Flat lay, mannequin or model? A guide to choosing the right product photography

We share tips on choosing the right way to present your clothes online

Image credit: Matt Brasier

Image credit: Matt Brasier

Presenting your clothes online can be a task fraught with difficulty. Ranging from the creation of your brand style to the actual production and associated costs, it's important to be armed with all the right information to help you make the decision in how you style and photograph your products. In this article, we explain the different ways you can shoot clothing for your online store - and the pros and cons of each. 

What the shop window is to a physical store, product photography is to online stores. Walk into any clothing store and you can see products from different angles, touch them and try them on. It's a very tactile experience. 

However, when it comes to an online store, your visual merchandising is restricted to what can be conveyed through the computer screen. You need to catch customer attention and convert it into sales. This requires high quality, consistent, and appealing pictures of your products. 

However, these images need to be simple and realistic in order to help customers compare and visualise the clothes on themselves during the purchase cycle. This represents a big difference between editorial fashion photography - the aspirational kinds you see in magazines and advertising campaigns - and the simple products shots on white backgrounds seen on most websites. 

While the difficulties in merchandising an online store are ever-present, the logic is simple: just like a bad store layout leads to worse sales, bad pictures mean low conversion and loss of profit. 

To combat this, and help drive sales, there are various ways of presenting your product online. Flat lay, hanging, multi-angle, ghost mannequin and live model photography are all used by many brands and retailers - with some using combinations of each. But when it comes down to the crux of 'What sells more?', unfortunately, opinions seem to differ. 

So to help in improving your product photography for your online store, here's a brief rundown comparing the pros and cons of each method - along with some advice on how you can choose what's best for your brand and the products you sell. 

 
 

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Learn about the importance of product photography to consumer psychology

Why Consistency is Not the Enemy of Creativity in Your Product Photography - Matt Brasier, Global Head of Creative Training, StyleShoots


 
 

Flat Lay Product Photography

Image credit: Mr Porter | Alexander McQueen Distressed Wool & Silk Blend Sweater

Image credit: Mr Porter | Alexander McQueen Distressed Wool & Silk Blend Sweater

 

A common choice for many brands and retailers due to its versatility in styling, relatively simpler photography setup, and efficiency in high volumes.  Whilst deceptively simple at first glance, flat lay product photography requires the use of a stylist to get professional looking results. Next to this, the background needs to be removed in post-production (also known as clipping path removal).

A traditional flat lay - or tabletop - photography setup will include a camera mounted parallel to the ground along with lights and a selection of diffusers and soft-boxes. A stylist will then lay the product out and use a selection of tools - such as pins, tape and clips - to shape the silhouette of the product and ensure that it is displayed according to the proportions as if worn. Common techniques involve tucking the fabric in around the underarm area and adding tissue paper for the illusion of depth. 

Flat lay photography can also be used for creative ways to present your products in unique combinations on different backgrounds. You may have seen many brands post attractive looking flat lay collages on the likes of Instagram to heighten the storytelling around their product.


Pros

  • Requires a relatively simple photography setup
  • Versatile and useful for many types of clothing
  • Many different ways to style
  • Can be used to produce creative flat lay collages

Cons

  • Requires extra time spent styling
  • Garments can look distorted laid flat if not styled properly
  • Not suitable for larger items like long dresses etc
  • Consistency of styling can be a problem
 

Ghost/Invisible Mannequin Product Photography

Image credit: Zalando | Jack & Jones Slim Fit Shirt | Mr Porter

Image credit: Zalando | Jack & Jones Slim Fit Shirt | Mr Porter

Used to represent the product as if an 'invisible man' wearing the clothes - commonly known as the 'hollow man' effect - ghost mannequin product photography heightens the visual effect of the clothing by looking as if worn.  This method is relatively simple to style, however requires a great deal of post processing to achieve the final output. 

Popular for many brands and retailers due to the relative ease of styling involved, many brands use special ghost mannequins to reduce the time spent on the costly post processing techniques required. Compositing two images and - one of the inside and one of the outside - and then doing some clipping path removal on the desired areas of the product is common. However, with a specially made modular mannequin that can be disassembled, it is possible to simply remove the magnetic neck and chest pieces to achieve the effect without spending time cutting out and compositing in your image editing software.

Ghost mannequin photography can help specifically for items like blazers, coats and shirts where it's important to show off details like inner linings etcetera. 


Pros

  • Great for showing off features like inner linings and cuffs
  • Quick and simple to style
  • Helps customers visualise clothes as if worn

Cons

  • Requires post production work and image compositing
  • Requires styling to fit mannequins properly
  • Having a wide range of mannequins can be expensive
 

Live Model Photography

Image credit: Mr Porter | Alexander McQueen Distressed Wool & Silk Blend Sweater | Mason Margiela Herringbone Wool Blend Coat | Zalando

Image credit: Mr Porter | Alexander McQueen Distressed Wool & Silk Blend Sweater | Mason Margiela Herringbone Wool Blend Coat | Zalando

Live models are as close to the high quality magazine feel as you can get. A live model not only shows how articles drape over the human body, but also supports your brand mood and gives a distinct look – be it on video or still images. The downside is that models are expensive to hire, and can distract from the actual product.

Some brands and retailers choose to use a combination of live models along with flat lay and mannequins in order to show the product in a wider range of contexts. This is of course costly, but it brings the benefit of giving customers a wider choice of photos to browse. 

Many brands also choose to use live models for their campaign launches as photographing them with each product can be very time and labour intensive - not to mention more expensive.

 


Pros

  • Gives off a more editorial feel to product presentation
  • Can be used to showcase outfit selections and assist in up-selling and conversion
  • Can be used in combination with live video
  • Unlimited creative possibilities in styling (hair, model choice etc)

Cons

  • Expensive to hire models, stylists and photographers
  • Time consuming to edit and shoot
  • Different cost for head shots compared to body shots
  • Requires an efficient studio workflow and product sample organisation
 

Other methods of product photography

360° photography

  • Pros: Good for items like consumer electronics, can be useful in showing product from all angles. 
  • Cons: Not useful for fashion, products are styled from one primary angle meaning constant restyling for each image, page loading times
 

What type of product photography to choose? 

To help, we've compiled a brief list of the various styles of articles, products and clothing that work well for each method

Flat lay

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  • Shirts

  • Jumpers

  • Shoes (multi-angle)

  • Scarves

  • Towels

  • Handbags

  • Kidswear

Ghost mannequin

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  • Jeans 

  • Blazers

  • Long dresses

  • Coats

  • Socks

  • Underwear

  • Swimwear

Live model

785030_mrp_ou_l__1__360.jpg
  • Product collections

  • Handbags

  • Accessories

  • Sunglasses

  • Watches

 

Our photo machines for flat lay and mannequin photography remove the technical difficulties of studio photography - leaving time to focus on the importance of styling a good product shot.

Book a web demo to see the magic in action. 


 
Stephen Warr