If there’s a single marketing element that’s imperative to nail in modern retailing, it’s photography.
Crisp, well-lit product photographs are the beating heart of multichannel retailing. The brick-and-click concept relies on appealing to consumers online. And in the absence of a flesh-and-bones salesperson, it’s the photos that sell the baubles.
The world’s top jewelry e-commerce sites, Blue Nile included, lure shoppers with bold, oversized product photos—shot from various angles under lights so bright and crystal-clear that they could make a muddy shoe sparkle.
And beyond the basic, shot-on-white product images used on websites is photography that, in the best of circumstances, showcases a brand’s singular personality. In the age of Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards, high-quality photos that break the mold—through sheer elegance, quirkiness, or originality—double as powerful, shareable marketing tools that neatly broadcast a brand’s identity (and inventory) to every corner of the jewelry-buying globe.
High-quality product images are almost always available for retailers from established vendors in the industry; the watch brands, in particular, excel in their selection of imagery. But proprietors who deal in custom pieces, private label collections, and estate and vintage jewelry require a steady steam of original photography to post to their website and social channels.
Whether your shop’s photo output is in need of a little tweaking or is primed for a complete overhaul, keep these tips, tricks, and potential pitfalls in mind when strategizing your future shoots.
Hire a Specialist
Think well-lit, but not washed out. (Ryasick/iStock)
If you shoot product infrequently, you may be able to tackle your store’s photo needs personally (see our sidebar for what you need to set up your own studio). But for jewelry retailers with an ongoing need for original, high-quality photos, partnering with a photographer is best. Shop carefully. Jewelry photography is a niche category that requires special expertise. Even photographers who shoot with macro lenses, which capture the greatest detail in small objects, may not understand certain elements of shooting jewelry.
“The lighting for metal may not be the lighting for stones,” explains New York City–based jewelry photographer Arnold Katz. In other words, your amazing wedding photographer may not have a clue how to get a 3 ct. sapphire to shine.
Katz suggests asking around for recommendations, then checking out the photographer’s online portfolio or website. “If you like what you see, then send them a piece—even a difficult piece,” Katz says. “Have it shot, pay the photographer, and see what you get back. Understand what it is you are buying.”
Another element to investigate: the photographer’s policies on copyright limitations. If a photographer has limits on how long you can use an image, move on. Ideally, you should hold the rights to images you commission and be able to use them as you please.
Cast a Wide Net
No need to get fancy with your angles. Be direct. (Betty LaRue/Alamy)
Cultivating a partnership with a local photographer—someone you can trust with your jewels who lives nearby—is the dream scenario. But for stores in small towns that aren’t home to any professional jewelry photographers, shipping pieces to an out-of-town shooter is always an option. Alexandria, Va.–based jewelry photographer Victor Wolansky receives the bulk of his clients’ wares via FedEx and UPS.
“It’s more important to find a photographer that has an excellent reputation and a portfolio that you love than to find a photographer in the same town,” says Wolansky, who has detailed conversations with clients about what they want before picking up his camera for any job.
A product photographer should have liability coverage for lost items and be able to break down safe ways to ship items to the studio. Above all else, “speak to people and get a sense for who they are,” Katz says. You’re looking to develop a long-standing relationship, so make sure you like whom you’re hiring.
Shoot on White
This looks killer on Instagram, but if pitching a major magazine, think about a white background. (Prykhodov/Thinkstock)
Striking still-life photos are ideal for Instagram and Facebook, but you should aim to capture every item in your inventory on a white background that can be “knocked out” (art director lingo for erased). Why? “It gives you the most bang for your buck,” Katz says.
An image shot on white is the most versatile for Web and print layouts (JCK included!), allowing an illustrator, site builder, or graphic designer the greatest flexibility when creating beautiful pages—since the white background can easily be knocked out.
“If it’s on an off-white background, if it’s dirty, if it’s not kind of perfectly done, it makes the product look not perfect or not high quality,” says photographer Steven DeVilbiss, cofounder of New York City–based Antfarm photo studio, which counts Ritani, Tacori, and Effy among its clients.
Aim for Razor-Sharp Focus and Detail
Above all else, “jewelry photos should be sharp and detailed—allowing you to see all of the details that the artist created,” Wolansky says. Agrees DeVilbiss: “Getting a crisp, sharp beautifully lit shot, even though it’s not that exciting, is what you want.”
Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, owner of The Three Graces, an online-only jewelry shop specializing in vintage and estate jewelry (one that photographs all of its products in-house), has a litmus test for deciding if a photo is worthy of posting: “If someone sees the photograph and feels they can reach out and touch the jewelry—and it looks so enticing you want to try it on immediately—we’ve done our job.”
Go for Sparkle, Not Blinding Shine
Lighting is the most important aspect of shooting jewelry. “And it’s also the most complicated part,” notes Wolansky. “The light is what defines the piece and shapes an item. Light can make a piece look incredible or it can make it look terrible.”
Make sure the reflections cast by any piece are in the right places—and that they “help us understand the curvatures” of an item. “There should be highlights that communicate to the viewer that you are seeing a glossy surface, but that should not overpower the image,” he adds. “It’s all about a good balance.”
No amount of top-notch equipment can fix a photo that was shot in poor lighting. “The best camera in the world only goes so far,” Stockhammer-Mial says. “Focus on putting enough light on a piece of jewelry without washing it out.”
Capture All Angles
Consumers are still getting acclimated to shopping for fine jewelry online, so make sure their experience replicates an in-store one as closely as possible. That means showing all sides of a piece of jewelry or a watch. At the minimum, have pieces photographed from the top (straight-on) and from the side. Also helpful to consumers are photographs of the jewelry worn by a person, so the size can be accurately gauged.
Experiment With the Unexpected
“I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I watch her and her friends going through Instagram; they flip through photos like they’re nothing,” says Los Angeles–based fashion, beauty, and product photographer Raquel Olivo. “It takes a lot to get their attention.”
Modern consumers are inundated by photographs like never before. That’s why any and all stabs at capturing offbeat, out-of-the-box images (that may or may not feature product) are a good use of a brand’s resources. Red-hot social media sites Instagram and Pinterest offer marketers a platform to create entire worlds online, all through photo sharing.
Have a kooky idea for an image involving a wedge of Swiss cheese and a diamond ring? Go for it. Inject wit, grace—and maybe an ounce of irreverence—into your brand’s visual messaging, and consumer engagement will follow.
(Top: Cobalt 88/Thinkstock)
Do It Your Selfie
If your photo needs are extensive—or having complete creative control over your photography is attractive—consider erecting a small in-house photo studio. Here’s what you need to get up and running:
There are several options here—ranging from high-end professional models to the smartphone in your back pocket. Jewelry photographer Victor Wolansky recommends an SLR (single lens reflex) camera body with a macro lens—he suggests a 180-mm for really small pieces—“of good quality, the best you can afford.” The Three Graces’ owner Lisa Stockhammer-Mial says the range of lower-priced, high-pixel cameras is so wide “that you don’t have to spend a fortune.” And jewelry photographer Steven DeVilbiss asserts that “an iPhone will work if you have the right setup.”
A tripod is a cheap accessory that steadies your camera (or phone) so you can shoot in lower light—yielding greater detail in your images. If your camera’s not an SLR model, which comes with a standard mount for a basic tripod, make sure your tripod can hold your camera still.
Lighting is the most important part of your setup, so don’t skimp on quality or quantity. Options, once again, abound. Shop for one or two professional photo lights that emit bright daylight-grade light on product. Spring for a soft box to place over the light(s) to create a soft, flattering white glow.
DeVilbiss says a basic desktop light box, on which jewelry can be placed, is “hard to mess up, so that’s a good tool for someone who’s trying to do it themselves.” Wolansky recommends a light shed, a cube-shaped tent that bounces light around its small quarters, to spread light evenly across a piece of jewelry.
Major photo retailers—New York City’s B&H (bhphotovideo.com) is great—have all of the above in spades. Expect to pay $400–$800 for the whole shebang.