Product Photos: Let There Be Light!

When first starting my Etsy shop creating product photos was thee most difficult task in my quest to bring my handmade clothes to the masses. Having received my Bachelors in Film Production I knew a thing or two about lighting and set design but little about practical retail photography. So the experimentation commenced and years later I am more than content with the results – I am downright beaming with pride. Using the most minimal resources I have found a way to take a striking pic that captures the viewers attention while flattering the garments. Here are the tid bits that I have learned over the years.

Perfecting the Backdrop

For those who don’t yet know the story – my original inspiration to create Pierogi Picnic happened at the 2007 Renegade Craft Fair. It was my first time at the festival and I was overwhelmed by the creativity, talent, and diversity of crafters when it struck me – I could sell my goodies too! I would call myself Pierogi Picnic in ode to my immigrant roots and whimsical spirit and would have  a silhouetted grass and cloud backdrop. By the end of that day my brand was born! But the most difficult task was yet to come – photographing my items.

Despite ‘knowing’ what I wanted my photos to look like – perfecting the background itself was daunting. I played with hanging a sewn fabric montage from my dining room ceiling. It was blue and green making the photos painfully bright. This would not do. So then I tried a monochromatic palette and spent an entire weekend crafting a new backdrop using salvaged bed sheets. I then attached ties and strapped it to a professional photo backdrop frame. The fabric was not taut enough and it once again became a huge distraction in the photos. I needed a completely flat service.

Then it struck me – why not use a wall? So I gathered painting supplies, a can of eco-friendly Yolo paint in a warm gray, a good mix of 80s pop music, and my brother for a Saturday living room paint off. Then I cut my signature grass and cloud shapes from some white paper and tacked them up to the wall – and whalah – my dream had come true! Light would now bounce softly against the wall allowing for the model and clothes to really pop in the frame while still maintaining my brand’s look.

It’s All About the Light

Forums, videos, and even Etsy admin will all tell you that one must must must use natural lights for quality photos. This drove me crazy when I first started out! Living in a one bedroom apartment in the country’s third largest city did not lend itself to grassy knolls and rustic fences for romantic midday photos shoots. Living near the lake also meant that buildings are high density and that unless you’re in the topmost apartment in the highest skyscraper on your block – you won’t have direct sunlight. I can’t begin to tell you how much I envied the poised window photos of many Etsy clothing designers. They looked so natural, and serene, with their heads tilted and a ray of sun hitting their embellished dress just right. But after days of trying to master this look all I got were underexposed, grainy, and blurry photos.

So as with all things – I took matters into my own hands. If the only advice I could find online was “take your photos in your yard or next to a window” I would never get passed this obstacle. So I took a trip to my local hardware store, bought a trio of industrial clamp lights and a pack of daylight CFLs and turned my living room into a blazing, blinding, box of light.

To achieve the perfect balance of light and shadow I used a trick I had learned from a cinematographer friend: use one light on your backdrop and two for your subject from a single direction. By placing your first and second lights at two levels on the right or left (not both!) of your models or items, you will be able to capture the texture, shape, and density of your pieces. If you light your items from both sides they will lose their details and the photos will appear flat, one dimensional, and lackluster. Also, by lighting the background with a separate third light, and placing the models/items out if its range, you will create additional depth in your picture.

Camera Tips & Tricks

The other key to sensational photos was using my camera to its fullest potential. I don’t have anything fancy – just a consumer grade Sanyo. What I do have is a timer and macro functions – the two most important in my opinion. The timer allows me to set my shot up on the camera and tripod and with the click of a button run from behind its gaze to the forefront to model. Without this ability I would never be able to keep my Etsy shop fresh as my model friends are not always available at my whim (and they shouldn’t have to be!).

The macro function, which on some cameras appears as a flower, allows you to take an extreme closeup of your subject while blurring out the middle and background. This is a sensational tip for anyone looking to show off the details in their work. It’s also a great way to take a long-shot if you want your photo to have a softer focus.

Photo Editing

I used to spend way more time than was necessary doctoring images. I’ve learned that it’s better to take an extra minute taking an additional set of photos while you’re already setup instead of getting stuck in Photoshop later in the game. And since we’re on the subject I cannot express enough how addicted I was to Adobe programs and how wonderful it is to not be using them (and paying the price) anymore. Since buying my new laptop I’ve converted to free-programs such as Open Office. For photo editing I use GIMP which is a free software that has many of the same capabilities as Photoshop. For very quick and simple tweaks Picnik, an internet based editing program, will also do the trick.

When editing your beautifully set, well lit photos, you want to focus on three things: composition, details, and (here it is again!) lighting. Composition refers to the angle and balance of your photo. You may take a wide shot and later decide that a closeup is more appropriate. Perhaps like me, you are shooting in your living space and need to crop out distractions like your couch, your doorway, or your dog. In addition to cleaning up your photos, you also want to look from the viewers perspective and remember the rule of thirds, which in layman’s terms, dictates that subjects are of less interest when they are centered in a composition.

In terms of details you’re looking for anything that may lead to distraction in your photo. Here, I’ve noticed that the clothing item still has the price tag attached – so that has to go. I selected the color of the wall directly next to the tag using the eye dropper tool, clicked on the paintbrush tool, and then gingerly edited the string away. I also noticed that the grass silhouette along the bottom has a color deviation. To fix this detail I used the smudge tool to blend the shadows in with the remaining cutout so that is appears seamless.

The last tool I use for editing photos is the brightness/contrast adjuster. I like my photos to have a definitive ‘pop’ and am definitely of the high contrast camp. Some people like a medium contrast with fuller grays while others a soft diffusion to the light. So it’s completely up to you how you decide to tinker with this tool and for me it’s always pushing up the b and c a notch or too. But be careful – going too far in either direction can make you lose the details you strove to capture – so don’t go crazy.

Last Bits

The last piece of advice I can give may sound cliche or cheesy – but have fun! If at any point you find yourself struggling, exacerbated, or burnt out, take a break. There’s nothing worse than a sloppy, blurry, uninspired photo (I know because I have some on my Etsy still!). So if you can – don’t force the process and try to find pleasure in every moment. Otherwise, you’ll lose the true spirit of handmade, and quite possibly, your sanity as well.


4 thoughts on “Product Photos: Let There Be Light!

  1. marissa says:

    wow fantastic article. I’ve been driven crazy by gloomy days and trying to take pictures. I seriously thought today oh it’s supposed to storm tomorrow I’ve got to get this finished so I can take the pictures today. But oh what a dream it would be to be able to take pictures at night I’ll definitely have to try the angle thing with those lights. thanks SO much for sharing

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