History of Product Photography

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

  • Late 19th century: Commercial photography originated capturing military subjects, emphasizing soldiers and weapons in catalogs to promote the military.

  • Early 20th century: Magazines and newspapers started using photos instead of drawings to show off products, marking a significant change in showcasing products.

  • 1985 onwards: The digital era revolutionized product photography with a more efficient and rapid process, causing widespread access to product photos.

Product photography is a constantly evolving field that has been growing for over 200 years. In this article, you will learn about each era of product photography and how it has grown over multiple centuries.

Before starting with the history of product photography, it is probably important to define it. Product photography focuses on taking pictures of purchasable items. In most cases, these photos are used to sell products online or in a catalog.


Pre-Commercial Photography (1837-1880s)

Photography as we know it started all the way back in 1837 with the daguerreotype, which was the first type of photography that allowed people to capture a tangible photo.

It took over fifty years for the Eastman Kodak Company to create an easy to use, portable camera that could be used by the wide public. There were other forms of photography between the daguerreotype and the Kodak, but with the invention of the Kodak camera, many doors were opened for people to use photography for more varied purposes.


Military Product Photography 1880


The Origins of Commercial Photography (1880s-1985)


Commercial photography began in the late nineteenth century, where the military would use photography to capture soldiers and weapons, putting them into catalogs. This form of commercial photography did not try selling a specific product, it tried to sell the military itself.

While this was a specific type of promotional photography, the textile and fashion company, Munsing Underwear picked up on its success and began using photographs of their products in catalogs to advertise as early as 1890.


From Drawings to Photos


Over the next decade, more companies began to realize the potential of product photography. This brought a change in magazines and newspapers, which slowly shifted from using drawings to advertise their products, to photographs.

Edward Steichen was very important to this shift, creating the first page devoted to advertising with product photography called Art et Decoration in 1910. This was shortly followed up in 1911 by Conde Nast, who had recently bought a small fashion magazine company called Vogue. Their use of product photography in their magazines transformed Vogue from a small subsidiary of Conde Nast, to one of the biggest fashion institutions in the world.

Other industries such as food and interior design began to use product photography decades later with the invention of color photographic tapes in the 1950s. Before this, all of the photographs were in black in white, which limited their potential for advertising.

Vintage Vogue Magazine with product photography


Color Photography


Once color photography came into the picture, product photography hit one of its biggest booms in history. This boom lasted through the 1960s and 1970s, as middle class families now had access to all types of products through magazines, that could now be seen as if the products were right in front of them.

That being said, while the introduction of color was a massive boom for the product photography industry, this was not the biggest boom in product photography history. That came with the integration of digital images.


Modern Product Photography, Before E-commerce


The digital era of product photography started in 1985, when photographs could be uploaded online. Digital photography provided photographers with a much easier and quicker process.

Digital photographs not only took less time to produce, but they were also easier to manipulate, use and store on computers. This meant that product photos could be sent out at a much faster rate with more consistent quality.

The digital era also improved photo editing, adding new ways of manipulating and enhancing images through the use of photoshop, which was created in 1988. Photoshop allows editors to touch up images, replace backgrounds, and so much more.

More portable lighting systems were also created around this time. The ability to take equipment on the go made product photography more accessible. This eventually led to the success of many businesses selling their products on the internet.




While Amazon was not the only form of e-commerce out, it has certainly been the biggest. Amazon was founded back in 1994, but its impact on commerce is still huge.

Amazon’s online store made products available for any consumer with internet. This worked wonderfully with the invention of digital photos, since Amazon needed digital photos to promote the items sold on their online store.

Now, the products being sold are no longer only seen in magazines or catalogs. These images are displayed all over the world, which literally means that anyone can create a product to promote online, which has a potentially global audience.

This feature was not exclusive to Amazon. Many other companies have implemented ecommerce into their business model. Some have used ecommerce as the foundation of their business, such as Etsy. Others have used ecommerce to build off of their existing franchises, with the biggest example being Walmart.

The expansion of ecommerce made companies realize how important product photos were. Especially in the case of online shopping, people only have the picture to see whether or not they want the product.


Recent Years


Ecommerce and product photography work together for cyclical growth. Product photography is required to incentivize people to buy online products. When people buy online products, the market grows, which causes more people to want to sell online products.

These online products are required to have product photos, which resets the cycle. When the cycle runs smoothly, the outcome can be tremendous, with Amazon’s one trillion dollar net worth being a testament to that idea.

Over the last couple decades, there have not been as many revolutionary changes in the formatting of product photography. What has changed has been the quality of the images uploaded. As cameras and editing technology have gotten better, the images people see online have increased drastically, which has been helpful to the overall e-commerce industry, which would not function nearly as well without the continuous evolution of product photography.




When did product photography start?
The practice of product photography can be traced back to the early 20th century, when the military advertised in catalogues. 
When was photography first used in advertising?
Photography was first used in advertising in the late 19th century.
Who is a famous product photographer?
One famous product photographer is Albert Watson. He is a renowned Scottish photographer known for his work in fashion, celebrity portraits, and commercial photography, including product photography. Watson’s distinctive style and creativity have made him a prominent figure in the world of photography.
What is product photography?
Product photography is a type of commercial photography that focuses on capturing images of products to showcase them in a visually appealing way. The goal of product photography is to highlight the features and details of the product, making it look attractive to potential customers. This type of photography is commonly used in advertising, e-commerce, and marketing to present products in catalogs, websites, brochures, or other promotional materials. Product photographers use various techniques, lighting setups, and backgrounds to enhance the visual appeal of the products they photograph.

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Alex Balderston

I am a fourth year Literature/Writing major at the University of California, San Diego. I have been writing articles for over a year now and I am genuinely passionate about writing as a medium, whether that be for informational articles or creative writing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, reading and spending time outside.

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