10 Steps To Taking Your Own Simple Stock Photos

Bad stock photography is a cliché, there’s nothing worse than going to an “about us” page and seeing a bunch of people in suits with telephone headsets who all look really happy.

Good stock photography on the other hand has a lot of value, the downside is that it’s often very expensive.

Today we’ll be looking at a few simple techniques which you can use to photograph things on a pure white background so that they can easily be used in almost any web design project under the sun.

There’s no need to spend a lot of money when you can create some beautiful simple shots with a little time and creativity.


Good, Simple Stock Photography

What we’re going to cover today is how to create a simple high-key photograph. High key, means a photography of a subject on a predominantly white background. Why do we want the subject on a predominantly white background?

Well aside from the fact that most content areas where you might want to use a stock photograph have a white background, they also make your subject very easy to cut out completely using something like the magic wand tool in Photoshop. Being able to cut your subject out means that you can transpose it onto a transparent background, which can then be used absolutely anywhere within a design. Handy!



What You’ll Need

The first thing you’ll need is obviously a camera. Now, a Digital SLR will work best for this but you should still be able to use a high-end digital compact camera (such as the Panasonic Lumix) and achieve very good results. Alternatively, if you know someone who does own a Digital SLR, then now would be a good time to beg, borrow, or steal it from them.

The next main thing we’re going to need is light, lots of it. The ideal component here is an external flash for a Digital SLR but bright lamps, especially desk lamps with adjustable heads, will work very well too. If you do use lamps then you want the brightest bulb you can find, not one of those dim yellow ones.

It pretty much goes without saying that you’re going to need some space for this, so your cramped office may not be the best location. Getting outdoors into the sunlight would be ideal if you have a garden or maybe some sort of bachelor pad with a roof terrace.

Next you’ll need a (clean!) plain white bedsheet, table cloth, curtain, or anything else similar. This is going to serve as the backdrop for the shots. The cleaner and whiter it is the better, as this will be the easiest to work with later on.

You’ll also need some sort of support to drape your backdrop over. Modified cardboard boxes can work very well for this, as we’ll look at in a moment, however pretty much anything that can support your backdrop both horizontally and vertically in an L shape should do the trick.

Of course you’ll also need a subject, the thing which you want to photograph. Doing things the cheap and cheerful way like this means that you can’t select anything too big. Your subject needs to be able to sit on top of your backdrop and be totally surrounded by it.

Finally, you’ll need a copy of Adobe Photoshop. CS3 or higher should be fine, we’re not going to be doing anything too fancy.


Step 1

So the first thing we’re going to do is set up our backdrop. Essentially you want the sheet to be partially on the floor, then curve up and hang from something vertically. This means when we place the subject on top of the sheet it will be white underneath and white behind.

Make sure you set this up somewhere with a lot of light, remember the roof garden which we discussed. I used a towel for this tutorial, which works fine but does leave a littl ebit of texture just underneath the subject.

If you want to be a bit more fancy about it, you can grab a cardboard box, a piece of white card, cut some bits out of your sheet, and create a light tent like this:



Step 2


Now we’re going to to arrange the lights, ideally you want to have two lights but three would be even better. Set the brightest light which you have to point at the backdrop.

Then set the other light to point at where the subject will go. If you built the fancy little light tent depicted above, then you want to put both lights outside it, pointing in through the side panels.

If you have a third light source, then try to find a way of placing this above where your subject will go, pointing down.


Step 3


Next we’re going to place our subject. You want to put the subject as close to the center of the backdrop as possible and in line with the light sources. This step was pretty easy, wasn’t it? Let’s move on!


Step 4


Now it’s time to do some test shots, so grab your camera and get snapping. You can experiment with using the built in flash on your camera as well as the other lights but the chances are that it will create a nasty dark shadow around the subject – we don’t want that!

The images don’t need to look perfect by any means, what we’re aiming for here is simply a sold block of white behind the subject which is as smooth as possible.


Step 5


In order to get the best out of the setup which we’ve created, try photographing from different angles, move the lights around a little and adjust the backdrop for smoothness.

Keep tweaking the setup a little bit at a time until you’re getting the best images which you can.


Step 6


Now that you’ve got everything working at peak performance (which is very much a relative term), it’s time to take your full set of shots. Feel free to swap several subjects in and out, preferably of things which you think might come in handy as stock photographs later.

Tip: A good photo of a cup of coffee in a nice mug can come in handy all over the place, especially on blogs.


Step 7


Once you’re happy with your photos, or just tired of taking them, pack everything up and download the photos on to your computer.

Delete all the test shots and the ones which are out of focus or have poor lighting. Try to crop down to a small final set, otherwise it will take forever to post-process them all.


Step 8


Now, open up the first photo which you want to work with in Photoshop. We’re going to start out by doing three things: tone, contrast, and curves. From the Photoshop menu, select:

Image > Auto Tone (or ‘Auto Levels’ in older copies of Photoshop)


Image > Auto Contrast


Image > Adjustments > Curves

Recreate this shape:



Step 9


Now we’re going to make the white in the background… whiter! This is where it doesn’t matter if your lighting was perfect when you took the photographs, because most of that is about to be fixed.

In the Photoshop menu, go to: Image > Adjustments > Selective Color

Select White from the dropdown menu, and move the slider for Black all the way to the left, -100%. Press OK, then do the same thing again, but this time select ‘Neutrals’ instead of White, and drop that one down about half way. You need to use your own discretion here: you want to get the white background as pale as possible but you don’t want to totally drain your subject of color.



Step 10


Now if your whites still aren’t perfect, don’t worry too much, we’re going to clean that up now. The final step is to simply take a soft white brush and run it around the image to iron out those last little kinks. The brush is the least precise tool, so ideally we want to do as little work with it as possible. It should be used as the final touch rather than the main process.


Final Images


So there we have it, our final images. They’re not perfect but it’s pretty high quality for something that cost you no money at all and didn’t take very long to produce.

Now that you know the technique, you’ll also be able to improve on it the next time that you try it out. In particular try different (brighter) lights, try creating a little light box if you didn’t do that this time round. Of course if you really wanted to bump it up a notch then you could even get a an external flash unit for some serious power.



Go and ahead and try it out and let us know how you did? We’d love to see your results if you gave this a try so please do link them up in the comments below and feel free to offer any additional tips or techniques which you may have come across!

  • http://laroouse.com esranull

    very nice work thanks a lot

  • http://smillamagazine.com/ benedetta.s

    Really nice tutorial!! thanks for sharing it.

  • http://www.afdeling18.dk Soeren Sprogoe

    Wauv, nice guide for taking good product images without having to invest in a photo studio.

    One comment though: I think you need to explain what the point is for having 2 or 3 light sources: To eliminate shadows.

  • http://tintart.pl Winblows

    From my point of view I would prefer to get photo from step #8 rather than final image. Why? Simply – all adjustments can be done if needed. From final image is not possible to recreate the original look of the image.
    The same thing comes when you look at photos on stocks – why people even try to crop them by cutting arm for example? I bet you saw more than once a great shot taken by someone, that turns to be completely unusable for your project because of unfortunate cropping.
    So, my idea is – please do not retouch images in any destructive ways when you want to put them on your stock. Everyone here know how to use photoshop in this very basic ways you mention. Very often such thing is doing more bad than good.

  • http://dgbomb.com AlexPop

    Oh! From now I’ll be rich. I’m going to pick up a new car… An a carshop

  • http://blog.orangedotgreen.ro/craft/ Rox

    If you have a tripod, you can use it to compensate for lack of light (shoot in the shade, because otherwise there’ll be stronger shadows) or shoot during the evening/night. You can also shoot in RAW and you’ll have more freedom for processing.

    I haven’t tried taking photos using lamps, but I will soon, because I think it’ll allow for more artistic results than my tripod setup :)

  • http://trafficcoleman.com/ TrafficColeman

    This is awesome, I never knew exactly how people manage to do photos like this..but now I know..I use Gimp so I should still be able to figure this out.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  • Chathura

    Thank you,
    Very useful article.

  • http://twitter.com/z0r z0r

    You cant fool me, this is not a good stock photography, those bananas don’t seem to look REALLY happy!

  • http://www.mgpwr.co.uk Mark Petherbridge

    Superb, Cheers for this :)

  • Jorgen Kesseler

    Excellent post, I will try this my self.

  • peter

    very nice. thank you.

  • http://www.miamiwebdesignpro.com Miami Web Design

    wow great tips. We have a set up like this ourselves for our own stock photos.

  • pitso

    this is great. love the post

  • http://www.mainattack.com Gabrielle Aizenberg

    I’m sorry… normally I love all WDD articles, but this is one kind of sucks.

    • http://john.onolan.org JohnONolan

      Sorry you feel that way Gabrielle, I’d love to hear some tips or suggestions for how we could do a better job next time!

      • vnikey

        Hello John,

        I think what Gabrielle means is that the article lacks some depth.
        The topic is great, don’t get me wrong, but the examples you give are too basic.

        Also, I would have expected an article with a baseline on how to create innovative stock photos that can sell, precisely to avoid cliché. The best example are actually the photos used in the previous article on wdd “The Seven Deadly Sins of Design”.

        Instead, you seem to recommend stock photo creation only to avoid buying stock photos… maybe you did not mean to, it is just that the article feels like it.

        Kind Regards,

      • http://www.mainattack.com Gabrielle Aizenberg

        Hi John,

        I don’t mean to be harsh or anything. In fact, I LOVE WWD!

        What I meant by “this article sucks” is that (in my opinion) it’s too trivial for your audience on here. Most people who read this blog are competent designers and/or developers. Most of us know how to use the basic Photoshop tools, and (I’m guessing) that most of us don’t mind spending the $10 on a stock photo of a lock and key (http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-3145382-lock-and-key-with-clipping-path.php), or even billing our client for our our expense. In this profession time is money, so 2 hours spent setting up a mini-shoot, is not very cost effective at all.

        Sorry to be a bummer, and this is of course just my opinion, but this post is just lame compared to the typically meaty and interesting articles you guys write.


  • http://evelt.com/ joel k

    Thanks :)
    White sheet instead of towel, works great for me
    a lot of point and shoot cameras support camraRAW files or tiff and that’s much better for really good ones

    I have an not working laptop with a pitch black reflective screen and i use it for realistic reflections

    great article

  • http://www.mariejulien.com Julien

    Is it a joke ? :

    “stock photo sucks, so let’s do some ugly handmade stock photo”. Hum, much better :)

    • http://john.onolan.org JohnONolan

      Hi Julien, Stock photos can often be extremely expensive – especially if you need a lot of them. This tutorial was meant to demonstrate a way in which you can take your own, on a budget. I appreciate that it’s not for everyone, and I’d love to hear any suggestions for how you feel the tutorial could be improved!

      • http://www.psyched.be/wordpress/ Darkened Soul

        You mean… being constructive without being cocky? ;)

        But I get what he means and vice versa though :) Sometimes the picture u have in mind is simply not within you and the camera… sometimes you need pro photography to get the job done, but that is not at all what this tutorial was about… this was about just “little” stock pictures… Either way, useful nonetheless some day!

  • http://www.stanomedia.com Stan

    Thanks for these great tips. I am just applying some of this to shoot small products video for a website. Key thing is good lighting.

  • vnikey

    WoW you just read my mind.
    This article is exactly what I needed!!
    Thanks :)

  • http://www.mp-webdesign.co.uk Kelly

    It’s always good to come across a blog that’s useful once in a while. Personally, I’d never use a towel for the backdrop unless I was using the photo for a spa or towels company, the texture left behind doesn’t add anything and is quite distracting from the main image but the techniques are very useful.

  • http://www.smashingbuzz.com Smashing Buzz

    helping article. thanks

  • http://www.vivoocreative.co.uk Nottingham Web Design

    Really great tutorial I’m going to start doing this!

    • http://www.vivoocreative.co.uk Nottingham Web Design

      And too add some of your comments are very rude, show some respect.

  • http://www.keekee360design.com Lakeshia Wheeler

    Nice K.I.S.S. article….


  • http://www.martymccolgan.com/portfolio.html Web Designer Derry

    Great blog, just started a photography course and use lots of stock photos so this should come in handy ;-)

  • http://www.wayfresh.co.uk web design newcastle

    Cheers for the article John and it raised a smile when you mentioned the smiling people in suits on the contact us page – there’s so many people who use that and it looks over the top and unnatural.

    Yeah agree that this is not for everyone and some stock photos are quite cheap, but sometimes you might want to take a picture on an object that is unique to the client and you can’t get online and this tutorial shows how simple it is to get great results. Thanks!

  • http://www.instantfundas.com Kaushik

    Basically, you need a good camera, preferably a DSLR and start shooting your own photos. Experiment, analyze and learn. Read some good photography tutorials. It takes time and dedication and moolah (photography is expensive).

    The article is well thought out, but photography is not something you can sum up in one post.

  • http://www.xininvoice.com keith

    thanks. good entry for amateur photographer like me to take professional looks product photos.

  • http://www.buzz-webdesign.co.uk Web Design Hull

    Thanks, this was just what I was looking for… a site I’m working on is going to have around 50 fish products. I know the client won’t want to pay for professional photography (or stock images) and I’ve been contemplating shooting them myself. It will be the first time I’ve done this and this article gives me some good basic pointers… again many thanks!

  • http://adamwilbert.com Adam

    I think the use of the towel really diminished the quality of your final product since you had to process it so much to get back to white. Something that everyone should have on hand for getting your own product shots is a short roll of seamless backdrop paper, which can be had for less than ten bucks. (such as http://www.adorama.com/SA26181.html&kbid=66090).

    And I would argue that it definitely IS in the web designers best interest to be able to take their own product photos, precisely for all of those times when the client has their own products/widgets to feature on the site. Stock photo sites are good for the generic, not specific items.

  • http://www.lorisweb.com SEO Evaluations

    Great article on how to arrange lights to remove shadows on stock photos however I’d also like to see an article on making watermarks to protect your stock images.

  • http://www.hammocksonline.co.nz Mike

    Hi John, great tutorial and well put together. Stumbled across this while browsing about the web. Found it very useful as my partner just bought a DSLR camera and we’ve been playing around a bit with different types of photos. Taking stock photos was one of the reasons we got also, so now I know how to do it. Cheers!

  • http://www.bizcompare.com Geoff Vincent

    Awesome. I think even I could do this. Thanks for simplifying.

  • http://www.markpetherbridge.co.uk Website Design Sheffield

    This is a really swell tutorial. Love it!

  • http://bibikova.com ben

    Taking stock photos for clients is what introduced me to photography. There are those clients out there which engage in such unique products and services for which using photobank stock would not do.

  • http://www.bluebeam.in web designing chennai

    very nice its very useful for designer and photography http://www.bluebeam.in/products.html

  • Hasan Tayanc

    Awesome! Thanks…

  • http://www.emptyhead.com.au Actors Websites

    Very Cool. I will have to get onto this… I have a whole series of product photos that are useless because the back grounds are all such differing colours

  • http://www.ayomedia.co.uk web development newcastle

    Do these same techniques work just as well for human subjects?