last Jenga block!
The technique: Get into a comfortable position, hold the camera with both hands and breathe out slowly. As you breathe out, gently press the shutter button down fully.
Up close and personal
Detail is key if you’re looking to buy something, so be prepared to get a few close-up shots. My tip here is to watch your angles, ensure there’s enough light (more on these subjects shortly) and consider using Macro mode (usually a flower icon) on your camera. This lets you focus closer to an object and limits your depth of field, so the parts in focus are very sharp and everything else is blurred. This helps, well, focus your audience on your subject matter of choice.
It should go without saying that your product needs to be in the frame. Unless you’re doing a close-up detail shot you should ensure that your product is in the centre of the shot (more or less) with a bit of space from the edge of the image. If a shadow of the product is in the frame try to ensure this is not cropped off either.
The angle of the dangle
It depends on what kind of product you’re shooting, but angle is important too. Let’s take the humble coffee mug. Ideally you’ll take several angles – dead straight with the handle out to the right showing the design on the front, from directly above, showing the shape of the container, and maybe one from the back too. If you wanted something a bit more interesting you could take a shot of it full of coffee in someone’s hand – for this you’d want to consider the angle on both the person and the mug.
Try it: Shoot your product close up on a bare table at a low angle (so your camera is level with the object) with a plain, preferably white wall behind it. Use Macro mode and try fill-in flash before you resort to reflectors (see Lighting section below)
A big part of composition is the background, or other objects in view. If you’re not shooting on a plain background, you should try and throw your background out of focus. The key to this is the Aperture, which you can quite often control, but it’s a bit fiddly so we’ll stick to the easy way, which is usually to use Macro mode and get as close as possible! If your camera has optical zoom, try zooming in as this will likely help blur out the background too - you may need to step back to keep the same composition!
Tip: Never use digital zoom for anything, ever. All this does is crop the image, leading to poor definition and blurry or blocky images. Most cameras will tell you which you’re using, and some let you disable digital zoom in the menu settings.
Adequate light is essential for the best professional-looking images. Because of the way the human eye works, what looks like enough light to us isn’t enough light for a camera. The easiest way to enhance your lighting setup is to use the sun and at least one reflector (a sheet of aluminium foil shiny side up is fine as a reflector, although it’s easier to manipulate if you wrap it round something sturdy), preferably more. You can prop these up around your object. What you’re aiming to do is get overall even lighting and removing any shadows on the object itself. If your camera has a ‘Fill-in Flash’ setting experiment using this in addition to reflectors.
Tip: On the whole (unless the fill-in flash method works well for you), you'll want to turn the flash off. The light it produces will usually be too harsh and overexpose the image. If you must use it, try to diffuse it a little. Gently tape some greaseproof or tracing paper over the flash bulb and do a few test shots.
If it’s a dark day and you need to use a light, feel free – try a desk lamp with a bendy neck – but use a reflector to direct it onto your object to soften the light and eliminate shadows, and remember to change your White Balance settings to compensate. Older ‘normal’ lightbulbs are covered by the Tungsten setting which usually has a lightbulb icon, but energy saving bulbs are often whiter, so you may need to use the fluorescent tube setting if you have one.
Most people (including me) get all lazy over this one. White balance is a measure of the ambient colour temperature of the scene – ranging from red, through orange and yellow, visiting pure white, then out to blue and purple. Ideally you need to use ‘Custom White Balance’ and hold a sheet of paper in front of the camera to get a reading, but most cameras come with presets that do the job well enough in most circumstances. Try several and aim to match the conditions – for example if you’re shooting outside on a cloudy day, most likely you want the Cloudy setting.
This is more about how you display your product shots. It’s good practice to keep lighting, composition and background consistent across your product range. I find it helpful to take a photo of your setup and make a note of all the settings used.
Size does matter
Most cameras come preset to their highest detail settings, usually measured in Megapixels. For most people it's best to leave it on the highest setting as it gives you get the highest possible quality, the biggest photo sizes for prints, and also the ability to crop the image (to get a better composition) and still retain good quality. My advice is to always shoot in the highest quality you can and resize afterwards as required.
Having said that, I don't mind resizing images - I use software or batch-process them online using free resizing tools. However, if you find this step onerous and if you only ever want to use these images on screen, for instance on a website or in an email, then it is possible to cheat. The image size option is usually buried in the menu system rather than instantly available and you'll need to experiment a little, but try using the several smallest Megapixel settings. Take test shots with each, then transfer them to your computer and compare the file sizes. It could be that the file size is small enough to upload to websites and emails without resizing at all, but do check the images against high Megapixel ones to ensure you're happy with the quality.
And don't forget to change the settings back to high when you're finished!