If you want to examine an online product, you can’t just pick it up off the shelf. On top of the standard presentational strategies of all sales, ecommerce shops have the extra responsibility of bringing their products to life through only a flat screen.

There are the standard ways to do this, and then there’s the original groundbreaking techniques that can set you apart. Here, we bring you nine unconventional — but effective — product photo tips to make even brick-and-mortar shops jealous.

1. Choose the Right Background

For online product photos, you often hear the basic rule “use a white background.” That’s not bad advice, but there are other options. Sometimes white backgrounds work best, but sometimes more creative choices are better.

White backgrounds emphasize the product. The lack of distraction highlights the subtle features and details of the product, allowing the shopper to better scan the picture for the areas that interest them.

product photos
Photo credit: Ethnotek

The simple white background works best when the user already knows what they want. There’s no need to convince them to buy it since they already want it — they just need to see it and/or compare it with other options. Simply put, white backgrounds work for products that can sell themselves.

But what about new or lesser-known products, or even making poor-selling products more enticing? Placing the product in a contextual environment suggests reasons to buy it that the shopper may not have considered. It shows the product in a way that urges the shopper to imagine what life would be like if they buy it. That’s something brick-and-mortar shops can’t do.

product photos
Photo credit: Ethnotek

This strategy can be best applied to luxury goods, most commonly jewelry or other fashion accessories. It’s also useful in targeting a new consumer group, one that is unfamiliar with your product and how it can help them.

When using a contextual environment background, be careful not to make it too flashy. The main emphasis should always be the product, so remove any background elements that steal attention. Backgrounds should complement the product, not compete with it.

So, in order to get the best of both worlds, why not combine the two strategies: include both a white background and contextual environment picture in the photos.

product photos
Photo credit: Ethnotek

Ethnotek does just that with their travel bags. Several white background photos to showcase the bag from different angles and ranges, plus several contextual environment photos to help the shopper imagine the travel experiences they can have with the bag.

2. Realism

Lately, more and more ecommerce shops are stepping away from the glorified, perfect-world images of traditional marketing and trying grittier, more realistic product photos. Millennials are less trusting of traditional advertising and marketing approaches, and in an attempt to reach them, e-shops are eager to strip away the BS.

On top of that, photo-centric social media sites like Instagram have brought photographic culture mainstream, and realistic product photos just seem more modern and up-to-date with today’s trends.

product photos
Photo credit: Jeni’s

Jeni’s throws out decades of food photography dogma and shows their ice cream as we see ice cream in our real lives: drippy, asymmetrical, and imperfect. This works wonders for their product, first as a more contextual approach described above, but also in whetting our appetites. Seeing ice cream as we experience it in reality affects us more than seeing a too-good-to-be-true image in traditional product imaginary.

3. High Quality for Fine Details

In a fascinating but also not-surprising report, MDG Advertising found that 67% of buyers consider image quality “very important.” This coincides with the increase in online shoppers with HD devices and retina screens, which make even standard quality images seem dull. It’s not just the content details you must consider, but the technical ones as well.

Again to offset the difficulties online stores have showcasing the facets of their products, higher quality images allow shoppers to see the fine details of products as they would if they were physically present. Shoppers can understand features like material texture, consistency, or flexibility that brick-and-mortar stores take for granted.

Photo credit: Weeny Bikini

The high-quality images of Weeny Bikini show off more than just the product’s visual appeal. The fine details present a good idea of how the bikini feels to wear, for both material and tightness.

4. Eyeless Models

Not everyone understood the logic behind headless mannequins when they first appeared, but their effectiveness has kept the practice a sales staple for decades. Now ecommerce stores are using the same principle in their product photos.

Headless mannequins help the buyer imagine themselves in the clothing for sale, while retaining the benefit of seeing the clothes in a human form rather than a hanger. Remove the head and the shopper fills in what’s missing — or at the very least, the lack of distraction from facial features, which our eyes are instinctively drawn to, makes it easier to focus on the product.

The same principle can be applied with cropping the eyes, or entire head, off models in product pictures. This keeps the focus away from irrelevant distractors and engages the shopper’s imagination.

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In photos with faces, shoppers may form opinions of the product based on the model instead of the clothes. The eyes make the model into another human, which opens a whole pandora’s box of social issues that’s best left out of shopping decisions.

product photos
Photo credit: Rebson

Rebson uses this strategy well, keeping sultry and luscious lips to add to the product’s allure, but removing the eyes to transfer that allure to the shopper.

5. Lookbook

As mentioned in the first tip, contextual environment photos help the user imagine what it would be like for them to own the product. Lookbooks take this principle to its extreme, mixing a thematic photographic shoot with product exhibition.

product photos
Photo credit: Edwin (Europe)

The lookbook for the Edwin clothing company is an extraneous shopping aid, but a helpful one nonetheless. For starters, the brand gets to display different products the shopper might not have seen on their own, all tied together in the same photographic style. Moreover, because this is a “bonus” aid, it gives them the freedom to be more creative and artistic, which makes the product more enticing.

When done well, lookbooks are entertaining enough to be viewed on their own, and shoppers can forget that they’re browsing a catalog selection.

6. Secondary Objects

There’s no rule that the product must be the only object in a product photo. Adding a secondary object can further establish context, give usage suggestions, evoke imagination, add an artistic touch, or simply set the scale for size.

product photos
Photo credit: BiscuitCuit

The cherries and spoon certainly aren’t necessary to a product photo of mugs, but BiscuitCuit knows they can help. First, these extras create a more aesthetic and stimulating photography. Next, the spoon helps set the context, as spoons are often used with mugs. Last, the cherries draw up feelings and fond memories of food, which the brand hopes to associate with the product.

7. Angle & Focus

Forgetting the disadvantages of online shopping, the power of controlling how the product is viewed can be used to your advantage. Product photos open a lot of doors for the same artistic techniques of classic photography to be applied to marketing.

Take, for example, two photography staples: angle and focus. The same object shot from different angles can appear either intimidating or pathetic, mythic or mundane. Likewise, the literal focus of the picture — and equally important, what’s out of focus — can suggest meanings and interpretations that escape a photo with focal balance.

product photos
Photo credit: Charlotte Hosten

The Quebec-based designer Charlotte Hosten uses angle and focus to take her product photos to the next level. The angle/focus combination showcases the centerpiece of the bracelet more prominently than more standard angle/focus combination, but it still shows off the lesser important chain clasp in the back.

Moreover, this angle/focus duo (and the shadows) add a depth and realism most other product photos can’t reach.

8. Animation/Video

The eye is attracted to movement, so moving beyond standard static product photos is a great way to get your products noticed. This strategy is still new and groundbreaking, with better technology enabling more bandwidth to sites. What we’re seeing now is just the beginning, and pioneering eshops can go as far as their imagination takes them.

… just be careful of loading times. For now, simpler is better.

product photos
Photo credit: Frank Body

Fashion and beauty products have more to gain by being cutting edge, so it’s no surprise Frank Body incorporates this new method. It doesn’t involve much, just a hand reaching in and grabbing the product. However, it’s a quirky visual that’s never been seen before, and as such instills excitement to buying the product.

9. Combined with Illustrations

We’ll end with a more fun strategy, though not applicable to every instance. Illustrations in general are becoming a popular trend in web design lately, and product photos are no exception.

Combining products with illustrated backgrounds makes them more delightful and lively, and can help establish mood. When done well, illustrated background can utilize benefits from both backgrounds described above: the minimal distractions and dominant empty space of white backgrounds, combined with the ability to establish context from contextual environments.

product photos
Photo credit: myhideaway

The Etsy store myhideaway does this strategy well, but only because the product allows it. For an item like a brooch, there’s not much context to set except that it’s a fashion accessory that goes on the chest. This can be achieved equally with either real models or illustrations. Notice that the store also uses the illustrated background to set the size scale.


Taking a step back from the specific techniques, we can see two broad, overlapping trends in product photography:

Photos are drawing more on setting the context of usage than just showing the product
Photos are incorporating more artistic techniques from classical photography (and illustration)

These usher in a new era for product photography, one with greater power and potential. The traditional ways of eshops are no longer enough, so maybe now’s the time to reconsider your tactics. These 9 techniques above aren’t the only ones, and now is the time to be innovative.