How to take product photos that sell .

So what photos sell? The most basic decisions Art Directors and Photographers need to make is how to show the product.

A picture’s worth a thousand words 

Getting the right product photography for an online shop is vital. As there is no way for shoppers to interact with the product, they are forced to depend on the photos and product descriptions. Logically, it would make sense for shoppers to depend more on the text as it provides more information, but research consistently shows that shoppers prefer visual information - what psychologists refer to as the visual preference heuristic. But photos are even more important than we often realise. Shoppers process pictures quicker than wordsthey trigger more emotions than words and in most situations, are more memorable.

Lifestyle shots vs product shots 

So what photos sell? The most basic decisions Art Directors and Photographers need to make is how to show the product. Should it be on its own, commonly on a plain white background, or is it best to show the product in context? For example, when selling a fondue set, showing it on an attractive table surrounded by lots of food ready to dip. Art Directors and Photographers advocate both approaches. Some claim that by using a white background it allows your product to be the centre of attention, whereas showing the product in a naturalistic environment makes it easier for a shopper to imagine using the product at home. 


From a psychological perspective, the key to successful product photography is processing fluency; how easy is it for our brains to process information? The easier a stimulus is for our brain to process, the more we like it. However, arguments could be made that both options could improve fluency. An image with no distractions is simple for the brain to understand because we can only focus on the product, but viewing the product in context provides the viewer with extra cues as to how it should be used – while only marginally increasing the complexity of the image.

However, the data is clear, contextual cues dramatically improves processing fluency, causing viewers to like the photos more, and evaluate the product more favourably. Unfortunately, this is not always possible as several leading online retailers, including Amazon, require that the product is shown without any background surfaces – creating the illusion that the products are floating in mid-air. But there are little tricks that can still improve these photos. By showing the products with a very basic digital background that provides some depth cues (see example), will dramatically improve a photos ability to sell

It doesn’t matter if you are selling durable products such as mugs, chairs or handbags, or consumables such as wine, soup or chocolate, the effect holds true. But perhaps more surprisingly, it does not make any difference if shoppers only glance at the photo or spend a long time focusing on the photo – contextual cues still help to sell.

A good photo: it’s all in our imagination

One of the reasons photos help to sell a product is that they make it easier for shoppers to imagine they are using the product; the easier it is for us to imagine, the more likely we are to buy it. And there are some really simple tricks photographers can do to make it easier for shoppers to imagine using the product. When taking a photo of a ‘grabbable’ product, make sure that the product is orientated so that someone could pick it up in their right hand. When viewing an advert for a ‘a smooth vanilla yoghurt’, purchase intention was nearly 20% higher when the spoon was orientated to match our dominant hand and as 90% of the UKs population is right-handed, it makes sense to show the advert for right handed shoppers.

But even if your product is non-grabbable, such as rugs, furniture or even art, photographers and stylists can benefit from the same effect. When setting up such lifestyle shots if ‘haptic cues’ can be included, something that is unrelated to the product but that can be held (e.g., a wine glass), it should be positioned so that the viewer would naturally pick it up with their right hand. Even though the haptic cue is completely unrelated to the target product, it still increases shoppers purchase intention for the target product. 

One photo too many?

Even if you have the right photography, marketers need to decide how many photos to show. In the past, brands would only have the choice of including one or two photos in print catalogues, but online it is not uncommon to see 10+ photos listed. Intuitively, we would assume that the more photos included, the better it is for the shopper, but this is not always the case. If an online shop includes lots of photos it can cause more doubt and uncertainty which results in the product appearing to be less distinctive. In effect, it causes the shopper to focus on each individual component or feature rather than processing the product in a gestalt manner. However, this could work in a brands favour if they want you to consider multiple factors.

Closing thoughts…

There is a lot of psychology behind product photos that sell well. Good Art Directors, Stylists and Photographers are aware of this when they set up the shots, but frequently when it comes to designing the product packaging or the image on the website, a designer flips a photo or edits it to work better with the design. These seemingly trivial changes can have a major impact on a photo’s ability to sell. And it highlights the important role of art direction, ensuring that the photographer and marketers understand the purpose of the shot.


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