For labels, packaging, and the web, professional product photography is essential to your brand image, sales, and bottom line. Read on to learn the basics of photos, filetypes, and image and graphic printing.
Design Elements and Photos: Resolution and Filetypes Explained
When including photographs as part of your label design, we cannot stress enough the importance of professional, high quality photographs. Even the most beautifully designed label product will be negatively impacted by low quality, grainy, blurry, or poorly lit photos. Your product labels will have an amateur appearance that will reflect poorly on your brand image, which could cost you sales. So what can you do about it?
In some cases, a low quality photo can be improved using photo editing tools like Adobe Photoshop, but a low resolution photo will always print poorly. We recommend the print industry standard resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch) at 100% of the printed size. This baseline quality measurement also applies to any other graphics or logos used in your custom label design.
Without getting too technical, design elements like logos and text are best set up in a "vector" format. Vector format is the native filetype of graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator. It can also be called "line art". Files created in the vector format are infinitely scalable with no loss in quality. This means If your logo was set up in the vector format it will be as sharp and clear on a business card as it would be on a 60 foot billboard. Common vector file formats are .EPS, .AI, and .SVG.
On the other hand, graphic design and artwork elements created in or imported into Adobe Photoshop are "rasterized". The raster format is based on pixels rather than lines, and any time a raster file is scaled up (increased in size) there will be a noticeable loss of quality and sharpness. All photographs are raster based files.
The raster format is common and does not need to be avoided, as long as the source file is at least 300 dpi at 100% of the size to be printed. For example, if you need the photo to print at 3" wide by 4" tall the original "source file" needs to be that size or larger to begin with. There is no vector equivalent for photos or Photoshop files, but even logos and line art can be printed just fine as raster files as long as the resolution is high enough. Common raster file extensions are .PSD, .TIFF, .JPG, and .PNG.
Do Not Use JPG / JPEG Files for Printing!
The JPEG file format is a "lossy" format, meaning that in order to keep file size small for the intended use (web design) the detail and quality of the graphic or image is sacrificed. Image quality and detail decrease as data is removed from the file to make it less complex. This works well for on screen display such as web browsers and Powerpoint presentations, but JPEG files will print very poorly. Even at 300 dpi, JPEG files will never be as sharp as those intended for printing. The only exception to this rule are the enormous JPEG files created by some digital cameras. A JPEG photo can easily be larger than 20 inches in size at the JPEG standard resolution of 72 dpi. By reducing the size (measurements) of the image and increasing the dpi of the image to 300, we end up with a printable file that has not been scaled up and lost its quality. However, higher quality cameras will use the TIFF format (or other non-lossy format) instead of JPEG.
Color and Composition
Now that you're using the correct file type and highest resolution necessary for quality label printing, we can discuss the other critical factors of great photographs. If you're starting with the right filetype at the right resolution, we can often solve some of the other problems with poor photos using the built in tools in Adobe Photoshop. If you have ever used a red eye reduction tool on your computer or smartphone, you have an idea what these tools are capable of. Colors can be corrected, blemishes and other unwanted artifacts can be removed, and brightness and contrast can be controlled (to a certain degree). However, if you go too far with photo editing tools and the photo will not look natural. If your original photo appears very dark, is out of focus, or has an overwhelmingly predominant color cast like red or blue affecting everything, correction can be difficult or impossible. Most graphic designers will know immediately when they look at a file if it can be saved. Even if a relatively poor quality photo can be saved, the time, effort, and cost required may not be worth it and taking a new photo might make more sense.
When it comes to composition, the ability of photo editing software to make drastic changes is more limited. When subjects or objects in a photo are warped and distorted, obscured or over / underexposed, they are often too difficult or impossible to salvage. Few photographs that are not properly set up or "staged" prior to shooting will be useful for high quality label packaging. Tools like Photoshop are very powerful and we never say never, but again, the resources required may be prohibitive and the resulting image may appear very unnatural and manipulated.
Proper Lighting is Critical
Controlling the light on the subject of a photograph is a top priority to any photographer. Poorly lit photos are typically useless. Indirect or diffused lighting is usually desired, giving the photographer control over light and dark areas, shadows, highlights, and reflections.
– Overexposed images with too much light cause areas of the photo to become "blown out"; bright or white areas lose all detail and definition.
– Underexposed or dark photos blend details together into a shadowy dark mess, leaving nothing for Photoshop to correct; there are simply no discernible details in the underexposed areas.
– Backlit photos overwhelm the camera with contrast, creating silhouettes of the intended subjects in the photo. Similar to underexposure, details are lost in the darkness and cannot be seen with any amount of photo manipulation.
– Even with proper lighting, issues like glare and reflection can be frustrating. Reflective materials like glass, metal, and even plastic can cause glare or "hot spots" in a photo. These materials can also act like a mirror and reflect the area around the subject in an undesirable way. Photographers will often use controlled environments like a studio or photo booth environment to manage as much of the staging as possible. Once again, most of these issues can be overcome after the fact using Photoshop, but a well staged, professionally lit photograph is the best starting point.
This is good advice for the use of photos and graphics on your label designs, but it is also something to keep in mind when you are ready to take photographs of your final product. To advertise and sell your products, you should use photos of the containers that meet the same requirements as above. When done well, product photography should make your products look amazing. Your product photos should be sharp, bright, and compelling - a representation of the innovation and hard work that went into creating them! The wine bottle images above provide a good contrast between a professional photo (left) and a casual shot. When proper lighting and dynamic angles create a great product shot it is often referred to as a "hero shot". People respond well to images that are clearly represented. For example, on the popular photo sharing site Pinterest, product photos cropped onto white backgrounds consistently outperform those with the background still intact.
To summarize, do not expect to have poor quality photos print well. Avoid using JPEG images. Light your photos correctly, be aware of the environment around the subject being photographed, and do not rely too much on Photoshop to compensate for a poor photograph. The time, effort, and energy required to shoot and reshoot photos and manipulate them in Photoshop often makes hiring a professional, experienced photographer a worthy investment. The quality of your labels and consumers perception of your brand can be improved drastically through the use of quality photos.