The Top 8 Questions About Product Photography - Answered

Everything you need to know about product photography

Hi guys. Travis Duncan here with a fairly detailed entry that I have pieced together from several different sources including my own experiences of over 25 years in product photography. I am certain this will help you when planning your company’s next product photography project. Buckle up because there's a ton of information here that will get you on the right track with your company's next product photography shoot. 

In this blog post I will answer 8 questions about product photography:

  1. What is product photography?
  2. How can my company benefit from hiring a pro product photographer?
  3. How do product photography service providers differ?
  4. Is product photography really that important?
  5. How much should I budget for my company’s product photography?
  6. What additional charges should I anticipate?
  7. Are there other project costs should I being considering?
  8. What challenges could I expect with my product photography project?

First let me ask, do some or all of these items describe your business?

  • You have a brick & mortar store and sell through e-commerce channels.
  • You want to sell more product.
  • You need high-quality photography of all your products.
  • You don’t know much about product photography.

If you answered yes to these questions then outsourcing your product photography is the right move. But how much will this cost? There is no simple answer. Your business, your products, and your unique image requirements all factor into how much you will be charged for product photography.

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What Is Product Photography? 

Product photography is a discipline or division of commercial photography, which accurately and attractively represents or illustrates a company’s product. Usually in an advertising setting, but more and more we are seeing product photography in other venues too. Great product photography isn’t always easy to achieve but can make a major statement on a company’s website. When done correctly, professional product photography will bring a higher level of perceived value to the company brand. The studio that understands the technical challenges in creating professional product photographs, while addressing the clients aesthetic desires and brand messaging needs, is usually awarded the lions share of projects. Interesting and compelling lighting, custom background options, dynamic camera angles, sharp focus (or lack thereof) are all important technical considerations that should be discussed with your studio of choice before the job begins.  

How can my company benefit from hiring a professional product photographer?

I bet you didn’t realize that in general, people tend to remember 80 percent of what they see, but just 20 percent of what they read? Professional product photography can be a large investment consideration, but you also need to think about the end goal of trying to persuade people in to buy your goods or services. The power of an image is hard to ignore, and if you're not including great images of your products, then you could be losing out on some serious sales. 

It isn’t just taking a picture with the iPhone. In fact, that’s the last thing you want to do. With the proliferation of mobile device cameras, many people mistakenly think they can take professional level photographs suitable for marketing or advertising in print, or on the web. Without a full understanding of composition, lighting, and industry tricks of the trade, many people sell their business presentations short with unprofessional images. With a great concept, wonderful lighting, complimentary shadows, no unflattering reflections - a good product photographer can make a seemingly mundane product look amazing! The truth is, the better your products looks, the more products you will sell.   

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How Do Product Photography Service Providers Differ?

There are 2 main types of service providers that offer product photography – local independent photographers and full-service studios.

Local Independent (Home Based) Photographers

In most cities there are hundreds of independent photographers that offer various services to their customers including portrait, event, senior photos, and wedding photography. These photographers very often work out of their home, and therefore can’t offer a full range of services. A very small percentage of these photographers may also offer product photography services.

Why an independent (home based) photographer may be the RIGHT choice for you:

  • There should be a very large amount of these photographers to choose from in your local area.
  • You may be able to negotiate a good rate due to the fact that they are typically one-person operations and may have zero to very little overhead reflected in their rates.
  • The cost of shipping your products to their home will be low (across town as opposed to across the country).

Why an independent (home based) photographer may be the WRONG choice for you:

  • It may be difficult to find an independent photographer who specializes in product photography. Inexperienced product photographers can have a negative impact on both image quality and production.
  • They may lack the studio capacity to handle your project e.g. they may not be able to accept a pallet of product delivered to their location and the space to house your products. 
  • They may also lack the studio equipment to handle your products e.g. if your products are large or heavy they require specialized photography equipment.
  • They may lack the expertise, professionalism, and software solutions to handle your photography requirements in a timely manner.
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Full-service Commercial Photography Studios

Full-service commercial studios offer a complete range of product photography services and have the capacity and equipment to handle large shipments, large-scale projects, and all nearly all product types. These studios are much less common than independent (home based) studios.

Why a full-service studio may be the RIGHT choice for you:

  • They have the ability to accept large shipments of products delivered by truck.
  • They have the capacity to handle large projects.
  • With software-based workflows they will be able to meet project deadlines.
  • They can handle products of all shapes, sizes and weights.
  • They have the ability to provide both still and 360 images.
  • They provide concise project communication to clients for monitoring progress and to review image quality.
  • Depending on the studio’s geographic location, low costs of doing business can very often save you a ton of money, when compared to what a major metropolitan service area provider would have to charge.
  • The very best modern commercial studios back their work with a 100% money back guarantee, giving you the peace of mind that your project (and investment) are in the best possible hands with little to no risk on you part.  

Why a full-service studio may be the WRONG choice for you:

  • If the studio is not in your local area, product shipping costs could be higher with larger sized products.
  • If the studio is not in your local area, site visits could be costly.

Is product photography important?

You’ve spent a lot of time and money developing a product that you’re proud of—so shouldn’t your photography show it off? While you might be tempted to scrimp on this part, the simple truth is that more often than not, people shop with their eyes. When they see two similar products, they’ll go with the one that looks best almost every time, regardless of the other information available to them. The significance of showcasing your product or service through high-quality photography is just as important whether you’re placing an ad in a magazine or placing product images on your website. Your photos need to highlight the product features in a method we call “hero shots”. Hero shot images highlight the unique features & details of your product and present it in the most appealing form possible. Very often hero shot photography call illustrate the way a product makes you “feel” just by looking at the photo like the image below. The monster energy drink shot, illustrates the “energy” feeling you get from the coffee component in the product. Cool huh.

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How much should I budget for product photography?

Establishing budgets and costs for producing a professional photoshoot can be difficult. I have had many conversations with small startups who struggled when doing DIY photography and were frustrated when their results were not professional looking and, very often, barely marketable. The actual cost of a product shoot should be amortized over the life of the product. A good, but “expensive” photograph should be used to announce the product in the press. Then used to promote the product on their web site, in trade show materials, in brochures, and direct mail pieces. In other words, that one shot could be responsible for generating thousands of sales! On a per unit basis, that image could end up being a very small part the cost.

How are product photography services priced?

It is important to understand the different ways studios charge for their services. Depending on the details of your project, you may favor one method over another, and always remember to budget in costs for image licensing. (Oftentimes licensing costs are built into the the rates, but don't forget to ask your service provider)

Priced “by the hour or day”

As you would expect, with this method you will be charged a flat hourly or daily rate for the studio’s services. For example, a studio could charge $150 / hour or $1,200 / day for still images and $200 / hour or $1,600 / day for 360 images (because they require more specialized equipment and software).

If your project has specialized image requirements that change from product to product the studio would find it difficult to estimate daily production. For this reason they would opt for an hourly or daily rate. I strongly advise that you do not enter into an hourly or daily rate arrangement with your service provider. It is difficult to budget and there is no ceiling on your costs.

To avoid hourly or daily arrangements I recommend you spend time refining your image requirements to the point where a photographer can understand exactly what images you need for each product category. This way they will be able to quote your project by the product or by the image.

Priced “by the product”

With this method the service provider will charge by the product. For example, at $30 / product for 200 products, the total project cost would be $6,000. With ‘by the product’ projects, the service provider may allow for unlimited images per product. This is definitely an advantage for you but it is also why service providers shy away from this pricing structure – they could end up producing more images than they budgeted for. This pricing structure often comes with 2 conditions:

  • The number of images per product has a maximum, images over-and-above the maximum will be charged at a specified rate. This protects the service provider if the customer requests too many images per product.
  • Each product category will have its own per product rate. For example, a project for a bike manufacturer, pedals and brake parts could be charged at a different rate than frames and wheels. This protects the service provider if some of the product categories are difficult to photograph.

Priced “by the image”

Similar to pricing “by the product”, this method you will be charged a price for each image produced. For example, if the per image rate is $8.00 and you have 100 products requiring a total of 250 images your total project cost would be $2,000.

This is the preferred pricing structure for service providers because:

  • It matches their cost structure – they incur costs each time they capture, edit, QA, and format an image and therefore it is best that they charge by the image.
  • They get paid for every image they produce for their customer (unlike with a flat rate per product regardless of the number of images produced).

“By the image” pricing works fine for you as well as long as you invest the time in analyzing your image requirements. This is not a difficult process, here are the steps:

  • Categorize the products you need images for. There are 2 ways to go about this:
  • Put them in standard product categories e.g. a bike manufacturer has brake, gear, frame, and accessory products.
  • Put them in photography categories e.g. a bike manufacturer has small products (brake parts, accessories), medium products (handle bars, seats, brake parts, rail components), and large products (frames, wheels).
  • Total the number of products you have in each product or photography category.
  • Determine the number of images you require for each product or photography category. In the bike example, for wheels you might want 3 images – a front image of the full wheel, a close-up of the tire tread, and a close-up of the spokes.
  • Total the number of images required in each product or photography category by multiplying the number of products in each category by the number of images required for the category.
  • Add up all the images required in all the categories. This will give you the total number of images you require for your entire project.

Now that you know all your product or photography categories and the number of images required in each category the service provider can come up with an accurate per image price for each category and therefore the total cost for the project. Because ‘by the image’ pricing is fair for both service provider and customer it is the most common method.

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What Additional Charges Should I Anticipate?

Because product photography involves the uniqueness of your products and the specific image requirements you may have, the service provider may need to apply additional charges to your project. Below are some of the common additional charges you should consider when budgeting your project: 

Product Weight

If some of your products are heavy a product weight surcharge may be applied. Heavy products are difficult to handle, often requiring both the photographer and the photo assistant(s) to lift and position the product on the table. This can be awkward, time-consuming, and at times require special equipment like heavy-duty photography tables. For instance a flywheel for a vehicle, it could weigh more than 70 pounds and it takes 2 people to place it on the photography table.

Product Size

Large sized products are also hard to handle and can require a second person to position them on the table. These products almost always require a larger photography table and large camera stand so the camera can get high enough over the table or platform to fit the product in the image frame. Large manufactured parts and product often require a 9′ camera/studio stand for camera rigging, and a large open space of 12 feet or more, floor-based photography platform.

Product Prep

Some products you can take out of their box or packaging and place them right on the table for photography, no prep required. Other products require extensive cleaning or even assembly prior to photography. A photo assistant may be required for this prep work. For the most part, basic product prep is built into the price but if extensive prep is required there could be an additional charge.

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Product Styling

Many products require styling before they can be photographed. There are many examples of products that require styling, here are a few:

  • Clothing that requires ironing, special folding, and / or pairing with other apparel on a mannequin.
  • Food products that require special layout on a cutting block or countertop and grouped with other food products. Food products can also require special sprays and other methods to make them look as edible as possible and to keep them looking fresh on set.
  • Products where the packages are reflective or they have inconsistent shapes. In these cases the photographer may need to move the contents around within the package to get the right shape. In extreme cases, the contents of the product will be removed and the package stuffed.

Product Layout

If your products take time to lay out on the photography table and this time has not been factored into the initial image price then there may be an additional charge. Here are some examples:

  • Toys that have many components that need to be arranged in a specific way for the image.
  • Industrial products like engine gasket kits that can have as many as 100 pieces that need to be laid out in a particular pattern prior to photography.
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Set Construction

Some products cannot be photographed effectively unless they are displayed in a setting. Some sets are basic and some are elaborate. Home décor and furnishing products are great examples of products that require sets e.g. a kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom set. Sets can be time-consuming to build and photographing sets takes much longer than photographing products on a table-top.

Lifestyle Photos & Product Photography Using Models

In essence, lifestyle photos are images showing a product being used or in action. For example, a person wearing sports apparel and working out, or a vehicle with specialty rims and tires parked or in motion. These images can require special scenarios and people. The cost of lifestyle images depends on the people, sets, and scenes required. Lifestyle shots also help inspire your customers to purchase and make them feel like they “need” to have the product in their own personal lives. This is because you are showing your product in it’s natural habitat—the way they are intended to be used. You are setting up products in a visually appealing way to help consumers make a decision to purchase from your store. With Lifestyle photos, it is important to be thoughtful with your styling, propping and location choices. 

Below are some examples of strong Lifestyle photos, entrepreneurs could pair with the other product photography images to better illustrate the product.

It’s fairly easy to imagine what it would be like to wear the apparel, fitness watches or accessories on a future vacation, during the upcoming season or to a specific date. This at least helps customers see how the products are worn, how they fit, how they scale to a human body, etc. Depending on what you’re selling, simple can actually be better!

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Lifestyle photos help potential customers visualize the product in their own life. Once they picture themselves wearing or using your product, it gets a lot harder to say “no” to buying it. If you want to go the extra mile in selling your products with lifestyle photos, try pairing items to encourage additional purchases.

Lifestyle photos usually involve people, like models or celebrities, as a way to showcase how the product can fit into and enhance the consumers life. It's very appealing to people to see someone they know, or recognize a face that is associated with a particular product. There is a lot that goes into planning a product/lifestyle shoot using models, where micromanagement or a good producer may be needed to help create the perfect picture. With so many different people involved in a photo production such as this, it means everything to get it right the first time.

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Specialty Images

In order to capture specific image views the studio may be required to change their normal camera / lighting setup, and use different and specialized equipment. It takes the photographer time to setup for these images and therefore an additional fee may be applied. The best example of these charges are close-up shots of specific aspects of your products like a connector, knob, switch, or area on the product that displays an important feature or function. For these close-up shots the photographer will need to adjust their lights, change lenses, and possibly add a specialized flash to the camera for additional lighting.

Group Images

You may have products that you want photographed together. For these images the photographer will need to prepare multiple products (unpacking, cleaning etc.) and lay them out on the photography table. Additionally, the photography for group shots can take longer than single shots. Expect additional charges for group product shots.

Are there any other costs I should consider?

Yes, and now that you have a good understanding of how product photography charges work you need to consider the costs of preparing and shipping your products to the service provider and returning them to your business.

Consider the costs of the items below:

  • Producing a list of products you need photographed.
  • Pulling the products from inventory.
  • Preparing the products for shipping to the service provider’s studio.
  • Shipping the products to the service provider’s studio.
  • Returning the products to your place of business from the service provider’s studio.
  • Re-packaging products where the package was damaged during photography.
  • Returning the products to inventory.

These are real costs to your business and must be factored into the overall cost of your product photography project.

Challenges in Product Photography

There are several challenges in the world of product photography. Products that are notoriously difficult to photograph can be transparent objects, translucent containers, plastics & glass, highly reflective or refractive (metallic or glossy surfaces), and also products that are white, black, or have extreme contrast. Again, a well trained and highly experienced studio will have the necessary skills and tools to tackle all of these challenges and to represent your company’s product without selling a false bill of goods.

Utilizing large studio strobes, scrims, reflectors, specialized lenses, rock solid camera support and a plethora of other studio tools, almost any type of product photo can be created in a modern commercial studio. In addition, most professional product studios will also handle the daunting and time-consuming ‘post-production’ tasks for just about any project. From culling extraneous images, custom retouching, compositing, cropping and many other photo enhancements, the modern day commercial studio can handle just about any need that you have with your product photography shoot. Last but not least (I’ll state this again) - the very best commercial studios back their services with a 100% money back guarantee, giving you the peace of mind that your project (and investment) is in the best hands with little or no risk on your part.