In an increasingly Amazon-centric retail environment, more and more manufacturers are selling their wares online. This has led to a growing need for product photography, a boon for photographers everywhere. Though he didn’t make his name in the studio, Chicago-based photographer Dennis Biela sees this trend as an opportunity to capitalize on customer demand to create the kind of steady income that helps finance a photography business.
“It pays the bills and turns on the lights,” Biela says, “so I can do the stuff that I want to do. I think there's going to be more work like this. Amazon says that their retailer side is growing, there are more and more retailers listing products. I think as many manufacturers realize they can list everything at Amazon, you'll see more and more companies looking for photography. And Amazon pushes photography. They say that people respond more to a photograph than they do to illustration. It’s great for photography as an industry because it means that there's more need.”
“I know a lot of photographers who would turn up their noses at this,” he adds, “and I chuckle because I know a ton of guys who said they wouldn't do weddings. Everybody has a threshold, but to me it's good business. The funds that I'll make can help fund my other projects. I’m not known for it, but early in my career I did product photography, so I have experience, and I have lighting experience, so nothing there scared me.”
His expertise is in aviation photography, but when Biela saw an opportunity to partner with a manufacturer to shoot 30,000 individual products he was intrigued. Like many photographers, he understood that steady, repeatable work and a six-figure paycheck would be beneficial to his business. The primary challenge is determining the logistics of such a project: from the photography itself to the organizing, digital imaging, and on-time delivery of the finished image files. On a recent lunch break during one of his many shoot days on the project, Biela explained how he does it with the aim of helping other photographers to feel confident tackling high-volume product photography assignments that come their way.
First Planning, Then Pricing
With a project of this scale, the first goal is to determine what exactly needs to be photographed, how it will be photographed, processed and delivered, before ultimately determining a price for the service. The risk, of course, is that the photographer finds himself in over his head and unable to profitably deliver on the contract.
“My dad was a CPA,” he says, “and he would tell me first you figure out the job, then you quote the price, and then you figure out how you can speed up the job with the same quality, because that's your real profit.”
So, How Do You Actually Shoot 1,000 Individual Products?
Biela started by learning all he could about the products, their sizing, and the needs of the client. How many views of each product? Different backgrounds? Shots of the product in use? The ideal client would have consistent needs with similarly sized products because that makes the process efficient and repeatable. It’s repeatability, he says, that offers opportunities to get faster and more profitable.
“At first it was figuring out how fast I could get these done,” Biela says. “I figured I’d average about three minutes per piece, so I could get 20 pieces done in an hour. Once I figured out the process, it was how can I speed it up to hit two minutes per product? Where can I make changes? Some of it’s just stupid simple things. Like they would bring me four products at a time and I'd be like, I'll tell you what, bring me 50 pieces at a time, and when I get to like 35 or 40 I'm saying hey, get the next batch ready.”
Biela’s main camera is the Sony α7R III, which he uses in silent mode—not due to noise, but in order to capitalize on the electronic shutter.
“Because each product takes like five or six shots,” he explains, “we're talking about a few hundred thousand photos. I use silent mode so I don’t chew up the mechanical shutter.”
Biela also determined that the ideal lighting for the project was LEDs, which would offer another opportunity to make the process more efficient. “There’s nothing moving in the shots,” he says, “so it’s only lit by LEDs. I’m using a copy stand, shooting straight down. Amazon and Walmart and those places want pure white backgrounds around the product, so it becomes an issue of how can I photograph this stuff quickly but also how can I get it processed quickly and meet the terms of the client’s needs?
When I started I was experimenting with different types of lighting, and I love strobe because you can put out tons of power quickly. But the issue was that the modeling lights became too hot. The platforms would get deformed from the heat. So I quickly had to move to cold lights, which was not a big deal, and that made it a lot easier to shoot the products. Then I found LEDs that I could modify for my needs. They sell LEDs in long rolls so you can bend them, so I made my own softboxes to light up the products so I could get the light at very specific views. All of that took a lot of time, but once I got it, I was set.”
With the lights dialed in, the photography itself progressed quickly. Though the ideal approach would be to photograph all products of a specific size at the same time, the photographer has to weigh that efficiency against other bottlenecks it may cause elsewhere. In this case, Biela tried to organize by size but found he would spend more time tracking and organizing the out-of-order products based on the client’s system.
“I set a goal of 15 products an hour,” Biela says. “I found that I could go faster, but size became my enemy. Most products are three or four inches long, but some are several feet long and some are just a quarter of an inch long. That requires a different lens and setup. I tried organizing by size in the beginning and it just messed me up. So I took the hit on time and just keep things in order. Also when I started mixing and matching sizes a couple of times I screwed up on inventory numbers and that took much more time to sort out so I just kept to shooting everything in order regardless of size.”
The client provided Biela with a space in their warehouse to set up a tabletop studio. That made the process of acquiring and organizing products easier. Biela also asked the company’s I.T. department to set up a computer for tethering to facilitate naming the files as he shoots.
“It wasn’t so much that I needed to shoot tethered,” he says, “because the camera has the articulating LCD that I can twist to focus by. It was to put the inventory number right on the file so I didn’t have to worry about it later. It might slow me down by 20 or 30 seconds, but I was saving time and energy on the backside by not having to rename files.”
Streamlining The Post-Production
With 30,000 products on the shot list, processing, naming and organizing was a major undertaking. It’s also an area Biela says is ripe for streamlining. He’s modifying his lighting and shooting approach in order to create files that require less digital manipulation, ultimately hoping to automate the process with a Photoshop action. Until then, he’s outsourcing the retouching to multiple vendors who keep time and cost to a minimum.
Lighting challenges aside, the biggest hurdle with a job of this size is pricing. The risk is that the photographer finds himself in over his head and unable to profitably deliver on the contract, so Biela advises building in safeguards. The photographer also needs to retain the flexibility to service other customers. To that end, Biela suggests setting up a small-scale project prior to signing on for the full scope of the job.
“We signed a contract for 1,000 units to start,” Biela says, “with an extension to do the balance of 29,000. I had two-tier pricing. It was X amount for the first thousand. And then we'd come back and talk.”
This provided protection for both client and photographer. The client got to see the quality of the photographer’s work, and the photographer got to learn exactly how the process would work.
“I gave them a per unit price,” Biela explains, “and then two-tier pricing because the client wanted to make sure they were getting good images before fully committing to the whole 30,000. I think they’d been burned in the past and by the end of the first thousand I would either know everything I needed to know or I’d know I was totally screwed. Also, if it took a month instead of ten days, I’d still get check at the end of it.”
“After 1,000 products,” he continues, “The client was thrilled with the work. I let them know that from what I learned shooting the first batch, I would have to charge them more. So we negotiated a higher price they said, ‘okay, here's the warehouse.’”
When he was negotiating with the client, Biela told him he’d need flexibility in his schedule and the ability to accept other assignments. This is why partnering with a reasonable customer is essential.
“I have a year to complete the whole job,” he says. “It takes three months of actual shooting to shoot all the pieces, so I've got a year to finish three months worth of work. To do that, I'm shooting a week each month, that way I stay in rhythm.”
How To Find This Kind Of High-Volume Work
For photographers in search of this kind of high-volume product photography, Biela suggests perusing industry publications where manufacturers sometimes advertise in need of photography. It’s how Biela found this client and his 30,000 products—who subsequently referred him to a colleague, so the photographer is now in talks to shoot 50,000 products for another client.
In the end, Biela says this assignment has been good for business as well as a more interesting photographic challenge than he anticipated. “When I started I thought, ‘I'm going to be bored stiff,’” he says. “You know, going from an F22 or an F16 to small electronics? But I actually find it interesting. It's not that when I'm done I'm going to remember all these products, I'll remember the onslaught. That keeps my interest level up.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.