How To: Fashion Product Photography On A Budget

Introduction

Flat, poorly lit photo vs well lit photography with backddrop jsw vintage clothing
A photo from one of our early listings vs a recent one.

 

Since starting our online shop, the importance of consistent, high quality photography has become more and more apparent. I am writing this article to share some of the techniques we have employed to get the best quality images for our products (vintage clothing). We have tried very much to keep costs down wherever possible, therefore this guide is not designed for a high end studio photographer. It is designed to give the online seller some tips, tricks, and helpful advice; especially if you are working with little money to invest in your initial setup. I’m not claiming to be an absolute expert in photography, but I have learned a lot about it. I do have some formal training, but what you see here was mostly learned through trial and error. If you have anything you feel should be added here, please feel free to drop us a line.

Before You Begin

I prefer to be able to quickly replicate results for every item that needs photographing. For that reason, I recommend setting up a space that can remain in place when you are finished. It is also why, I am showing you how to take photos indoors, under artificial lighting. Natural lighting is fantastic to use, but it can be inconsistent, and you will likely spend more time adjusting your camera’s settings to compensate if you choose to use natural lighting.

photo studio on a budget. semi permanent studio setup for photography of vintage clothing
Semi-permanent space set up for photography.

 

Things You Are Going To Need

Here is a quick list of items you are going to need. I will expand upon them below.

  1. Digital SLR camera
  2. Tripod
  3. Remote control for firing the camera’s shutter
  4. Mannequin, dress form, or live model
  5. Backdrop
  6. Lots of light
  7. (optional) Standing clothing steamer.
  8. Photo editing software

1. Digital SLR camera. I absolutely recommend investing in a digital SLR camera to use for your photography. There are several big reasons why an SLR is recommended over a point and shoot. Generally, they have a larger sensor, which means a clearer, less grainy image in the end. DSLRs also offer more control, so compensating for different lighting situations is much better. The ability to switch out lenses is extremely desirable as well. You may have one lens for standard shooting, and another for doing close up shots for example.

nikon d60 digital slr camera jsw vintage clothing photography

Digital SLRs can get very pricey. The camera you choose does not have to be the absolute latest model. We’re shooting images for the web here, not blowing up prints the size of an art gallery wall, so you don’t need a gadjillion megapixel camera. The camera I shoot with is a Nikon D60. This model is about eight years old currently, but offers everything I need, and I was able to get it on Ebay, with the lens and two batteries and some other extras for under $150.

Pretty much any basic DSLR should do the trick, but there are a few key things to look for. First off, make sure you do some research before buying. If you find one at a good price, read some reviews about it online. Look up the specific model and read what others have to say. This is super important, but take bad reviews with a grain of salt. If you see remarks about bad action photos, for example, that’s not going to affect our intended subject here.

Another really important thing to look for, is what media the camera writes to. There are different memory cards these cameras can take. I have an SD slot built into my laptop, so I looked for a camera that uses SD cards to write the images. Find out which type is best for your purposes, and look for a camera that uses that type.

A very important thing to look out for when buying an SLR, is whether or not it comes with a lens. The lenses are often interchangeable (even onto newer cameras), so people will often retain the lenses when they upgrade their cameras. For this reason, you will often find second hand cameras sold as “body only”. It’s not a bad thing to have to purchase the lens separately. It’s just something to be aware of, as the lenses can get extremely expensive as well.

2. Tripod. This one is pretty straight forward. You don’t need a super heavy duty tripod, but you do want something that has a little weight to it. The cheap, lightweight ones are to easy to knock over, and they break easily. Get one that has quickly expandable legs for adjusting the height. A base that screws onto the camera and then clips into the tripod is a nice feature to have as well, so you can quickly take the camera off if needed. You shouldn’t have to spend much here. I think I got my old one off Ebay for around 15 bucks. The one I’m currently using, I got at an antique mall for $5.

3. Remote for firing shutter. This little guy is super important and worth its weight in gold and then some. It’s used to take a photo, without having to touch the camera. This is important for a couple of reasons. The main reason, is that when you press the button on the camera to fire the shutter, you can cause the camera to move – even when it is on the tripod. When that happens, you are going to get blurry photos. keeping your hands off the camera is key to keeping that camera absolutely still, and in turn giving you crystal clear images.

Another cool thing you can do with this little guy, is taking shots of yourself. If you want to use a live model, but only have yourself available, then no problem. You can place it discreetly in your hand and press the button when you’re ready. Mine works up to 15 or so feet away.

These are super cheap, and worth every penny. I think this one was about 10 bucks on Amazon.

remote fire for shutter on nikon d60 for vintage clothing photography

4. Mannequin, dress form, or live model. This one is entirely up to you. On Etsy (and most likely other outlets), photos using a live model seem to get the most attention. It’s not always feasible to have a live model though. As mentioned above, if you are up to it, you can always use yourself as the model when using a remote control. I used to use a dress form, but it is difficult and sometimes impossible to  show of pants on the dress form. Lately, I almost always prefer using the mannequin to photograph.

If you happen to be in Houston, I can recommend Royal Store Fixtures for purchasing a mannequin display. If you don’t live in this area, I still recommend finding someone local to you for sourcing a mannequin. The reason being, that they are very expensive to ship. You’ll save yourself a good bit of money if you can find one locally.

5. Backdrop. This one might require a bit of ingenuity on your part if you really want to keep costs down. That is because, I am using a pipe and drape system to hang the backdrop and to keep it taught. I already had the pipe and drape for a photo booth, and it works very well for this application. With that said, the one part that is absolutely necessary for this setup is the actual drape, which did not cost much at all. It is actually a curtain liner from Ikea.

Ikea curtain liner used as a backdrop for fashion photography

It was about 30 bucks and works extremely well. You can find them in store, or on Ikea’s website. They are very thick, so light does not pass through the fabric, which is important. Another feature, which was key in choosing these for the backdrop, is that they are smooth – almost textureless, so bouncing light off of them works great. One more thing that I was trying to do, was find a color that would match my mannequin fairly well. I’m not sure if you can tell from the images, but it has a silverish sheen to it. The intention was to make the clothing stand out, or “pop” as some folks say.

The  photo below, shows what  I had in mind, when designing this setup. It was very much my inspiration. Note how the clothing stands out from both the backdrop and model.

met new york image used as inspiration for photography setup
Professional photograph from the MET’s collection

 

One more note on backdrop. At one point, we had experimented with using a large splatter painting that we already had on hand, as the backdrop. The reasoning for using it, was that it was so loud that it would just go unnoticed as a background and also it would serve as a kind of branding for our photos. I feel like it was very much a failed experiment. The loud background very much detracts from the actual subject. It is also a fairly dark canvas, so working with light became difficult. You can see the differences in the photo below.

a loud background versus one that is bright and smooth and well lit fashion photography backdrop jsw vintage clothing

6. Lights! This part is extremely important for taking consistent photos. You will need lots of light to get good images, and you almost can’t have enough.

lighting and backdrop for vintage clothing fashion photography on a budget jsw vintage

I’m mostly using lamps that I already owned as my lighting sources. The hanging light is super useful and can be re positioned in many different ways if needed. The key is to make the subject bright, without getting any harsh shadows. The light that is on the floor is very important in this respect, in that it shines almost entirely onto the backdrop. That has two purposes: first it bounces the light, which fills in the rear of the model, and it also kills some of the shadows created from the more direct lighting.

Seen here are only three lights. There are about seven total in use. The others are placed somewhat normally throughout the room and provide good non-directional ambient lighting. They are all LED bulbs. I bought the brightest I could get my hands on, which is totally what I recommend doing. Like I said, you almost can’t have too much lighting. They are also the same color temperature. As far as the color temperature of your bulbs goes, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. and here is the reason why…

WHITE BALANCE

This is one of THE most important concepts to take away from this article. Depending on what type of lighting you are using, your camera will see what white looks like differently. So if you were to take a picture of a blank sheet of paper outside, and then you take a picture of the same sheet of paper inside under artificial light, it will look totally different unless you had adjusted your camera’s white balance settings properly. This is also one of the reasons that I recommend setting up a spot where everything can remain the same, so you will not have to be constantly setting your white balance, which saves you precious time.

It would be utterly futile to try and show you how to set up your camera’s white balance here, as most cameras differ in how to access the function. When you are ready to shoot, just google your camera’s model number along with “white balance set up”. It will be in your camera’s manual as well.

One piece of advice I can offer when setting yours up, is to have the camera set up right about where it will be while shooting your final subject. For me, that’s about seven feet back from the backdrop. Also, you will want to place whatever you are using to set the white balance approximately where your subject will be.

SETTING UP YOUR  CAMERA

I’m actually going to keep this short, as there is no set configuration that is going to work for every person and every camera. You will have to experiment with what gets you the best images in your setup. I do recommend setting your camera in manual mode. If you are very new to photography, this might be more difficult, but it will give the best results, and once you have it all dialed in, you shouldn’t have to adjust it after you get it all set the way you like. The aperture and shutter speed settings are two of the major items you need to adjust.

ISO is very important to think about as well. A higher ISO setting will have better low-light capabilities, but the trade off is a grainier photo. In general, you want to use the lowest ISO number you can get away with, for a clearer image.

Here are settings from a photo I recently took on this setup. You might use these as a starting point, but will likely have to adjust your camera further.

photography properties and settings for shutter and aperature vintage fashion photo setup nikon d60 dslr jsw

 

7. A standing clothing steamer (optional but recommended)

You might think this is an odd thing to put into an article about photography, but hear me out. I mention this, because a photo can only be good, if the subject looks the part. If your clothing is wrinkled, and looks like you just pulled it out of the hamper, nobody’s going to want to buy it no matter how good your photography is. If you’re going to take the time and effort to get good photos, then you should take a minute and steam out the wrinkles and cut any stray dangleys or lint. It only takes a minute, but it’s totally worth it in the end.

8. Photo Editing Software

Since this article is geared more towards photography on a budget I wanted to mention a couple of free options available to you.

photoshop cs2 box

The first option, which is the one I have gone with, is Photoshop. I’m not too sure how many people are actually aware of this, but you can download the CS2 version of Photoshop for free, and it’s perfectly legal. Now, this is an older version of the mighty Photoshop, but it features everything that I need when editing photos for the web. Pretty much every photo I take, I run it through Photoshop, with auto levels, a quick crop, and maybe reducing gamma a bit. It’s also good for resizing images, and some for some other tools as well (clone stamp can often come in handy). Here’s an article with a link in it to tell you more about this option: Where to get PS CS2

Another great option:

Another free option for you to use for photo editing is GIMP. I have to say, I have tried out GIMP before, and it is an extremely powerful photo editing tool. The price is right too. It is and always has been free. My only problem with it was that I already know how to use and am extremely familiar with Photoshop. It seems to have pretty much all of the same functionality but is set up totally differently. I was always searching for things where I would find them in Photoshop. That was the only reason I stopped using it – the learning curve. If you don’t already know Photoshop, or are up to learning some new software, I wouldn’t hesitate to give GIMP a go. You can find GIMP here: http://www.gimp.org/downloads/

I hope that all helps!

I hope that article was able to answer any of your questions on photography. If you have any questions, or suggestions, please drop us a line. If you did find the article useful at all, please consider checking out our shop and giving it a favorite. Thanks! JSW Vintage Etsy Shop