I love Shopify. It's deservedly a major player in the e-commerce space because its platform makes having an online store accessible to everyone, and they go to a lot of effort to be helpful. You don't need to be technical: if you have a product, you can sell it on Shopify.
But the hurdle where many people stumble—and we see it up close and personal at Pixelz—is product imagery. They have a lot of the same questions:
- How many photos should I take of each product for my Shopify site?
- What size (resolution) should my Shopify images be?
- What shape (aspect ratio) should my Shopify photos be?
- How do I photograph apparel for my Shopify site?
- How do I edit photos for my Shopify site?
We have our own thorough DIY product photography guide, but I wanted to hear the answers to those questions straight from Shopify. And because I'm in Los Angeles, I had an awesome opportunity to do so.
In October 2018, Shopify opened a space in downtown L.A. to support their users. It's a large space with all kinds of resources, both material and educational. There's a cafe with free wifi, stadium seating for presentations with abundant charging stations for attendees, and a stocked fridge with drinks (though you have to pay for those). They host workshops, events, do one-on-one training sessions, and have a "Creation Zone" that's free for Shopify users.
The Creation Zone gave me one of those "Wait, really? This is free?!" reactions. There's a 3D printer and a t-shirt sample printer, and some product photography equipment like a lightbox with lights and mobile phone tripods. In two weeks, I was told, there will be a photo studio as well. But I'm getting ahead of myself!
Yesterday, I signed up for and then attended Shopify's "Product Photography 101" workshop. I wanted to understand Shopify's perspective on fundamentals, where Shopify users are coming from, and maybe even revisit our decision to take down a Shopify app we built and later removed when it became a headache.
There were 7 attendees in the workshop, including me, and it was led by a nice guy we'll call "Shopify Jon." Jon was not a professional photographer, but has a Masters in film production (yep, we're in L.A.). The other attendees were all brand or boutique owners with varying degrees of photography experience, but none had any experience with product photography. As you might expect for a 101 class.
Here's what I learned about how to take product photos for Shopify, from Shopify.
What type of camera should I use to take photos of my product for Shopify?
Shopify Jon broke it down into two categories: your phone, or a DSLR. He listed pros and cons thus:
Smartphone Pros: You already have one, most new phones take high resolution photos, you can instantly review photos on a good screen, and it's connected (meaning it's easy to get photos off your phone and to send them wherever they need to go).
Smartphone Cons: Photos aren't going to be as sharp as a DSLR photo. Phones just can't fit a sensor the size of a dedicated camera's sensor into their limited multifunctional space.
DSLR Pros: Highest quality photo. Literally made for this purpose. Professionals use interchangeable lenses to get the perfect shot, and so can you.
DSLR Cons: They can be expensive and have a learning curve (learn how to use manual mode on a DSLR). They can be bulky and obvious, which may limit your use outside of a studio setting.
I have some thoughts I'd like to add on regarding camera options: a MILC camera (more commonly called a "mirrorless") is a happy medium. They're relatively new to the scene but have been taking off like a rocket (Sony's alpha series in particular has made a name for itself). A mirrorless looks and feels like a point-and-shoot, so it's much lower profile than a DSLR, but it still accepts interchangeable lenses. That makes it more multipurpose; you can fit it in a regular bag (purse or backpack), so it's easy to take on a trip to the park, walking around town, on family vacations, etc.
More to the point, though, is that they're generally less expensive than a DSLR but take photos of an equivalent level of quality. They also rely on a digital display for taking photos (instead of a reflection through an optical viewfinder), so the displays are top-notch and you get an excellent preview of your photo. I switched from a Canon DSLR to Canon's mirrorless M series a couple years ago and haven't looked back.
If you're budget conscious and buying a DSLR or mirrorless, there are great used options all over the place. The lens is arguably more important than the body, so buying a used body is a good way to save.
How many photos should I take for each product on my Shopify site?
This was an extremely popular question that had everyone's attention and kept resurfacing with different wording. The general consensus was "as many as are needed," but at least 4-5. Shopify Jon's recommendation was to have one lifestyle shot, if possible, as your hero and then have several additional shots from different angles, as well as photos showing details. Packaging too, if it's attractive and relevant (one of our attendees had such packaging for her cosmetics brand).
Should I use video of my products on my Shopify site?
Yes! You should, if you're able to do it well. Shopify L.A. is considering a workshop specifically for product video.
What is a good Shopify product photo?
A good photo is one where you see the product, not the photo. If you notice that it's a photograph and start thinking of it as a photograph, you're not thinking about the product anymore.
That may sound a little meta, but I wholeheartedly agree with Shopify Jon on this one.
What size should my Shopify photos be?
- How big should my Shopify photos be?
- How high resolution can my Shopify product images be?
The answer is "as high resolution as possible," because—wait for it—in a lot of ways it doesn't matter. Shopify automatically resizes your photos. So if you upload a 20MB photo, or one that's 4800px wide, Shopify isn't going to serve that to a visitor to your website. They will automatically scale it down to what they deem to be the appropriate resolution for the viewer.
But of course scaling a photo UP results in a grainy, pixelated image. So it's best to provide Shopify with high res images and then let them worry about serving the optimal image responsively.
There is a caveat to this discussion, however. One of the workshop attendees said he ran into problems where a specific Shopify theme he was using wouldn't allow him to upload images over a certain size. Shopify Jon said he'd take that issue separately later.
What shape should my Shopify images be?
- What height width aspect ratio should my Shopify photos be?
This one is subjective, to a degree, but Shopify Jon recommended using square product photos with the product centered in frame. His reasoning is that square product images will work with virtually any Shopify template and viewer device. Rectangular images might get stretched undesirably when a site is responding to different devices (like mobile phones or tablets) or if you change themes.
While I agree that square product images are eminently practical, especially for theme switching, I was surprised to hear that in some scenarios Shopify might stretch images. That's nearly always a bad practice, and something that's pretty easy to avoid technically.
How do I light my product to take photos for Shopify?
This is a direct quote: "Large light sources are your friend!" Because they're diffuse, and they bring up shadows.
Shopify Jon showed us example setups not dissimilar from our own DIY photo studio recommendations. The crux of it is to use large, diffuse, consistent light sources. That means lightboxes for small products, reflectors for fill shadow, and a more difficult challenge for apparel.
When it came to lightboxes, Shopify Jon recommended the Orangemonkie Foldio, a brand that has price points as low as $29 and as high as $139. They're small, portable (they fold up, hence the name), and are designed to be used with smartphones.
It comes in a variety of sizing and lighting options, as well as offering a turntable for 360 spin images and videos. Shopify Jon would demo the Foldio for us at the end of the workshop in the Creation Zone.
How do I photograph apparel for my Shopify site?
Shooting apparel is always a challenge: that's why we wrote this guide to avoiding 7 common mistakes in apparel photography. At the workshop, Shopify Jon laid out the three primary options: on model, on mannequin, and flat lay. We went over the options pretty briefly, as if we all tacitly acknowledged that it's an involved topic that could have taken up the whole session. And we didn't want that.
Most attendees seized on flat lay, as it's the most economic option. When styling, Shopify Jon emphasized creating a consistent shape and trying to avoid obvious, sloppy creases. Though it was observed by several attendees that recent trends are going away from perfectly shaped flats towards a more lived in look.
Mannequins aren't too expensive and save money over models, and Shopify Jon showed an example of "Ghosting." That's when you composite two or more images in order to show a product's shape without a visible mannequin. If you're interested, we have a full-length guide from studio setup through post-production on how to create ghost mannequin images.
Models didn't get much time. Professionals weren't in the price range of our workshop group, and amateur models didn't get much interest from the crowd.
The major takeaway for apparel photo studio setup was to be consistent. And how do you get consistent product images for Shopify?
Record everything. Write down the distance of your tripod from the product, your camera exposure settings, your lens, and your focal length. Write down the product angles you're capturing ("like a shot list!" my inner voice said) and make sure you get them each time.
How do I photograph white products for Shopify?
One of our attendees had her own branded beauty product in white. We're talking small, reflective hard bodied containers like lipstick tubes and foundation jars. In white. Now that's a photography challenge!
Shopify Jon suggested shooting it on a dark background, like black. He didn't consider losing the cast shadow to be a big issue, though I personally think natural shadow is valuable and should be retained.
While a black backdrop might work in some scenarios, Amazon and most other marketplaces require a white or neutral grey background. So I suggest following our guide on how to photograph white products on white backgrounds, as well as the follow-up, high key photography: white products on white backgrounds part II.
What software programs should I use to edit images for Shopify?
Shopify Jon stressed, and I agree with him, that you should try to get it right in camera. That's great advice! But samples aren't perfect and post-production isn't just for fixing things. Even a perfect photo is still going to require fundamental edits like cropping and compressing.
Shopify Jon advocated for Adobe Lightroom because he favors it for bulk edits. Lightroom lets you create presets that you can easily apply to batches of imagery: you can read our guide on tethering with Lightroom for product photography to learn how to use Lightroom to capture images, too.
Shopify Jon played a video demo where he adjusted color and light curves in Lightroom to brighten an image. It was a good example of a simple edit that makes a noticeable improvement. And I wouldn't call it "correcting" his initial exposure, because that was good. It just made it better.
He also listed Pixelmator Pro, Snapseed, and Apple Photos as capable programs. I found the inclusion of Snapseed interesting, because it's exclusively a mobile app. I guess it could work if you're taking photos with your phone, but an entirely mobile flow sounds a little unwieldy to me. Maybe it just sounds too much like applying Instagram filters to product photos for my taste.
Pixelmator Pro is a $39 Mac exclusive photo editing app. I've never tried it, but it's well reviewed and it's a one-time fee (no subscription). That could save you money in the long-term over an Adobe product.
Personally, I agree with Shopify Jon on Adobe Lightroom. It's relatively inexpensive at $10/mo, great for bulk edits, and it's bundled with Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is, of course, the undisputed king of the hill for advanced photo editing.
But you don't have to edit images yourself! If you're reading this and you're considering do-it-yourself retouching, realize that there's a serious learning curve. It's probably a far more efficient use of your resources to pay Pixelz $0.95 an image to get professional retouching than it is to spend hours and hours learning how to edit images yourself—and then doing it over and over and over again.
It's awesome that Shopify is opening locations and offering free resources, both educational and material. While I didn't completely agree with the instructor on every topic, I'm not a professional photographer either, and I appreciate the thought and effort put into the course. If Shopify truly opens a free-to-use photo studio in their L.A. location, every local Shopify startup should take advantage!