Tips for Taking Stunning Jewelry and Other Small Item Product Photos
I am a self-taught photographer. I am not an expert on this subject. However, I have learned a lot over the last few years about taking pictures of my jewelry for my Etsy listings that are clear, detailed, and professional. For those of you shooting other relatively small items that you're planning to list online, many of these tips will apply to you as well.
Camera: The point of this hub is not to convince you to buy a new camera. You do not need to have a high end SLR camera to take good photos. The most important thing to take away from this post about your camera is that you should learn how to use the camera that you have so that you are maximizing its potential for your purpose. I did upgrade my digital camera a year and a half ago, but at this point, I'm still using a point and shoot. I've shot the majority of the pictures that you see in my hubs, including the one in this hub, with my current camera: the Canon PowerShot SD1200IS.
One aspect of learning how to use your camera is shooting in program mode. Many digital cameras today do a pretty good job guessing what settings will work best for given shots in the auto mode. But shooting in program mode will give you control over the specific aspects of your photo that will ensure a clear, balanced photo. I will give more information about these specific settings further down in this post.
Tripod: Using a tripod is essential for sharp photos. If you don't already own one, I highly recommend purchasing one. It does not need to be an expensive one, especially if you are only planning to use it for indoor or limited outdoor, fairly short jewelry photo shoots.
If you are shooting close up shots or are at difficult angles for using a tripod, create your own tripod. Lean your elbows against something or tuck your arms against your body.
Self timer: Using the self timer is also essential for sharp photos. I always use my self timer, even when I'm using a tripod. My camera has a 2 second self timer, which is the perfect length for photography shooting. If your camera doesn't have a short self timer (5 seconds or less), see if there is a custom timer so you aren't stuck waiting 10 seconds for every shot.
Light box: I started using a light box in July 2010 and haven't looked back since. I made my light box using this DIY tutorial on digital-photography-school.com. You can see my current light box set up here. It is essential that you use Ott light bulbs (such as these Ott bulbs available from Lowe's) or other natural light light bulbs with your light box. You can purchase a light box, but it's a lot cheaper to make your own. I bought my supplies and put the box together in one afternoon and evening. You can use Ott bulbs in regular light fixtures, too, if you're shooting pieces that are too big to fit in a light box.
Natural light: The reality of living in the midwest and working during the day is that for about half of the year, your time at home for photographing in natural light during the week is pretty limited. While you can take advantage of your weekend time, it never fails that when you're finally set up to shoot, the day turns overcast. Hence, the light box can be extremely useful. But this doesn't take away from the fact that shooting in natural light is amazing. You can use your light box with natural light instead of bulbs either inside or outside. If you aren't interested in making a light box, search for ideal naturally lit spots in your home or outside on your porch or in your yard.
Light setting: When you're shooting with natural bulbs, use the fluorescent light setting on your camera. When you're shooting in natural light, select the daylight setting or leave it on auto.
Light balance/exposure: You may need to adjust the light balance/exposure depending on the color and/or texture of your background. I shoot most of my jewelry on light gray, sheet music, or white backgrounds. I adjust slightly below 0 for light gray, on or right above 0 for sheet music, and almost to +1 for white. I'll discuss backgrounds a little more later in this hub.
Macro: When you shoot in auto, the camera will frequently set the camera in macro mode for you when you take close up shots. When you switch to program mode, you have to switch on the macro setting yourself.
ISO: If you want to learn more about ISO, you should check out this great article from slrphotographyguide.com. The basic rule of thumb is that the lower your ISO setting is, the sharper the photo will be. There are situations where it's worth sacrificing clarity (such as outside nighttime shooting or other low light settings), but clarity is key for you. Typically I keep my ISO setting at 100 or 200.
Turn off the flash: You do not ever need to use the flash when you're taking close up product shots. If your shots are turning out dark, you may need to adjust one of your other settings or consider a different background for your item.
Backgrounds: There is not a magic background that will make everything look amazing. If you are planning to sell the items that you are photographing, consider what sort of image or look you want for your inventory and your shop as a whole. It's important to have a consistent look without making all your photos identical. Browse on Etsy for inspiration. There are numerous possibilities for backdrops and props. Don't be afraid to experiment with this or to change your background if you aren't happy with what you're currently using.
Editing: You do not need high end photo software such as Photoshop to do quality photo editing. If you are interested in pursuing serious photo editing, you're welcome to purchase software. There are also some free programs online that you could look into, like Fotor.
Even with appropriate light and camera settings, you will still need to do some editing to your photos. At the very least, you should an auto light adjust (and/or manually adjust the levels) and crop your photos. Typically I: 1) auto adjust, 2) crop, and 3) further tweak the light levels a little.
Specifically for Etsy: There are a couple photo editing strategies that are particularly important to keep in mind for Etsy. All of the listing photos are automatically cropped as squares. Your item will be more centered, especially in the thumbnails, if your original photos are squares or as close to squares as you can make them. This will greatly improve the quality of your thumbnail photos. Your thumbnails are a large portion of the photos that people will see from your shop when they are doing general searches or browsing. It's important that the thumbnail shows the entire item in the picture and doesn't crop out anything important. If you aren't satisfied with your thumbnails, consider how you can re-crop your photos so that they will better portray your items.
Practice: Like many things in life, taking quality photos of your items takes practice. During the last few years, I have taken over 6,000 photos of approximately 350 pieces of jewelry. Typically I take 3-5 pictures of every angle/pose that I'm going to include in my Etsy listing and then choose the pictures that I like the best. Don't be afraid to experiment with different light settings, backgrounds, and angles/poses for your pieces and to take a lot of pictures. It takes time to take lots of pictures, but in the age of digital photography, it doesn't cost you anything else. And the reward is well worth it.