Product Photography: The Psychology of an Image

Conducting your business online often has you rely heavily on impressive visuals, because it is the only point of contact a customer has with your product. First impressions matter, so if your product photography isn’t up to quality standards - or is absent entirely - it can taint how an individual views not just that singular product, but your brand as a whole.

So, how do you go about best showcasing your products on eCommerce?

There are plenty of resources out there that allow brands to streamline their photography process, like portable light boxes that provide a blank background and light source for easy, clear photos. However, this is not the best option. While it seems tempting to invest in a one-size-fits-all solution, product photography is a delicate subject that requires the skill of a professional. Beyond just having a good set of equipment, having someone operating the camera who possesses an in-depth understanding of what persuades a customer to take interest in a product is highly valuable.

There is more to photography than just a nice camera and white light - in fact, product photography is closely tied to psychology.


The psychology of an image

 

“You don’t want a photo of what the product looks like, you want a photo of what it feels like in your hand.”

- Jake Perry, Photo & Video Specialist

 
A computer rendered image compared to a photo of the actual product.

A computer rendered image compared to a photo of the actual product.

It’s easy to take a photo, but difficult to take one that conveys more than just an image. When looking at a product online, a customer’s first thought is often “How will this look in real life?” For things like furniture, clothing, or jewelry, they are often visualizing the product in the space of their own home or how they imagine themselves wearing it. That is, they are thinking of a 3-dimensional product, beyond its image. Therefore, it is immensely important to give a customer an idea of what the product physically “is,” or how it feels in their hand.

There is a vast difference between how something appears in a photo versus how it appears in person, and tactile sensation is a part of that. Consider, for example, a product in a bottle. The rounded surface, indents in the lid, whether the bottle is made of a dense or fragile material - these things can tend to be lost in a face-on image. Instead, a viewer may be confronted with other things that an inexperienced photographer may have missed - stray hair, dust, the reflection of a face or light source, or a perceived flatness or lopsidedness from uneven light position. This may be unnoticeable in person, especially if it is an object you see regularly, but when all you have to go off is a singular image, flaws and indiscretions stand out much clearer.

Some businesses try to avoid these issues by using a rendered image in place of an actual photograph. With advances in rendering software that can almost perfectly mimic real-life textures, reflectiveness, and depth, it does sound tempting to just plug in your product label to a 3-D rendered shape. You avoid the dust, grime, and accidental reflections that may show up in a real-life setting. However, this trespasses into the realm of inauthenticity - an “uncanny valley” of product photography.

 
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Typically, “uncanny valley” refers to humanoid objects or visuals that evoke an unsettling feeling because they blur the lines between real and artificial - an “almost, but not quite” sensation. Rendered photography reproduces the same feeling, even when done with quality software. The sense of artificiality can even make consumers wonder if the product is legitimate, or question whether or not the real product will look the same way in real life. Looking artificial is a bad thing in today’s business model because it conveys a sense of inauthenticity, and this generation of online shoppers place a high value on authentic products. That is, a product that is polished, but realistic, and emphasizes how it will appear and feel in-person. This is not the time to over-emphasize, or layer filters or saturation to make the product “stand out.”

 

every step matters, every time

There are quite a few steps that go into a finished product photo. The stage must be set for the product, lighting must be adjusted to conform to its height and shape, and your camera settings should be optimized to provide the clearest, and most accurate, image. However, the process isn’t over once the photo is taken. Even a great photo will likely require some minor touch-ups in post-production.

 

“A perfect product photo may only need 20 to 30 minutes of retouching in post,” says Jake Perry, “but sometimes, that can turn into 4 hours or more if the product isn’t in perfect condition.”

 
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What is a perfect condition product? Beyond the obvious notion that “perfect condition” implies the product is not tampered with or damaged, there are small slip-ups that a brand may not take notice of when sending products out for photography. For example, using an automated labeler for your products can result in a label that is placed slightly off-center on the face of a product. To correct this, a photo specialist will need to shift the label using editing software, which is a time-consuming and delicate process.

Other issues, like dents or folds from being handled roughly during shipment, or being packaged without a secure amount of filler material, can be impossible to restore before taking a photo. This becomes an even bigger issue when the distortion affects how light reflects off the packaging, making it difficult to determine its real shape. Correcting these issues in post-production sometimes involves trying to build out the shape on your own with blending and stamping tools, and results in a less-than-authentic photo. If you want the best photo of your product, you need to use the best example of your product for the photo.

There are other steps involved in correcting a photo post-production, like adjusting color or white balance, that seem like small tasks but can make a big difference in customer satisfaction. For example, the makeup industry relies heavily on perfect color matches for their product photos. How a product appears on-screen, or even behind the lens as you take the photo, is not always how it appears in real life. Photo specialists must pay close attention to their display settings, and estimate the display settings of the devices that customers are using, to make sure the color is accurate. If a customer receives a product that isn’t identical or nearly-identical to how they saw it online, they may or may not return it - but will always hold a distrust of your brand’s ability to have accurate photos.

 

authenticity

In every step of product photography, it is key to emphasize authenticity. It is easy to fall on either side of the middle road with this goal, especially if you are not using the discretion of a professional. It is a delicate balance of art and psychology that brings product photos to life, and conveys them in a way that emphasizes the product’s qualities without being dishonest. While it may seem like exaggerating things - like color intensity, shine, or product dimensions in relation to other objects - will make your product “jump out” at the viewer and thus more likely to be purchased, it can damage your brand reputation and overall sales when consumers are disappointed in the drastic difference between reality and expectation.

Additionally, under-developing your product photo can make your product look dull, cheap, or unrealistically flat. Spending time to find the middle ground of realistic, but appealing, is something we will be discussing more in a series of articles about product photography. Top Shelf Brands takes great strides to address every level of eCommerce, from design to listing to logistics, and has professionals in each field to get the job done.


Please contact us here to schedule a free consultation, or to ask more about our photo and video services.

Paige Penfold