AMAZON AND EUROPE LTD
How photographing more than 50,000 shoes for Amazon taught me how to take product photography that sells
In 2009 my husband and I moved from LA back to Scotland. After 10 years living and working in the US, it was time to come home.
As we packed our bags and said goodbye to our friends, I was scouting the Edinburgh job listings for opportunities for photographers. A few days before we flew out, I saw an advert from Amazon for a photographer in their Scottish studio.
I applied, and a few weeks later started my new full-time job as a senior photographer with Amazon.
In less than a month I’d gone from photographing celebrities in the Californian sun to wearing steel capped boots and swiping into a secure shoe warehouse facility in Glenrothes to photograph cut-price trainers.
Improving photography processes for fun
As senior photographer, I was responsible for making sure that the team photographed at least 100 shoes a day. It was hard, monotonous work. After I’d learned the ropes, I began to look for ways to spice up my days.
An automated machine moved each shoe into seven different positions, so that we could shoot different angles. I discovered that we could move the shoes faster with our hands, and the team raced to see who could complete their sequence fastest.
That was the start of my mission to find ways to make our processes more efficient (and entertaining). Soon we were photographing 250 shoes a day, becoming one of Amazon’s top performing studios.
The power of the white backdrop
Amazon are always experimenting with new ways to sell. In October 2009, five months after I’d started at their Glenrothes studio, they launched Javari as a standalone shoes and accessories site, selling upmarket products for a higher price point.
Ecommerce product photographs have strict layout requirements, and Javari was no exception. I set up a new tabletop studio to photograph bags and watches. Then I trained a team of stylists, junior photographers and designers how to set up, shoot and edit for the exacting formats. The goal is to show the products off to best advantage, while leaving space for promotional text and graphics.
At the beginning we sourced props to accessorise the products. I remember one summer sports shoe shoot where we bought 100 pink tennis balls and balanced the shoes on the balls. Those suckers rolled everywhere.
But Amazon continually A/B test their creative to see what converts into sales. After finding that stripped-back images performed better for Javari, they asked for more plain backgrounds.
Now I always shoot product on white backdrops and provide my clients with layered images. That way designers have flexibility to use their preferred backgrounds, props and graphics without clear cutting. White backgrounds make products pop. They’re a must for successful
ecommerce product photography.
How to shoot apparel
Around the end of 2009, Amazon’s Scottish team leader for apparel investigated whether we could shoot clothes in house. They’d been outsourcing apparel photography and it was costing them £20,000 per month. So, they were pretty motivated to find a more affordable solution.
I convinced them in house was feasible, designed and built an apparel studio set, and created production processes for unpacking garments, steaming them, styling them, shooting them, and packing them away. We hired more stylists, sourced mannequins, and experimented with live models (mannequins worked better).
We got to the point where we could shoot 100 T Shirts on a mannequin in a day. And we saved Amazon a substantial amount of money, even after setting up a new studio, and hiring more staff.
Mid 2010, Amazon decided to relocate from Glenrothes to Milton Keynes. Although I had no intention of relocating to South East England, I helped design and set up the new photographic studio, setting up tabletops for shoes and accessories, and sets for apparel, as well as providing an equipment list. In late 2010 I left Amazon to establish The Mainz Company, photographing freelance.
Setting a new standard for Scottish ecommerce photography
Amazon was a formative experience for me. Shooting hundreds of thousands of products over 15 months honed my product photography skills. Not only did I become adept at creating and optimising processes to photograph more products, but I also knew exactly how to shoot a product to sell.
After learning so much about ecommerce photography, I was on a mission to set a new standard for ecommerce imagery in Scotland. The bar was pretty low. Everywhere I looked I saw opportunities for improvement.
My first freelance gig was courtesy of the wonderful Pam Jenkins, who for many years ran a shoe store on Thistle Street selling Choos and Louboutins to the classy dames of Edinburgh. Sadly, Pam closed her doors in February this year. Edinburgh’s feet are far less stylish without her.
Back in 2010, Pam was dipping her (beautifully shod) toes into ecommerce. But the photographs she was taking with her iPhone in the light from her shop window, weren’t exactly doing her exquisite shoes justice.
After a sternly worded missive from Jimmy Choo requested that she use quality photographs because her lo-fi snaps were damaging their brand, Pam asked me to shoot her stock on a white background. Her online sales increased more than10%. And I knew that I had a skill worth sharing. Today I teach marketing teams and photographers how to take compelling product photographs.