Saturday, September 27, 2014

Photo Evolution - My Style

Hi, all!  I'm in a great group of beady ladies and gentlemen on Facebook and one of the recent topics was the age-old favorite for jewelry makers:  How do you take photos?

The ways we take photos are as varied as the styles we create.  Many (most) are taken on white backgrounds because they produce a clean background for web pages and advertisements.  Selling sites love the "catalog" look of white, too.  For me, it just doesn't work, and I'll explain why in a few.  It's nothing to do with the look of white - I just can't pull it off without a lot of work.  :)

Still others use black backgrounds, and I have to say that they are dramatic and gorgeous, but I've never been able to achieve good results.  I'm jealous of the gorgeous black background photos I've seen.

My color of choice?  Slate grey.  It's an awesome neutral!  White seems to over-expose my pieces.  Black reflects the light back so much that any crystals glow too much.  Grey is just right for me.  Other good neutral suggestions would be wood, concrete, stone, brown paper bags (no kidding!) and neutral colored card stocks.

At some point in my career, I have tried all these things with varied results.  Before I show my setup, let me show you my initial photography fails.  Let's take an embarrassing trip down memory lane.  These photos are from years ago, evolving to more recent photos near the end of this post.

So yes... I thought dark fabric would be dramatic.  It was, alright!  This is what happens with black for me, too.  It overexposes the crystals and light objects.  Light bounces off the black or dark color and this is my result.  :blush:  Case in point:  below.

I think a lot of my problem was that I was trying so hard to do the light tent setups that you read about online.  Homemade or professionally made, light boxes rely on direct light.  I tried a homemade tent, so I can't speak for the real ones out there, but direct light has disastrous results for me.

Then I tried sunlight.  Go outdoors!  They tell me.  Use natural light!  They say.  Well, this is Florida, and our natural light is blinding.  :sigh:  It's never worked for me.  I lose all definition outdoors, even if I try a fabric screen to eliminate shadows.

So eventually, I try white crocks and doodads as props.  The problem?  White doesn't really translate as white with regular light bulbs.  I have a ton of old, yellowed pictures to attest to this.  Could I have negated this with white balance and exposures on my camera?  Sure, if I knew how!  I tried to learn how to manually set cameras and it just didn't work for me.

This one isn't so bad, right?   Wrong.  I totally washed it out by trying to eliminate the yellow and to brighten the photo.  Post editing was my nemesis for a long time until I found a system that worked for me.

Then came the epic trial of the backgrounds.  I must have tried everything under the sun.  Home Depot has free sample tiles and I loaded up on all sorts of colors and styles.  I stuck to stone looking ones and neutrals- by now I learned black wasn't my friend.  Still, my choices weren't great and just look how awful this photo is!  So washed out, again with direct light.

After a while, I tried natural river stones.  I liked this look.  I could live with this.  It's not so horrible, but still a bit overexposed due to semi direct light.  I'd learned to not focus my light right on a piece, but I still had a way to go.

Wood- not bad, I could live with wood, but this grain was distracting.  My style is getting better though.

Leather.  Well, leather bounces a lot of light if it's dark.  Same thing as with a black background for me.  This photo was tolerable but still overexposed.

Ah, slate.  I found my slate at last!  This one is still over-bright. I was getting there, though!  I had, at one time, a mix of slate and wood and white backgrounds in my shop.  Once I decided on a singular, cohesive background, slate won out.  Grey is my perfect neutral, and the texture is good without being distracting.  Of course, it's my own opinion.  Others make white look awesome!  I've seen black backgrounds that were dramatic and gorgeous!

At some point, I tried to go all fancy and reflective.  This is a piece of glass over my slate.  I liked it for some of my photos, particularly metal, but I had to create a solid roof over my booth because the glass reflects everything...

Reflections became a problem, so I ended up nixing the glass.

Back to the slate, but still brightness was an issue for me.  Things seem dull to me and over bright.

Somewhere down the line, I had an "ah-ha!" moment and turned my lamps completely away from my work.  I liked this!  It also brought out the texture of the slate.  Some of it is due to my camera angles.  I began to take my photos down low to my pieces.

It works with metal, both silver and copper.  If I want shadows, I use dark paper on the far side- I'll show you in a few.

Beads.  Personally, I think it's gorgeous on beads.  For crystals, I shine the light almost completely out of my booth altogether!  I have just a smidgen of light on the back wall.  I've now found my style, and I've used slate for a few years now.

It may not be perfect.  We all have to find our style, but for me, this is it.  I've bought "how to photograph" type videos and books.  I've tried their way.  I always come back to my own way.  For me, this is it!  My signature.  :)

How do I do it?  Here's a photo!

White foam core booth, $6 drop light from Walmart, $2 slate tile from Home Depot.  I use a small tripod, I get low to the piece, usually from the right side.  Shine the light off the back wall, use dark paper to throw more shade if needed, et voila!  The rest is creative cropping, a bit of post editing/color correcting (use a white eyedropper on a white area prior to cropping), toss on a watermark using Gimp, and I have my style.

Mannequin shots!  What about those?  Well, here is a photo of my entire booth.  I direct the light at the roof, still away from the manni.  If you don't direct away from the mannequin the jewelry leaves shadows on the "skin".

I hope you've enjoyed my embarrassing trip down memory lane, and I hope I've been able to help a little bit.  I'm not saying to go buy slate or use this setup.  I'm saying that we evolve our styles over time.  Don't be afraid to experiment!  Eventually you'll find what works for you!


  1. Thanks for the trip down your photo evolution lane. I learn so much of my own photography from your examples.

  2. Great narrative, and it shows your growth as a photographer - kudos! Paying a professional photographer $200, $300 or more is fine if you're selling $1,200 beadwork. For affordable pieces, good personal photography wins every time! Jeanne Evans

    1. Thank you! Since I don't sell my jewelry anymore, I definitely wouldn't pay a professional. :)

  3. Valorie,
    your post is very helpful. I especially like the way you bounce light off the walls of your photo booth, and use darker material to create bounced shadows.
    Is your photo room dark except for the light in your flood unit?
    What type of bulb do you have in your flood unit - both #watts and type of light ("daylight," or "regular incancescent," or compact florescent, etc)?
    Do you ever feel a need to photograph earrings as they hang, rather than lying flat on the slate? if so, how do you set this up?
    I'm in the beadweaving group and saw your reference to this blog post. I've sent you a friend request on FB so you can answer my q's there. I don't receive notifications from blogs.
    all the best,
    Mary Alexander

    1. Hi Mary, I'll post the answers in both places. :) Thank you so much for your compliment!

      I have lights on in my studio where I take photos, but my studio is generally pretty dark. Even with multiple lights, it always seems pretty dim.

      I use "Daylight" bulbs with 75 watt output. Any old CFL flourescent light will work, but you need them to say "daylight" or "true light"- Walmart sells some inexpensive ones, but the ones in my studio right now were bought at Home Depot for around $5 each.

      I do sometimes photograph my earrings on a mannequin. I have one with pierced ears, but I always use a slate photo for my Etsy shop for a cohesive look. My first photos in my shops are always slate. it gives a unified look.

      For mannequin shots, I either backlight the same way I do with slate, or I aim the light on the ceiling of my booth. If I notice shadows, I angle the light away from the booth until the shadows go away.

      I hope that helped! :) ~Val