Friday, February 24, 2012

Photographing Tea For Your Website

This article continues my series on best practices for tea company websites. This article focuses on an issue of key importance: photos of your tea. Some of this advice mentions product pages for each tea, something that not all companies have, but that I recommend.

I'm not the best photographer; it's not something I choose to put a lot of effort into, I mainly take pictures to document my experiences. You can see some of my photos (not just of tea) on photos. As you'll find, many of my photos aren't the most artistic or well-composed. But I do observe other people's photos a lot, particularly, in the course of my work on RateTea, photographs of tea, and I've made some observations about what personally makes a good impression on me. As with my other posts, this represents only my own subjective opinion, but I hope it can be useful to others.

These are the best practices that I have found:
  • When photographing loose leaf tea, use lighting that shows the tea's color as it will appear to others.
  • Photograph loose leaf tea from an angle and in a configuration that shows some depth, showing the texture of the leaf.
  • Compose your photos so that the customer can clearly and easily distinguish between the different teas you offer.
  • For brands of tea which produce packaged tea (whether tea bags or loose-leaf tea) sold in retail stores, on the product page for each tea, show the packaging of the tea as it appears in stores. This will help people locate your product on the shelf.
  • If you sell loose-leaf tea in retail stores, packaged in tins or other containers, make sure to display photographs of the loose-leaf tea itself.
  • Ideally, also photograph the brewed cup and, if you are catering to connoisseurs, the used tea leaves after steeping.

Use lighting that shows the tea's color as it will appear to others:

There is no such thing as truly neutral lighting; every object looks different in different lighting. Natural lighting changes based on whether it is direct or indirect, based on time of day and year, and the weather. Artificial lighting is highly varied--fluorescent vs. incandescent, and the decor of a room profoundly influences the ambient lighting from reflection.

When photographing tea for your website, you can't be perfect or objective, you need to make subjective judgment calls. I personally like to photograph loose-leaf tea in bright, indirect sunlight in a mostly white surroundings, but sometimes, especially for teas that do not naturally show much variation or texture, I like to photograph tea in direct sunlight, as it can make the texture of the tea more boldly evident. I recommend avoiding flash photography when photographing loose-leaf tea as it makes composition more difficult.

The goal in lighting when photographing tea is not to be perfect, as there is no perfect, but rather to be close enough that when someone looks at your tea in typical bright lighting, it will look similar to how it looks on your website. Here is an example of a company, Rishi Tea, which I think does a good job of matching the color and lighting of their teas to how they actually look.

Not all companies do as good a job of this. Below is an example, from Shanti Tea, a relatively new, sustainability-focused Canadian company specializing in loose-leaf teas, shows lighting in photography which I think is a little on the dark side, with perhaps more of a yellowish tinge:

These photos show the leaf clearly, show artful composition, and clearly depict the individual character of each tea's loose leaf, but the color looks slightly darker than normal. Update: I recently had an opportunity to see Shanti Teas' teas in person, and I was able to verify that the color scheme on the website seems darker and more yellowish / reddish than teas actually look in bright light.

Although lightness can be subjective, I think it is better to error on the side of brightness because tea leaf tends to have a darker color, among common everyday objects, and thus, a brighter leaf allows a person to more easily assess what the leaf actually looks like.

Photograph loose leaf tea from an angle and in a configuration that shows some depth, showing the texture of the leaf:

The composition of the photo of loose-leaf tea is very important. If you just photograph the top of the contents of a bin of loose-leaf tea, it will not look very interesting and will not do a great job of showing what the leaf actually looks like. But, if you separate the leaf and photograph the leaf sparsely against a white background (as Rishi does, which you can see above), the resulting photo, artful as it may be, will not look much like the bulk leaf that will arrive when the customer purchases it. As much as I think Rishi's photographs are beautiful, my personal preference is for photos that show a mass of tea gradually spreading out to sparse leaf, so that the viewer can see both what the bulk tea looks like, as well as the inidividual leaves.

Here is an example of a photo I took:

The tea is White Eagle Long Life from Imperial Tea Garden, a tippy green tea from Hunan province. This is by no means the best photo that could be taken of this tea, but it illustrates the key concepts I want to communicate about how to position a tea: the white background around the edge of the photo shows the individual leaves of the tea, whereas the mass of tea in the upper right shows what the bulk loose-leaf tea looks like. The focus is in the foreground of the picture, and the rear is blurred, mimicking the experience that people get when looking at an actual object in real life.

For an example of this method used on an actual tea company's website, check out the following screenshot of green teas on the website of Chicago Tea Garden:

Each of these three teas show a border with the texture of the leaf visible, as well as a mass of loose-leaf tea with some texture to the pile of tea as a whole. Personally, I like the two photos on the left, with more variation in texture, more than the photo on the right, which is more uniform. I especially like the photo of the Bi Luo Chun.

Compose your photos so that the customer can clearly and easily distinguish between the different teas you offer:

This piece of advice is common sense, yet a lot of tea companies do not follow it, perhaps because it can be difficult to follow. I find this point is especially true when dealing with black teas, especially Assams, a little less with Darjeelings or Yunnan teas (which tend to show more variability in their appearance).

But no two teas look exactly alike. If you look at the teas side-by-side, you will find some way to distinguish them, and you can then focus on their differences in your photographs. And if you cannot figure out a way to distinguish them, then use the composition of the photos to create two vastly different-looking photographs. Make the teas look different. There is no single right way to photograph a given tea, so, even if you have a catalogue of dozens of similar-looking black teas, it's possible to take unique-looking photos of each one.

Look at this example from the Assam Tea Company; all of these teas are black teas from Satrupa estate in Assam, yet look how different they appear, even in this low-resolution screenshot:

If your company uses the same base tea to create flavored tea blends, and if you flavor the teas using extracts, a good solution is to photograph the tea against a backdrop of the whole ingredient that you have used as the flavoring for the tea. For example, for an orange-flavored tea, photograph the loose-leaf tea in front of a sliced orange, or include some cinnamon sticks in the background of a cinnamon-flavored tea.

And of course, the inclusion of whole ingredients in your flavored teas rather than relying strictly on extracts or flavorings, besides leading to superior flavor, also has the added benefit of making your loose-leaf flavored teas look different. Here is an example of flavored teas from Adagio Teas, showing how the inclusion of whole ingredients can make loose-leaf tea look vastly different, even when the same base tea is used in multiple blends:

Show the packaging as it appears in stores:

My piece of advice to photograph and display the tea packaging on your website is more applicable to certain tea companies than others. In particular, this point is probably only relevant to tea companies that sell their products in retail stores other than their own dedicated stores.

When customers visit your website, some of them may be looking to buy tea, but a large portion of them may simply be looking for information on your products. If your company primarily sells packages of tea in stores, having pictures of your packaging is very important.

The above example from the Twinings USA online store clearly shows the packaging of both the loose-leaf tea and tea bags offered by Twinings. This is important as Twinings mostly sells its tea tins in other retail stores, where shoppers will need to recognize and locate it on the shelf. However, I think it would be an improvement if Twinings showed photographs of the loose leaf as well.

Photograph the brewed cup and, if you are catering to connoisseurs, the used tea leaves after steeping:

I also think that it is important, besides showing what the leaf looks like, to show what the brewed cup of tea looks like as well. If you photograph the brewed cup of tea, in contrast to my recommendations for photographing the dry leaf, I recommend using consistent lighting and composition. The reason is that the primary point of photographing brewed cups of tea is to show the color of your brewed teas relative to each other. Some will be darker than others. Pick lighting that shows the variability, but once you pick the lighting, stick with it so that your customers can see which of your teas are darker than others.

Doing this well is a lot of work, and I can understand that for smaller tea companies with a large catalogue, it may not be worth the effort. However, there are some smaller companies that still do this. Here is a screenshot from the homepage of GreenTea Japan, a small tea company specializing in direct-sourced Japanese green teas. Look at the astonishing variability in the colors of the brewed cups here, keeping in mind that these are all Japanese green teas:

When exploring GreenTea Japan's site, you will see pictures of the brewed cups of each specific tea this company offers. The differences among types of tea (such as from one sencha to the next) are subtle, but noticeable.

What about photographing the used tea leaves? I think that this practice is very important if your company caters to connoisseurs. Why? Many teas are tightly rolled, twisted, or folded, and, in most cases, you cannot fully examine the visual qualities of tea leaf until after the tea leaf has been steeped in water for some time. The used tea leaf often provides more in the way of information and visual cues about the tea's quality than the dry leaf.

The following screenshot is taken from the site of Life in Teacup, one of my favorite tea companies, also a very small company. This screenshot shows the entry for Yongchun Fo Shou (Bergamot) Oolong Superior Grade, a green se chung oolong that I found very interesting. This photo shows the brewed leaf and the color of the brewed cup:

The close-up photo on the website shows the whole, intact leaves with no visible breaks, identifying this as a high-quality whole-leaf tea in a way that looking at the tightly-rolled dry leaf could not show.

That's all for now.

There you go. I'm not the best photographer, but I do look at a lot of photos of tea in the course of my work on RateTea, and I have a good sense of what looks good and what doesn't.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the recommendations offered here? Since many of the readers of this blog are better photographers than I am (I know, because I've seen some of the people who comment here post beautiful photos on their own blogs), do you have anything more to offer?


  1. Hi Alex,
    I think Life in Teacup is head and shoulders above the other sites listed here. The lighting is even, white balance is not far off, and we get a clear shot of the wet leaves. This is the top priority for me.

    I think photographs of the brewed tea are a lot less useful, because they can vary widely due to uncontrolled factors like shape/depth of cup, mineral profile of water, etc. I post them sometimes as a very loose guide, but show me some soggy leaves!

    As an aside, I am more interested in fidelity of tea's color as I experienced it than fidelity of the image the camera sensor took. Cameras are far from perfect and I will definitely do post-processing sometimes to give a more accurate color on the screen.

  2. I am also having a bit of a challenge with vendor photos of wet leaves appearing a bit unrepresentative of what you actually get.



    I suspect this tea is a blend of different aged bushes, different varietal, different processing - probably two or more of those. The leaf on the far right is very weak and doesn't even look like a typical yancha.

    Sorry for the tangent, just throwing in a practical example.

  3. I love Life in Teacup, so I'd be biased if I agreed with you! But I do like Gingko's photography. It's interesting, because her site doesn't follow a lot of the advice here (many teas are without images, some, like the example I gave, don't show the dry leaf at all) but when she actually photographs something I love the photographs. I especially love her photographs of mug-brewing of whole-leaf green teas in glass mugs. And of course, I also love the tea!

    But...I also agree with your comments overall, the wet leaves are much more telling than the brewed cup of tea. I like photos of brewed cups of tea primarily if I get the sense that they're being done in a controlled fashion. For example, although it is no longer up on their site, Harney & Sons used to have a thumbnail shot of each cup of brewed tea alongside the loose leaf...I was a little disappointed that this got lost / removed in the site redesign. On their old site, you could see, for instance, the much lighter color of the brewed cup of Anji Bai Cha when compared side-by-side to other pan-fired Chinese green teas. But, in the case of looking at a screen that shows a bunch of different black teas, or different Chinese green teas, side-by-side, I found this useful. It's less useful when just looking at one individual tea.

    The photos you gave are interesting too.

  4. I actually like both of the Min River Tea pictures you linked to, so I think you're pretty far ahead of the game, at least, as compared to what is typical among tea companies that I looked at. I remember being impressed when I first looked at the Min River Tea website.

    Also, this isn't the first time I've heard the Ken Rockwell site recommended.

  5. I think I first heard about Ken Rockwell a few years ago through a friend, and I bought two cameras off the back of his recommendations (both worked out well).

    Glad you liked the photos. It has to be right for the customer, and there's always a compromise of whether you're trying to attract somebody who normally drinks cola or someone who really knows their tea.

  6. Alex and Brandon, thank you very much for your praises. You don't know how much this means to me! Also your compliments and trust make me blush, as I am less than an amateur photographer and don't even know how to use SLR... There are some photos on my website that don't look very good and most of them look somewhat sketchy. Seeing this article makes me determined to learn more about photography and do better in the future.

    Since my husband is not home, I also want to tell you this :-p My husband is a professional photographer, and a few photos on my website were taken by him. But the one Alex picked was taken by me. That really made my day :-) I know he could do a lot better than I. But so far I haven't made him take many of my tea photos yet because he is not a tea drinker, often doesn't make tea photos the way I want, and is not always around when I drink tea. I still think he is one of the best photographers, but I don't like his tea photos as much as many others I saw on tea forums taken by enthusiastic tea drinkers. So besides improving my own skills, I probably should communicate with him more on what kinds of tea photos I would like :-D

  7. I'm a tea drinker, but also run a website that is totally unrelated to tea, not even food/drinks, but I found your advice very good, a bit like what my customers would tell me if they had enough understanding of how a website works. Most advice on website design and seo on the net comes from a marketeer's point of view, hardly unbiased... Well done! D.