Taxonomy of Product Photography

How to build brand identity and consumer confidence through imagery.

Key Takeaways

  1. Different aesthetics of product photography communicate to different consumer demographics. Think about who you want to speak to with your imagery and how your brand will fit into the current landscape.
  2. You don’t need a big budget, professional models, or expensive equipment to realize effective and impactful imagery. Be resourceful with creative backyard and bedroom shoots.
  3. Consider how elements like backdrop and lighting will function in your photography to communicate brand identity and accurately represent product traits like material, color, and fit. Look at how other brands use these elements to develop your approach.

How you document what you’re selling is an important part of building your brand identity. The same denim will tell an entirely different story if it’s on a live model with a BBL and lip injections versus if it’s hanging from a twine line secured with wooden clothespins. The same T-shirt speaks to a different demographic of consumers if it’s photographed surrounded by twee pine cones versus if it’s backdropped against a Brutalist building. As you start to think about developing your own unique presentation, understanding the current landscape is vital to sharpening your approach.

In the Covid era when huge studio productions are restricted, we’ve been seeing many major brands experimenting with presenting their products via scaled-down in situ photography, often borrowing from how small yet resourceful Depop shops and Insta brands have been creatively presenting their wares online for the past several years. Even when more cities open up and big studio shoots are possible again, we might see this trend stick around. Often intimate shoots — say on a fire escape or in a bathroom — have the benefit of authentically communicating lifestyle better than glossy big budget productions.

Ultimately product photography is a mix of storytelling and transferring intel. You need to communicate aspirational values but also represent as accurately as possible traits of a garment like material, color, and fit. You’ll likely need several different types of photography, for your online shop and your instagram, to both communicate your brand identity and build consumer confidence in your product. Here’s a taxonomy of subgenres and a glossary of terms to help you get started.

iPod Laboratory

Brand vibe: Amazon, Maison Margiela, Lululemon, A.P.C., Helmut Lang.

All white everything is the normcore of e-commerce product photography, a genre which occupies the space from white-cube minimalist to mass-market basic. This clean future-forward aesthetic is elegant in a sterile sort of way, offering the ideal blank canvas for whatever you’re selling. It is possible to achieve this look at-home on a budget. You don’t need super expensive equipment, but bright diffuse lighting is key. DIY hacks include using a glossy white shoebox lid as a reflector and stretching parchment paper across an empty frame to make a sort of softbox. 

Sleepover Dreamscheme

Brand vibe: Glossier, Acne, Madewell, Orseund Iris, Gucci.

Think blues skies, fluffy white clouds, and millennial pink. There’s enough anxiety and drama in the world already, why not make your consumers’ shopping experience soft, gentle, and soothing. This aesthetic is like ASMR for your eyes, and it’ll ensure your brand is seen as youthful, feminine, aspirational, and risk-averse. To get the look, try using a pastel-hued seamless background paper. Or photograph your products on a mirror reflecting the actual sky or a cloud-patterned vinyl sheet. A disembodied hand gives the image some added human warmth.

Upcycled Authentic

Brand vibe: Etsy, American Eagle Outfitters, Brandy Melville, Ralph Lauren.

Nothing screams gentrifier chic like artfully photographed reclaimed wood, an effective backdrop for a wide range of products, not just vintage cameras and “Keep Calm And Pass The Pinot Grigio” T-shirts. A sun bleached grey wood is an especially impactful neutral, letting the color and detail of your product really pop. On Etsy you can find many examples of products displayed in this style and you can also purchase rustic distressed wood photo backdrops for at-home shoots, many examples in the $40-50 range. But for added authenticity, try using a real rickety dock, beat-up porch, or dilapidated fence.

Great Outdoors

Brand vibe: ASOS, Reformation, Everlane, Patagonia.

Take advantage of what mother nature has to offer, and shoot your product photography in the fresh air, using grass, stone, cement, sand, or sky as a backdrop. This earthy ambience combined with stylish architectural composition invokes a cheery offbeat vibe. Plus it’ll add some crunch to your brand while saving you from having to invest in lighting equipment. No light is as strong as the sun! It might seem counterintuitive but an overcast day can be your friend. A little bit of cloud coverage diffuses sunlight, evening out highlights and softening shadows.

Shadow Drama

Brand vibe: Yeezy, Lanvin, Nike, Guess, Fenty.

Atmospheric shadow play can add an element of intrigue to your product photos. The contrast of darkness and light lends a glamorous yet moody sophistication to the featured object or garment. Film noir venetian blinds and Meshes of the Afternoon are on the mood board. Keep in mind, this genre of photography is most effective when the lines cut diagonally across the image.

Grid Goods

Brand vibe: COS, Gap, Los Angeles Apparel, Kith, Osh Kosh B'gosh.

Geometric composition can lend a playful twist to your photos. Organizing garments, either laid flat or folded, according to a grid-like pattern offers formal structure that can be subverted by fun colors or an offbeat prop. And remember to experiment — right angles aren’t always right; acute angles can be cute too. 

Flat-lay Fuccboi

Brand vibe: Need Supply, Supreme, Vetements, Off-White, North Face.

More commonly used by hypebeast bloggers and instagram influencers than brands, this subgenre of flat lay displays a head-to-toe outfit. More than the individual pieces, this photo format highlights the styling that goes into coordinating a shirt, pants, shoes, hat, and accessories.  


Flat Lay: a photo of product arranged on a flat surface, captured from directly above.

Nodel: a non-professional model.

Soft Box: a box that encloses a lighting source, using a combination of reflection and diffusion to create soft homogenous lighting; can be used either with a flash or a continuous lighting source.

Ghost Mannequin: a mannequin designed so parts like the chest, arms, and legs can be respectively removed. Photos are edited together in post as a composite to show how the garment fits a realistic human shape without the distraction of a visible mannequin or model.