Episode 58 is our final show in a series on Starting Your WordPress Online Store. In this show, we had the opportunity to talk with Marc Benzakein, who is not only very active in the WordPress community and owner of ServerPress.com, but a long-time photographer with tons of experience.

Having worked in the field for many years and been involved with photographing products for his own online store in the past, he brings this wealth of knowledge to today’s episode and shares some fantastic tips on both hiring a photographer and being a better do-it-yourselfer.

We chatted about:

  • What Marc finds as the biggest mistake retailers make with their product shots
  • The top 2 or 3 tips for the do-it-yourselfer photographer
  • What to look for when hiring a photographer to do your product shots
  • Creating your own images or using vendor-supplied photos
  • How to make sure your images are optimized for both the web and your online store
  • Marc’s thoughts on the benefits you have with today’s technology and the workflow when working with digital images

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey, everyone, and welcome back to the WP eCommerce Show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today is the fourth and last show of the series, Starting Your WordPress Online Store. So far we’ve talked about choosing an eCommerce WordPress plugin, about essentials beyond just the tech things you need to get started, and then about moving from brick and mortar to online. To round off the series nicely, we are touching on a subject that is  critical to your online store success. And that is product shots. I couldn’t think of anyone better than Marc Benzakein to help us through the murky waters of images. Marc is WordPress savvy and very active in the WordPress community. He has a WordPress business and years of professional photography experience behind him. Welcome to the show, Marc.

Marc Benzakein: Thanks, Bob.

Meet Marc Benzakein from ServerPress

Bob Dunn: So Marc, I know you have a long history of both WordPress and photography. Can you tell us about that in a nutshell?

Marc Benzakein: Oh, let’s see. My photography experience goes back to high school years. I sold all my computer equipment that I owned back then, a Commodore 64, in order to buy some film equipment because I was going on a trip to Europe. I got the bug and ended up in the darkroom for the next several years of my life. Then I stepped away for a bit, and then got back into photography once I had kids. Before I got into WordPress, I ran an eBay business where I liquidated Harley Davidson motorcycle parts and had to shoot all of my own product photos. That led me back into photography, I guess at somewhat of a professional level. That is it in a nutshell.

Bob Dunn: And you do run a little WordPress business right now?

Marc Benzakein: We have a company called ServerPress, which makes a local development tool called DesktopServer. It is specifically optimized for WordPress developers and designers and anyone else who’s just breaking into the WordPress world. Our whole goal is to make it easy enough yet be robust enough to work with for years to come as your skills develop. We’re very active in the WordPress community.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I know that I’ve used Desktop Server. I used to use it. I’m not really a developer, but I used it for a lot of my demo sites. It worked well, especially when I was doing a lot of tutorials and training people online. It comes in handy in a lot of ways.

Marc Benzakein: We’ve found that in the last couple of years it’s hard to go to a WordCamp without finding at least two or three presenters using it so they don’t have to be on the internet, because, as we know, at WordCamps internet can be spotty at times. It’s been nice to go to WordCamps and see people using DesktopServer.

Bob Dunn: I used it quite a bit when I would do in-person workshops for that exact same reason. There was internet service there, but sometimes it was awfully slow, so it was better to be able to zoom through things and have people not waiting for the next thing to load. Okay, well, cool. Let’s switch over to photography.

Marc Benzakein: Okay.

The biggest mistake online retailers make with their product shots

Bob Dunn: I’m going to start with a question. We know you shouldn’t have crappy photos. I mean, that’s obvious. But as far as the photographer’s eye, when you’re online, what do you see the biggest mistake online retailers make with their product shots?

Marc defines the ‘crappy shot’

Marc Benzakein: First of all, let me step back for a moment and define what a crappy photo. Crappy photos in my opinion are photos that are out of focus, they don’t have detail, the lighting is bad, or there’s just not any contrast. People do this all the time. They just take out their phone camera and shoot a picture and boom they’re done. So that’s my definition of a crappy photo.

Multiple product shots are best

Beyond that, I think that what a lot of people don’t realize is that you should probably have more than one photo of your product, unless it’s something simple like a diamond ring. It depends on what your product is, but I always say Amazon is the standard we should all shoot for. When you go onto amazon.com, how many times do you look for extra pictures of what it is that you’re buying? I know that I do. I look for the ones that have three or fours, and where I can do a close-up to look at things. A good example is electronics. Sometimes I might not know the name of the connector that I’m looking for on an electronic, but I know what I need it to fit. If there’s a picture of the front and the back of an electronic item where I can see what the connections are, that is very useful. It really depends on the product that you’re selling.

When I was selling on eBay, we sold obsolete and used Harley Davidson parts. It was used products, no matter what, they’re not going to look brand new. If there were any flaws, I’d be sure to get a closeup of that. Lighting was really important and so was getting a picture with good contrast that would show those flaws or any other details. You want that picture to pop. Again, I would go back to Amazon and look at every single picture they have of their products. They’ve put a lot of research into what makes a good product photograph and they have a lot more money than most of us. I hear they’re a successful company.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I’ve heard that too. That’s a good point. It’s interesting because you were talking about parts. When I was getting into photography, back when we had our marketing company,  I’d do some photography for clients. I was hired to do a shoot of auto parts for a large company that was a wholesaler. I spent I think seven days on-site eight hours a day doing these shots. It was interesting because you had to look at those parts and you had to know that there were little areas that people would be looking at, you know, does this valve do this or whatever?

Marc Benzakein: If you’re looking at a gear, they’re going to count the teeth on that, no matter what you say. You could say, “This is a 21-tooth gear.” They’re still going to go and count those teeth.

Bob Dunn: Yeah.

Marc Benzakein: You know?

Bob Dunn: Yep.

Shoppers are looking for details

Marc Benzakein: We found this through trial and error, but absolutely right. People will look for details, and you’d better get that part number right because they’ll call you on it if they know what they’re talking about. Of course, we Harley Davidson riders are a whole different class. Most of those people know how to work on their bikes, right?

Bob Dunn: Yeah.

Marc Benzakein: So they know what they were looking at and you had to be really careful. The other thing I was going to say is that Amazon did a lot of research and found that white backgrounds are the best, and that’s what I recommend, too. You can go to Home Depot, that’s what I did. I went to Home Depot and bought some Masonite that was coated with a white coating and that’s what I used to shoot my Harley parts on. I’d replace those every six months or so as they got beat up, but it was cheap and it worked well.

Bob Dunn: That’s another good point, because any other colors may start to distract, especially with the contrast, you know?

Marc Benzakein: Right. And with white, it’s easy if you need to do some post-work in Photoshop or Lightroom or something like that. Lightroom has changed a lot since the old days when I was using it. I think I was using a fairly early iteration of Lightroom, but you can go through and if your lighting is consistent, you can go do a batch of photographs and get the same basic result from 100 photographs in one click of a button, once you set your presets.

Tip for the do-it-yourselfer: Make a minimal investment in equipment

Bob Dunn: Now, people can’t afford a photographer and that’s why you’re probably seeing all those crappy photos is because they’re trying to do them themselves. Can you give me, maybe besides what you’ve touched on, a couple of other suggestions for the do-it-yourselfer?

Marc Benzakein: You know, I invested in—I think it was less than $500—some lighting equipment. Even if you’re using a point-and-shoot camera, you can get flashes fairly inexpensively that have a slave function on them. A slave function is  a function that will make the flash fire when it sees another flash fire. A camera shutter stays open for generally like a 60th of a second or 120th of a second because we’re dealing with the speed of light,. So for that flash on your on-camera flash will go off to trigger those other flashes and  light other parts of your product at the same time And it’s all wireless. I spent a few bucks on some diffusing equipment. Sometimes I use light boxes which will diffuse the light completely. Most of the time, to be honest, I used umbrellas. They worked fairly well for me on those Harley parts.

I got decent results and I could process 100 pictures in less than a day. We would get parts in by the hundreds and I would spend my mornings shooting the pictures, just setting them up one right after the other. My business partner would bring the next one, and the next one, with descriptions and everything, and I would shoot them. Then I would upload them to the computer and process them in Lightroom and I’d have them out on eBay by the next day. That was me writing the descriptions, too.

It’s intense, but you can do it. Spend $500. Go on YouTube and look up some videos on how to light things. It’s not complicated. What your eye sees is what the camera sees. If you see a hot spot where the light reflects off something, turn the light a little bit until you don’t get that hot spot. It’s not rocket science and you can get some pretty decent results. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and all you’ve invested is a few hundred dollars on lighting equipment. It doesn’t even have to be really super expensive lighting equipment. You’re not going to necessarily get as good of a result as you might if you hire a professional, but if you do it enough, you’ll get there and you’ll figure it out.

Tip for the do-it-yourselfer: Consider tutorials and online courses

There’s so much information on the web as to how to light things. I belong to a membership site called KelbyOne. Scott Kelby is a professional photographer. I think it’s like $100 a year, and he has online courses for any type of photography you want to do. They’re in-depth and they’re really helpful, and it’s a small investment compared to hiring a professional photographer to come in and do all the work for you.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, and on the other side of that, speaking of professional photographers, for those who do have the budget, besides money, which is obviously a consideration, is there anything else an online retailer should consider when hiring a photographer?

Marc Benzakein: Make sure you’re hiring the right type of photographer. Don’t think, “Oh, that guy’s great at shooting wedding photography,” and then have him come and shoot pictures of your products. Make sure that you’re hiring a commercial photographer, and make sure they know exactly what it is that they’re going to be shooting. You don’t need a photographer with $100,000 worth of equipment if you’re just going to throw the pictures on the web, right? You have to optimized images so they load quickly, but you don’t need crazy, crazy resolution because you’re going to kill the resolution anyway to get them online.

Unless you’re going to be doing print work or something like that, like a print catalog or something, you don’t need that kind of a photographer. You need a photographer who says, “Listen, I’m astute enough to know what the web needs. I can come in and I can help you with that,” and they’ll come in and do it. That’s the type of photographer to look for, someone who’s technically savvy and understands that the web is a different world from print.

When taking your own shots makes the most sense

Bob Dunn: In that same note, what about hiring a photographer to come on location, as opposed to shipping your products to the photographer? Because when I was looking at people who do product shots, some of them required that you ship everything to them. I imagine you need to take that into consideration. Obviously cost is a factor and they will probably charge more to be on location, but then you have to weigh the shipping expenses. Any thoughts on that?

Marc Benzakein: Well, a do-it-yourselfer, I never looked into that. But I know from working online, it’s a competitive world. Unless you have something that is truly unique or truly a niche that no one else or very few people have, most of the time it’s very competitive, which means your margins are going to be lower. When your margins are lower, if you’re competing with Amazon or all these other people that are out there, or even eBay, it’s hard to imagine— unless you have several thousand products or those rare or high-margin things. Let’s say you’re an artist and you’re the only one who produces your art and that’s your market. Most of the time it’s hard to personally to wrap your mind around the idea of hiring somebody to come in and do it. Because you have to protect your margins, and to me it seems like shooting product photography can be a little bit tricky.

Once again, it depends on exactly what you’re shooting. An example? Shooting jewelry is completely different than shooting a painting, or selling motorcycle parts on eBay, or something like that. The product type matters, but most of us who run eCommerce sites don’t have a lot of margin to work with. While I am a huge believer in the right kind of marketing, I would personally rather learn a little bit about how to do it myself, or hire an employee to do it. That would probably still be less expensive than bringing in a professional photographer. I hate to say that because I’m such a big fan of hiring professionals for almost everything, but the reality is, professional photographers cost real money, and when you’re dealing with products, unless they’re really, really small items, the idea of shipping them or having the photographer come on-site and paying them a day rate or something like that, that can be pretty costly. Of course, you may find a photographer who’s really good and says, “Hey, my day rate’s a couple hundred dollars,” or something like that. I doubt it, but you might find that person.

Your own photos vs vendor-supplied shots

Bob Dunn: Yeah. Now, when you’re thinking about cost and you’re the do-it-yourselfer, there is the option of doing your own photos, or depending what you sell, if you’re reselling, using the vendor-supplied shots. Any insights you have here?

Marc Benzakein: Vendor-supplied shots are fine if they’re good vendor-supplied shots. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, except for it doesn’t make you stand out as unique. It’s going to be the same photo that every single other person on the web has. If you take something from a different perspective, if you’re going to have multiple photographs of the same thing, it’s not a bad idea to have the vendor-supplied shot, but it also may not be a bad idea to have as your thumbnail one that you’ve taken yourself, so that when people go to Google and they see a million of the same thing, they’ll go, “Oh, that one looks a little bit different,” and their eye will be drawn to that, as long as they’re within the top 10 listing on Google or something. Your eye is going to be drawn to the one that’s different, at least mine is.

From the perspective of what I would do, if I saw a photo that was different, I would probably click on that person first instead of the top one. I would click on the one that has the unique photo and then hopefully they would have the vendor-supplied shot in their multiple shots, so that I might get a little bit better picture. Again, I think your photographs can be one way to make yourself stand out.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I think one example, I just thought of it, and I’m not even sure if they do this, but if you had clothing shots and they were the same model. I don’t know if vendors that do clothing if they have their own shots, but if you just saw the same weird guy wearing the same shirt in the same pose over and over, it’s like, “Oh my God, he gets around,” you know?

Marc Benzakein: I wouldn’t even think that. I would think, “Okay, this person’s a drop shipper.” But I was in that business, and so I have a little different perspective. But if I’m looking at a picture that’s the same as 100 other people I’m like, “This person’s a drop shipper. They don’t even have it in their warehouse.” If there’s a problem, then they have to go to their vendor, and it’s a whole other aspect you have to deal with. My feeling is I’d rather deal with people who have this stuff in their warehouse and can deal with it immediately if there’s a problem. I feel like we all want to feel like we are unique and we want to feel like the companies we deal with are unique. And every company wants to make themselves stand out somehow, I think.

Consider shooting at the highest resolution possible

Bob Dunn: I think human nature, people are going to gravitate toward the unique. I bet the majority of people will tend to go toward a more unique image rather than the one that’s been cloned 50 times. Let’s move over to WordPress. It works well with media if done right. What should an online store owner do themselves, and maybe we’ll kind of stick because hopefully your photographer knows what the heck he’s doing. So what if online store owners are doing it themselves and they want to make sure the images are optimized for both the web and their online store? Any tips for our listeners?

Marc Benzakein: What I generally do (some people do not recommend this because it’s a little bit of a time sink), but I shoot at the highest resolution possible. I think I had one of the original Canon digital cameras for the consumer level, it was maybe 8 megapixels of something like that, but I always shot at the highest resolution. Then once I got it onto my computer I would just use a batch image resizing app that resized all my images to what I wanted after I did my post-work in Lightroom. By the way, I do recommend that if you can’t get your lighting quite right, invest some money in Adobe Creative Cloud and use Lightroom, because it makes post-work a lot easier. You can knock things out pretty quickly once you get the hang of it. Then if you want, you can save directly from Lightroom, at whatever size you want. At the time, I couldn’t do that, so I just used a batch image resizer and set them up for something that was optimized.

I don’t remember the exact resolution that I used at the time. I experimented with it until I got load times that were satisfactory to me. Because having multiple images, you want those images to load quickly. You don’t want to click on it, wait three or four seconds for the next one, and then click on it and wait another three or four seconds. But you still want the clarity. I played with it and came up with a setting I liked and sent from there. Things like your host, whether or not you’re using caching, all kinds of things go into it. I would say use the highest resolution you can without sacrificing performance because we live in an impatient society and people don’t like to wait for their pictures to load.

Bob Dunn: Right. I think the point about taking them all at high resolution, I know that when I had my cameras, my digital cameras, I was into hobby photography and I’d be doing some for clients too, but it was always on high resolution. I don’t care if I was out there taking pictures of a bug on the wall or something because it was an interesting looking bug, just because I thought there’s going to be that time that yeah, the bug calendar says, “I want to pay you $1000 dollars or some crazy thing like that, and we need a high res,” and there’s no way you can go from small to big. You can always go the other way, so I think that’s probably a really good point to make and for people, yeah when they’re taking these pictures of images and their products and maybe they think it’s a most stupid shot of their product and it may not work, but still click away at those high res ones.

Marc Benzakein: Sure. Like right now I’m looking at an Amazon image, and this image is at 1000 x 1000 pixels, and it’s about 70K in size. I would say if you keep it under 100K you’re probably okay. But of course this is on Amazon and they’re going to have their web servers totally optimized for everything. But some of us might be on hosts that are a little bit slower. Once again, you’re going to have to experiment. You want consistently speedy load times but you don’t want to sacrifice too much detail. People want to see detail. At least I do.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, of course.

Marc Benzakein: I’m arrogant that way, yeah.

Automatically uploading images wirelessly saves lots of time

Bob Dunn: Okay. Any last thoughts or any deep insights that we haven’t covered, or something you’d like to share with everyone?

Marc Benzakein: You know, I would say that we didn’t have this option back when I was doing the work I was doing, but one of the things I would consider with your workflow is,  these days, we have the ability to have our photographs automatically uploaded via wireless to our computers, or to the cloud or something like that. That’s a huge time saver. You never even have to take that SD card out of your camera to copy the files over, and as you’re shooting, they just get transferred to your computer. I would say that one of the ways to save time is to integrate some sort of a wireless solution into your workflow for transferring the images, because it can make life a lot easier. For all the stuff I do now, which is purely casual and for my own purposes, I do everything via a thing called an Eye Fi card, which goes into my camera and uploads directly to my phone, which then uploads to the cloud. It’s full resolution and I never have to worry about whether or not I transferred images because they’re already transferred.

Bob Dunn: Yeah. Back when I was doing it, even with some of the early digital cameras, I remember pulling out that card and putting it in a reader, and waiting for it to download, and, yeah, time, time, time.

Well, this has been cool stuff. I think getting our listeners thinking about, especially if they’re going to be doing it themselves, and like you said, especially if they’re starting a new site, it might be the best route to go because we don’t always have those huge budgets and photographers can be pricey at times.

Marc Benzakein: And if everything you have is like a one-off, once again using art as an example, you’re only going to have one of those products.  I have a very good friend down in Florida who is an artist. Everything is a one-off. You can’t really say, “Hey, I just finished this new painting. Can you come and photograph it for me?” But if you’re talking about things like shirts, every six months or every three months when the seasons change, you’re going to have to reconsider what your product line is going to be. That’s why, unless your inventory stays exactly the same forever, you might consider learning how to do it yourself.

Where to find Marc on the web

Bob Dunn: Excellent. Well, besides them listening to this podcast and just imagining what you look like and all that good stuff, where else can people find you on the web?

Marc Benzakein:  I’m @MarcBenzak, and that’s M-A-R-C-B-E-N-Z-A-K on Twitter, and I sometimes tweet a whole bunch, and sometimes I’ll go a month without tweeting and forget to even open up Twitter. Then you can find me at multiple WordCamps. I blog. I am a huge proponent of foster care. We have seven children that we foster, and I write on a blog site called From Two to Five Overnight. I haven’t blogged there in a while, but I do blog there from time to time. You can find me at serverpress.com, which is where I spend most of my life. You can also usually find me at multiple WordCamps throughout the year.

Bob Dunn: Yeah. I know that we’re both going to be at WordCamp Miami.

Marc Benzakein: Yep, I’m looking forward to it.

Bob Dunn: Maybe they can hunt us down and can tell us what they thought about the podcasts, who knows?

Marc Benzakein: They can only tell us what they thought of the podcast if it’s good. If it’s bad…

Bob Dunn: All right, perfect. Well, thanks for taking the time to join us today, Marc. We really appreciate it.

Marc Benzakein: It’s my pleasure, Bob.

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