Trash to Treasure: Auction/Product Photography Tips by Lou Manna

Trash to Treasure: Auction Photography Tips by Lou Manna

Summer’s here! Time for cool treats, trips to the beach, tank tops…and getting rid of all that spring cleaning you did three months ago. So why not sell your old stuff on an e-commerce site like eBay? Olympus Visionary and accomplished studio photographer and author Lou Manna has compiled a list of tips to help you better photograph the things you no longer need—so you can sell it all online and earn some extra bucks for the ice cream truck.

1. watch

Keep it simple and clean. If you’re selling a watch, just include the watch in the picture. Don’t get too artistic or confuse the buyer. Online buying can be scary because you don’t have that “try on factor.” Make sure potential consumers know that what they’re looking at is what they’re going to get.


If your item is small enough, you can keep the background really simple by photographing it on a sheet of white copy paper. This will keep the focus on the object for sale. Medium-sized subjects can be shot on 2’ X 3’ sheets of white paper, available at local art supply stores. If your object is larger (think: that bike you no longer ride), don’t sacrifice background simplicity. Use a 4.5’ roll of white seamless paper that you can get at camera stores in the area or online.

pens on a white background

Location, location, location. Pick a spot near a window or even outside in the shade for soft light that has a diffused quality. This ensures that the object you’re selling will really look its best. If the light is too dark or too bright, key details on the product will either be shadowed or washed out and the potential buyer will not be able to appreciate the full beauty of the object. If you decide to stay indoors, just make sure to find an open area where you can utilize some available light. Raise your ISO to 800 or 1600.


Side lighting will help bring out texture and shape to your objects. Try to avoid any direct flash since that will flatten the subject.

a sample side-lighting setup

If your object is shiny, you might want to set up white reflector boards all around the object. These boards will reflect white highlights on the object, giving it a sheen that really makes it sale-worthy. Would a diamond be eye-catching if it didn’t sparkle? You can even use makeup mirrors available at a local drugstore to add specular, dimension-adding highlights.

Lou setting up paper board reflectors
sample use of wax paper diffusing light 6.

To soften the light even more, you can set up some diffusion material like wax paper for small objects. Try a white shower curtain, white Plexiglas or a roll of white translucent material from a camera store or art supply store for larger objects. Then use a light source such as quartz lights, photofloods, fluorescent lights, portable flashes or studio strobes to shoot through the diffusion or bounced into a white card to soften the shadows.


If you’re shooting a very small object with a point-and-shoot camera, use the flower or macro setting on your camera for close-ups to really capture the detail of your object. If you’re using a DSLR, use a macro lens so that your close-up images are in focus.


Use a tripod if you have one, especially if your shutter speed is slower than 1/60th of a second. It will help you keep the camera steady so that your image will be sharp.


If you’re using a DSLR, use a small f-stop like f/11 or f/16 to give you more depth of field and keep the focus on the sell-worthy object.


Whether you’re using a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, white balance settings are very important to set properly for clean color in your subject. Auto white balance is generally pretty close or you can try some of the preset white balance settings, but when it comes to accurate color, take a custom white balance to get the best results. Check your camera manual for instructions on how to set a custom white balance.

Lou Manna
About Lou Manna

Lou’s blog

Twitter: @loumanna

Lou Manna is an award-winning Olympus Visionary photographer who takes pictures good enough to eat.

After shooting for The New York Times for 20 years, Manna went on to establish his own Fifth Avenue food photography studio. Manna published Digital Food Photography in 2006, a book that shows how digital technology can enhance food photography. And his new book, More Digital Food Photography, will soon be on sale.

Manna regularly shares his expertise and passion with others through his blog, social networking and public speaking appearances. Manna even teaches numerous workshops throughout New York City and hosts virtual food photography tutorials for aspiring photographers.

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