Imagine you’re stopping at a farm stand with the goal of buying local jelly. Which would you be more likely to purchase – a jar on a shelf against the back wall, caught in the shadows, or one on a table near the front, glistening in the sunlight?

Now imagine you’ve made that jelly and in addition to selling it in person you want to sell it online. On the internet, imagery is everything. That’s why, during the recent Thriving Farmer Value-Added Summit, attendees learned about capturing their value-added products through photography and styling tips.

The presenter was Lori Rice, a food and product photographer and writer who works closely with food growers, artisan makers and agriculture boards and councils. She styles and creates photos that capture the journey of food from the producer to the plate. She also offers the CreatingYou family of online courses.

Rice began her career in Cooperative Extension in Kentucky and said she believes she’s now come full circle, showing farmers the type of work she does now. Her goal is to help growers capture the attention of potential customers and the customers they already have to increase sales.

“We often can’t outsource photography, so we have to find ways to do it ourselves. We can also put more of ourselves into the photos we take ourselves,” she said. “These tips are for doing it in a very minimalist way – with only a little gear, maximizing our environment and relying on natural light.”

Still photos are still very important – and growers are never going to not need photos, Rice said. They need them for building websites, for e-commerce sites, for emails, for marketing materials and for publicity and media placement.

Building a photo library – a collection of images taken throughout the lifetime of an agriculture business to use when a photo is needed to promote a product or tell a story – is critical. Rice explained there are three types of photos: standard product shots, styled product shots and shots that tell a story.

A standard shot says “This is what you get.” A styled shot features a little to a lot of added flare, perhaps with multiple packages, that hints at flavor or scent and hints at what’s inside. A story shot focuses not on a label, but on the product being made or used – maybe even where it came from.

Gear needed, regardless of the user of a DSLR or phone camera, includes foam boards (black and white, standard poster board size), pony clamps (one or two per board used) and diffusers or sheer curtains (which help when working in harsh sunlight and in preventing “hot spots” in photos). Clamps will be used near the bottom of the foam boards to hold them upright. Photographs should place a diffuser between the light source and the subject.

A dedicated studio space could be a bit much, but a photography space could just be the corner of room near a natural light source (a window). It could be on table or on the floor, or on different surfaces (vinyl, planks painted white, etc.) or on top of sawhorses. The surface used can help determine the mood of the photo.

This photo isn’t as good because the product is poorly lit, the camera’s angle is too high and it is centered horizontally.

Photographers want to control natural light. Light coming from all directions makes for a dull photo. You want directional light from one single direction, so block light from all other directions (using the foam boards or your own body). Remember that it’s easier to add light when editing than it is to remove light that is super bright.

To style a photo, begin by selecting your hero – your main product. The hero spot is where you focus the camera, and for most products that spot is going to be its label. Rice said to obey the rule of thirds, whether shooting horizontal or vertical. (The rule of thirds is a composition guideline that places your subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two-thirds more open.)

This photo is better because it uses natural light to literally highlight the product, the camera’s angle is better and follows the rule of thirds. Photos by Kyle Llewellyn/Images by Llewellyn

“We choose where the viewer starts and then where their gaze travels,” Rice said. “The scene is about moving product and props for what is most appealing, based on your personal preference.”

Remember to capture images from all types of angles for your photo library. Rice suggested creating the most content possible with the time you invest.

For that narrative story shot, photos can begin with the product’s source, such as in the field or a kitchen, and continue on to how the product can be used. For example, if you’re making soap, add a washcloth, a brush, etc., to the photo, Rice said.

She noted other examples for jam. A standard shot would feature just the jar; a styled shot could use fresh berries, with the jar placed on a cutting board next to a linen napkin and a spreader. For a story shot, place the jam on toast, put the spreader in an open jar and place a sealed jar behind it.

“How do you come up with ideas? For each product, ask yourself a series of questions,” Rice said. “What was used to make the product? How would I use it? How would I present it or gift it?” Once you have that inspiration, you can do anything you want.

Rice offers free mini trainings on her website, – “Original Food Photography Surfaces for Small Spaces” and “Five Steps to Better Food and Product Photography” – if you want to learn more.

by Courtney Llewellyn