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Photo studio with flash lights, stands and backgrounds.

Tips for getting great product images on a budget ,

Photo studio with flash lights, stands and backgrounds.

There’s an ancient Mesopotamian curse: “May your product images look like they were done on a budget.”

Great product photographers only make photography look easy. This is a lesson learned painfully by small business owners who have resorted to taking product photos themselves, or asked a favor of a friend who happens to have a high quality camera. The results of having your products shot by a well-meaning amateur are similar to the results of having your portrait painted by a particularly talented elephant: you’ll end up with something that earns qualified praise, but not something that does the subject justice.

The quality of your merchandising materials and product content — and thus, the very presentation of your brand — is only as good as its weakest link, and too many startups make this mistake. The broken window and potted plant principles apply here as well: if a visitor sees a broken window in your building, or walks into your office and sees a potted plant that’s in serious need of attention, it raises the question (whether consciously or not) of what else might need attention. If the organization hasn’t taken the time to look after their building or their decorations, what other things could they be missing?

Since product visualization (an umbrella term which includes photography) is so essential to your brand, you have to do it well, but you must do it in a way that doesn’t punch an unmanageable hole in your launch budget.

Here are our recommendations:

Don’t spend too little.

As mentioned above, talented photographers make it look easy, and many consumers don’t understand the tremendous amount of work it takes to make product photography look natural. An appealing image of a consumer electronics product may actually be a composite of several photos, each taken with custom lighting to make a particular surface look its best. Significant post-production work may have been invested to add indicator lights or removing (or adding) cords, in addition to the usual work of removing fingerprints or minor imperfections.

It’s possible to find a photographer who specializes in a low price per shot; in some markets these can be done for $50 or less. What you’ll usually get is photos of your product placed in a light box, with minimal post production applied. This type of assembly line work is better suited for resellers offering imported commodity products on Amazon, and not brands which want to be taken seriously. You may find that if you go this route for your first set of product photos, you’ll end up having them redone by a better photographer six months later.

You don’t need to shop locally.

The density of photography studios varies widely, and many premier business locations tend to be creative deserts, as photographers are priced out of the real estate market unless they charge higher than average rates. You can save money and have access to a wider talent pool if you extend your search to surrounding cities.

If you’re just not finding what you’re looking for in your area code, don’t be afraid to look outside of your region. The cost of a plane ticket and a night or two at a hotel for somebody on your team to oversee the photography may be nominal considering the money you’ll save.

Negotiate a pricing model that works for you.

Billing for studio photography typically falls into three categories: a flat fee for use of the studio (which covers basic overhead, the photographer’s time, and usually the cost of an assistant), the cost for additional talent and resources (such as set piece rental, specialized gear rental, and makeup artists or prop specialists), and post production (the cost of the PhotoShop magic to turn the raw images into something amazing).

Some photo studios will charge a lower daily rate and more per final delivered image, and others will charge more for the studio time and a lower price per piece. Some studios offer tiered pricing for final images, depending on their use — more for high resolution images destined for printing, and less for smaller images for online use.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a solution that’s optimized for your exact needs. Even the most talented and successful photographers would rather get the business than not, and most won’t hesitate to work with you on a quote.

Just don’t expect pricing that’s too low to allow the photographer to deliver professional results. A photographer’s reputation is only as good as their last job and like any professional, they won’t cut corners if it means delivering a product that they’re not proud of.

Take advantage of seasonality.

Many industries have established sales patterns over the course each year. Consumer electronics products, of course, do very well over the holidays but typically go through a sales slump in the summer, as consumers are spending more time outdoors. This is why one of the world’s largest technology trade shows, Computex, and the world’s largest electronic gaming show, E3, are in June — it’s not because Taipei and Los Angeles are so lovely in the summer, but to spur consumer interest at the beginning of a slow season. And, it’s why Black Friday is the phenomenon that it’s become. Fifty years ago, Thanksgiving weekend was one of the slowest weekends of the year, as families hunkered down to watch football, recover from all that food, or otherwise just stay home and enjoy quality time together. The retail industry saw fit to put a stop to all that nonsense.

Seasonality impacts the creative profession as well, and if a photography studio specializes in a particular niche (like consumer electronics or sporting equipment), they may have dry spells as well. The best way to find out when your photographer of choice has the most free time available is to ask them. If you can, plan your photography around their schedule. Their typically dry month may be a great time to schedule a secondary round of photography to supplement your merchandising or social content.

Consider an Airbnb.

If you’re scouting for locations for a photo or video shoot, there are a number of good marketplaces. We’re a fan of Peerspace in particular. But, rental rates can be $100 an hour or more, putting them out of range of more modest budgets. If you’re looking for a space that fits your vision for lifestyle photography or video, an Airbnb host may have exactly what you’re looking for.

There’s nothing wrong with using Airbnb properties for commercial purposes, provided you have the permission of the owner. We let the host know up front, and offer to pay at a higher rate, or leave a larger deposit. Often, they won’t ask for more, but even if you negotiate to twice the usual amount, you’re paying $200 per day instead of the $800 or more per day that a commercial space might cost.

By the way, we’ve had clients ask “Do we really need to inform the host that we’ll be doing a shoot?”. You know the answer. It’s simply basic professional courtesy, and if a host catches an Airbnb guest using their property for unauthorized commercial activity, the guest might be kicked off of the Airbnb platform.

Perhaps your best solution isn’t photography at all.

I used the term product visualization earlier. It encapsulates all methods of producing images of your products, including all the ways that don’t require light photons to bounce off of your product and make their way to a CMOS sensor.

Take a look at these:

(credits: ARTYuStudio, evermotion)

The location isn’t the Parker-Lambert office. It’s nobody’s office, because it doesn’t exist. Nor does the camera. They’re computer generated renderings. A lot of the product imagery you see as you go about your day is created the same way.

There are several reasons for this.

One is for shortening the time to market. A photo-ready product (whether working or not) often doesn’t even exist until a few weeks or even days before the product is announced or shipped, and lead time for packaging, print ads, or in-store displays is considerably longer than that.

Another is that for some types of products (luxury watches come to mind) that are small yet have lots of details, or products which cast their own light (for example, gaming keyboards and mice with RGB lighting effects), traditional photography is very tricky and rendered images simply look better, no matter how good your photo studio is. In the days before cost effective rendering, close-up photography of watches was often accomplished by building a large-scale model!

It can also be an economical alternative to environmental shots. Do you want your product featured in a deluxe loft, on a Noguchi table and with an Eames lounge in the background? All three of those can be rented, but it will put your set decoration budget toward the four-figure range. Or, you can buy 3D models for about $35 each:

(credit: ericocerica)

Building virtual showcases for your products also lets you return to the same virtual set any time you like. Launching a new product, or added a new color scheme to the product line? Generating a new set of images is as simple as opening a project file, which is a lot easier than the alternative of revisiting (or rebuilding) a physical set.

Note that creating great looking renderings is as much of an art and science as photography is, so you’ll still need to budget for putting your creative ideas in the hands of a skilled professional, but in the right situation, you’ll find that you can get superior results on a lower budget.

We hope that you’ve found this article to be helpful, or at least interesting. If you have any questions or feedback, let us know at