Every eCommerce website needs to have compelling product photography that emphasizes the unique value proposition of the product, the website, and the brand.
In addition to buying the right hardware, you need to keep in mind how you will develop your photos.
The underlying social science rationale for having high quality product images is a well documented cognitive bias we share as humans: it is known as the ‘halo effect’. Essentially, we have a bias towards selecting those people and objects that are more visually appealing to us than their competitors.
I have personally seen increases in the range of 100-300% in sales from just re-photographing products- without making changes to the website.
Before you get started you are going to want to make decisions regarding the software stack you use to develop those images.
RAW Format Photo Editing
To start with, I recommend using a camera that can record in RAW format. RAW image files contain all the data from your camera’s sensor that has not been mapped to a pixelated file type- like a JPEG or a TIFF.
While there are many photo editors on the market that can develop images in RAW- Lightroom from Adobe, Optics Pro from DxO, Capture One from Phase One… I am going to recommend a free one that I use to develop photographs I take with my Nikon FX series (full frame) cameras: Nikon’s Capture NX-D.
Why? In Capture NX-D the JPEG image settings can be seen in the preview of the RAW image when the images are in the same file folder. This feature (unique to Capture NX-D) allows you to preview the RAW files as if they were JPEG files and export them into high resolution 16-bit TIFFs with the JPEG settings from your camera.
This eliminates the differential you will sometimes see between a JPEG file version and RAW file version when it is interpreted in a RAW photo editor.
Not to mention NX-D is a photo editor that allows you to make adjustments and save them as presets. These presets can be exported and imported to a cloud service so that you can use them in Capture NX-D installations on other computers.
Capture NX-D is also setup to work with Nikon’s Picture Control Utility– which allows you to import and export the settings that generate the JPEG file between Capture NX-D and your Nikon camera.
Is it the best RAW editor? Maybe not, but if you like the way your JPEGs look why not map those settings to your RAW editor instead of hoping the RAW editor interprets those settings satisfactorily.
Once you develop your RAW file you should export it to a 16-bit TIFF file. TIFF is an excellent format for printers, and pretty much anything else you are going to do. Just remember, when you export to a TIFF 16-bit you do not need to use LZW compression. That will actually increase the file size of a 16-bit file.
Why 16-bit? 16-bit contains trillions of colors. 8-bit contains millions of colors. Most pictures contain at best hundreds of thousands of colors. Without getting into color theory too much, consider what happens when you subtly shift the color balance, or dodge and burn an image in Photoshop- you are changing the values of clusters of pixels.
When you are scaling and editing an 8-bit image you can create what is called “banding”- where you lose details because the squares you are painting have changed color one too many times.
This is easy to witness in Photoshop when you create a gradient in an 8-bit file.
First, create or save a file as 8-bit. Within a file already open, go to Image > Mode > 8bits/channel.
Then create a gradient using the Gradient Tool.
Next, apply a Levels adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels) to that gradient. Inside this adjustment layer, slide the blacks and the whites together. You can see how the gradient begins to “band” across an 8-bit image.
While there are a plethora of photo editors out there, you should consider whether they allow you to export to a 16-bit TIFF. For professional workflows, you want to start with RAW file editing and export to 16-bit TIFF.
I typically start with a 16-bit TIFF exported from Capture NX-D that I save as a PSB file (Photoshop Big). Once I do some basic edits in Photoshop, I save multiple versions as Layer Compositions. I then export multiple versions (layer compositions) from that PSB file into 16-bit TIFFs without saving layers.(LZW Compression at 16-bit actually increases the file size, so don’t use it.)
From here, I can open the 16-bit TIFF again as a new PSB file, or place it into a pre-formatted file I might be using for my website (8-bit), print, etc.
Blend Multiple Images for Higher Resolution
One of the reasons so many product photographers prefer Adobe Photoshop is because of one of Photoshop’s most powerful features- auto blending.
Essentially, your lens operates at its highest resolution wide open (low F-Stop). By taking multiple pictures of various parts of a product in focus you can blend them in Photoshop into one sharp in-focus image.
In either Adobe Bridge or Lightroom, you can export multiple files as layers to Photoshop. In Adobe Bridge under the top menu go to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers. In Adobe Lightroom under the top menu go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop
Once the files are loaded as layers in Photoshop go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers
Once the layers with different focus points are aligned then go to Edit > Auto-Blend Layers to create a composite of aligned layers that are in focus.
If you prefer, you can always erase the layers yourself, instead of using the auto-blend feature at all.