How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

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If you’ve been reading dPS long enough, you probably know enough about photography to make a bit of money on the side. This article will give you an overview of the product photography business; how to get started, some minimal product specific gear you’ll need, and how to start getting clients.

Why Product Photography?

It has a high repeat rate: When a retailer hires you to photograph a collection of products, it’s rarely a one-time project. If you do good work, you get called again when they have new product.

Flexibility: Since these clients are in the e-commerce space, they don’t mind shipping you the product to photograph. So you can pitch to clients around the country.

What Gear do you Need?

Other than a camera and tripod, the rest of the gear you need for product photography is minimal and doesn’t cost much. That’s another reason why it’s a good side business. Here are some gear suggestions. Note: These items are for doing tabletop products with a setup that is small enough to be left in the corner of a room or garage.

Camera

For web images that are shot in a controlled light environment, you don’t need most of the features that come with expensive cameras. Since you’re shooting up close, all you need is a camera that lets you control aperture so that you can get the entire product in focus. Any DSLR will let you do that. If you don’t have a DSLR, I’d recommend a starter one like the Nikon D3400.

Background

Buy white polystyrene paper from a print or craft store, use some wood to make a DIY stand and put it up as shown below. Or you can buy it on Amazon – the stand below, the paper, and a few clamps cost less than $50.

Background lighting - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Lighting

The above set of diffused lighting occupies less room than the big soft boxes and gives you sufficient light for about a two-foot area. My set (the side lights and overhead set) cost about $275 but you can get a couple tube lights and DIY the stands to save on the costs. This is what I use, but any basic lighting setup can work. My priority was space. These occupy very little space so they work for me. Get lighting that works for you within your budget range.

Reflectors

Reflectors help direct light on to the product. I use white craft board and stand them up with clamps. This may or may not be useful depending on the type of product you’re shooting. For reflective items like metal and glass, these are helpful in minimizing reflections and control the light.

Here is the setup shooting from one to two feet away with reflectors in the front and back, so all light goes toward the product.

Necklace setup - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Lenses

The basic 18-55mm kit lens is sufficient for most products. If you’re shooting product that is less than an inch wide, then consider getting a macro lens. For everything else, the 18-55mm works well. The image below was taken with the 18-55mm lens and the pendant is about an inch wide. For e-commerce or a catalog, this level of detail and clarity is sufficient.

The first photo has a gray background because I don’t light the background. I make it white during post-processing.

Pic from camera - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Necklace edited - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Tripod

My general recommendation is not to skimp on a tripod. With product work, you need to keep adjusting the height so you want one that is easy to use and not clunky. Another tripod feature that is useful is a horizontal arm. This will help you shoot from overhead – which is pretty common for product shoots. If you’re buying a new one, I’d suggest one like this.
Here’s the setup with the horizontal tripod, again with the 18-55 lens.

Tripod setup - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Here is the final image after editing. To get the necklace flat like this, you need to shoot from the top down.

Necklace post - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

 

Here is a cropped close up. This part of the necklace is about 4-5 inches long. If you wanted a close-up of a smaller section of the necklace in an image of this size, then you would need to consider using a macro lens. For everything else, the basic kit lens is good enough.

Necklace close up - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Other setups

The above information outlines the way I work. However, there are also standard tent-like setups, which may work for you. I tried the tent setup few years ago and didn’t like it because there is limited flexibility of moving lights and reflectors around. Also the lights that come with most kits are not bright enough.

Building Your Product Photography Portfolio

To create a portfolio, photograph a few things around you – books, clothing, accessories – on a white background. To get a clean white background, you have three options:

  1. Set up the lighting to get the white background straight from the camera. For how to do this, read 3 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting on a White Background or this; Tips for Fast and Effective Studio Product Photography.
  2. Outsource the editing to a site like Pixels that will cut out the background in Photoshop for a small fee.
  3. Do it yourself in Photoshop. I don’t recommend this route as it can get very time consuming.

Don’t build a website yet. After you have about a couple dozen sample photos, put it up on Google Drive or Dropbox. At this stage, don’t build a website, blog, etc., just yet. Before doing all that, test your process out with a few clients.

Building Reviews

Start by doing a few small projects for free or at a very low cost. In exchange – ask the client to leave you a review on Yelp. Try to get at least three. These reviews are going to help you sell your services to paying clients later.

Where do you find businesses to test out your service? Start with Craigslist under the “gigs > creative” section and search for product photography, see screenshot below. You’ll find people who need five or 10 items photographed. Tell them you’re building your portfolio and you’ll do it for free. Some may even pay you a small amount.

Craigslist - How to Start a Side Business in Product Photography

Aside from getting reviews, doing this helps you test if your process is working. Based on customer feedback, fix and adjust anything as needed and try again.

Craigslist is good for getting small clients but rarely leads you to recurring projects. For that, I have some more marketing tips later in this article.

Build a Simple Portfolio Website

If you’ve decided you want to move ahead, the next step is to build a simple website with a portfolio. There are many options, but I like the photography templates at Squarespace, so check them out. Or if you are more technical, try WordPress. Don’t spend too much time on the building the site. All you need is to look professional, so you need an about page, a portfolio page, and a contact page. It doesn’t need to be more than that to start.

Marketing

Marketing is usually the hardest part of business. This is why getting those reviews is very important – for example, do you think twice about buying something on Amazon when there are no reviews?

Since the goal here is to make a side income, I’m not going to talk about channels like SEO, Facebook ads, Adwords, etc. If you know how to use those then by all means, do so. The tips I have below are more around one on one pitches. There is no cost involved.

Finding Targeted Prospects

Google a type of product. For example, I searched for something like gemstone jewelry. Those on page one probably have great photos. But go to page three and higher and click around to find a few stores that don’t have professional looking images. Send them an email with your service details – include a link to your website and the Yelp page with your reviews.

Typically, for every 15-20 targeted emails you send, you might hear back from at least one. Since these people have a store and are close to page one on Google (so they are actively working on their business), they are likely to respond. If they hire you, and you do a good job, they may become recurring clients.

You can also pitch to clients who have good photography – maybe you can do a better job or come in at a lower price.

I’ve had people respond to me six months after I sent the email. They may not need you immediately but if their current photographer leaves or they need more done in a shorter timeframe, they have your info in their email inbox.

Talk to Local Retailers

Local businesses are more likely to become repeat clients since they know you’re close by. On Google, when you add “near me” to your search, you get local listings shown on a map. So search for terms like “pet stores near me” or “wineries near me”, etc. You’ll get contact info for a list of places near you.

Ignore the big businesses because they probably do photography in-house. Focus on the smaller businesses. Similarly, you can search for local businesses on Yelp.

Build a list of contacts using the above process and email them pitching your services. Most retailers are either already selling online or are thinking about selling online. So these are good prospects to target.

Summary

With sites like Shopify, Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, etc., making it easy to sell online, there is a significant need for product photography. If you already have a DSLR and a tripod, the additional equipment you need only costs a few hundred dollars (or less if you can DIY some of it). Plus, the above marketing tips don’t cost anything. Later, if you decide to grow your business, you can test Facebook, Google ads, do SEO, etc.

Have you tried product photograph before? What were some of the challenges? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ash Moosa is product photographer specializing in jewelry. View his work at jewelryshoot.com. He occasionally writes about product photography on his blog at photoaisle.com.

  • Exit138 n

    A nice introductory article with good suggestions.

    One thing regarding the tripod link, your image appears to be of a Manfrotto but your link brings up a Vanguard. Are you recommending the Vanguard over the Manfrotto and if so, why. I’m very happy with my Manfrotto 055.

    For those looking to take their lighting to the next level I suggest they consider picking up a copy of “Light: Science & Magic”. It really is the definitive photography light book. Link: https://www.amazon.com/Light-Science-Magic-Introduction-Photographic/dp/0415719402/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1498668291&sr=1-1&keywords=light+science+and+magic

  • Yes, I use a Manfrotto but I couldn’t find the same model (on Amazon) that i had. My point on the Vanguard was to get one with a horizontal arm. Most tripods don’t have that feature built it. My manfrotto does and so does the Vanguard model I linked to.

    I’ve never used Vanguard – have you had a bad experience with the brand?

  • Exit138 n

    I have no experience with Vanguard tripods. I curious that if you used a Manfrotto but now are recommending a Vanguard, what were the reasons. That’s all.

    By the way, I believe the current Manfrottos that offer the horizontal option are the 190 and 055. I love my 055, it’s built like a tank!

  • Exit138 n

    I don’t have any experience with Vanguard tripods. I was curious, if you used a Manfrotto but are now recommending a Vanguard, what were the reasons. That’s all.

    By the way, I believe the current Manfrottos that offer the horizontal option are the 190 and 055. I love my 055, it’s built like a tank!

  • Leyden

    …how to find a good web host?

  • Phil W Bell

    Hi Photography accessories come in all shapes and sizes.
    My wife Jan makes a selection of accessories that will astound every camera minded person.
    Have a look at https://www.photographyaccessoriesbycraftybells.com
    Lens warmers to lens bags Camera Weather covers Flash reflectors Snoots All available on line from her store.
    Made to measure if needed, made in special colours of material.
    Have a look

  • elizabeth

    Hi, is there a good tutorial on garment product photograpgy

  • KC

    Product photography is great! Yes, it can be a high volume of repetitive shooting and deadlines, and seem “less than creative”. Often, you’re shooting to a layout, style guide, or “spec”.

    If you think that it’s “easy”, try shooting jewelry, or anything very reflective, and there’s dozens of reflections to deal with.

    The setup pictured is very good. There’s also “bottom lighting”. Use a piece of frosted plate glass about 12″ above the bottom background. Light up and back and reflect down and forward. It sounds wrong, but works right. Jewelry seems to float, but has a reflection for depth, and the reflections are controlled.

    You may think that “small object = macro” and that’s you’ll need a special lens. There’s a difference between “macro” and “magnification”. Sometimes a long lens and distance is better. You’re still “filing the screen” and there’s less chance of reflections from the equipment. If nothing else, they’ll be smaller and out of focus.

    A boom arm tripod (a tripod with a swiveling center column) is always a nice thing. You may be able to get enough of a down angle by putting your setup on the floor. Remember to counterbalance it. Some DSLR’s are heavy.

    Here’s where remote apps and tethering for your camera are really handy, too.

    I did product photography for decades. It’s not always easy. Sometimes you have to match a specific color or colors. Other times, the layout provided just doesn’t work, and you’re working with an art director. It can be demanding, rewarding, and consistent work.

  • KC

    Garment photography? On or off a model? Basically, it’s about “draping” and “bias”, and how fabric hangs. Some fabrics have a “bias”. It drapes and folds best from one direction. Sometimes it reflects best from one plane. Iridescent fabrics can be “fun”. I ran into a few vintage iridescent shirts at a vintage store recently. It was interesting to see how they changed color from different angles. That’s clever.

    To give a clear idea of “bias” and “draping” think corduroy. That’s a fabric with a distinct bias and drape. Velvet is less obvious, but it has a distinct bias. There’s a lot of different of velvet.

    A quick trip to a fabric store would be a starting point. You’ll find people there that are really into fabric. A tailor or clothing maker is also a brilliant resource.

    On the photo side of the equation, it’s fairly simple. Dyes in fabric, especially the synthetics, can throw back/bend the spectrum a bit. Purples can go too magenta or blue. White can get a blue cast. Yellow can go a little green. It’s the chemistry of the dyes. Camera sensors don’t always pick up the spectrum evenly. Shooting Raw helps a bit. And then there’s the dreaded moire in digital.

    It’s a really great question, Elizabeth. What you’re looking for may be something on “styling”. Stylists in big studios (still or video) are magicians. It’s not only fabrics, but makeup that can present some fun challenges (on men, too).

    It’s something I learned from other stylists way back in film days. It didn’t hurt that my family was big into fabrics.

  • Thanks you for these tips KC. I mostly photograph jewelry and understand what you mean about managing reflections. I hadn’t considered a long lens…gotta give that a try.

    I considered bottom lighting but since I was removing the background in photoshop, i didn’t think it would have added much to the image. Will test it out. Might reduce editing time.

  • Matthew King

    I’ve never used the Manfrotto you pictured, but I do use the Vanguard model you linked to. I’ve used several different heads on it, from ball heads to pistol grips, to geared heads. At the moment, I’ve got a Manfrotto 410 geared head mounted on it. The tripod has been awesome in every situation I’ve used it in. It’s super stable and very durable. My only complaints are the center pole is not 100% solid, it likes to moved in it’s collar a little bit. It’s never slipped, but you do have to be careful in windy situations because it will shift a little on you. Feature wise though, it has all the functionality you can want out of a photo tripod. I’d recommend it to anybody in the market for a tripod with an arm.

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