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Great Photos Don’t Take Themselves

Photo-editing techniques every online seller should learn

I’m a Xena fan. OK, now you know my dark secret. I’ve seen every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess several times. In fact, Xena helped me start my eBay selling career. I learned about the world of collectibles by buying and selling Xena memorabilia.

In one of my favorite episodes, Xena was put under a spell by the mighty Aphrodite. Instead of rescuing the Mystic Diamond from a band of thugs, Xena follows her new passion: fishing. When Gabrielle interrupts her fishing, Xena turns to her sidekick and exclaims in a frustrated tone, “Fish don’t just catch themselves!”

These words of wisdom can be applied to photography as well. Great photos don’t just take themselves!

I’ll tell you the true secret of photography: Every good photo has been retouched. I know—it might seem overwhelming. First, I asked you to learn about camera technology. Now, I’m telling you that you can’t stop there.

Don’t stress about it, though—you don’t have to learn much to make good-looking photos. In fact, eBay helps you take care of some of the most essential photo-editing tasks. Within the Sell Your Item form, eBay provides Picture Manager. This suite of picture-editing tools can crop, rotate, and adjust color and brightness. With these easy-to-use tools, you can fix up your images by getting in close to the subject and adjusting the light or dark values. This will give your potential buyer enough visual information to draw his or her interest.

For most items, these simple adjustments are probably enough. However, for truly professional-looking photos, you’ll need to learn a few advanced techniques.

Tricks of the trade

First you need photo-editing software because… photos don’t just edit themselves! So, if you don’t have a photo-editing program, there are two that I suggest. I use Adobe Systems’ Photoshop Elements. It requires a small investment of time and money—but for the online business owner, this software allows you to create professional-looking product photos at a fraction of the cost of the full-blown Photoshop.

With a little adjustment you can turn the white background to white and leave the product colors as they are

If you aren’t comfortable purchasing and learning Photoshop Elements, I suggest you look into Google Picasa. It’s very visual, pretty easy to use and free. It’s missing a few key tools, but it can create decent product photos.

Once you have the software, the number of commands at your fingertips may seem like someone dumped a cartload of fish at your feet instead of the Mystic Diamond. Don’t worry—you don’t need to wade through all of it. Here are a few of the tools I use regularly.

Color Adjustments

If you turn off your flash and photograph using lamps or other available light, chances are good your photo will be slightly off-color. With the color adjustment tools found under “Enhance” in Elements, you can use Auto Smart Fix (let the software decide what looks best) or you can adjust color and tweak the variations and saturations of different colors using the manual settings.


Also found under the Enhance command, Levels may be a little more difficult to understand. Let’s say you take a picture that’s too light or too dark. There is an adjustment tool that allows you to adjust the lightness and contrast of the whole picture called “Adjust Lighting.” But what if you have just have one value (or area in the photo) that you want to lighten or darken? What do I mean by that?

Let’s take a photo of a product that was taken on an all-white background. The product itself is perfectly exposed, the colors are nice and saturated, but the white background is gray instead of white. If you lighten the whole picture the colors of the product will look faded and washed out. That’s where doing a level adjustment comes in.

With Levels, you can adjust one color value at a time. In other words, with a little adjustment you can turn the white background to white and leave the product colors as they are. Of course you can do the opposite, too—make a certain area darker while leaving another part the same.


This tool is found on the Photoshop Elements toolbar. The icon looks like a rubber stamp. Before I say more, you must promise not to use this tool for evil. I don’t want to buy a Xena poster that I think is perfect, only to find a large rip when I receive it.

That said, what the clone tool does is copy one area of your choosing and then paste those pixels over another area. This comes in handy if you need to remove a bad spot in the photo. For example, I have three dogs and fight a never-ending battle with shedding fur. And of course puppy hair always shows up on my otherwise perfect pictures. Whether it’s on the background or sticking out of a key spot on the item, I can use the clone tool to remove the hair from the photos, even if I can’t remove it from my studio. I simply tell the software what area I want to clone by clicking my mouse onto a good area and then I use those clean pixels to paint over the hair.

Don’t use the Unsharp Mask to fix camera blur—it’s not designed for this task

Unsharp Mask

This tool does just the opposite of what it says it’ll do. When you do a lot of photo editing on a JPEG, one thing that happens is it becomes softer or less sharp with each adjustment. That’s the nature of a JPEG. It compresses the little pixels to save space and with every compression you lose detail.

Once you’ve completed all the edits on the photo, you’ll find the Unsharp Mask feature under the Enhance menu. Using this tool, you can choose how much to sharpen the pixels. The software has a way of outlining the individual pixels and bringing them back to really sharpen up your image.

A few words of caution here: Don’t overdo this command. If you do, you’ll get an artificial-looking photo. You’ve probably seen the results of an over-sharpened photo—it’s the one that you’re not exactly sure what’s wrong with the image, but you know something is because it looks like a bad magazine print from the 1970s.

And don’t use the Unsharp Mask to fix camera blur—it’s not designed for this task. By camera blur I mean that which is caused by movement or an unfocused camera. In these cases, it’s best to retake the photo. If you can’t reshoot the picture, or if it’s only slightly out of focus, try using the Adjust Sharpness tool instead. This set of commands is designed to help bring clarity back to out-of-focus images. But again, when we talk about the Adjust Sharpness tool we’re talking about the softness caused by movement or bad focus when the photo was taken.

Text Tool

I think this is one of the best tools in Photoshop Elements (or Picasa) for marketing your business. You can use it to promote your business or to watermark photos to keep them from being stolen by others.

I know there are lots of questions about the best use of watermarks, and I’m out of space in this article. If you would like to know more about watermarking, and enjoyed this series of articles I’ve written about product photography, please head over to my Facebook page and tell me what you’d like to learn about watermarking or any topic you’d like to me to write about. I read and answer questions on my Facebook page and will be happy to write more about what you want to know. Please become a fan and post your comments on my wall.

Meanwhile you can find more about Photoshop Elements for product photography at the Web Sellers’ Circle.

About the author

Cindy Shebley
Cindy Shebley is an eBay certified business consultant, education specialist, store designer and author who teaches throughout the Northwest. The recently released eBay Marketing Bible is available in bookstores everywhere. Shebley's Web Sellers' Circle program helps sellers grow their business and stay competetive in today's marketplace. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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