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Making Good Product Photos

Elements of Good Photographic Design

Have you ever wondered what makes "professional" photographs more appealing than the average person's home snapshots? It isn't magic and it isn't 4 years of photography school. It is primarily an observant eye, personal taste, application of a few "principles of good design" and attention to detail.

Following are some elements of good image composition which should not be thought of as a list of rules to be followed blindly but rather like ingredietns in a pantry which when combined with skill and love produce a satisfying and sometimes even magical meal.

Applying even a few of these principles will make a noticeable improvement in our product photos. Applying several to achieve a specific purpose will produce truly amazing results. 

Rule of Thirds

Illustrations of the Rule of Thirds showing lines of interest and points of interestThe idea is to divide the image in to 9 equal parts with 2 equally spaced horizontal lines and 2 equally spaced vertical lines as shown in the illustration at right. The 4 resulting intersection points can be considered "Points of Power" or "Points of Interest" to which the eye is naturally drawn. The lines themselves respresent secondary "Lines of Power" or "Lines of Interest". 

The rule of thirds was written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. In his book Remarks on Rural Scenery, Smith quotes a 1783 work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in which Reynolds discusses, in unquantified terms, the balance of dark and light in a painting. Smith then continues with an expansion on the idea, naming it the "Rule of thirds":

"Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture : One should be principal, and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree : Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended, as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate. "And to give the utmost force and solidity to your work, some part of the picture should be as light, and some as dark as possible : These two extremes are then to be harmonized and reconciled to each other." (Reynolds' Annot. on Du Fresnoy.)

Analogous to this "Rule of thirds", (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever. I should think myself honored by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall by better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most pictoresque medium in all cases of breaking or otherwise qualifying straight lines and masses and groupes [sic], as Hogarth's line is agreed to be the most beautiful, (or, in other words, the most pictoresque) medium of curves.

The Rule of Thirds uses human visual phsychology to impact the viewer, guide the viewer's attention and thus better deliver the photographer's intended message to the viewer.


In printing, graphic design and photography, cropping refers to removing unwanted areas from a photograph or illustration. Cropping is used to remove an unwanted subject or irrelevant detail from a photo, change its aspect ratio, or to improve the overall composition of an image. It is one of the most basic photo manipulation processes which, after the Rule of Thirds, is perhaps the most important tool for manipuating and improving images.

Skillfull cropping can increase the emotional impact of an image, remove distractions and thereby make the main subject more obvious, or change the composition of the image to compensate for weaknesses in the original image. For example; stock photos like the product photos we obtain from Battenfeld, must satisfy a wide range of applications and so they tend to provide a wide, centered view from which a designer can select the parts most useful for a particular application. Cropping is a fundamental and very powerful tool for this purpose. Manipulating an image through cropping is much like a sculptor who, starting with a simple block of marble, removes the extra bits until the sculpture, which was hidding inside the block of marble all along, finally  emerges. 

The product photos we obtain, whether from manufacturers, stock photo agencies, or our own, original photography, should be treated like the block of marble described above. These photos are not yet ready to be used. We need to remove the extra bits through cropping to expose "the compelling story hidden within".

Edge Bleed

Bleed is a printing term that refers to printing that goes beyond the edge of the sheet before trimming. In other words, the bleed is the area to be trimmed off. The bleed is the part on the side of a document that gives the printer a small amount of space to account for movement of the paper, and design inconsistencies. Artwork and background colors can extend into the bleed area. After trimming, the bleed ensures that no unprinted edges occur in the final trimmed document. 

For our purposes you can think of an "Edge Bleed" as the unseen part of a subject that extends beyond the frame of the image. Such bleeds have a powerful psychological effect on the viewer. They serve to focus the viewer's attention on parts of the image that don't "bleed". Bleeds also engage the viewer's imagination to supply the missing bits thus making the image more intertesting and compelling. This tends to draw the viewer in to the story presented by the image causing the viewer to connect with the story and remember it. Just what we want if we are trying to sell something.

Burning and Dodging

Burning and Doging are a darkroom terms from the days of film negatives printed on photographic pager wherein the darkroom technician would add a little extra exposure, "Burn" the image, to lighten certain areas of the print and darken cerain areas of the print by reducing the exposure or "Dodging. The techniques for accomplishing Burning and Dodging have changed with the advent of digital images such that the orgin of the terms bears no relation to digital editing but the basic ideas still apply. Modern digital editing software, like PhotoPos Pro, allows you to lighten or "Burn" important details to make them stand out from the background and darken or 'Dodge" unwanted details to make them blend in to the background. 








Depth of Field






Eye Path

This refers to the path the eye travels as it moves over an image. Human eyes are programmed to be attracted to the brightest part of a scene or the contrastiest part of a scene. They move first to the "hotest" spot in the scene then along natural lines through the scene ending with the darkest part or least contrasty part of the scene. This built-in nature is affected somewhat by culture and language. Western Europeans (including Americans, Canadians and Hispanics) read from left to right and top to bottom and so they tend to "read" images following that same pattern. Other languages like Arabic and Hebrew are read from right to left and top to bottom so native Ariabic and Hebrew speakers tend to read images in the same way, right to left and top to bottom. Some languges like Batak and Ancient Berber even read from bottom to top. Since nearly all our customers are of Western European culture and language we should focus our efforts on making images that are attractive to a person who reads left to right and top to bottom. 

The eye path taken through an image is not a trivial thing. Well designed images intentionaly lead the eye from a carefully selected starting point through a series of steps to the final desitnation—much like stepping stones winding through a garden. In our case, we should start with a specific story in mind then design images that tell the story begining near the upper left, progressing from point to point through the image in an interesting way until finally ending with the "conclusion" of the story near the bottom right of the image.

Consider The Caldwell "Get on taget" home page banner shown below. You should be able to see and follow the designer's intended eye path through this image, "reading the story" as you go till you reach the final "conclusion" or "punch line".

  1. Starting at the top left side of the image which is the lightest part of the image.
  2. To the barrel of the gun which is in opposition to the vertical lines of the trees.
  3. To the left arm of the shooter.
  4. Which leads to the "Get On Target with Caldwell's" text.
  5. Wrapping around to the Caldwell logo.
  6. Then to "full line of shooting supplies".
  7. Ending with the "Shop Now" button in the lower right corner which is the darkest part of the image.

Example of an image with a  carefully chosen Eye Path

The intended story of this image is "Caldwell shooting supplies will help make you a more accurate shooter and hit your target more reliably, whatever that target might be. And, most importantly, you should click the Shop Now button to begin becoming a better shooter with Caldwell shooting supplies." 

Consider the Frankford Arsenal Case Cleaning tools image below. It also has a specifically designed eye path to lead the viewer through the designer's intended story. Can you tell what is the story and what is the most natural eye path through the image?

Example of eye path through an image

Punch Line


Double Punch Line








Close One Eye

The world is 3D but photos are 2D. Close one eye and stand still to see the scene as it will apear in your photo. Scenes that appear fine when viewed in 3D with both eyes will often flatten to a mass of confusing details when viewed in 2D with one eye as they will appear in a photograph.

Practical Examples

Consider the following examples using Battenfeld product photos. The original photos are quite uninspiriing. The first photo is somewhat boring. The second photo hides the message with a jumbled mass of confusing background detail. Notice both photos put the apparent subject in the center of the image totally ignoring the Rule of Thirds in the process. They are both just begging to be cropped to reveal the story hiding within.

  First example showing a boring image centered on the frame

We must first decide what is the story hidden within the original "snapshots" . This is an important choice because both photos could be used to tell many stories. We must choose the story we wish the viewer to percieve. If we don't know what is the story we are trying to tell, the viewer certainly won't figure it out for us.  

In this case, I decided the story I wished to tell from photo #1 shown above  is " Caldwell AR-15 DeadShot Shooting bags facilitate quick and easy magazine changes so the shooter can concentrate on shooting". I chose to apply "Cropping" to remove everything that didn't contribute to the story. And I used "Edge Bleeds" to engage the viewer with the story by cropping of the shooter's head, wrist and legs, the barrel of the gun and the shooting table.

 Final image cropped to focus on desired detail with edge bleeds to engage the viewer

You can see the intended story is immediately obvious to the viewer. The cropped and bled image is much more intersting. And is much more likely to be remembered by the viewer. Can you see, by applying the Rule of Thirds, how the "Lines of Interest" and "Points of Interest" are aligned with the elements of the desired story making this cropped view a much more powerful image than the original?

I decided the message I wished to convey from photo #2 shown below is "Caldwell AR-15 DeadShot Shooting Bags securely support AR platform rifles making quick and accurate sighting of the rifle easier, more efficient and more fun". 

Second example showing the message hidden within a mass of confusion detail

The message most people get from the image above, if they get any message at, is "just another guy at the range blasting rounds through his rifle".In the finished image below you can see how cropping the confusing detail of backbround trees and "bleeding" parts of the shooter and shooting table but not the gun barrel releases this story from the otherwise unispiring photo above.

Apply the Rule of Thirds to the finished image below. Where are the "Lines of Interest" and "Points of Interest"? What elements in the image are they reinforcing? Does this enhance the story or not?

Finished photo cropped and bled to tell the desired story


This is the science and art of applying the Elements of Good Photographic Design to tell a story by eliminating irrelevant and distracting detail while enhancing key points. This isn't rocket science but neither does it "just happen by magic". It is a lot like cooking. The ingredients you take from the three shelves of our design pantry below, the proportions and the ways in which you combine them and the skill with which you wield them will determing whether you are baking a mouth watering, french pastry or stiring up a bowl of jello instant pudding. The choice is yours.

  1. Combine a number of basic elements from the list below to convey a specific story through the image.
    • patterns
    • symmetry
    • texture
    • depth of field
    • lines
    • spots
    • color
    • lighting
    • contrast
  2. Use photo manipulation techniques to engage the viewer with the story.
    • rule of thirds
    • cropping 
    • bleeding
    • burning
    • dodging
    • eye path
  3. Apply storytelling techniques to touch the viewer's emotions and encourage a desired behavior.
    • gesture
    • stepping stones
    • who, what, why
    • punch line
    • double punch line 


A picture truly is worth a thousand words. The right picture is priceless. Still photos that convey action and feeling, and videos that show products in use are especially valuable in attracting and keeping customer attention and influencing customer behavior.


Learn more about inspiring people to action. Watch Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action — 18:05

Some key quotes from Simon's TED Talk
"People don't buy what you do; they buy WHY you do it."
"People don't buy what you do; they buy what you stand for."
"The goal is not to do business with everyone who needs what you have; it's to do business with those who believe what you believe."
"When you talk about what you believe then you will attract those who believe what you believe."

Part of the message we convey when we take a little time to make great product images is our belief in the importance and value of quality work. The more we extend this belief through our actions to even the seemingly small things, the more we will attract customers who believe the same. Such customers will tend to buy higher quality and higher priced items. They will be more appreciative of our efforts. And they will be more pleasant to deal with.



Read more about it and see more examples of good photographic design at the following web sites.

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