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How NOT to Take Pictures for eBay

Updated on August 21, 2015

A Good Picture Makes a Good Listing

As a long-time buyer and seller on eBay, I have seen many items go unsold or sold below value because of bad pictures. The old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” isn’t far off the mark. Of course, you still need a good title and description – the search engine uses words, not images, for searching. But, once the buyer has a list of items matching their search criteria, they usually skim down the page looking at the pictures rather than reading the titles. It’s faster, easier, and more intuitive for your brain to see a picture and recognize the concept than try to picture something based on words.

So, I am going to show you how to avoid some of the all-too-common photo mistakes I’ve seem many times. The images shown in this article were taken by me to illustrate the point rather than using other people's actual bad pictures to avoid issues. But they are representative of pictures I have seen on many listings.

Camera tripod
Camera tripod

A Fuzzy Picture is Only Slightly Better Than No Picture

An out-of-focus picture gives a general idea of what’s being offered for sale; but when details count, what buyer will take the time to try to figure out the picture when it’s easier to just keep scanning other listings.? Since focus is the easiest thing to correct, if it’s worth the effort to photograph and list, it’s worth the effort to get an in-focus picture.

Considering the item is most likely to be stationary, there is sufficient time to focus. Take pictures in a well-lit area (careful to avoid shadows, though). Assuming you’re using a typical digital camera in auto-focus mode, the less light, the longer the camera holds the shutter open (to get enough light for the picture), and the longer you have to “jiggle” and cause the picture to blur. It only takes a tiny bit of motion to blur the photo.

Bracing the camera on a tripod, if you have one, can help a lot to keep you from taking blurry pictures. If you don’t have a tripod, a stack of wood or books or any stable platform on which to set the camera to keep it steady will help. If your camera won’t sit flat, use the platform for your elbows as you hold the camera. Not quite as good at steadying the camera, but better than free-hand.

Clockwise from upper left:  flash hot spot, photographer's reflection, too little light, and flash washout.
Clockwise from upper left: flash hot spot, photographer's reflection, too little light, and flash washout.
Photo booth - light outside, diffuse through the side cloth; and a center section for the subject.
Photo booth - light outside, diffuse through the side cloth; and a center section for the subject.

Light and Shadow

Bright lights can cause hot spots and hard shadows on your picture; but too little light will result in a muddy photo and possibly a color shift. Using the camera’s flash usually gives you a hot spot in the center, particularly on pictures of reflective objects, with darker edges. A bright room light will frequently leave your shadow over the object you’re photographing. At right you see (clockwise from upper left) a camera flash on the subject, my refelction in the subject (yikes!), not enought light on the subject, and a flash washout of the subject.

A photo booth like the one pictured is very good. They are relatively inexpensive and available by mail from a number of venues. If you don’t want to spring for the booth, you can make your own . On a clean table, set up a backstop for the picture with a sheet or other plain cloth over a stack of books and across the table. Use the sides of the sheet – or other cloths – to drape the sides using more books or whatever is at hand. Leave a space between the back and front of the drape for light. Put a lamp on each side of the drape – no shade – and you get diffuse light on your subject. Then either turn off the room lights or use a light board or other object to block the top of your make-shift booth. At right is a basic photo booth showing the inside, where the subject is places, and the light(s) on the outside that provide diffuse light through the white material to light the subject.

The white background makes it hard to see the white pattern on the dish.
The white background makes it hard to see the white pattern on the dish.
Against the red background, the colors are not true, but against the black they are more correct.
Against the red background, the colors are not true, but against the black they are more correct.
Though the doily is pretty, it obscures the pattern on the dish
Though the doily is pretty, it obscures the pattern on the dish

Color and Pattern

Even if your photo is in focus and well lit, the choice of background can make or break your picture. A white or clear object on a white background nearly disappears. Your buyer won’t get much from a thumbnail like that. In the thumbnail, the fact that the dish has a pattern is lost - and the only way we know its shape is from the gold rim. Likewise dark objects can fade into a dark background.

For transparent colored items, the choice of background color can color-shift the object, making the picture misleading about the color of the object. Even non-transparent items can look “discolored” against a mismatched background color. If you don’t have cloth in an appropriate color, fabric shops sell cloth – you can usually find something reasonable. Also, in a pinch, color copy paper comes in a vast array of colors, is very inexpensive, and glue-sticked to cardboard or foam board makes an acceptable backdrop. Notice the pink vase looks like it might be clear or pink, the blue vase looks more violet, and the green - well, it's just hard to figure all together. But on the more neutral background, the colors are truer - and your buyer won't be surprised and disappointed with their purchase - costing you a return or bad rating.

As far as pattern, you really don’t want a patterned background of any kind. It makes it difficult to identify the object in a thumbnail; and even in the full-size picture, it can detract from the subject. Transparent patterned items are especially susceptible. The added background pattern makes distinguishing the object’s pattern very difficult. So, while your wallpaper and linens are doubtless fashionable and your grandmother’s doily beautiful – it’s better to leave them out of the picture.

Size and Clutter

No matter how focused and well lit and appropriately backdropped is your subject, a tiny dot in the middle of the frame is hard to interpret – both in thumbnail and enlargement. You may argue that when you zoom and crop the photo, or try to take a close-up, the picture is out of focus. This is often true. While most cameras have a distance setting, by default it’s typically set for panorama – a picture of your yard with the kids playing, etc. And this setting will cause objects too close to the camera to be out of focus. Some auto-focus cameras can handle this automatically, but some need direction. Look on your camera’s menu for a distance setting. If you have only icons (which I hate – I like words better) and you don’t have your camera’s manual, the icons will be something big and far versus something small and close. My camera has a icon that switches between mountains and a tulip. The “mountains” is the default setting. Of course, the “tulip” is the close-up setting.

A cluttered picture is even more misleading than a patterned background. Unless it adds information about the item, typically only the subject item should be in the photograph. Taking a photo of your object on a shelf in your curio with dozens of other objects in the picture confuses the buyer about exactly what they are purchasing. And by all means, if you have several things to sell, one picture of everything used for each listing is very buyer-unfriendly. I really dislike a listing that has a picture of six items, then says in the description – “this auction is for the third item from the left...” Likewise, adding flowers to your vase or fruit to your fruit bowl just obscures features of the item you’re selling – features the buyer would like to see – rather than your prowess in floral arrangement.

The one exception is an unobtrusive object that pictorially conveys the size of the subject can add clarity to the photo. A ruler or common object that’s size is universally recognized is acceptable as long as the subject is still the primary element in the photo and the size-matching object is discreetly shown. Describing something as seven inches tall isn’t always easy to visualize; while seeing the subject with a comparison object can be very helpful. I have, on occasion, been surprised by an item I bought – like the vase – I thought the listing said seven inches – it was really seventeen – quite a difference. The vase is lovely, but doesn’t fit in the curio cabinet, so it is currently relegated to sitting on top of the cabinet.

A Matter of Perspective

The primary photograph in the listing – and the thumbnail – should show the object in it’s normal orientation and at a distance that permits the entire item to be seen. While it is useful to add a close-up of the decoration or some other aspect of the object, this type of picture should be supplemental – after the potential buyer has recognized the object as something of interest and opened the listing. Then the additional photos, including close-ups of features, are very welcome. But, it’s very difficult for the buyer, scanning a page of vase listings, to recognize a close-up of some flowers as a vase that they may want, and so keep scanning.

Also, the multi-angle composite picture is not good as the primary photo. The picture is cluttered. It takes the viewer time and effort to sort out the multiple angles and make sense of the picture. And, in thumbnail, the overall impression is just a jumble because no one cell of the image is large enough to clearly recognize the object being offered.


Dirt

Always clean your object before taking the picture. A dirty item is not as inviting as a clean one. Saying in the listing that the item is just dusty and will probably clean up easily is not reassuring. If it was easy, why didn't you do it? You can see the dirty teapot looks old, used (abused?) - if the outside is like this what's the inside like... But the clean shiny teapot looks cared-for.

The exception is an item that requires special tools, techniques, materials, etc. to clean. If expert restoration is needed, and you're not qualified, and don't want to pay for restoration, then it's okay to list it as-is and mention that the item needs cleaning or restoration rather than risk damaging the item. Most collectors would prefer to have the item dirty than damaged. But, for normal, everyday items - clean sells better than dirty.


So, spending the time and effort to take good pictures for your listings can mean more interest, more views, more bids, fewer returns, and - you hope - more profit. Good Luck!

Blacklight

Though I don't have an example picture at this time, another "pet peeve" has come to my attention. Many depression-era glass sellers want to highlight the fact that their yellow pieces are authentically uranium-containing vintage pieces. To that end, they use a picture of the piece "glowing" under black light as thier gallery picture. As an additional picture, okay; but for the gallery - please - photos in natural light.

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    • Vasiliki Bouras profile image

      Vasiliki Bouras 4 years ago

      Very useful information and thorough. Thanks for the information!

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