High quality product photography is essential for apparel ecommerce. For many customers, your product images will determine whether or not they buy your product.
But essential doesn’t have to mean expensive. The difference between professional and amateur is talent, equipment, and experience.
If you have an eye for photography and a modest budget, follow these 7 steps to benefit from our experience and create beautiful apparel product images.
1. Prepare your garment
Your products should look their absolute best in your images. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that clothing can become wrinkled, creased, and begin to look worn from storage and transport. Clothing samples face a particularly rough time of it, as they often cover a lot of miles and may not have been perfectly constructed to begin with.
Preparing garments to be photographed is a crucial starting point for photographing apparel, yet many photographers skip this step and rely on Photoshop to fix wrinkles, stains, and other visible defects. Don’t do that. Photoshop isn’t magic: it takes time and expertise to master advanced editing techniques, and excessive editing risks compromising image quality.
Try to capture your garment in a state as close to perfect as possible and use Photoshop only to add final touches and color correction.
Steaming will help your product look its best before photographing it.
Thoroughly examine your product from top to bottom, inside and out. Are there any tags, stickers, and other types of identifying materials that need to be removed? Do so. Has the product become wrinkled or creased during storage? Iron or steam it. Repair damages and remove distractions; for example, use lint rollers or tape to remove dust and strings.
2. Set up your studio
With a few items, you can turn nearly any room with space into a photography studio. If you’re on a shoestring budget, you can get by with a camera, tripod, seamless white paper, duct tape, and natural light. If you have a little more to spend and want control over when and where you shoot, it’s worth investing in a few more pieces of equipment.
Studio setup with camera, tripod, c-stand, seamless paper, mannequin, monolight kit.
Always use a white or light grey backdrop to prevent distractions and ensure you capture colors as accurately as possible. Seamless rolls of white paper are ideally suited, cheap, and readily available at any photography supply store. If you have one, use a c-stand to hold the seamless. Sweep the roll to the floor so that it is curved, preventing creases and distracting shadows, and fasten it with tape.
Using a stand will give you more flexibility in where you position your background, allowing you room to maneuver around the studio. If you’re on a bootstrapped budget, you can tape the seamless roll to the ceiling or a wall.
Position your product on a model or mannequin in the middle of the backdrop and directly in front of where your camera will be.
Your camera is a vital part of your product photography, but don’t make the mistake of assuming it alone will determine your success. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and you don’t have to put your entire budget into it. We recommend you use a DSLR that has, at a minimum, manual exposure and aperture settings, or using a very inexpensive alternative right at your fingerprints, your smartphone!
Use a tripod. The stability will eliminate camera shake and ensure your shots are consistent, while also freeing you to use your hands on other tasks. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a tripod, but it’s essential that you use one.
Position your tripod and camera so that it directly faces the product. Most of the time, you will not move the camera throughout the shoot. For different angles of the product, you will move the product.
Mount your camera on a tripod and directly face the product.
Natural window light is an inexpensive and high quality light source for any apparel photographer. If you have a large window and abundant natural light, great! It may be all you need. However, if you have the means, we highly recommend that you rent or invest in an easy-to-use lighting kit.
Having artificial lighting equipment at your disposal will enable you to shoot when there simply isn’t enough light coming in through the window. The added versatility can dramatically increase your efficiency, while consistent lighting helps you set a professional standard. For a single light setup, you’ll need a light head, softbox, c-stand, battery pack, and pocket wizard.
The “light head” is what you might think of as the light itself. We suggest you start with a mono strobe light head, called a “monolight.” This may be the most expensive portion of your kit—possibly more expensive than your camera—so take some time to research and find your best long term fit.
A softbox is necessary to diffuse light and capture your product in an evenly lit and appealing manner. The c-stand will hold your light head and the softbox around it. A pocket wizard will sync your camera and the light, essentially turning your light head into its flash. The battery pack does exactly what you think it does; it powers your light.
3. Position lighting
If you’re using natural light, position your product near a window where it can get even, indirect light. If you’re using a monolight setup, below is a diagram of a bird’s-eye view of an effective single light setup.
Place light source and softbox at 45-degree angle to the product.
Place one light source and softbox or umbrella at a 45-degree angle to the product so that the lighting on the product is soft and even throughout. Keep your camera directly in front of your subject. If you have placed the product too close to the background, you may get some shadowing. If this happens, simply move the subject farther away from the backdrop to achieve a clean, white background. Set your light source’s power to about half.
Manually exposing your image properly is usually just a matter of using your camera’s light meter, which you can find by looking through your camera’s viewfinder, and adjusting settings to make the meter notches reach 0. It isn’t so simple when you’re using a strobe, since there is no lighting for the camera to read until the flash fires. However, a handheld light meter will help you to read the light with ease and accuracy. By syncing it to the light system and placing it in front of the subject, you can ensure accurate readings.
If you don’t have a light meter, start with your shutter speed set at 1/200 or below and your aperture set at f/11 or higher. From there, you will need to take test shots and tweak your camera settings to achieve optimal exposure and focusing.
Allow time for recharging between flashes. Depending on the strength of your battery pack, your light source may not fire on time if you shoot too quickly.
4. Style on a mannequin or model
Photographing a garment on a mannequin or a model is the best way to demonstrate shape and fit, while also encouraging customers to visualize themselves wearing it.
Style your product so that it fits properly.
Models make clothing come to life, but professionals are extremely expensive. Mannequins are an affordable alternative and easy to work with. Take time to style your product on the mannequin; if your garment looks too big, try fitting it closer to your mannequin by pinning it and tucking it until it fits properly.
You can create the invisible mannequin effect in post-production processing.
If you’re concerned a mannequin may be distracting or cheapen your product, you can use the invisible mannequin technique in post-production processing. A few additional shots of each product will allow you to remove the mannequin from your product images and present a 3D image that demonstrates shape and fit.
5. Set your camera
If your camera settings are wrong, then no amount of Photoshopping expertise will be able to make your images look professional. Make sure that you understand ISO, aperture, and white balance before you photograph your products.
Pay extra attention to ISO, aperture (F-stop), and white balance.
Make sure that your ISO is no greater than 600-640. Higher ISOs produce distracting “noise” or “grain,” which is grayish or colored speckles that make photographs look more filmic. The higher you go the worse the noise will be. At higher ISOs the camera can’t capture as much sharpness, so details begin to look soft. Using a tripod will allow you to keep your ISO at 100 or 200 for optimal clarity and sharpness.
Aperture, which is represented by the f number of your camera settings (e.g. f/16, f/2.8), controls focus. Generally, the larger the aperture number the more aspects of the image will be in full focus. Make sure to set your aperture higher than f/11; this will allow for all aspects of your products to be in complete focus.
Have you ever looked at a photo and it seemed like it was taken through a blue or orange filter? The white balance was probably off. Light sources have different warmths, creating what’s known as a color cast and making it difficult for your camera to determine true white. Your white balance setting controls how the camera interprets the colors that it records. There are many different types of light sources, but the most common are tungsten, fluorescent, LED, and natural sunlight.
You can set your white balance specifically according to the type of light source that you are using or set your white balance to AUTO and let the camera decide. Whatever you choose, don’t forget about white balance or you may find yourself hard-pressed to try and recreate accurate colors in Photoshop.
At last, it’s finally the moment you’ve been waiting for! Direct your camera at your subject and press half way down on your shutter release button, allow your camera to focus on your subject, and then snap the shot. Adjust your camera settings throughout the shoot if you notice your images need more or less light. The more you shoot, the more instinctive your adjustments will become.
Shoot your product from every angle.
Shoot as many images as possible. You may want to shoot the front and back, 45 degree angles, left and right sides, and any details. The more shots, the better. You want lots of options to select your final images from, and having more images per product on your website has been demonstrated to increase sales. Customers will be able to trust their impressions of the product if it’s backed up in multiple photographs from multiple angles.
7. Post-production process
After shooting, it’s time to prepare your product images for the web. The goal of post-production processing is to make your images look as professional as possible while maintaining optimal performance.
This is the simplest and most beneficial step to outsource, since digital assets are easily transferrable and the time and cost savings are significant.
If you would rather do it yourself, you should ensure your post-production process addresses alignment, cropping, background removal, and color correction in order to maintain a consistent and professional appearance. Keep a record of your processes so you can develop a standard set of specifications for both shooting and editing.
Make sure that your products are all the same size and are centered within each image. You want all of the angles, corners, and edges of your products to line up in relation to one another. The easiest way to ensure that your alignment is spot on is to create guidelines in a Photoshop template.
Perfectly aligned products images give a cohesive and beautiful look.
Much like alignment, you should crop product images identically so your customers have seamless online shopping experience. If you use guidelines for alignment, then cropping consistently and sizing images according to your website’s image specifications should be no problem.
We used a white background, which is a recommended practice and even required by some marketplaces. You can take it a step further and completely eliminate possible distractions by removing the background. Removing the background will allow you more flexibility in web design and modestly decrease file size.
Even with careful attention to white balance, some colors—like neons, reds, and pinks—are difficult to photograph correctly in camera and often need to be tweaked in Photoshop.
Inaccurate representations of colors can leave customers frustrated and dissatisfied, so take a few extra minutes to ensure that the colors of your garments are accurate. The bottom line is that you want the customer to see exactly what they will receive in the mail should they order your product.
There are a number of ways to tweak colors, so get to know Photoshop’s offerings and choose your favorite tool. After you have fixed the colors, make sure to convert your images into SRGB format to make sure that different browsers, computer screens, and websites won’t change the accurate colors that you worked so hard to create for your customers.
Experience is the best teacher
Doing it yourself is a big challenge. It won’t be perfect the first time, but that’s ok. Your goal should be to improve with every shoot and to take the best possible product images. Better product images mean more sales and more opportunity for people to enjoy your product.
Remember the seven steps to taking beautiful apparel product photography and you’ll be fine. Prepare your product, build your studio, position your lighting, style your product, set your camera, shoot, and perfect your images in post-production processing. If you follow those steps, you will have high quality product images you can be proud of.
For more, check out The Complete Guide to DIY Product Photography.
About the author: Thomas Kragelund is the CEO and founder of Pixelz, a leading product image solutions partner for internet retailers, bloggers, designers, photographers worldwide.