If you walk around with a camera (which is to say, a smartphone) in your pocket all day, take photos whenever the mood strikes you, and frequent photo-sharing apps like Instagram, it’s very easy to assume that you’re a decent — possibly excellent — image-maker. But while many of us are expert at capturing the planes of our own faces, we’d have a lot more trouble getting a really good, clear shot of an object on a simple background.
For people with small online businesses who handle their own manufacturing, marketing, bookkeeping, and shipping, creating professional-looking product photography is often a big hurdle. The stakes are high: When you’re shopping online, you want to see that candle, scarf, or necklace as clearly as possible, and, subconsciously or not, poor lighting and blurry images might discourage you from hitting the buy button.
But it can be hard to get that perfect shot. Space limitations, camera quality, access to natural or artificial light, and even weather can be roadblocks.
“Photography was definitely a challenge at first because I felt like my pictures were too dark [and] were not displaying my product in the best way,” says Emilie Bourge, who sells calligraphy posters on Etsy. “I did some research online to gather best practices, and one of the biggest takeaways was to have a white background and very well-lit area to really put the product forward. That has been somewhat of an issue since I live in Chicago and during the winter the sun sets at 4 pm, so I could only work on product photography on the weekends.”
Anna Been, a knitter with an Etsy shop, says that getting usable product photos was difficult initially. Her first batch of product pictures was taken by a friend with a good phone camera on their lunch break.
“One of the things I noticed on Etsy shops that did well was they often had a fairly uniform background in their photos, or at least a similar style in all of them,” says Been. “I started getting really good at taking selfies in front of my parents’ house, which had a nice, basic wood pattern. The only annoying thing is now that I no longer live there, I have to pack my car with new items and make the pilgrimage to their house to take photos.”
The learning curve is steep, but some sellers, like Been, take it on because they can’t afford to hire a professional photographer. Gwyneth Jonnes, who runs an online vintage shop with her mother in her spare time, says they wouldn’t make a profit if they invested in professionally made images. They started off shooting clothing against a white door in natural light, and they’ve since invested in a lighting setup and painted a wall in a neutral tone for the purpose of product photography.
And getting it right can have a big payoff. The website platform Weebly, which was acquired by Square for $365 million earlier this year, just launched a photo studio service aimed at small online businesses. Sellers can send in their products, and for $75 an item, Weebly will send back retouched, professional-grade photos with the background color of their choice. (Sellers pay to mail in items, and Weebly covers the cost of return shipping.) Based on limited results from its beta test, Weebly says that some vendors experienced sales increases of more than 80 percent after uploading the new photos.
Weebly started working on this service — which is not just for Weebly users — after surveying sellers and finding that photography was a huge pain point for them.
“What’s interesting is that most people think photography is going to be fine. We all think of ourselves as mini photographers,” says CEO David Rusenko, speaking by phone. “People think shipping will be hard. It’s the reverse.”
After shooting products in a conference room in its offices, and later in a closet at Square headquarters, Weebly has relocated its photo operations to a small storefront in New York’s Soho neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, a photographer was taking pictures of a necklace that the maker had filled with her mother’s ashes. Behind him were robes, essential oils, and bowties that other sellers had sent in to be photographed. Each time he clicked his camera, the images showed up on a monitor behind him, crisp and vibrant against a white background.
For some sellers, paying $75 to drastically upgrade their product photos might make total sense, especially if it increases sales by such a huge factor. (As it produces photos for more vendors, Weebly is looking to refine its data around corresponding revenue growth.) For those who want a greater degree of creative control — sellers do not get to art-direct their Weebly photo shoots, though they can provide notes on the shots they want — or who have lower budgets, DIY may still be the move.
“Photos on Etsy range from very basic, terribly lit on hangers, to people who own their own stores and have a full studio,” says Jonnes, who says she wouldn’t use a service like Weebly’s. “We fall somewhere in the middle. I always try to get accurate color and close-up shots, and make sure I get all the angles and any flaws. You don’t have to be a photo expert to know that any online buyer wants to see as much detail as possible, with an honest description.”