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Photographing Your Makes – Top Tips

Photographing your makes for the ‘gram? Like many others this September, I’ve been following and posting along with The New Crafthouse’s #sewyourselfsustainable challenge on instagram. One thing I keep noticing – both from people taking part in the challenge and those who haven’t been – is that many people seem to either struggle with taking photos of their makes or they perhaps could simply improve their images with a couple of really easy tips. I’m not immune to making some photograph faux-pas myself, but as instagram’s a visual medium, everyone benefits from having some good photos on their feed – especially if they’re photos you’re proud of that show your makes off in the best way possible.

I should say that by writing this, I’m not discrediting anyone’s photographs, I just want to give some tips to people who struggle a little with getting good images of what they’ve made. If you do things differently to what I’ve written here and it works for you, then that’s absolutely fine, but there’s plenty of folk out there who might not know how to get good shots and so this post is for those people.

Flat lay photographs

The first thing I see a lot – both in comments and in the captions of Instagram posts themselves – is that people really struggle to do flat lays. A flat lay, if you aren’t sure, is a photograph taken looking directly down onto your items. These can be difficult for a variety of reasons – the size of the item you’re trying to photograph perhaps, having a decent background to use or simply enough good quality light.

knitting with natural fibres
This is a great example of a flat lay photo - the subject here is knitting and so the photo contains everything to do with knitting, plus some extra embellishments

You might have noticed on my instagram feed that up until recently, most of my photo backgrounds were wooden tabletops – whether that was my office desk or my dining room table. My sewing desk is black and covered in scratches, so it’s not a great background really, which is why I’ve tried to avoid using it (though my dining table has a lot of scratches too, so it’s not ideal). You can buy photo backgrounds, but they can be expensive and are often pop up backgrounds which lose the ability to ‘pop’ after a couple of uses, so I wouldn’t recommend them. Wood is a beautiful backdrop though, so if you have any spare then it’s worth using. Even wood effect laminate flooring can be used – if you have some offcuts left over from laying a floor, you can mount these onto a board and use them as your backdrop. Likewise, left over tiles or lino offcuts can be used in the same way, or you can do as I’ve done and use some wallpaper.

Find wallpaper sample backdrops for photographing your makes

We don’t have wallpaper in our house – my husband hates it and my cats love scratching it, so it’s a no-go for us really. However, I made some photo backdrops using wallpaper samples I picked up while in B&Q. I grabbed four samples in total – two in textured concrete effects, one brick wall effect and one black and white dry wall effect. While in B&Q, I also bought a 6mm thick board to mount them on and some contact adhesive to mount the wallpaper to the board evenly (though if you have some wallpaper paste, that will work fine too). The board thickness is quite important because you don’t want it to be too flexible, as it could warp quite badly during storage. Overall, this is a really cheap and easy way to get a nice background – it cost me less than £10 in total for the four backdrops – plus it’s easy to store the boards upright along the edge of a shelf or behind something when you aren’t using them.

Backgrounds for photographs
Backgrounds for photographs

Okay, now you’ve got a good backdrop, you need plenty of light and space to take the photograph. My backdrops aren’t huge – they’re around 40cm square – but as they’re mainly for photographing my products, that’s good enough for me at the moment. (I’m planning on making and using some nice tablecloths for my dining table so I have better backdrops for larger items too.) I can put my backdrops on a table and light them as I need to, framing out the edges of the board if necessary. My sewing room is north facing – so while it has a window, it doesn’t get an awful lot of light. I can use my desk lamp, though most lightbulbs produce a warm yellowish light which doesn’t mix all that well with daylight. You can get daylight bulbs or “cool white” though, so if you need to use a lamp near a window that doesn’t get much light, try and use one of these bulbs to balance the colours out. Of course, if you have the space to move your backgrounds into another room with better light, definitely do that!

Arranging the flat lay can be tricky; you want it to be interesting but not packed with too many things that you can’t see what the main item of the image is. I like my haberdashery shop flat lays to be quite minimal in that sense, though there’s some beautiful images out there which are full of interesting items without taking the focus away from the main item. A good example is knitting needles surrounded by yarns or natural dye pots surrounded by the plants you’re dyeing with and the tools you use (spoons, tongs, etc) to dye. Looking at other people’s imagery is a great source of inspiration, but it’s also a really good way to learn how to arrange your own photos too. If you see some flat lay photos that you really like, have a look at how they’re arranged and what exactly is in the photograph. If you find flat lay photos that you don’t like, you can still learn from these too, as you can work out what it is about them you don’t like – are they too busy or are they perhaps too sparse? Is it clear what the main focus of the photo is or not?

Flat lay photograph of products
This flat lay was deliberately shot quite minimalist and in a portrait aspect as I wanted to use it for instagram stories and a windowed layout for my facebook cover image

Use focus properly

Most phones can take really good pictures now and you can set the camera to take 1:1 square photos for instagram if you like too. This makes taking the actual photo a lot easier – plus you can get some great photo editing apps on both Android and Apple if you want to tweak your images before you post them to instagram. If you’re using a camera rather than a phone, it’s best to have a tripod with a variable column – these are able to transform the central column from vertical to horizontal quickly and easily. You could also rig your own overhead shots with a flexible table tripod, like the Joby Gorrillapod, if you have shelving or something of the sort above where you’re taking your photograph. Avoid attaching the flexible tripod to ornaments or anything else that is likely to move though – you ideally want to attach it to something like the shelf bracket which is immoveable, as the weight of your camera could damage your ornaments.

Autofocus in photography is great, but sometimes it picks the wrong thing to focus on. Make sure you set your focus on the main item you’re photographing and that the focus is on the right area of that item. For example, dye pots would need the focus to be at the waterline in the pot, balls of yarn would need the focus around the closest point of the yarn to the camera, etc. This is down to the way focusing works – a good amount of what’s behind the point of focus will be in focus too. For flat items like flat lay clothes or a crochet blanket in progress, everything is on the same focal plane, so it’s less of a consideration. Most phones and modern cameras use touchscreens which allow you to touch the area of the frame you want to focus on, though if your camera doesn’t have a touchscreen you might need to manually focus with the lens (it’s not as scary as it sounds, I promise).

For those using a DSLR or mirrorless camera and wanting to go out of auto mode, you need to set your f-stop at f/4 or f/5.6 ideally, as this means that your focal plane will be deeper – the larger the f-stop number, the more is in focus. Be aware that this affects a lot more than your focus area though; by using what’s known as a “deeper” f-stop, you’re letting less light into the camera as the aperture is smaller. Think of the lens aperture like the iris in your eye – in brighter conditions your iris is small, whereas in darker conditions it is quite big to let as much light in as possible. I use Aperture Priority mode on my camera, as the camera will then work out the optimal shutter speed based on my f-stop and the brightness of the frame. You’ll want to avoid holding or touching the camera if your shutter speed is 1/50 second or less as you’re likely to get motion blur in the photo – most cameras have a timer mode, use a tripod and set the timer to 2 seconds and the camera will only take the picture 2 seconds after you press the shutter button.

Modelling your makes

Lots of items are too big to photograph properly with a flat lay, or sometimes you just want to wear them for the photo! This is where you could end up taking hundreds of photos and not be happy with any of them. If you aren’t typically comfortable in front of a camera then this is where it will really show – you’re not unphotogenic, it’s just that your body language will scream “I’m uncomfortable!” You can get around this with a couple of simple posing tips.

I really don’t like having my photograph taken, I much prefer to be behind the camera than in front of it. I know I’m not alone in this, but there are times you might need to be in the photo – for example for a new headshot, if you don’t have a mannequin to model your makes on or perhaps to model trousers, gloves or hats you’ve made where you can’t use a mannequin. Some people prefer to frame their heads out of the photo to give them a bit of privacy, that’s perfectly fine and there’s many reasons you might want to do this. For things like hats, you can photograph them from behind if you still want to model them but not show your face. Gloves and anything below your waist are possibly more comfortable to photograph, as you can focus on just your hands or your lower body.

For full body and lower body shots, it’s not all that flattering to face the camera directly. This is mainly because most people don’t really know what to do with their arms and hands, so they let them hang awkwardly. This encourages you to roll your shoulders forwards, rather than standing tall with your shoulders back. You’re much better off turning slightly to the side – think about the Mona Lisa’s pose. It helps to hide any bumps and lumps you perhaps have which you may not be happy with, plus it can help to hide any mistakes you might have made when making your clothes. If the camera is at your 12 o’clock, you want your body to be facing between 1 and 2 o’clock (or 10 and 11 o’clock, if you prefer facing the other direction) with your face and upper body turned towards the camera. Try not to do side profile shots as these will look equally as unflattering as facing the camera straight on, as there tend to be more things about the human body which are highlighted in profile – if you aren’t happy with your nose or face shape, you have a double chin or perhaps have a bit of extra weight around your belly that you don’t like (don’t we all, thanks lockdown!), these will all be more prominent in a side profile shot.

It can be awkward to pose for a photograph
I didn't even try to look awkward here, but it still doesn't look great
It can be awkward to pose for a photograph
This is a much more flattering pose - I deliberately pushed my shoulders back and stood tall

If you’re still not sure what to do with your arms, you can try putting one hand on your hip, holding both hands behind your back or playing with your hair. You can even try being a bit silly and throwing your arms in the air – even if the photograph doesn’t come out all that well, you’ll be a bit more relaxed in front of the camera to try some other poses. All of these poses will look and feel more natural than standing and looking straight on at the camera. If someone else is taking the photo for you (rather than the camera being on a self timer), perhaps ask them to think of a few jokes they can tell you just before taking the picture – laughter always helps you feel more comfortable, plus you can get some really lovely, natural photos this way.

Photographing your makes outside

Another thing you can try is going for a walk in your local park – photos where you’re walking towards the camera can look really nice, or if you’re walking and the camera is off to the side. You can also get some lovely natural shots as you look at things around the park – at this time of year, that could be looking at the changing colours of the leaves or smelling any late blooming flowers. Nature also gives you a really nice background for photos, plus you get some fresh air – which can be important if you’ve been cooped up throughout lockdown due to shielding or self isolation. If you can’t go to the park but you have access to a garden or a balcony, you can use them as nice backdrops too. Balconies can present a bit of a challenge given the fact they’re usually quite small, but you can get some really great shots around the railings, as the photos below show.

posing for photographs on a balcony
posing for photographs on a balcony

If you have a mannequin and can use that to model your clothes, I’ve found that the same actually applies to photographing the mannequin. It always looks better when the mannequin is slightly turned away from the camera. You might find sometimes that you can’t show all the details of what you’ve made, so in this case I’d probably take a few extra shots from different angles. In future I’ll be photographing my mannequin at a slight angle, though when trying to write my blog earlier in the year I felt like I had to stick to the schedule I’d set myself to post and would often photograph it facing straight towards the camera simply because it was easier than styling it appropriately for each make. This really highlighted some mistakes – I didn’t know the hem on one of the shirts I’d made was wonky until I took a photo of it straight on, for example. I keep thinking about that hem and at some point I’ll likely redo it, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t taken that shot with the mannequin facing straight towards the camera! It doesn’t affect how I wear it after all.

modelling a mannequin for a photograph
Photographing a mannequin face on like this can make your clothes look a little flat and wide, and in this case makes the hem look uneven at the front when it's simply the way the fabric drapes
modelling a mannequin for a photograph
Simply turning the mannequin slightly away instantly gives the photo a bit more depth, as you can see the 3 dimensional shape of it - plus you can see little details like the pattern inside the sleeve cuff

Stylise photos of your makes being used

If you’ve made some gloves, there’s quite a few ways you can take good photos of your hands. Holding something is always a good start – whether that’s a top down photograph of you holding a hot cup of coffee, or a close up shot with you gently cradling something in your hands and your body in the background. If you have a bag, a shot from around waist height of you holding the bag can work too, or you could take a photo of one hand resting on the other arm above the wrist, perhaps while you’re sat down.

photographing me-made gloves
A top down shot like this of your me-made gloves is simple yet effective and easy to photograph

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas. These tips are intended to help you to show your makes off in the best possible way, plus they should help you reduce the amount of photos you need to take before you get one you’re happy with.