How to properly plan a product shoot

A few pro tips before you let the genie out of the bottle on your DIY product shoot

Shooting product is a vastly different kind of gig than photographing people at large conferences and events.  Regardless of the sophistication level of your client, organizing and conducting a product shoot requires more technical ability, more equipment, and a lot more time than most clients anticipate.

It also requires a lot of planning, particularly if you are working with a smaller business or entrepreneur who may never have organized a professional product shoot before or ever hired a professional photographer to work with.

In the best case scenario, your product shoot plan includes:

  • Sample imagery of what you want your products to look like: These can be previous photos of your actual products if you are updating your website and sales material, or if you’ve never had a shoot done, photos of similar or equivalent products that you’ve found online or from another vendor.
  • All your products prepared in advance of the scheduled shoot: if assembly is required, this should be done as much as possible before the shoot to minimize (expensive) time wasted that your photographer spends waiting for the product. The same goes for any kind of staged set up or particular arrangements you’ve decided you need.
  • Hire or have available a professional stylist / stager if you can afford it: While this may seem like a nice to have if you are on a tighter budget, someone who knows the product/brand and can understand and help set up a shot that displays the key features thereof is invaluable on set and can save a lot of time (and money) before and after the shoot helping ensure the right kinds of shots get taken.
  • Avoid working with untrained models and non-actors if you can: while I am a big believer in natural photography and capturing real moments and interactions and engagements in event photography, a product shoot entails a much more scripted and controlled scenario. No matter how good looking your husband is, or how cute your pet dog looks, involving family and friends as models is rarely a good idea. There is a reason acting and modelling is a profession – because it takes training, skill and commitment to craft and to deliver on-demand, the look, feel and emotion you are looking for in a shoot. No matter how entertaining your friends and family are, this is not something that can be done easily, particularly when there is a cost to time spent on each shot.
  • Double your time and budget estimate: if you have never done a product shoot before, as a rule of thumb expect the shoot to take twice as long as you think it will and cost twice as much. And that assumes you’ve got a tightly scripted plan for the shots, a shooting schedule and your product is ultra-clean and ready to shoot. Add time and cost at every juncture if you’re missing any of these.
  • Have a detailed shot list: while this seems self-evident, I’ve dealt with numerous clients who have no clear idea of exactly what they want to shoot, at which angle, in what kind of lighting, against a white or coloured, or textured background etc. There are a lot of details to conceptualize before you ever set foot in a studio. Speak with your photographer or studio ahead of time to ask for help planning the look of the shoot if you are uncertain or need ideas (and be prepared to pay a consulting fee for the added service). Your shot list must include at a bare minimum, the number of shots you want, a description of how it should look, and any specific requirements in terms of size, crops, dimension etc.
  • Don’t assume that anything that goes wrong can be fixed “with a little Photoshop”: Photo retouching and editing is a skilled profession in its own right that takes time, technology, a patient eye and a steady hand. And it’s usually billed by the hour, or per image, or blended into a higher shooting rate.  Just because you can remove specks of dust from a  product in Photoshop, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with clean product in the first place. Similarly, if your intention is to have your products shot so that they can be matted (cut out) and used as independent images for Photoshop montages, then plan your shoot accordingly.
  • Don’t treat your photographer like a tool: a little bit of courtesy and respect goes a long way, particularly when dealing with professional photographers. If you really only think you need “a few shots, it can’t be that hard, all you have to do is shoot it” than you might want to just try doing it yourself. Invest in a tripod and a decent camera and give it a whirl. If you don’t quite get the results you’re after, you’ll at least have learned a little about the skill and equipment needed to make a seemingly simple shot look the way it looks.

When a product shoot goes well, it can add tremendous value to your digital assets. You can populate an online store with beautiful images that will seduce and enchant your viewers and induce a much higher volume of transactions than you would otherwise. The bar is set high these days and customers expect to see top-quality imagery if they are even going to consider making a purchase.

Failure to do it right, however, winds up costing you much more money in the long run. You may require a re-shoot, much more editing time than would otherwise have been necessary, or simply short-circuit your marketing plan by not using great photos.

Not all bottles are created equally

Take the time to really think through your shoot, and have a discussion well in advance with your photographer to work out all the details so there are no onsite surprises. And if you don’t know what you are doing, find someone who does that you can work with or learn from. It’s much better to be up front about your inexperience and lack of knowledge on a given subject than it is to try to bluster your way through a shoot only to have your lack of preparedness and ignorance revealed when you’ve already started paying for the work.