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The 9 & 1/2 Types of Product Photography

Product photography is a big industry, and for every product, there can be a dozen different photos taken, making it difficult to know which kinds of photos will best serve your needs.

With that reason in mind, we’ve decided to write up a little guide on the different kinds of product photography, explaining what they are, what they communicate, and which kinds of photos are most suitable for which occasion.

Our goal is to help you better understand the world of e-commerce, and to see how much thought and theory actually lies behind product photography. It isn’t as simple as finding a white background and snapping a picture. Not only are there complex lighting, framing, and depth-of field considerations; it’s important to think about the purpose behind the photo – what you’re trying to achieve.

Seeing as the industry has evolved in fits and starts, there doesn’t really exist a master framework of all the different types of product photography out there. Rather, there are a multitude of different techniques, each of which has its pros, cons and subtle undertones. The idea is to select a technique that most effectively communicates the message you want, and then supplement it based on the remaining considerations.

If it sounds complicated; don’t worry. As a savvy business owner, you’ll never have to take the pictures yourself anyway - You’ll hire out professionals like us instead. That’s because, as we explain in another article, your time is much better spent on your own areas of expertise, where you can make the most impact.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have some idea of what goes on behind the scenes, and the considerations that come into play when your photos are being shot. With that in mind, let’s jump right in.

But first; In-Studio vs. On-Location

The broadest way to categorise product photography is to differentiate between photos shot in a studio and photos shot on location.

The differences between in-studio shots and on-location shots represent two different ideologies or methodologies behind product photography – the first, which in-studio excels at, focuses on the product itself.

The second, which on-location does best, focuses on the context around the product. It sets the tone, creates a certain atmosphere. That said, there are ways to evoke a certain attitude shooting in-studio, as we shall see.

In Studio

The most popular way to take product photos, in-studio shots are exactly what they sound like: taken in a photography studio.

Focus: Complete control over the product’s photographic representation

Best used for: Visually conveying product details with minimal distractions.

The benefits of shooting in-studio are:

Control: In the studio, a photographer has control over every aspect of the shoot. From product placement to the angle of the lighting, they can tweak the set-up until the desired effect is achieved. You want your light source raised by 2 feet? No problem. You want your reflectors angled at 36.5 degrees? It’s done, and it stays that way until you move it again. In the studio, you also have access to all your equipment, multiple power sources, and a live display so you can instantly see how your photos turned out, and fix any mistakes right away.

Reliability: Night or day, rain or shine, the conditions in a studio will always stay constant. Barring any huge catastrophe or power outage, you always know what to expect when you walk into the studio. Nothing is left to chance, which makes planning a shoot and envisioning the end result very simple.

Repeatability: In a studio, it’s easy to recreate lighting and placement set-ups from previous shoots. The result is that products shot on different days will still have a consistent and cohesive aesthetic, and photos can be seamlessly integrated in any way the client wishes.

The downsides to shooting in-studio is that they can be a little impersonal, not leaving much to the imagination. For some product categories, this isn’t really a big problem - when buying a camera for instance, or a chef’s knife. People buying these products tend to know what they’re looking for, and don’t need any help imagining themselves using the product. But when it comes to lifestyle products – clothing or bags for instance, it can help to have a better idea of how the product might fit into your life.

This is where photos shot on location shine. Photos shot on location tend to have a slightly different focus – rather than making it all about the product, they set a scene for the product – giving it a backdrop and telling a story.

On-Location Product Photography

Focus: The context around the product.

Best Used for: Evoking an emotional response from the audience, creating an atmosphere that the audience will associate with the product in question.

Shooting on-location provides:

Context: Photos shot outside the studio allow a photographer to give a sense of context to the product. A picture of hiking boots on a mountain, a new packaging for coffee beans shot inside a café. Shooting in a carefully picked location allows the client to make subtle decisions about how they want their product to be perceived and who the target market is. Is that yoga mat meant to be used by high-end clientele in an expensive yoga studio? Or is it more bohemian, the kind you might use in a park or on the beach?

Emotion: On location photos don’t simply display a product – they tell a story. They’re much better at eliciting an emotional reaction from shoppers because it allows them to fantasize and create a personal connection with the product. It changes the conversation from a more rational “need or don’t need” to the emotional “want or don’t want”.

As mentioned above, the downside with shooting outside of the studio is that conditions are variable and unpredictable. Changes in the atmosphere, or the time of day/year can make it difficult to recreate the look of a previous shoot, and the amount of gear you can bring with you is typically much more limited.

Types of Product Photography

The following can all be thought of as ideal categories – usually, two or more of these are combined to achieve a desired effect.

1. 360 Spin Photography

Our specialty here at SpinTop, 360 spin photography allows a customer to see a product from all angles and rotate it at-will. A survey by Adobe found that 91% of consumers want to see more 360 spin photography, and for good reason. Products showcased with 360 spin are less likely to be returned, saving you time and money, and have been shown to increase conversions, increase user engagement, and increase consumer confidence in your brand.

360 spin photography has all the benefits of the highly popular white-background shot, showing off detail and silhouette, with the added benefit of catching your consumers eye and driving engagement with the visual.

What it’s best at: Catching the consumer’s eye and letting them ‘play’ with the object by rotating it however they want, showing off your product in all its glorious detail.

2. Simple white-background Shot

Far and away the most popular type of product photo (though with the rapid rise of 360 photography, not for long), the white-background shot is exactly what it sounds like; showing off your product in its best light. The focus in these shots is entirely on the product, allowing visitors to take it in at a glance and creating a consistent look across products.

White background shots also help direct attention towards details like the silhouette and texture, but they do require the customer to fill in the blanks when it comes to things like features and various uses, though this is more of an issue with complex products that don’t have an immediately obvious application.

What it’s best at: Showing off your product at a glance with no distractions.

3. Close-up photography

Close up photography is used to display important details that might not be obvious when looking at a picture of the whole product. Things like stitching, quality of the material, and attention to detail can all be highlighted by taking a close-up of the product.

A word of caution; close-up photography can just as easily reveal flaws as it does quality. Be sure to inspect your samples closely before sending them into a photography studio to be shot.

What it’s best at: Showing off subtle details that the audience might not have noticed

4. Flatlay, Hanging, or Mannequin shots

Flatlay, hanging and mannequin shots are, again, pretty much exactly what they sound like, and are typically ways to show off apparel without using a model.

Flatlay is when products are laid flat on a surface (think clothing) and photographed from above. This technique is commonly used in conjunction with a still-life or product grouping approach, laying out multiple products and photographing them together.

Hanging shots make use of wires attached to the product and strung up in a way that makes them easily adjustable. This makes the product appear more 3-dimensional, without a model or mannequin obstructing interior details (think bras). The wires are then removed in post-processing.

Finally, mannequin shots use a mannequin to display the clothing during the shoot, editing it out in post-production. This gives you a product that looks as though its being worn by a human, but with more control, reliability and repeatability than you get from a model.

What it’s best at: Displaying apparel without a live model

5. Product Grouping & Still Life

These can either be multiple variations of a single product (for instance, in different colors), or a collection of related products. Product groupings give your customer a bird’s eye view of their different options, and not only does it allow them to pick out their favorite, it also gives them a suggestion about what else they could purchase that would complement the item they’re looking at – kind of like Amazon’s “frequently bought together” suggestion.

Still Life photos are similar in that they show a collection of items grouped together. However, they lean a little more heavily into the context element, relying on other props that may not be for sale in order to play up the mood or aesthetic. For example, a company selling coffee mugs might shoot them on a nice wooden desk next to a journal or a book to set the mood.

What it’s best at: Providing context or atmosphere to products shot in-studio. Change the question from “do I want it?” to “which one do I want?”

6. Scale Photography

The purpose of scale photography is to indicate to customers the size of the product. For example, you’ll often see a quarter used to indicate the scale of smaller objects. Larger items can use an outspread hand for comparison, or for really big items, a standing figure.

What it’s best at: Demonstrating the size of the product.

7. Packaging Shot

A packaging shot is a picture of the product in its packaging. Packaging shots excel at building in-store and on-shelf product recognition, and help get the customer’s imagination running. If you’re unsure, just think about how popular unpackaging videos are on Youtube. Companies spend millions on designing their product package, and it’s an important part of the brand image.

What it’s best at: Generating brand recognition of packaging

8. On-model Shots

Another self-evident category, on-model shots are product photos taken with a live model. On-model shots are common in studios, but are just as common on-location.

These provide a pleasant middle-ground between product-focused and in-context shots. The product is still front and centre, but the model helps drive your imagination and creates an emotional connection.

While a model can’t provide the exactness and repeatability of a mannequin, it’s easier to identify with a real human, and it inspires more trust and imagination than a picture on an inanimate object.

What it’s best at: Creating an emotional connection with the audience, driving their imagination.

9. Lifestyle & Process photos

These are pictures that show the product undergoing its intended use, and set the emotional tone.

Lifestyle photos demonstrate to the customer what it would be like for them to use the product. It’s a shot of someone wearing their backpack on the way to school, or demonstrating their gold jewellery at a fancy gala.

Process photos show a product being used or made. It could be a picture of that fancy ring being handcrafted, or simply a picture showing customers how to use a tricky can opener.

What it’s best at: Creating a clear link between the product itself and its intended use.

Honourable mention: Influencers

Now, these aren’t product photos in the strict sense, but they’re worth including because of the huge impact they can have on brand identity and recognition. Influencers will generally have a large network of followers and can be a valuable way to get eyes on your product. Often, rather than a picture of your product, it will be more of a lifestyle picture, showing their followers how your product complements and upgrades their lifestyle, a valuable form of social proof.

Wrapping Up

We hope this guide was able to offer you some value, and add some clarity to the sometimes-confusing world of product photography.

By now, you should have a pretty firm grasp of the most commonly used techniques in the industry, and the pros and cons of each.

That said, we firmly believe that the best way to show off your product is 360° Spin Photography; that’s why we built our company around it. It combines the best of all worlds, and you can easily play the spin against a background of your choice, letting you retain full control over the context and atmosphere around your product.

If you’re not feeling the spin, our studio is still set up to offer good old-fashioned product photography services as well, and we regularly shoot all the types of in-studio shots you see above.

If you’re looking for a studio to handle your photography needs, look no further: Check out the pricing table on our website, or click the contact button below to get in touch.

We're always happy to help.