12 Tips to Take Better Product Photos - Even with a Smartphone
One thing that we have learned at aspecialtybox.com after decades of experience is that no single person holds the complete picture to providing relevant packaging for the confectionery, gourmet foods, or gift markets. We operate as a team to provide the best customer service, products, and industry insights to our customers.

We recently asked our in-house product photographer about some of his top tips that he would give to our customers to help them shoot better product photos on their own – even if all they have at their disposal is a smartphone. The following is his first-hand account of the advice he’d give.

As a photographer, people often ask me what camera they should buy or what camera I use. However, I don't think answering that question will give them the information they are really looking for.

What most people are asking is how to take photos that look professional. They aren’t asking me how they can spend more money than is necessary on camera gear, and they don’t want endless camera features they’ll never use. They are simply assuming that higher dollar camera gear means quality photos. Fortunately, that simply isn’t true. You can take high-quality product shots, even with a smartphone.

I’ve been in the photo and video industry for over a decade. I’ve worked with camera setups that cost under $500 and over $100,000. I can assure you there is more to creating a good image than using expensive gear. Have you ever asked a baker what kind of oven he uses or a carpenter what brand of hammer?

Here are 12 simple rules that you can use to make your product photos look better – even if you are shooting on your smartphone.

First, let’s break down the visual cues that lead people to label a photo as looking professional. Often it’s the soft, out of focus background (called bokeh) that separates the subject from the background. Lighting is a big factor. For food photography, this means soft light and light that doesn’t give the subject an off-color cast. Another factor is composition, which is a more subtle element. When executed well, good composition is unobtrusive. And finally, when it comes to product photography, some element of styling is key. If it’s food it should look appetizing. If it’s a product, it should be free from scratches, lint, defects, etc..

There are four primary aspects of taking better photos - understanding your camera, lighting, composition, and styling.

Understanding Your Camera
  • Focus - make sure your subject is in focus. Most smartphones have a “tap to focus” feature. You can also often tap and hold to lock the focus. (Pro Tip: This may also bring up a slider that lets you adjust the exposure.)
  • Exposure - Cameras love light. Make sure there is enough light so that the image is exposed properly. Too much, and the brightest areas will lose detail. Too little and your smartphone camera will try to compensate, and create a grainy image.
  • Zoom - What most smartphone cameras call zoom is actually “digital zoom”. This is different than a full camera system with an optical zoom lens. Digital zoom is technically just cropping and reduces image quality. Get closer to your subject rather than using digital zoom. If your smartphone features more than one physical lens (for example, the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro), the zoom lens will help you achieve the "bokeh" that separates the subject from the background.
  • Portrait Mode Feature - This relatively new feature on smartphones does a pretty good job of making a photo appear as if it were taken with a higher-end camera. I'd suggest using it sparingly. It will generally have difficulty detecting the subject if the frame contains fine details or transparent objects like glassware.
  • Use soft light. Indirect light from a window is often the simplest approach to this. You don’t want your subject in direct sunlight, but photographing it close to a window will give you soft, natural light. A sheer white curtain can help diffuse the light if needed. With the exception of creating a dramatic scene, you'll want even light.
  • Don’t use a flash. At least, don’t use the flash that’s on your phone or mounted to your camera. This will create harsh and unnatural shadows.
  • Pay attention to the sources of light in the room. Sunlight has a different color cast (called color temperature) than interior tungsten or fluorescent lights. Sunlight is on the blue end of the spectrum, while tungsten is red-orange, and fluorescent is green. Mixing these colors in the same photo isn’t flattering, and can make food items look particularly unappealing. Setting the white balance on your camera to the appropriate setting will ensure colors look natural.
  • Bounce light to fill in shadows. Remember back to elementary school when you learned that black absorbs light and white reflects it? Same concept. Often all that’s needed is a small piece of white poster board or foam core on the opposing side of your largest light source. This adds a soft touch of light to fill in any shadows and reveal more detail. Slowly adjust the angle of the board until you at which point it bounces the light where you want it.
  • Use the rule of thirds. Images are visually pleasing when key elements are at the intersection of the lines where the image is divided into thirds. The rule of thirds is a loose interpretation of the golden ratio - a pattern consistently found in nature.
  • Avoid distracting items in the background. If you’re a baker taking photos of cupcakes, this could be a pastry bag oozing icing. It could also be something as small as an electrical cord. Just remember - fewer distractions in the background means more focus on your product.
  • Only show what’s needed. For many product photos, particularly those of baked goods and chocolates, not much space is needed in the frame. The one exception would be to leave room for graphics or text.
  • Styling the product itself is the finishing touch that will set photos apart. Food should look appetizing (don’t photograph a food with a bite taken out of it), and products should look pristine and brand new. It's always easier to scrape that crumb off of a plate before you take the photo as opposed to when you're sitting at your computer and have to open Photoshop.
  • Adding decorative elements around the product can increase the quality of the image as well. For example, if you’re photographing a product for a seasonal sale, add some seasonal elements to the scene. If you’re photographing a chocolate with a coffee center, add some coffee beans and a burlap coffee sack to the scene. Various items like textured tiles, table cloths, and artificial flowers from the craft store are perfect and can be used in different combinations to create numerous scenes.

With these 12 tips to taking better product shots, you’re well on your way to sharing Pinterest-quality photos in no time.

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