I work for a large UK-based clothing retailer. After some initial customer testing with our product details page there has been some debate on the following question:

Do customers generally react better to lifestyle-based product photography (ie, being used/worn by a model) or still life shots (product only, no humans)?

My personal guess is that the majority of users will favour the lifestyle type images and distance themselves from the rather bland still life style, which in our case displays the clothing on a mannequin against a plain background. The still life style (particularly in the context of a fashion business) strikes me as somewhat cold. Generally I believe that fashion brands try to instill a sense of fashion (which by definition is creative and energetic, not static). Personally I think the powers-that-be believe that not hiring models is cheaper...it's probably true but that's not what I'm here to debate.

However I like to think I'm a practical fellow and so I'm seeking any established research that would support - or discredit - my theory. Can sales conversion rates be improved (increased) with the use of lifestyle imagery (showing live models interacting/wearing the products), as opposed to person-less mannequin based photographs?

Thank you to anyone who can point me in the right directions of any such research.

4 Answers 4


Jakob Nielsen has featured some eye-tracking studies on eCommerce product category pages.

From the page: Photos as Web Content he shows the difference between Potterybarn (who use items shown in-context of actual use) and Amazon (who only show the product on its own):

enter image description here

It's clear to see that the images where products are shown in-context at Potterybarn gain more attention. (However the article does not mention whether or not this equates through to increased conversions, just that products in-context gained significantly more visual attention).

There is also a good article over at SmashingMagazine about how to use photos to sell more online. One interesting point there is:

Look Professional

The rules of portraiture dictate that a simple uncluttered background will focus interest on the subject. This rule is applied well on product gallery pages, where product images are cut out and presented against a white background.

Here they reference John Lewis with another comment that:

John Lewis, the UK department store, takes a painstaking approach to product photography, often taking up to 30 minutes to style individual items within a vast product range. The company defines and adheres to a particular photographic style. The results are stunning because the style is applied consistently.

This really is at odds with the idea that in-context images are preferable to bespoke photography because with the John Lewis approach the whole site itself uses the same image style giving the site a consistent look and feel throughout.

It may well depend on the target audience of your site. Are they likely to prefer the professional approach of John Lewis, or are they more suited to the etsy / ebay style?

  • The etsy style of different mannequin, backgrounds, variety of crops, changeable lighting, etc certainly provides a busy appearance that imho detracts from the overall experience, while the consistency of the John Lewis approach allows you to see the wood for the trees. My Ted Baker example below kind of assumes you're not going to make the presentation even MORE busy than the existing etsy style, and is more appropriate for the clean and consistent looks of John Lewis. So @JonW is quite right that you have to look at your own target audience as well as other input such as other retailers. Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:35
  • 2
    Also, in the eye tracking studies, 'attention' is short hand for 'fixated gaze'. Looking at something does not mean (a) people consciously saw it, (b) they understood what they were looking at, (c) they wanted to look at it. It means they looked at it. You only understand why if you talk to them and look at the behaviours they exhibit.
    – user597
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 9:24

I'll get to the reason why further down, but you don't have to choose.

I'd be surprised if the retailers (your competitors?) actually publish results of their expensive research... oh hang on - the results are in full view on their own websites!

OK, so the figures etc aren't there to make hard evidence based decisions on, but lets assume that the retailers with any common sense and care for the customer experience (CX) will have done some research into what product images to put on their websites, and actually listened and acted on that research.

So right off the bat, there's research you can do yourself - look at what other retailers are doing. Visit the websites of clothing retailers in the United Kingdom and see what they do with men's shirts and women's dresses for example.

You'll find a mix for sure, like JohnLewis.com using still life, BHS.co.uk using lifestyle, Debenhams.co.uk actually doing a mix, and Next.co.uk doing mostly still life but with an occasional token demonstration lifestyle picture.

But you'll also find some surprises.

Take a look at TedBaker.com. This is their men's shirts page:

enter image description here

All the pictures are still life - but when you hover over them you get the life style image:

So for example hover over the purple shirt...

enter image description here enter image description here

Hover over the white shirt...

enter image description here enter image description here

And that is actually a pretty neat solution to the problem because it caters for both groups that have a strong preference towards either still life or lifestyle pictures. And it allows users to see the product in detail (collar, buttons, sleeves, cuffs, pockets) as well as what it looks like on (which can also lead to the user purchasing the additional items shown in order to 'get the look')

So you don't have to decide - do both - you'll get a much better user experience as a result. I just don't have figures to allow you to determine ROI for the increased effort involved.

  • Ah, but which one do you go for as the default before hover-over? still life or lifestyle?
    – JonW
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:17
  • 1
    Personally (and I can only give a personal opinion here) - I want to look at the detail of the product and then see what it's like on. It's the exact parallel to what I'd do if I were in the store. Look at it on the rack; hold it up; feel it; then try it on and look in the mirror; then decide it's not me; then conclude it was too expensive anyway; then go somewhere cheaper; then waste my money on something that isn't fashionable and won't last 6 months or will never get worn anyway... Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:22
  • 1
    @JonW and hopefully the OP will visit all those websites and let us know the results back here afterwards. Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:23
  • @JonW Having spoken to James Chudley (the author of the excellent SM article that you link to in your answer), it seems the best conversion rates are likely to come when you use lifestyle images to tease and draw people in, then use product images to inform, and then on the rollover you show the detail (maybe so it's like you can almost feel the fabric) and that's the hard sell. So the answer to your comment is that the greater detail should be exposed on hover - contrary to my initial opinion above. (Lesson: test it!) The quality of the photography is paramount. Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 9:04

I won't give an answer - because I don't think there is an answer. I think it depends on the retailer and the market.

I also think that it's not the only dimension you can pick things on. For example I've seen quite different results from flats (like the way the individual clothes are displayed in this answer) vs mannequin shots.

Or fully body shots of real people, vs shots where the heads are cropped. Or in-context shots of people using products vs separate products.

If it was me in your shoes - this is how I'd approach the problem.

  1. The good news is that I'm working for a large clothing retailers - so I have the numbers for experiments, and probably the business savvy to realise that optimising conversions is a good thing.

  2. I look to the next sale / special offer / etc. that's going to involve an email campaign. If there isn't one we invent one.

  3. I shoot just the small subset in the sales campaign as flats, mannequin, models and in-context shots.

  4. I split test the options on the mail campaign and see which converts most.

  5. Since I'm leveraging off the time and money that was already going to be invested in the mail shot the experiment cost is not going to be a really significant extra.

  6. I'd then use the results from that to see if it looks worth our while to try a larger scale experiment.

(Also, and I know you said that this wasn't an issue, but shooting with models for a product range can be an order of magnitude or two more expensive that flats or mannequin shots - time as well as money. You need to be sure that the increased conversions, if any, are going to make up for that. It can't be ignored by the business).

  • A very well considered answer @adrianh. Thanks for your advice.
    – Adam C
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 9:18

I've worked extensively with clothing and home furnishings brands, where lifestyle photography is often used. Often the choice of lifestyle photography is part of a larger brand expression. Some brands see themselves as lifestyle brands and others don't. It's a choice that impacts overall art direction and not just product display.

That being said, a brand may choose to switch their style of product display if there is user research that suggests their target customer prefers a different style. Lifestyle photography generally does not support enhanced visualization, although Pottery Barn gets around this by offering multiple images, mixing lifestyle and non-lifestyle images--on the product details page. I think you need to consider the display needs of the product category as well as the display preferences of the target user.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.