Illustrative photography involves using the camera to illustrate effect "a picture tells a thousand words".
In some situations (Books, advertising, magazine articles, signs, etc), it is difficult to convey a message fully or as well as it might be, unless a good illustrative photograph is used.

An appropriate illustrative photograph will immediately convey an unambiguous message; for example:

  •  On an advertisement, it can tell the reader, this is what is for sale.
  •  Beside a plant description, it can tell the reader, this is what the plant looks like.
  •  On a sign, it may tell people: this is what this business is about.

The quality or lack of quality, can give an impression of the quality of a business, or (in the case of a publication), the accompanying written information.

In addition, a good illustrative photo can be used to attract attention, and make someone take a second look at such things as a sign, a book, a magazine article or an exhibition stand at a show.


  • Lighting is the key to a good illustrative photograph. Light can be used to highlight or reveal form, creating an impression of three dimensions on what is actually a two dimensional illustration. The secret is to always avoid front lighting, and use side lighting instead.

  • If need be, use artificial lighting bouncing it off a white surface, to soften, or use a diffusing screen or soft box.

  • You can also use reflectors such as white board or mirrors, or fill in lamps to lesson dark shadows and highlight colour and form.  Light is also needed to illustrate detail.

  • If you are trying to illustrate something like a flower, or a machine, it is necessary for all parts to be seen clearly; and to do this, artificial lighting may be essential.

  • Turn the subject until you achieve a good effect.  Some products are more attractive than others, so try and find a pleasing angle and crop.

  • Be careful with the background. Think about the background that will be seen in the shot.  Often the product looks best in its natural setting e.g. a plate of food looks best on a table, a pot plant on a patio or garden, perfume on a bathroom bench etc.  You can use similar objects to sit behind your product and use a wide aperture to blur the background.  Make sure you know how the photo is going to be used e.g. as a whole image to accompany text in a magazine article, to place on a box to sell what is inside and so on. This is important because you may need to leave blank areas in the image for the designer to write the name, use by date, public warning notices etc.  If the client is intending to cut out the image and paste it (digitally ) onto something else then you need to think about the background you use.  If your shots are cut-outs it is best to use a white or neutral grey background.  Remember that white backgrounds can create extra light flare in your image due to so much light bouncing around. If this happens you can cut down the flare by covering up the white background that is not seen in your image with a light absorbing black fabric such as velvet, or some matt black card.

  • A black cloth may be useful as a backdrop or to lay under something which you wish to illustrate in detail.  (Remember that black backgrounds have the opposite affect to white in that they absorb light.  Therefore you will need extra light when using black as a background.)