Commercial Photography II | Product and Food Photography for E-Commerce

Product and Food Photography for E-Commerce

A good looking photo goes a long way to help sell an item or a dish.

Product photography and food photography, while being very different in some ways, have quite a bit of overlap so we'll cover them in tandem. For clarity and ease, this lesson will look at e-commerce style photography and Lesson Four will delve into Lifestyle photography.

Taken together, the two lessons should set you up well to tackle a variety of product, food, and still life subjects.

In this lecture, you can expect to:

Learn the characteristics of a product and food photo for e-commerce.
Learn which e-commerce industries need product and food photographers.
Learn setup and lighting tips for e-commerce photo shoots.
Learn some industry standards for shooting products and food for e-commerce.

E-commerce photography shows the details of the product while lifestyle photography shows the personality of the product.

E-commerce photography focuses primarily on the product, but props are sometimes needed.

Using a softbox to diffuse your lighting usually gives your product or food dish an appealing look.


E-Commerce Versus Lifestyle Photography


Think about the last time you shopped online. A lifestyle advertisement most likely compelled you to buy the item, but a simple photo showing all the details may have convinced you to actually press the "Buy" button.

E-Commerce or Catalog Photography is straightforward, evenly lit photography designed to show the characteristics of a product. Typically e-commerce photos have shadowless, white backgrounds (although not always). The item is sharp from front to back with very little depth of field softness. There are minimal reflections or glares. The shopper can often zoom in to see textures or details. In essence, an e-commerce photograph gives a buyer as much information as possible about the actual item they will receive.

In these e-commerce images, the disposable wine glasses are shown as simply as possible. Some props (wine and fruit) are added in order to give the cup context, but otherwise the product isn't dolled up in any way.

Lifestyle or Advertising photography is a much looser than E-Commerce Photography. Rather than selling the specific characteristics of a product, the photograph is selling the lifestyle, the attitude, the personality that comes with it.

In this photo, the same wine glass is being sold, but in a much more subtle way. The viewer cannot tell much about the glass. Instead, the photo relies on a viewer connecting with the scene to compel a purchase.

Food and Product Photography

There are no hard and fast rules to define food photography or product photography. Photos of cooked meals can certainly be considered part of the food photography genre, and some trinkets might easily categorized as product photography. Certain items blur the line—for example, are garden vegetables food or product? In our example above, the disposable wine glass is technically a product, but there is food involved.

Some e-commerce photography crosses a line into lifestyle-esque, with the addition of a distinctive background or simple props (napkins or cutlery). In this image for UberEATS, the dish is still shown in a very straightforward way, but the tabletop allows some of the resturant's personality to shine through.

The distinction doesn't really matter, as the approach is fairly similar from a photography perspective. The distinction does matter when branding oneself. If you are known as a product photographer it is unlikely that a food client will approach you for a shoot and vice versa.

Each genre has certain techniques and guidelines that you'll learn along the way. For example, it is considered a faux pas to cross chopsticks in a photo or in real life. (See more info about that at

Each genre also comes with its uniquely skilled crew and props—a food stylist knows exactly how to make mashed potatoes look like ice cream or precisely how much dish soap is necessary to make a coffee look fresh and hot. A prop stylist might be a wiz with a clothing steamer or a magician in the art of tying a bow.

Who Hires Food and Product Photographers?

Whether e-commerce or lifestyle, potential clients for food or product photography are varied. You might be hired by:

  • Retail Stores
  • Product Designers
  • Packaging Designers
  • Manufacturers
  • Resellers
  • Small Businesses
  • Restaurants & Bars
  • Local Chefs or Caterers
  • Farmers Markets
  • Gardeners
  • Grocery Stores
  • Food Delivery Services
This photo was done for a local packaging designer for use in her portfolio. At times, e-commerce photography might seem boring or mundane. Some creative positioning can add a little life to your scene.

A good product designer or reseller knows the value of a photograph to help sell something. This photo was created for a small-time Etsy seller who made one-of-a-kind terrariums and other plants. In this case, a pure white background wasn't a huge consideration, but mostly reflection-free glassware was very important.

Breakdown of an E-Commerce Photoshoot - Before the Shoot

As usual, much of a shoot occurs before you've even unpacked your camera, so we'll begin our lesson here.

Studio and Setup

E-commerce photography requires consistency and accuracy. This is best done in a controlled situation. The size of your space and specific needs vary based on exactly what you are shooting.

If you have a small home studio, you are in luck! Most product photography easily fits on a compact table and can be called "tabletop photography".

This large satellite was photographed in the warehouse where it was manufactured. The machine was so big it actually required 2 9-foot backdrops placed next to each other. I removed the centerline in post-production.

The size of a food photography set may be small, but the prep area is usually larger, including a sink, stove, refrigerator, or any number or appliances.

No matter the scale of your set, you'll need a background. Usually, a white paper seamless is the best approach. The disposable nature of the seamless allows you to quickly clean up after messy food or when a heavy product marks or tears your backdrop.

Lighting and Depth of Field

An even lighting set up will nearly always be your ideal lighting for e-commerce photography. You may choose to set one light slightly stronger as a key light and a secondary light slightly less as a fill light, but you'll want to avoid strong shadows so that a potential buyer can see all the features of the item. Softboxes or shoot-through umbrellas create a soft, diffused lighting that flatters many products and food dishes.

If you're aiming for a pure white background, a light (or two) dedicated to the background is a good idea.

For most e-commerce photography, your choice of controlled natural light versus strobe light versus continuous light is left to personal preference. In some instances, there is a strong reason for choosing one over the other.

When shooting ice cream for a local creamery, I chose not to use continuous "hot lights" in order to avoid melting the ice cream with the heat they give off.

Generally speaking, you'll want the deepest depth of field possible for e-commerce shots so that a potential buyer can zoom in to the front and the back of the item. The actual f-stop needed will depend on how close you are to your set and how deep or flat your item is.


Be careful when setting up lighting for a product shoot. You don't want glare on something important, like the product's logo.

Breakdown of an E-Commerce Photoshoot - Composition

Now that you've set your lights and background, you are getting ready to shoot!

Shiny and Reflective Surfaces

Whenever possible, you should avoid reflections and glare on your products and food. At times, this is unavoidable and in those instances you might need to do some creative retouching after the fact.

If no amount of movement, pre-planning, or post-production will completely remove a reflection, you should at least be sure to keep it off the logo or important elements.

In this shot taken during the early days of my product photography, I didn't notice the giant glare running down the logo of the center paint can. Had I noticed, I could probably have shifted to the left or right and avoided the mistake altogether.

In this image, I intentionally shaped the reflections of my lights to create shape and depth in the balloons. A balloon void of all shine would look oddly two dimensional to our eye. I created the pleasing shapes using a softbox placed horizontally in front and slightly higher than the balloon and a second placed vertically and to the side. The red balloon was a high gloss surface, so it recorded the edges of my softboxes with crispness. The pink balloon was more opalescent or pearl surfaced which beautifully softened the edges.

Breakdown of an E-Com Photoshoot - Technical Considerations
Exposure and Camera Settings

In addition to the depth of field tips we discussed earlier in the lesson, you should be thinking about your ISO and shutter speed during product or food shoots of any kind.

Like architectural subjects, most of what you'll photograph for e-commerce doesn't move (models and some foods excepted). A low ISO with a long shutter speed is often allowable.

When shooting product or food, it's a good idea to shoot tethered whenever possible. This is helpful to the rest of your crew and is especially helpful to you. You are much more likely to notice a detail needing attention when viewing larger than two inches wide!

White Balance

Color temperature is especially critical in food and product genres. An incorrect white balance could create a very unappealing representation of food. For products, an error here could cause confusion about the actual appearance of the item and lead to high rates of customer returns.

In the original image (on the right), the skirt recorded much too red and vibrant. This was in part an effect of my lighting set up and in part a result of my camera (Nikon is known for more saturated reds). I used a local brush adjustment to correct the skirt back to its more burnt orange look. In the final image (on the left), I chose to do this quickly during my shoot so that my client could approve the correction on the spot while we had the item in front of us.

Special Lingo, Export Options and Delivery Expectations
The Lingo

To a newcomer on the e-commerce or advertising scene, there are quite a few terms that sound intimidating but that really aren't all that complicated.

A style guide is a document designed to give you the nitty gritty details of a photo shoot, including branding elements, aspect ratios and pixel dimensions, as well as any number of other things. A style guide will often include photos for inspiration (of props, of lighting scenarios, of feelings) and sometimes even photos of competitors' marketing materials.

Generally speaking, a style guide will be considered a private document. For example, I shoot for UberEATS, Eat24, and Postmates. Each company has very specific and slightly different rules for how they would like their photos to turn out. Sharing the Eat24 style guide with Uber or vice versa would be a huge breach of trust. Unfortunately, all of my clients have a non-disclosure agreement attached to their style guides, so I can't share a real live style guide here. An article at gives a wordy but thorough description of a style guide.

Hero image usually refers to the largest, most prominent image on a page. This may be a family of items or it may be a lifestyle image or something else entirely. Product images or product pages usually accompany a hero image. An alternate or alt photo may also be part of the shot (this could be a backside or a different view of the same product).

In this screenshot from one of my client's web-store pages, you see from top to bottom: a product image, a hero image, and two alternate images.

In this more traditonial incarnation of hero and product pages, my client used a large party scene as the hero image on top and multiple individual product pages linking into it.
Learn the characteristics of a product and food photo for advertising and lifestyle industries.
Learn which advertising and lifestyle industries need product and food photographers.
Learn how to plan and scout a location for a photo shoot.
Learn the industry standards for shooting products and food for the advertising and lifestyle genre.

Share your thoughts and opinions about shooting products and food for e-commerce in the Discussion area.

Plan and carry out a photo shoot of a product or food for an e-commerce industry.