December 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

DIY Meets Automation

Great product photos make a big difference online. New photo-editing software makes it easier to create sizzling images.

Hunters looking for equipment and parts to maintain and repair their firearms have a good chance of finding it at, the online arm of Brownells Inc., a 60-year-old company specializing in gunsmithing tools and services. The site offers magazines that snap onto the firearm preloaded with cartridges, including one that’s different from the others. It’s made of a tough, transparent polymer that gives the user an instant read on ammunition supply and it’s protected by metal feed lips at the top that stand up to repeated loading.

A photo showing that the product is transparent helps sell it, but shooters also want to see additional product views that show how the magazine attaches to the firearm before they buy. To get all that information across, Brownells could depend on a lengthy text product description, display still photos of the front and the back of the device, or spend the resources-an entire day’s worth of effort-to put a video demonstrating the product up on its site.

Or it could do what it ultimately did-animate the product photo­graph so it does a 360-degree spin as visitors click and drag the product image to rotate it. Time required for Brownells to animate the product image and get it up on the site? A few minutes.

All sellers face the same barrier to online sales in the fact that customers can’t touch or try a product before purchasing it. Providing detailed product photography is one way e-retailers compensate. So far, larger organizations with the resources to either invest in a fully-equipped in-house studio or outsource product shots have been in a better position to offer site functionality that enhances product photography or lets shoppers interact with product images. But now, newly affordable and simplified photo capture and photo editing software is equipping smaller online sellers to infuse product imagery on their site with some of the same sizzle.

Vertus Software, for example, has rolled out Bling It, a simplified version of its popular Fluid Mask photo editing software that photography professionals use. The software, aimed at smaller online retailers and eBay sellers wanting to improve product images to better compete with retail giants, lets users easily crop products out of a digital photo, drop in new backgrounds, adjust for shadows, and buff up images to a more professional level. For newbies, it’s more user-friendly than Fluid Mask, and it eliminates advanced functionality they don’t need. “Fluid Mask is incredibly techie for someone who uses a point and shoot camera,” says James Carr-Jones, CEO. “Bling It is all about access.”

While improving the quality of product images stands to improve an online retailer’s ability to attract sales, new and streamlined photo capture and photo editing equipment and software still are proving themselves. With its first product image equipped for rotation on the site for only a few weeks so far, Brownells hasn’t tied any uptick in sales specifically to the enhanced photo treatment. But e-commerce manager Clayton Whipple says that within the first two days the spinning product image went up on the site, the feature was engaged by 200 users, or about half of those who visited the product page.

Spin it

“We didn’t say to ourselves, ‘We want 360-degree images on the site,’” Whipple says. “What we wanted was to better showcase our products. Our goal was and is to increase the amount of information and images available on our products. There really wasn’t an alternative for providing this kind of information unless we outsourced it.”

Brownells uses PhotoCapture 360, a software and equipment system developed by Ortery Technologies Inc., which also offers PhotoSimilie, a lighting system in a box that provides a do-it-yourself mini-studio for still product photography that’s used by many smaller online sellers. PhotoCapture 360’s functionality dials up product shots a notch with animation.

The system includes a turntable on which to place a product and software that automatically synchronizes the rotation of the turntable with the action of the camera. The software controls the camera settings and the timing of shots taken by any compatible digital point-and-shoot camera, which eliminates variables like lens aperture and light placement that could occur if the camera were under user control.

That’s important because the spinning image as it appears on Brownells’ site consists of a series of 32 still shots snapped in sequence as the product rotated in 10-degree increments on the turntable. The system’s software crops out all background in the shots and stitches the product images together into an animation resembling a video, at less cost. Whipple wouldn’t put a dollar figure on Brownells’ internal cost to produce a video-it has about 200 of them on its site-but with $1,000 sunk into the turntable and software and about $400 for a Canon digital camera, the system’s contribution in terms of time saved will be significant, he says.

Brownells plans to animate images of hundreds of products on its site, Whipple adds, focusing on products that would benefit from added exposure. Product animation represents a sweet spot between pricier-to-produce videos, which have a place on the site when a product requires an in-depth demonstration, and still photos that don’t convey enough product information.

Compact display

Consolidated Merchants Group is also looking to PhotoCapture 360 and the do-it-yourself approach to improve product photography as an affordable way to stand out among other online sellers. Consolidated Merchants Group sells jewelry and other merchandise under branded stores on eBay’s and Amazon’s platforms, but its largest sales are under a partner relationship with Overstock in which it’s a drop shipper for the discount e-retailer and sells on under Overstock’s brand.

While Overstock has its own creative and photography departments that will create partners’ on-site product photographs, Consolidated Merchants Group director Dave Stewart notes that partners pay Overstock a fee for this service and that they may wait in line behind the product photography requirements of Overstock’s core merchandise. Partners who provide their own product shots meeting Overstock’s specs may get their images on the site faster. So when Overstock recently embedded in its product pages the capacity to show video, Consolidated didn’t wait around.

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