May 26, 2011

How to Fail on Etsy: Clutter in the Background

I've become an Etsy photo snob over the last year, because one can't browse through Etsy without finding some cringingly, eyebrow-raisingly bad photos. The item itself could be beautiful and of high quality, but a bad photo makes it hard to know this.

You may wonder, what makes me think I'm an expert on product photos?

Well, I have eyes. It's true. And they are even good, strong eyes. (And stunning, I might add.) So when I see these photos, I rely on my good eyes to say, "Wowie, that is a really bad photo."

I am not a photographer. I like taking photos, but they are never going to be of hanging-on-living-room-walls quality. I'm okay with this. We can't all be professional photographers, but we can take decent product photos for Etsy.

Remember that bit about being a photo snob for the last year? Well, before that, I was the seller who gave more thought to the dirt under my fingernails than to the photos I listed online. Then I wondered why my awesome stuff never showed up on the coveted front page of Etsy.

What makes a bad product photo? Last month, it was bad lighting and shadows. Today, it's clutter.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean actual clutter, like dishes on a kitchen counter or your kids' backpacks and jackets laying on the couch. More commonly, it's simply the visual clutter which is taking up space in your photo.

As a potential buyer, you try to focus on the hat. But then your gaze keeps drifting to the glowing light and dark vortex of a hallway in the background. You stop wondering how you'll look in the hat and start wondering if the person is in a cellar. Maybe she is trapped and being held for ransom?

I remember coming across a baby blanket for sale on Etsy. The workmanship appeared to be top-notch. However, I couldn't tell you anything else about the blanket, such as the color of the yarn or the design. But I could tell you about the bedroom in which it was displayed: from the hollow brass headboard and the box of Kleenex on the nightstand (hey! I have that same box design at home!) to the traditional country-style quilt on the bed.

You may be asking, "But if the room is clean, what does it matter?" There are two reasons why you should keep the background uncluttered: 1) it keeps the focus on the product, 2) simply put, it's more professional. Could you imagine browsing a catalog online and seeing the model standing in a bedroom with the blinds half-drawn, a cat walking behind her foot, and a cobweb hanging from the ceiling fan? Of course not. Professional product photos are created in controlled spaces, with the photographer considering any possible background clutter.

While we all know Etsy is a place to buy goods directly from the maker, buyers still want to know that they are dealing with professionals. There is nothing professional about, "Hey, this is the Kleenex I use to wipe snot from my nose while working on the hat which you'll later wear on your head." Or, "Hey, I don't make my bed and I just throw dirty clothes on the floor...but don't worry, I take great care of my products!"

(Don't worry...this photo didn't actually make it onto Etsy.)

So enough with the criticism, what can you do to declutter a shot? It can be as simple as posing your item in front of a blank, empty wall. The plain white background is really popular on Etsy because it won't detract from the product and because it produces a super clean shot. Nevertheless, I like bright, bold colors, so I use a ghettography prop: posterboard. I bought posterboard in several vibrant colors from an office supply store. Then I either prop the boards against something or pin them to the wall, depending on where I need them.

This is what a typical setup looks like:

My "photo studio" is on a desk in my bedroom, near a window where I can take advantage of the natural light. From afar, there is definitely clutter. But that is not what will be in the shot. Instead, the customer will only see something like this:

Nevertheless, the background doesn't have to be empty or a solid color to be uncluttered. Incorporating a pattern into the background can enhance a photo. For example, Etsy seller Bridal Brick Row uses a brick wall background in each photo:

Pixel Cloud uses a soft, sedate wallpaper to accent the shop's vibrant prints:

In closing, be mindful of the background, know and control what your customers will see, and make sure your product always remains the focus of the photo.

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