Online Selling Tips for Taking Great Looking Pictures

by David Steiner



Which Item would YOU rather buy?

One of the most important aspects of any successful online auction is the image that you attach to the item's description. Think about it. If you're shopping in a store, you can pick up your potential purchase, look underneath it, and get a pretty good idea what kind of shape it's in. With electronic shopping, you're at the mercy of the seller's ability to describe size, shape, and possible flaws. You want to present the best pictures for your auction that you possibly can and a good image can go a long way toward dispelling any doubts a prospective buyer might have about your item!

If you're going to be primarily selling flat objects, such as comics or baseball cards, then maybe what you need isn't a camera, but a scanner. There are many inexpensive (under $100) flat-bed color scanners that can capture an image in 600 or 1200 dpi (dots per inch) mode.

If you're planning on selling antique furniture or computers or any three dimensional item, then you'll need a digital camera. Check with your local computer retailer, or for reviews and prices of the latest peripherals.

Assuming that you have a digital camera (or a camcorder hooked up to a digitizing card), your first step is to arrange your item in a manner that shows it off to it's best advantage. The pictures above were both taken with the same camera. The picture on the left was taken with available lighting, not clearly focused, with the basket taking up about 10% of the frame. You'd be amazed at how many images like this you can find on eBay. The picture on the right was taken of the same basket, clearly focused (when you have a 3 dimensional object like this one, you have to make up your mind which part you want to show in sharp focus), has a much brighter light source, and a black background to make the object stand out.

In order for you to understand how to use light effectively, let me give you a little background on how the "pros" do it. When professional photographers shoot products, often they'll use a technique called "3-Point Lighting". This involves a
Key Light , which is the main source of illumination; a Back Light, which helps emphasize the contour of the object, and also separates it from a dark background; and a Fill Light, which helps to soften some of the shadows thrown by the key light and back light. Click on the buttons to see how different combinations of lights affect the object.  You must have Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher to be able to use the demonstration below.  Netscape may not work with this demo.

Diagram 1














Fill Light

Back Light

Key Light

Back & Fill

Back & Key

Fill and Key

Back, Fill & Key


Unless photography is either your occupation or your hobby, you're not likely to have professional lights lying around the house. Make the most of what you have available. If you're shooting a larger object, try and direct a couple of lamps or lights toward the front of your item. A great, inexpensive way to light is to buy a couple of clamp-on lights with reflectors. These can be found in most hardware stores. Place them around your item in roughly the same positions shown in the diagram above. If you have two lights, then put them in Key Light and Fill Light positions. You can use natural light from a window as well, but don't put the item in front of the window and shoot into the daylight. Too much backlight will make your item look dark and indistinct. The idea is to illuminate the front of the object as much as possible.

If you want to spread an even light across the front of your item, wrap aluminum foil around a piece of cardboard and reflect some of the light from the lamp so that the shadows are washed a bit. A piece of white foam-core or cardboard next to your item will also work wonders in filling out some of the shadows cast by your main light source.  Look at the demonstration below to see that one light and a piece of white cardboard can do wonders when lighting an object.  This demonstration also requires that you have Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher to view it.

Diagram 2








Key Light

Key Light with a Bounce Card


Some objects are more difficult to photograph than others.  Clear or colored glass objects fall into this category. One way to bring out the brilliance of colored glass is to place a light behind the object and direct it through the glass, out of the camera shot. (roughly the same position as the back light in Diagram 1)  Be sure to use a white or light background so that the color of the glass stands out.

These are just a few ideas and examples. Don't be afraid to experiment with light. There are no hard and fast rules to lighting.  The point is to make your auction item look its best. One great method to pick up tips to search auctions and critique some of the pictures. Try to figure out how they've lit their items, or if they have at all. Does the seller's picture entice you to bid on the item? Chances are, you'll find that the items with the best pictures are bringing the best prices!