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In-house vs. Outsourced Product Photography

In-house vs. Outsourced Product Photography

Is it better to outsource your product photography or arrange an in-house photo department? Step aside from biased opinions, and let's look closer at specific cases' pros and cons here.

Liz Kasian

Jan 30, 2020

The in-house operation, – be it product photography, graphic design services or digital marketing turn-key solution, - always equals more control and more resources, while outsourced services usually mean less control with fewer resources.

Roughly speaking, that is. There is a nuance in every statement. Let's look at the issue in detail so you can arrive at the answer for your specific ecommerce business in mind: is it better for you to outsource your product photography or arrange an in-house photo department?

In this piece we will cover:

  • Outsourced Product photography vs In-House photo studio
  • Questions an ecommerce store owner has to ask to find out the best alternative of getting product photography requirement met: outsourced or in-house.
  • Pros and cons of outsourcing your photography needs
  • Pros and cons of having an in-house photo studio

What is In-house Product Photography about?

The in-house Photography department is a structural unit of a business, that allows a company to plan, shoot, produce, edit commercial images by using resources and human power employed by the business permanently. Such in-house photography studios rely on their own 1) team: photographer, helpers, project manager, photo editor; 2) are located in their studio and 3) use their company's equipment to execute in-house product photography: camera, lenses, tripods, lighting, software. 

What is Outsourced Product Photography about?

The outsourced photography is a way of sourcing commercial photography services from persons or companies not directly employed by a commercial entity, usually using the resources which are not part of the entity's inventory. In this case, the studio and equipment can be either rented out or belong to a company, which the photo services are being outsourced to.

The outsourced photography is subdivided into hiring a freelance photographer and commissioning image services to a specialized photo company.

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Questions to ask yourself before making a decision

How many product images do your company need per year?

If you have one car and it only gets broken once or twice a year, you would go to some repair shop to fix it, as opposed to setting up your garage and paying salary to a couple of people full year-round. But if you had a fleet of 100 cars and they needed a technical expertise every couple of months, then arranging an in-house car repair shop would be not only justifiable but in all likelihood, it would be the savvy solution to minimize cost.

Similarly to this example, when considering to set up an in-house photography process, you have to estimate your break-even point. At which point is it worth it to purchase all the photography equipment, rent a studio and pay the team?

Calculate how many images you need per year. The calculation can be as thorough or as quick as you have the time for. In some cases, the solution is more obvious than in others. To arrive at a ballpark understanding of the matter, get the average number of products you added to your ecommerce store last year or are planning to add next year and multiply it by the average number of images per product (4 or 5 would be an optimal figure to have for a product page).

If your photography requirements are in tens of thousands of images per year, in all likelihood setting up your studio will be a good idea. If you only need a couple of thousand images, outsourcing is the most viable option.

How much control do you need/want?

This is as curtail an issue as the first question. If you want all the control over the result and the process, you have to produce all the product imagery in-house. 

The rule of a thumb is: the ultimate control is possible only with the in-house photo studio; the next best thing in this range is a long-term relationship with finely-defined contract terms, that stipulate every step of the process to maximize the control of the client on the result.

How urgent is your product photography order?

As in any business, there is a learning curve in the process of setting up a product image lab. Make sure you have plenty of time for the execution of your first batches of commercial images.

Dunning-Kruger's experiment demonstrated, that people tend to overestimate their abilities when they lack the competence to recognize it. Whoever starts any activity lacks the competency to recognize the lack of competency. This usually leads to deadlines that are not kept and budgets that grow way above the initially forecasted.

So if your product imagery is urgent, consider doing it with the professionals who can guarantee the execution of specific workload within specific time frames.

Does your company need lots of 360-degree product images?

If the answer is yes, it is important to realize, that this type of commercial image is highly complex, expensive and time-consuming to produce. You will need to hire the best in trade, purchase extra equipment (like a rotating table for example) and account for a lot of hours for production and editing.

360-degree photography is a mix of photo and video techniques, so it will translate is higher costs for maintaining an in-house photo studio.

Are your products shipment-friendly?

Delivery cost is a major factor in the cost formula of outsourcing photography. The more demanding your products are in terms of shipment, the more logical it is to consider an in-house photo department or an outsourced photography service on your premises.

What are the factors, that make products extra tough to ship?

  • weight: if you are producing some super heavy security safes, make sure to be prepared to pay extra for shipment to have them photoshoot on the outsourcing basis. Heavy lifting also translates into extra costs for onsite works: to position the object on the site, extra manning is required in such cases.
  • volume: some things are not too heavy, but take up lots of space. Dry pool balls, for example. They are a thin layer of light plastic around a sphere of weightless air after all. They may weight next to nothing, but they sure take up lots of space in a delivery truck. You get the logic.
  • price: If you are a jewelry online store, that sells deluxe quality gold and diamond pieces, chances are the shining centerpiece of your shipping cost will be the insurance premiums and security escort fees. 
  • fragility: getting a fragile piece from point A to point B is a gamble and a high risk. However much bubble wrap is used or however bold the letters are in the inscription "FRAGILE" on the box, there are 5 to 10 high-risk zones, when a fragile thing can break to pieces.

To summarize, if you are trading in smaller, lighter, cheaper products there is no need to read this paragraph. If you are selling heavy, expensive, fragile items in your ecommerce shop, there is no need to read other paragraphs.

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Photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash

Does your current Team have the matching Talent?

The more expertise is already embedded in a company’s current pool of talent, the easier it is to set up a product image department within such an entity. As a minimum requirement, you will need to hire a photographer, a project manager, a photo editor, and IT support.

The further away your company is from having those skill sets inside your company, the more challenging it will be to create an in-house photo department.

Is your project ongoing or one-off?

On the same logic as above, we are talking about estimating the volume of the potential workload for an in-house photo studio, but from a different perspective – as spread out in time.

If the project is one-off or highly seasonal, (e.g. Christmas-focused), setting up an in house photo studio is an utter waste of resources.

Outsource your product photography to achieve specific goals:

  1. Keep up with the latest trends and T&Cs for ecommerce platforms.

Do you remember the times, when to show on the first page of Google one had to make sure to use a couple of keywords here and there? Well, things have changed since then.

Similarly, ecommerce platforms, like Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Alibaba keep evolving their platforms and merchants have to keep up to get coveted exposure to the user’s wallets.

If related to the file-naming, file-size, file format requirements – standards and T&Cs change all the time in the ecommerce industry. It may be hard for an in-house team to keep up with all the novelties and constant updates across all platforms. But a professional outsourced photography service implements all novelties in the blink of a shutter.

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Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

  1. Meet the project’s budgets and deadlines

Even though an inhouse photo studio provides more control, this stage only kicks in after a period of error and trial, that lasts for a good half a year, if you are lucky. Till then, every process is new and all procedures have to be streamlined to be forecastable.

So in case you need precision in the budget-keeping as well as a quick turnaround, you are better off with the outsourced professionals, who know exactly what is in the pipeline, how long it will take them to shoot and edit all the images, and they can embed all the deadlines and budgets into the contract.

  1. Project an image of a professional ecommerce store while being new to the business.

If there was one big investment a rising star of ecommerce should make – this is professional product photography. Website templates are available at as low as 39 dollars, domains are dirt cheap and the first year of the hosting service is almost a charitable service for hosting companies. 

If there is one thing, that can make an ecommerce company look advanced and professional, it is high-quality product photography. You may be working from your coach and run a one-man show of an ecommerce business, but if your products look sharp on the product page, are well-lit, properly centered and perfectly angled, the store will be perceived as a professional credible reputed supplier.

Want to impress your customers as a trustworthy and credible ecommerce store? Hire an outsourced professional product photo company.

Hiring in-house vs. outsourcing product photography

In the upper part of this article about in house versus outsourcing product photography, we have taken the coaching approach, arriving at the conclusions together by means of asking questions.

Below we provide you with ready-made answers that require no work – just see if they are applicable for your online ecommerce business. Below are the pros and cons of both worlds: in-house photography and the outsourced one. 

Pros of doing product images in-house

The Team you trust

One of the pluses of outsourcing service is that you can choose to go explore other alternative suppliers without much detriment to the process if the standards are not good enough for you. On the other hand, an in-house team of photographers is a unit you get to mold per your liking – so you know them inside out, trust them and rely on their loyalty.

More control and engagement

Obviously, if you are a control freak, this is the way to go. You have a say in everything in this case – from a model of photo equipment used on set, the minimum number of years of experience of Team members up to the background color. You run the show. You pay for the show.

Predictability and certain standards

You can expect the team to adhere to certain standards and a few months after launch the process and productivity levels will be pretty predictable too.

Keeping with brand guidelines

If your brand is working with a premium average check, you may have a specific focus on brand consistency. In this case, to upkeep the tone of voice in visual communication to a certain standard, companies may want to control the process from A to Z – from session concept to editing and naming. An inhouse photo studio is a reasonable option then.

Cons of in-house

Investment in training

The learning curve, that we mentioned previously is agonizing for some companies. Training takes time, hiring is cumbersome, talent is rare and expensive.

Investment of time

A business owner will have to invest tons of time, effort and expertise to build an in-house photography department. It won’t build itself, that’s for sure. This is a good reason to go read up on all the nuance of product photography in our blog. Even theoretical knowledge will convert to saved hours and avoided costly mistakes.

Investment in equipment

Oh, yes, running a photo studio is expensive. We have broken down the math for you in this detailed article. The upfront cost will vary vastly upon the real estate. But even if you do have some spacious room for the purpose, equipment is still an investment to be made. Camera, lenses, tripods, lighting are the very bare basics to be purchased. Editing software is another necessity in business, that needs some funds.

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Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash


Pros of outsourcing

Fewer resources in the short term: money, time, efforts

In the short run, if you have little time, funds, energy or overall resources to waste – outsourced services of product photography are the way to go. A professional team has gone through the learning curve years ago and is ready to mass-produce quality images within precise time limits and budgets. 

No hidden costs with having a photography department

When you start any kind of activity or business, you don’t know what you don’t know. You may plan as thoroughly as possibly could, but there is always something you had not foreseen. With a professional photo company, you have all the final estimate in your inbox a few hours from an FRP. Down to cent.

Access to experienced photographers = efficiency & quality

There is this adage about Picasso making a quick portrait for a lady during an idle walk upon her request. When the lady asked how much it would be, Picasso mentioned quite some big amount, say, 1000 dollars. The lady exclaimed: “It only took you 5 minutes to draw it, why so much?” Picasso answered: “It took me my entire life to draw it that quickly.”

When you get pros working on a project, it takes them little time to do it perfectly, as they made all the mistakes when they were charging other clients less.

Increase the quality of your photos

While your in-house team may take months or years to achieve the high standards of work, professional photography services providers are capable of producing top quality images right away.

Turn key product photography solutions

You don't have to micro-manage, waste time of learning the nuance of new trade and hunt for the best equipment at the lowest price. By outsourcing your image requirements you automatically receive a full package of a solution. No need to look over the shoulder and control the process.

No need to preoccupy with the nuance of the process. The pro photo studio will guide you through the order process and will advise what is best for you at this moment, providing a full package of services within your budget.

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Photo by Rahul Chakraborty on Unsplash


Cons of outsourcing

Chances of miscommunication

There is a chance, that miscommunication is possible with a provider of services – specifically during the first order. Make sure to talk through every little detail of your expectations and provide references wherever possible.

Longer lead time

If you need to do something urgently, an outsourced company may not be readily available at that same very minute, working on the order of other customers. So good planning is recommended to make the process stress-free.

More costly for higher volumes of images

In case you need product images of tens of thousands of items per annum, chances are, you are better off with an in-house studio, cost-per-image-wise.

Decisions, decisions: in house versus outsourcing product photography

Depending on where you stand with your business development, capital and volume of product photography needs, the article may have answered by now which way to go at this stage of evolution of your ecommerce business. 

If you are considering outsourcing your visuals to a professional photo studio, check out our free trial image offer. Squareshot product photography company is based in New York and has vast experience in clothing photography, accessory, shoes, cosmetics, and jewelry product photography.

Our intuitive app makes the ordering process a walk in the sunny Central Park.

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