Pro tips to avoid the most common mistakes in product photography

I’ve been doing professional product photography for around 20 years now, and as an educator I’m familiar with many of the most common mistakes photographers make when photographing products.

I’m going to share my top product photography tips to help you avoid these common mistakes and achieve high-end professional results.

Note: Some of the images in this post are the work of Visual Education members.

Many of these are points are covered in our members' photo critique live shows, where I review images submitted by members and offer my advice for improvement. I’ve used a combination of my own images and member’s images to provide examples.

1. Pre-visualise and plan your image

Perhaps the biggest mistake any photographer can make is to not plan an image. In order to create good imagery, you have to know what you want to achieve with the image and what you want to say.

Simple sketches can help you determine your composition, understand the lighting, and identify potential challenges. I often do a quick sketch of an image before I start shooting so that I have a clear idea of where I want to go with the shot and how I'm going to create it.


2. Make the product the hero

Whatever you do, the product should always be the main focus of the shot and clearly stand out. There are a number of techniques you can use to do this, from the composition to the lighting, to the type of background you use.

As you progress through the shoot, keep asking yourself whether the product is the hero. Does the lighting clearly make it stand out? Is the background distracting? Could you be shooting from a better angle? If you’d planned your image, some of these questions may already have been answered, but it’s always worth taking a moment to reassess and ensure the product is the main focus of the shot.

The image below is a great example of how the photographer has really made the product the hero in the shot. The lighting on both the rubber and chrome elements of the tyre are well lit, the brand clearly stands out, and there is a definite sense of quality to the image.

Goldline type photo by Theo Fama

Image by © Theo Fama - Visual Education member 

3. Make sure the logo/brand is clear

This tip is clearly linked to my previous point, though it’s worth reiterating as its own separate consideration. I’ve seen many product photos that are well-lit, well-composed, and overall form a good image, but they don’t show the brand or logo. Remember, the aim is to sell the product, but you can’t sell it if people don’t know what it is.

You don’t always have to show the whole brand name. In some instances seeing just part of the logo will make the product recognisable enough. For example, Adidas’ three stripes are recognisable enough, as is the ‘b’ for Beats headphones. Seeing just these can be enough to identify the products.

The two images below are strong examples of how, even though there are extra elements like the ice claws and water splashes, the brand is still clearly visible. This makes for imagery that is creative but still effective.

Russian vodka image by Krzystof Czernecki

Image by © Krzystof Czernecki,
Visual Education member

Svedka vodka image by Luke Kathol

Image by © Luke Kathol,
Visual Education member

4. Choose your background carefully

The background is an important part of product photography. Often in my own product photography, I use neutral backgrounds with a subtle graduated glow behind the product. This allows the product to clearly stand out and helps to create a sense of luxury and desirability.

However, that’s not to say you can’t choose textured or coloured backgrounds. These can also be equally effective, as long as you choose wisely. Make sure you consider both the colour and the texture of the background and try to avoid overly busy backgrounds that don’t add anything to the shot.

We can see from the two images below examples of both effective and less effective backgrounds. Although both are very well-lit products, the left-hand image is more appealing, with its simpler background. As I explained during the critique show, the right-hand image might have worked better with just the main glow of blue on the background, rather than all the additional bokeh.

Men's razor image by Eduardo Stuhldreher

Image by © Eduardo Stuhldreher,
Visual Education member

Logi camera image by Ethan Davis

Image by © Ethan Davis,
Visual Education member

Photo of cheeses on rustic wooden boards

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5. Think about the shooting angle

Before you start shooting, make sure to carefully consider your shooting angle. Product photography is often shot from below to make the product look more heroic and imposing, although it’s also worth keeping in mind that the angle should clearly show the best features of the product.

6. Consider your composition

Closely linked to the shooting angle, the composition of a shot can refer to everything from the framing of the image to placement of the subject and props (if included). Everything should tie together to create a pleasing end result.

For example, the image below is a fantastic shot, but the composition doesn’t work as well as it could. If the shoes were placed more to the left of the shot, rather than centrally, there would be more space for them to ‘move’ into. It’s small adjustments like this that can make a big difference.

Sports shoes image by Jared Lam
Image by © Jared Lam - Visual Education member

7. Don’t forget to clean the product

This seemingly minor step is one not to be missed, and it’s something you should do before and during the shoot. Taking the time to clean the product and remove dust or fingerprints could save you hours in Photoshop later.

I often use a combination of methylated spirits and air canisters to remove any fingerprints and dust from products. During the shoot, I’d also recommend wearing silk gloves or similar to avoid any new fingerprints or dust on the product.

8. Create separation between the subject and the background

Monochromatic images, or shots where the product colour closely matches the background, can look highly effective… when done correctly. Key to the success of these images is a clear separation between the product and background.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to use rim lighting. In fact, for much of my product work, I use back or side lighting. These lighting techniques also help add shape and form to products — a basic principle of light that I cover in our ‘Introduction & understanding light’ class.

Both of the examples below are shot on backgrounds the same colour as the product, but you can immediately see how one stands out much more clearly than the other. Simply adding some stronger rim lighting or a glow of light behind the guitar would have helped it stand out more.

Guitar image by John Dawson

Image by © John Dawson,
Visual Education member

Lindor chocolate image by Jeremie Rousseau

Image by © Jérémie Rousseau,
Visual Education member

9. Don’t underestimate the importance of mood

Emotion is a very important element in photography, so think carefully about what mood suits the product you’re shooting. Do you want a joyful, fresh or mysterious mood? Don’t just choose a mood for the sake of it — think about what will suit the product.

There are a number of different techniques you can use to invoke emotion and mood in an image. I explain these in more detail in our ‘A guide to lighting emotion’ live show, but briefly, these are the content in an image, narrative, aesthetics, lighting, shadows, and colour.

Both of the examples below are very well executed images, but they are both let down by the mood. Neither invoke a mood that I would say is suitable, and it leads to a somewhat confusing final image.

Handbag photo by Alberto Carrizosa

Image by © Alberto Carrizosa,
Visual Education member

Garnier suncream image by Peter Krammer
Image by © Peter Krammer, Visual Education member
Photo of cheeses on rustic wooden boards

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10. Use gradient lighting for gloss surfaces

Product photography often entails lighting multiple different surfaces and textures, and in many cases, this includes lighting gloss or reflective surfaces. For products with shiny surfaces, gradient lighting is a must.

You'll see me use gradient lighting in many of our product photography classes, for everything from electric guitars to lipsticks or bottles. This not only eliminates horrible reflections, but it also adds a sense of elegance and luxury to many items. Easier to create than you might think, all you need is some diffusion material or frosted acrylic.


11. Calibrate your monitor

A mistake I see time and time again, uncalibrated monitors can lead to inaccurate colour and over or underexposed images. One of the aims of product photography is to represent the product as accurately as possible, which means colours have to be a true representation and everything should be clearly visible.

I use an Eizo monitor, one of the top brands for display monitors, which automatically calibrates itself. If your monitor doesn't offer this feature, I’d recommend recalibrating your monitor every few months.

These are just a few of my top tips for product photography, many of which are drawn from our members’ image critiques, where I review and offer advice on photos submitted by members. You can find more information on each of these points in these critique shows, as well as in many of our product photography classes.

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To learn more about how to photograph products, take a look at our extensive range of product photography classes. These include everything from jewellery photography to food photography, with detailed step-by-step instruction.

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