The 2020 Retail Innovations Conference: ecommerce product photography breakthroughs with our partner Ortery
Our partner Ortery Technologies exhibited virtually at one of the biggest ecommerce industry events of the year, the 2020 Retail Innovations Conference. Sam Shearer, the managing director at Ortery Technologies, shared his 20 years experience in the product photography industry and brought out the main breakthroughs in product photography for ecommerce. Check it out his interview.
“Hi my name is Sam Shearer, managing director at Ortery technologies. Just a little bit about my background, I got my bachelor of science at Michigan State University and my MBA at the National Taiwan University. I helped start and have been working at Ortery Technologies for the past 20 years. At Ortery, we manufactures product photography solutions that take advantage of software and hardware working together to automate product photography. As a result, our customers, both big and small, enjoy the advantages of an easier and faster product photography workflow. I thought it would be fun and interesting to go back and look at the e-commerce breakthroughs that happened over the past 20 years and got us to this point.”
Ecommerce product photography breakthroughs
“Currently, Amazon is king and over 15 percent of the retail sales in the United States come from ecommerce. In 2003 when we started Ortery’s office in California, ecommerce product photography was just the beginning. Digital cameras were outputting 4 megapixels and most people had CRT monitors. LED lighting for product photography did not even exist and guess what? Ebay was king! In this section, I am going to lump some things together. They’re not really breakthroughs per se, but they are more like an ongoing progression of things that had to happen. Many of them play a large role in the ability to create and distribute e-commerce photos.
Number one is internet speed. In the beginning, it was painfully slow and you could not really shop if you are spending all your time waiting for images to download. Today, everything is in real time with LED monitors. I do not know if you knew, but CRT monitors were bad at color reproduction. LED monitors have come out and have gotten so much better at color reproduction. In the very beginning of ecommerce, what would happen is that you had a lot of products returns. The customer would receive the product, take it out of the box and go: this is not the color that I ordered and then return it. This is a giant problem that the LED monitors have completely – I do not want to say completely – but have solved a lot on.
Discover the advantages of top light for product photography
The other main thing here concerning color is the sRGB color space going across all the different devices and making sure the colors are consistent. So wonderful things about making sure the ecommerce workflow, after the sale is “what you see is what you get” and reducing returns. Another huge improvements were the quality and its functionality of digital camera. Besides, love it or hate it, image editing has come a long way including opportunities to get your images edited offshore. At the beginning, I hardly knew anybody who knew Photoshop. Nowadays, just about everybody that I know knows Photoshop or some other program like that. Image editing has become very simple. Looking back, here is what we think are the top 10 ecommerce product photography breakthroughs.”
Camera controlled by computer and the introduction of photography light boxes
“In 2001, we found out that Canon was going to launch their first product photography software development kit. That changed everything since you do not have to be behind the camera anymore. The camera could be attached to a computer by USB and controlled like a computer peripheral. This meant that third-party developers could use Canon cameras for many different applications and really open the doors. For Nikon, some of their cameras today can be controlled through USB and some cannot. If you have a Sony camera, they recently relaunched their SDK program as well.
Another thing is the creation of photography light boxes. As soon as ecommerce started to get going, people wanted to shoot and make it easy. They wanted to shoot inside of a light box and have their employees take as many photos per day as they possibly could. Today, you can see that these photography light boxes are everywhere. They range in prices from extremely low and all the way up to extremely high and those more sophisticated boxes are able to do some pretty amazing things. But this, we felt was the beginning of ecommerce photography in earnest. Grab yourself a light box and a camera and start taking pictures. Get them up on the web and make some sales.”
The improvements in LED lighting
“The lights are tiny, take up less space, low energy, and last forever. So, it is really easy to use LED lights inside of different structures, like photography light studios. The dimmable LED lights in particular are wonderful for ecommerce photography. They provide a continuous lighting environment so that when you are behind the camera or you are using software to control your camera. You are in this “what you see is what you get” environment, which makes it simple for novice photographers to get great results. Finally, LED lights from a technical point of view, have really increased in color accuracy over the past few years. They are also able to change color temperature at a whim, so the applications of these LED lights are endless. But, specifically for ecommerce photography, they essentially offer a low-cost solution that is reliable, flexible and gets the job done.”
The standard for ecommerce product photography
Of all the things that have changed over the past few years, ecommerce photography has gotten faster and easier than ever before. What they really did is raise the bar for ecommerce photography. Pictures had to be on pure white background, square and take up a certain percentage of space inside of the frame. What it did is that it really set the rules on how everyone took pictures for ecommerce. These rules created a clean shopping environment and put emphasis back on the product instead of what was going on in the background. As a result, sales went up and this ecommerce product photography method was adopted as a standard throughout the world.
Right on the heels of Amazon’s success – obviously they are asking people to create pictures with a pure white background – was the increased use of bottom lighting on ecommerce photography. As a result, companies started to look for and seek out ways to get their pictures created as fast and as easy as possible. It was not perfect, but being able to light a product from underneath or from the back, after you got done taking the pictures, eliminated most of the editing and allowed companies to really start to mass produce images for ecommerce.”
The introduction of 360-degree product photography
“The introduction of 360-degree product photography really brought two big breakthroughs. It certainly allowed customers to see more of a product and it offered a new format in which they could do so. That format allowed them to interact with the products. They could zoom in on it, view hot spots that gave more information about the product and there is just a more interesting display. Of course, when you let people have these capabilities, they are going to purchase more, so it had a large effect though. Some of those effects were increased sales, reduced returns, people on the page longer. It just was a boondoggle for ecommerce in general and everybody benefited: the website, the products that were being sold flew off the shelves and the people who were doing the shopping. Now 360-degree product views are being used pretty much everywhere. It took a long time to get here, but I would say nowadays, just about every platform that you are selling on, will give you the option to display a 360-degree product view. Some of those platforms even make it as a requirement.”
The 3D product animations
“As an extension of this, I mean, it has not happened quite yet but 3D product photography is something that is possible in the tech world. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for things to catch on and that is what is happening here. 3D photography will be big, I can promise you that in one way, shape, or form, it will come. One way to do it is with 3D photogrammetry or 3D modeling and rendered images from a cad cam. Now this is a nice thing and it certainly is a very smooth interactive feel to it. However, sometimes the pictures do not look as real and as a sharp crisp photograph. Another way to do it is similar to 360-degree photography, where you are just going to use multiple cameras to take pictures of the object as it rotates on a 360 turntable. Now, some of the benefits about this are that these 3D animations can be created hemispherical or spherical. They takes maybe five to seven minutes and are extremely clear, clean and offer an entire view of the product that is interactive. As a result, they really go a lot further in communicating a product’s value from every angle.”
Edge driven 360-degree photography turntables
“If you look at a regular turntable, you see that the top is hard and no matter what you do here, you are going to either get a reflection or get a shadow. With the edge driven turntable, it is turned from the very sides and what you are able to do isbottom light that turntable as the product spins. There is no reflection, there is no shadow. You are taking pictures that are on pure white. You are taking pictures that immediately can be used on a website. Right there the ability to eliminate editing from your 360-degree product views saves companies a lot of time and effort, especially in the editing process. More importantly, it opens the door to high throughput product photography. Companies are easily able to shoot thousands of pictures per day in a 360-degree format and not have to edit them. This is very good for ecommerce product photography. This is a giant breakthrough as ecommerce grew, the components came together and new ways to express pictures online led to an increased online sale. One big example of this was Zappos.com and their ability to show the main angles. They were one of the first companies that we saw that started to standardize the way that the product is shown online. Customers saw this online, felt more comfortable getting more information and it then led to a purchasing decision. Zappos was the retailer that took advantage of ecommerce photography to display and create something new that worked and led to more sales.”
Taking pictures with transparent backgrounds
“In the past few years, new technology has allowed the product photography workflow to change again. This time, change for the better to simplify and automate things that used to take forever. In this case, multiple shots of a product can be taken and evaluated within seconds to output a new product shot or same products shot but wihtout a background. The background is completely stripped away inside the product photography workflow. Not in post, but literally while you are taking the pictures. It just takes a few seconds and the result is not only fast, but it is pretty amazing to see it in action. This method works for still product photography, 360 and 3d photography. As a benefit, the photographer can choose whether they want to keep the natural shadow under the product or not. On websites today, if you scroll down the main page you are going to see a lot of products that are on a background that is been filled with either a specific color or a whole new image. Of course you can do it in Photoshop, but this kind of technology is going to allow people to do it faster and easier. Take those pictures, strip out the background and get it online or on your social media as fast as possible.”
The ease of video creation
“Now videos are not photos and they are not anything new. However, certain cameras are getting better at taking them and it is easier to create a video today than ever before. Get some lights, grab a camera and you are shooting. So whether it is a video of someone being interviewed, a video about a product talking about the benefits and features or somebody using the product, these videos are showing up everywhere. They do not have to always stay on the ecommerce product page. You will see videos obviously on YouTube and social media. Their main function is to give marketers the ability to tell a story and get that story out on the different platforms. Also, make it be interesting to inform and bring customers into the fold where they can make the online sale.
My final breakthrough that I want to mention is product recognition. It is the combination of several technologies and concepts that you have been hearing for a while. The internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence, all working together to give the consumer an amazing e-commerce tool. Take Google lens Bixby vivino, these are different apps that you can use and when you take a picture it goes out to the database. It recognizes exactly what you took the picture of and then it gives you information about where you can find that product, how close it is to you, whether it is in stock, what is the price, how many reviews it has and all this kind of information to think. You know, 20 years ago to think that we would come this far and that we can reverse search for an image to get an image reverse search something and immediately. You have all the information about that product and where to buy it for ecommerce. The implications are just huge, I mean wow. I would like to thank the Retail Innovation Conference for creating this event and allowing us to speak and share our views.”
See full interview below:
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