There’s a reason for that, and Jeff DeLaCruz of Products On White Photography (POW) knows why: “Keeping everything white is not just an Amazon standard, it's a worldwide standard for retail—and the reason why is because it removes the branding and makes it accessible to everybody.”
Accessibility was a recurring theme in our recent discussion, where Jeff walked me through the recent history of his photo studio and commercial photography, the challenges they face, solutions they’ve implemented, and the future of e-commerce. He’s seen a sea change in retail over the last decade, one that encourages innovation and new entrants to the marketplace.
“What's happening now is this democratization of commerce, where if I have an idea for a product, I can get it printed on a 3D printer,” Jeff says. “I can then take that design and go to a manufacturer anywhere in the world and get it manufactured, and it's easy to find these manufacturers because they're all online. Then I can just go to Amazon, put up a listing for free, and start selling my product. If it starts to sell I can manufacture more, and I can start advertising it on my website. Suddenly, the ability to sell products is open to everybody.”
Suddenly, the ability to sell products is open to everybody.
There was a hole in the process, one POW looks to fill: product photography. Commercial photography simply wasn’t structured to meet the needs of individual seller or small businesses
“A day-rate, typically, runs between $1,500 to $3,000 for a day of shooting,” Jeff says. “That's just ridiculous if you just want one white background photo, right? We developed a whole business model around being able to service these smaller companies, so they can start selling online with high quality images. We did that by setting up flat-rate pricing.“
Read on for part one of this two-part interview, which tackles the high level product photography needs of startups and growing businesses. Stay tuned for part two, which will drill down into more detail around execution.
How did Products on White Photography get started?
The way the industry was structured back in 2010 was all freelance based, if you wanted to hire a commercial photographer. You hire a photographer for a day-rate, you reserve that whole day, the client comes in and you shoot all day long, and then you give them the images, and it's very expensive. A day-rate, typically, would run between $1,500 to $3,000 for a day of shooting. That's just ridiculous if you just want one white background photo, right? We would get calls like, “I have five products I need photos of for my Amazon listing, can you do it?” Then we send off these estimates, and we would just never hear from them again.
A day-rate, typically, would run between $1,500 to $3,000 for a day of shooting. That's just ridiculous if you just want one white background photo, right?
We began to realize that there's this huge opening in the market for small and medium sized customers. Before, if you wanted to sell a product, you had to first prototype it out—before 3D printing, that was really expensive, because you actually had to work with a manufacturer to prototype it out, and then every iteration cost thousands of dollars. Then, you had to hire a manufacturer, and manufacturers weren't online. Today, you can just go on Alibaba and do a search and find a manufacturer really easily.
Then, once you've finally got it manufactured, you had to go to a retail store because there wasn't a way to sell online. You had to make contacts at Target or Walmart or whatever, and try to negotiate these deals to sell your product. What's happening now is this democratization of commerce, where if I have an idea for a product, I can get it printed on a 3D printer. I can then take that design and go to a manufacturer anywhere in the world and get it manufactured, and it's easy to find these manufacturers because they're all online. Then I can just go to Amazon, put up a listing for free, and start selling my product. If it starts to sell I can manufacture more, and I can start advertising it on my website.
Suddenly, the ability to sell products is open to everybody. The way the photography market was structured... It was set up for these big companies, retailers like Target and Walmart, not for the little guys.
We basically take a day rate, cut it down a little bit, divide it up amongst the amount of photos we can take in a day, and we build a flat-rate.
A lot of those big guys would hire advertising agencies and marketing design firms, pay thousands of dollars and then the photographers would work with advertising agencies. We realized that there's this whole other marketplace that's opening up with just individual people with just one or two products, and they just didn't have a place to hire commercial photographers. We developed a whole business model around being able to service these smaller companies, so they can start selling online with high quality images. We did that by setting up flat-rate per photo pricing and removing minimum orders.
Can you walk me through the work flow for photographing a typical product?
Basically the system starts with placing your order online. We make it really easy. You start by just creating a shotlist of what you want—this is all on our “How It Works” page, by the way.
You just download a spreadsheet and say, “Shot one, I want this. Shot two, I want this.” One of the biggest difficulties is, how do you manage expectations? Because in a customer's mind, they have an image in their head of what they want—but how do you get that out of them? You could try to write it in words, like, “I want a photo of my product straight on.” But how do you write something visual? We found the easiest way to do it is just set it up on your desk and take a cellphone shot of the angle that you're looking for. It takes like five seconds. It's so much faster than trying to write it out and then risk misinterpretation.
Figuring out those angles is the easy part, and it's kind of the fun part too, if it's your product.
We ask our clients to just set it up on their desk with the arrangements they're looking for and take a cellphone shot, or they can find something else online, or use something they've created in the past, and we can match those angles. Figuring out those angles is the easy part, and it's kind of the fun part too, if it's your product. Lighting it and retouching it and making it look really nice is the hard part, if you're not a photographer. You don't have all those lights, you don't know how F-stops and shutter speeds work, you don't know how all the retouching stuff works. Basically, we just ask our customers to provide us with examples and we take care of the rest.
So the customer is the art director?
Exactly. We're looking for them to be the art director. We based this off our past experiences as well, because when we were shooting commercially an art director would be on set. They would have a whole mockup or an illustration of what it was they were looking for in the photo, so this is just kind of pulling from standard practices within art directing.
That's step two, provide art direction. Step three is send us your products, and then you'll get an order number and we photograph it. We can do it in seven business days or less, and we guarantee those turnaround times. We send you those photos, and you download them at a high resolution. If you have changes, the first thing that I always tell our customers is, “Don't panic. If you have changes, it happens.” It's just a part of the process.
We do have a rule, though, that if you tell us how to photograph it and we don't do it that way, we'll redo it for free—but if you change your mind or want something different then you'll have to pay for that re-shoot. We live by that rule. We try to get direction from our customers. If they're like, “I just want you to decide,” we tell them this rule. It's the only way we can do it and it's totally fair.
Then we return ship these products for free most of the time.
Do you have best practices that you recommend? Like number of photos and angles?
I think there's a product life-cycle for every seller. When you first have a new product, and I guess this is more specifically with Amazon sellers, you don't know if it's going to work or not. You get a couple of samples and you're like, “This is the product that I want to sell on Amazon.” Or you've developed something and you just kind of want to test the waters. The best thing to do is just start with the main listing image. Make that main listing image look awesome, and then don't worry about the secondary images until after you have the listing up. Just test the waters and see if you have any revenue coming in from it. Try and figure out what people like, what are the reviews coming back from it, because paying for all these other images and all this other stuff can get really expensive, so you only want to spend money on it if you know the product is going to sell.
Make that main listing image look awesome, and then don't worry about the secondary images until after you have the listing up.
After that, it's about conceptualizing out what the best images are for your listing. Explainer images are really great. Images that explain how your products work and how they should be used. Then, feature images. Cellphone listings do a great job of doing feature images, where it's like the cellphone is broken apart, or the case is broken apart, and there's call-outs coming into it pointing to different areas and it's like, “This rubber is shatter-proof, and you can see through this, and this button you can push here.” These kind of feature images are a great way to sell your product. Then, the third category is branding images. Branding images basically take your product and say, “This is who this product is meant for.” And it creates a lifestyle around that.
The white background image doesn't have a specific category, a person it's being sold to, whereas branded images do.
I don't really recommend these kind of branding lifestyle images for an Amazon listing, because first, they're very expensive, and second you may not want to niche your category into a specific type of person. That's what those images do. If you show a picture of a businessperson holding your product, you're telling your audience that this product is meant for business people, right? That's the difference between a white background image and these lifestyle branded images, is that the white background image doesn't have a specific category, a person that it's being sold to, whereas these branded images do.
Is that about the time you think a customer should consider branching out into non-white backgrounds—when they are ready to brand themselves?
Exactly. When you're ready to build a website around your product. If you're leaving something simple like Amazon and you're going to build a brand, that's the time to start doing more sophisticated lifestyle images. If you're going to build a website where there's a header image, and it's got features where you can order online, and you're starting to do email marketing, trying to do some digital marketing, let's say you have a social platform, that's when you start doing lifestyle stuff. I think there's also levels to that as well.
We're segueing into another part of this conversation, which is, “Is there a time and place to DIY your products and a time and a place to hire a photographer?” And the answer is “Definitely.” You can go a long way with just your iPhone, but there's a certain level you're not going to be able to get to unless you understand some technical things. If you're just doing stuff for your Instagram, for example, or you're just starting out, you're brand new, you can't afford to hire a professional or get professional photos made—this is the time to just do it yourself. There's lots of ways to do it yourself. The recommendation that I have is that you keep it simple. Using window light is probably about as far as you should go, just using natural light. (Learn how to build a home photography studio with window light.)
The next level up is using multiple light setups, and the only way you can efficiently use multi light setups is if you understand things like F-stops and shutter speeds, how to balance lights, how to do stuff like color balancing. It starts to get very sophisticated really quickly, and it's not going to look good. What I tell people is when you're ready to take your listing or your photography to the next level, then it's time to hire a professional. You can do a lot with window light, but if you find yourself wanting to use multiple lights, models, locations, then you’re leaving the DIY zone.
So why should someone go from DIY to hiring a professional photographer?
I think the tricky part is that it’s not “Is the image better or worse?” I don't know that's an accurate way of looking at it. I think it's better to look at it like sophistication level, you know? I can set up a white background in my office and take a cellphone photo of a product using just the natural windows in my office and it looks pretty damn good, and I can send it up to Pixelz and I can get the background removed. But there’s another level of quality where if you zoom into that image you can see the reflections in it, and you can see all the windows, and it's just not as clean.
The tricky part is that it’s not “Is the image better or worse?” I don't know that's an accurate way of looking at it.
The only way you can get a really great image where all the reflections are clean, that match sophisticated images that you'll see on a high end retailer’s website, is to put it into a more controlled lighting environment and use advanced lighting equipment. If you don't do that, it's just never going to look like that. When I say there's a level of sophistication with the image that you can’t get doing it yourself, it doesn't make it worse, it's just not as perfect, I guess. It's just not as clean.
It's not like somebody is making a mistake, it's just a level they can't reach without the proper equipment and knowledge.
Right. Exactly. That's probably a better way of putting it. I get this all the time: “My photos look fine. I shot it with my iPhone.” And I'm like, “It does look fine, but it's just not going to be at this higher standard.” This image is not going to go in a Vogue magazine. It's just not that level. What we're offering is that level of high-end professional quality.
If you want to compete with a really big company and be on that level, you need to at least match their style of photography. It can’t look like you're doing it yourself.
Do you think Amazon will ever move away from white backgrounds?
Keeping everything white is not just an Amazon standard, it's a worldwide standard for retail—and the reason why is because it removes the branding and makes it accessible to everybody. It keeps it uniform, and I think that makes a lot of sense. I think everything will stay on white or transparent backgrounds.
Keeping everything white is not just an Amazon standard, it's a worldwide standard for retail—and the reason why is because it removes the branding and makes it accessible to everybody.
I do think there's ways for you to get creative with white backgrounds that are not obvious. One trend that we're seeing in beauty a lot is a hard shadow that's coming off the side of the product. I think white background, the nuances range from no shadow at all to a soft contact shadow to reflections. Now, there's this hard shadow coming off the side that gives it more of a fashiony feel.
That's it for part one of this two-part interview on white background product photography. Subscribe to be sure you don't miss part two, when Jeff goes into detail on more technical topics like workflows, studio setup, and retouching!