Well, for starters, they show what you’re selling.
With the exception of trade shows, most transactions between retailers and suppliers happen remotely. Since it’s rarely possible to see your complete collection in person before we decide what to stock, we rely on your pictures.
In many cases, a shopkeeper won’t actually touch the items they buy from you until the day their delivery arrives.
This means your photos have a lot of work to do.
They must accurately convey the details, textures, colours, size and function of the lovely thing you make. In short, they should be the next best thing to holding it in our hands.
But as well as telling us about individual items, your product photos also communicate something about who you are as a brand. Retailers use the quality of your images, along with how they’re lit, styled and edited, to figure out what kind of customer is likely to buy your work.
We also use them to get a feel for whether you’re a safe, trustworthy supplier.
If your catalogue is filled with dark, blurry, badly-edited shots, we’re likely to come up empty on both counts.
And let’s not forget that most indie retailers receive a couple of new catalogues from potential suppliers every day. If your photos don’t compare favourably to the competition, you make it easy for us to say no.
So professional-standard product photos are crucial if you want to sell your work to shops.
But taking your own product photos can be tricky.
Unless you have prior knowledge or the cash to hire in an expert, it’s hard to know exactly what equipment you need and which techniques to use.
Sure, you might fluke a decent shot every so often, but consistently excellent results can be elusive.
Which is where Holly comes in.
Holly Booth is professional product photographer who works with makers, designers and crafters around the world. She captures items produced by creative people in a way shows off their quality and soul.
And today, she’s going to help you do that too by sharing some of her lifestyle pictures. Thank goodness, right?
Other places you can use your product photos
Before we dive into how to take great pictures of your work, let’s think about how to use them.
Your wholesale catalogue is obviously one important place, but your product photos can also go in your emails to stockists, on your retail website and your social media channels.
If you want to get in your stockists’ good books, you can also make your photos available to them. If they’re struggling to take their own shots for their website, you’ll save them a lot of hassle.
You could also occasionally send out a bundle of pre-sized, ready-to-post images for your stockists’ facebook page or instagram. Finding something to share on social media is a never-ending task for many businesses these days.
Make it a little easier for them every once in a while and they’ll notice.
What are lifestyle photos?
There are two kinds of photograph in an effective wholesale catalogue: lifestyle shots and white box shots. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Lifestyle shots show your product in its natural environment.
If you make jewellery, they show it being worn. If you make art prints, they show your prints hanging on a sitting room wall. If you make baby blankets, you show them in a nursery.
Here are some examples:
So lifestyle shots are about depicting your product in the wild. They show it in its ideal context, being used and enjoyed.
What are lifestyle shots good for?
The purpose of lifestyle shots is to tell the retailer a captivating story.
Let’s pretend a Hollywood producer is so entranced by the lovely thing you make that she decides to make a movie about it. She’s going to showcase your product’s personality and tell the story of what it does in the world in a glossy, flattering biopic.
Now let’s imagine that we’re watching that movie together and I randomly press pause. In theory, you should be able to use the resulting still image as a lifestyle shot in your wholesale catalogue.
In other words, there should be something happening in your lifestyle pictures. Each one should help to move your story forward.
Even if no people are present, there should be the sense that your ideal customer just outside the shot, and that they love and value it. See what I mean here:
Holly has photographed this candle in a very clean, elegant, peaceful setting. It feels like someone just put down their book and cup of herbal tea. In a moment or two they’ll come back with some matches, light the candle and relax.
This one feels like a glimpse into the home of a dog lover with very good taste. The grey walls and muted tone of the props play nicely with the colours in the picture, but the dog’s expression and perky ears stops the scene feeling stiff. It seems like a warm, comfortable kind of place.
So as they look at your lifestyle photos, the retailer should begin to understand who your customer is and how your work enhances that person’s happiness.
They’re absorbing a ton of information about you and your products, and as I talk about here, hopefully falling in love with you a little bit.
Now, you might have noticed I used the words glossy and flattering a few moments ago. That’s because your lifestyle shots also have to show that your product is worth spending money on.
Have another look at the product photos above.
The products themselves are pristine. There are no specks or smudges on the surfaces and the boxes in the second shot are neatly stacked.
In both photos, there’s a feeling of everyday luxury and that comes in part from the styling. The maker of these products is quietly sending a message about the quality of her items.
What are lifestyle photos not so good for?
Since their job is to tell a story, lifestyle shots aren’t always good at conveying simple facts.
An effective lifestyle shot of a cushion, for example, might show it on a sofa with a cosy blanket partially draped over it. Although that image might do a great job of showing me your work in context, it doesn’t communicate the full design of the cushion.
That’s a job for your white box photos.
What are white box shots?
The second type of photograph a retailer expects to see in your catalogue is white box shots.
Unlike lifestyle images which present your product in its natural environment, white box shots are formal and factual. They’re about showing colour, texture, shapes and details. Here are two examples:
As you can see, these photos capture the product (and only the product) against a neutral (or non-existent) background. Apart from lighting it properly, showing the whole item and making sure it’s in focus, there’s no particular editorial spin from the artist.
She’s not making any special effort to influence the retailer’s perception of her work. She’s just standing back and letting her product do all the talking.
What are white box photos good for
White box shots allow the retailer to get a really good look at what they’re buying – that’s why they’re used on line sheets. It’s especially important, therefore, that your white box photos are an accurate reflection of your products,
Colours and patterns should be true to life so that, as far as possible, there’s little difference between how your products look in the catalogue and how they look when they’re delivered to a store. It’s also a good idea to show your product in and out of any packaging that comes with it.
And as before, we want to show your items in the best possible light. Since there are no props, models or other distractions in white box shots, it’s even easier for retailers to draw conclusions about the quality of your work.
If you’re new to wholesale, I recommend concentrating on your white box shots first, then lifestyle shots further down the line.
What are white box shots not so good for?
White box shots treat your work like a commodity, albeit a precious one.
Although there are ways to soften them if, they’re clinical. There’s no human or story-telling element. It’s all about the object.
So why do you need both kinds of photo in your catalogue?
We’ve talked before about the ideal structure for your catalogue. We saw that it’s smart to use more lifestyle shots at the beginning and more white box shots at the end.
So having both kinds of photography is important because it provides you with the greatest control over the retailer’s experience of looking through your catalogue.
Only having one kind of photography isn’t a disaster…
If you’re just starting out, a line sheet showing only white box photos works just fine.
But if you’re at the catalogue stage, not including both styles of photo will make your catalogue less persuasive.
Catalogues which only contain lifestyle photography can come across as all style and no substance. Page after page of stunning lifestyle shots may pique a stockist’s interest, but if they never get to see precisely what’s on offer, up close and with no distractions, that interest can fade.
Catalogues which contain nothing but white box photos aren’t really catalogues in my view – they’re souped-up line sheets. And they can feel soulless.
You’re not showing any context for your work – how it’s going to be used or enjoyed by customers – so the retailer has to imagine it for themselves. That requires mental effort and shopkeepers are very busy people. If you don’t help them out, many won’t have the time or energy to come up with those ideas by themselves, especially when they have no particular incentive to do so.
When might you want only one type of photo?
Having said that, there are occasions when you may choose to create documents which only contain one kind of photography.
If you’re in fashion, for example, you may decide to produce a look-book for a forthcoming collection. By loading it up with gorgeous lifestyle shots and holding off on the white box ones, you can whet your buyers’ appetites ahead of time. Then, when your full catalogue arrives, they’re primed to make an order.
Likewise, if you’re exhibiting at a trade show you might decide to use only white box pictures in the materials you give to potential stockists.
If they’ve already seen your products in person, there’s less of a need to captivate them with lifestyle pictures. Leaving them out keeps your printing costs down and, potentially, concentrates the retailer’s mind on actually placing an order.
Generally speaking, though, an effective wholesale catalogue makes use of both types of images. Apart from anything else, it’s an antidote to boredom. Mixing up your images creates drama, variety and surprise.
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