Great website or (just) great images?

I can’t count how many times clients, friends and colleagues (designers, developers and AMs) have told me about such and such a site that is brilliantly designed. I fall for it every time: the smack-between-the-eyes website someone has just sent me a link to, upon closer examination, isn’t particularly brilliant but the images knock me flying!

I know that an important part of the design process is the selection of images but – unfortunately – all too often this involves sorting out the best of the mundane from the downright unusable. Photoshop and Lightroom can do a lot to improve image quality but only within limits: if the detail is missing from the original, no amount of ‘enhancement’ can restore it.

Just as great photography can make an otherwise run of the mill site look great, so poor photography can ruin a site. And nowhere is this more apparent than on e-commerce websites run on a shoestring from home or a small office.   If you have the budget money spent on commissioning a professional photographer will be an investment that will almost certainly pay handsome dividends. Professional photographers cost a few hundred pounds a day and they usually supply the images colour balanced, enhanced and ready to use. Check out their portfolio to be sure they have experience of the type of photography you are looking for, a good wedding photographer won’t necessarily be happy photographing antique watches.

But if you can’t afford a professional all is not lost because taking good photographs doesn’t need expensive equipment or elaborate studios. All that’s needed is a little knowledge, time and attention to detail. Joining a photographic club or doing evening classes is a good way to learn because you will benefit from other people’s help and advice. If you must do it on your own, here are a few tips to get started:

Photography is all about light: the recording and reproduction of the way light behaves. Soft light usually works best. A bright sunny day doesn’t make for good photographs because strong sunshine creates dark shadows that obscure detail and unflatteringly emphasises facial features. Experienced photographers use reflectors to ‘fill in’ and soften shadows. Film studios call the time just after sunrise and just before sunset the ‘golden hours’ because the soft warm light, low on the ground, makes everything look magical. Landscape photographers know the value of a very early start in order to be in the right spot just when the morning mists are lingering while the rest of us are still fast asleep.

Good lighting is equally important indoors taking shots of merchandise. Seeing something ‘in its best light’ is vital if you want someone to buy it and soft, even lighting is usually best. Use tracing paper in front of the flash or a lamp will diffuse it.

Here are some common problems with ‘home made’ pack shots and how to overcome them:

Blurry, out of focus.

All too often this is caused by camera shake. If the light level is too low the exposure time increases which means that even the slightest movement of the camera will blur the image so turn up the lighting. Use a tripod and rest the camera against a firm object to support it and keep it rock steady when you press the button.

Not all in focus.

When photographing a long object or a group of objects which are at different distances from the camera you will need greater ‘depth of field’ for the camera to keep everything in focus. Using a high level of light will cause the camera’s iris to contract to a small aperture which gives it greater depth of field. Focus the camera about one third of the distance between the nearest and most distant object.

Shadows on the background.

These will disappear if you are able to lift the object away from the background using, for example, a child’s brick or similar object. Packshot studios often use a plate of glass which lifts objects clear of the base and enables extra light to flood below the object.

It all looks flat and lifeless.

Try smearing cooking oil on plastic to make it super-shiny. Use a reading light at a low angle to pick up surface texture. Experiment with strips of black card held by the camera lens to reflect in a shiny surface.

Experiment.

The wonderful thing about digital photography is that it costs you nothing to take several shots as you make changes to the lighting and camera angle. Look carefully at what is happening with each adjustment until you have it right.