One of the most important things as an artist is to be recognizable – in a sea of people with similar designs, styles and branding , you want to be the person who shines through. Having thoughtful, unique product photography is a crucial component – and something that can feel elusive when you’re starting out as a designer. In the fourth installment of the Spoonflower Seller Handbook, Spoonflower’s go-to photographer, Alex Craig, is sharing his helpful tips for making your work jump off the screen!
Hello! My name is Alex, I’m Spoonflower’s resident photo taker and video maker. We also may have met via email if you’ve ever been lucky enough to place in the top 10 of one of Spoonflower’s Design Challenges. Today I’m here to talk to you about one of my favorite things: photography. Before we get started, I want to state the obvious:
Product photography for designers is much different than product photography for makers because the product itself is vastly different.
Taking a photo of an artisanal coffee mug? That’s a cinch – find some nice window lighting, an interesting surface to set it on (or a cool Spoonflower swatch, a lá Jenna of Pink Moon Ceramics) and you’ve got a great product shot with minimal setup and gear.
But showcasing a repeating design of an artisanal coffee mug!? Most minds go directly to a thumbnail or image of the design, or maybe a picture of the computer screen with the design pulled up in Illustrator, Photoshop, or Procreate.
And while the design thumbnail remains very popular and definitely holds a place in every designers catalog, there’s a whole world of other possibilities to diversify your visual brand and help folks of all backgrounds fall in love with your work. So, let’s start with a very basic intro to cameras and lighting to get the ball rolling.
Photo Basics: Getting the Right Light and Camera
It’s important to touch on lighting and cameras, as this is about photography BUT I’m not going to spend any time talking about specifics. There are already tons of great guides to photography (I recommend this article!) to teach you the nitty gritty of using a camera or to help you determine which camera to get if you’re in the market. Product photography for makers is an almost essential skill, but many designers won’t be interested in getting an expensive camera simply to document their process, take candids or create mockups.
I’m also a firm believer that the best equipment is what you have handy and what you’ll use, not what costs the most. Lighting and composition will forever be more important than camera gear. And if you’re reading this online, you might be reading it from your phone, and it most likely will have a camera on it – that will do the job just fine!
Lighting is a mystical, magical, occasionally-perfect-but-mostly-difficult-to-harness secret weapon / bane of existence for every photographer. When lighting is good, it’s good. But when it’s bad, it ruins sporting events, graduation ceremonies, outside events and, most important for us, photos.
So what’s the difference between good and bad lighting? The quality of the light and knowing how to work with it. What we’re going to talk through is using the light to your advantage as a designer, whether you’re doing flat lays of your workspace, time lapse videos, pictures of your food/pets/kids or just taking selfies.
The Secret to Finding the “Right” Light
The softest, dreamiest, most ideal light for pictures will always be window light. Indoor window lighting is (almost) always preferred over bright outdoor light because it’s diffused through a window; outdoor light can be harsh, and can cast unflattering shadows. Sometimes you’ll find that the window doesn’t let in enough light to illuminate the entire room, creating an uneven look to your image. The side of the picture lit by the window is very bright, and the other side is not. Try moving a white surface (a poster board works great) close to the scene you’re photographing.
White reflects light, so the sun will come in through the window, hit the white poster board, and bounce back into the scene, filling in some of the shadows on the darker side. Amateurs and pros alike use this technique all the time!
Using this technique, experiment with setting up a scene to bring your design process to life.
Four Ways to Showcase Your Fabric Designs
In our context, a mockup is a photorealistic model of a product or design used to demonstrate, promote, or evaluate that product. Mockups are a designer’s best friend – they can be used to test out designs with the community, help potential customers visualize how your designs will look in their home or on different fabric and wallpapers, and promote new work to your fans.
You can accomplish this by taking a picture (or having a friend help) of blank rolls of fabric, masking out the white areas, dropping in your designs, and adding highlights and shadows to areas of the fabric that recreate the lighting of the original picture and keep things looking realistic. You could use a light colored, non-white fabric to make it easier to see how the light plays on the material. We’ll be talking more about product mockups in our final installment of the Spoonflower Seller Handbook but if you want to get a jumpstart, check out this helpful tutorial on how to create your own mockup!
What do you do if you can’t create your own mockups? Spoonflower provides a rippled-fabric render for each design, as well as a wallpaper mockup that you can easily download for resharing.
If you have opted into selling your designs on Roostery products, you’ll have access to renders of your designs on pillows, tea towels, napkins and more. The Wyandotte Duvet Cover render displays your designs in a full bed set, and looks amazing (if I do say so myself).
If you’re extra lucky, we might even select your design to appear in a Spoonflower magazine!
2. Process Photos
These are my favorite! Take your designs off the screen, and bring the viewer into your creative process. People love behind the scenes footage; it makes creating art seem more accessible, which is a fascinating thing to watch and imagine. Do you use watercolor and upload your designs? Set up a scene with all of your tools arranged around a new design you’ve created. The same goes for pen and ink, marker, etc.
Put some hands in there! Grab a friend, partner, or little one to put their mitts into the frame and create some visual interest. Experiment with multiple points of view. Invite a photography-inclined friend over to take pictures of you while you create.
Another backbone of photography, seen in practically every industry, from cooking to fashion, and everything in between – flatlays give you a bird’s-eye view of the tools of the trade, usually arranged in a symmetrical, eye-catching way. Spoonflower community favorite, Nadia Hassan, does a great job of this.
Take it one step further and make those pictures move! Try doing a time-lapse video of your design process. This works for pen-and-paper creations, as well as screencasts on a computer / iPad. Show people how much work goes into your designs, or all the different iterations you go through before getting to the finished product. Ohn Mar Win does a great job showing her design process through video.
A timelapse video may seem complicated but there are tons of tools out there to make them easier than ever! You can go in two different directions for capturing design process with timelapse videos.
Put yourself in the video for extra visual interest and focus on your entire creative process.
Set your phone up on a tripod (we like this inexpensive, flexible one for cellphones). I think over-the-shoulder camera angles work best here – so set the camera up on a counter or other surface that’s a little higher than your body. Make sure the focus of the video is on your work and your hands creating and then hit record! There are lots of free timelapse apps in the App store, as well as built-in versions, both for iPhone and Android. Play around and see which ones you like best.
Create a timelapse on your computer of the design interface so viewers get a much closer look of your creative process.
If you’re designing on an iPad, Procreate and Adobe Illustrator Draw both have built-in video time lapse options – both programs record all actions as a frame of video by default, you just need to export them.
For Procreate: Go to the wrench icon on the top left, click ‘Video’ and you’ll have the option to turn recording on / off, and export the file.
For Adobe Illustrator Draw: Tap ‘share’ (the box with the arrow going out of the top), then tap ‘Timelapse’ – you’ll be able to see your video and can play it back to make sure you like it. Tap ‘share’ again to export the video out of Draw, and share however you’d like.
If you design on a computer, you can use Quicktime to record your process, and manually speed it up with a free video editor like Shotcut (easier to use and more basic), DaVinci Resolve (professional quality, and still free!), or iMovie (free if you have a mac).
Embracing the Art of Storytelling with Photos
Don’t create art in a vacuum. One of Spoonflower’s biggest strengths, and the thing I love most about working here, is the wonderful worldwide community of creators who interact, affirm, and nurture each other.
Everything is a story and people will always be interested in hearing one.
Create your own story by inviting people into your world. Talk about the inspiration behind your designs and let people see your process and the person behind all of the beautiful things they see online. Not everyone has a Pinterest-worthy studio space with soft, celestial light streaming in. Take your process out into the world – the park, a coffee shop, a co-working space, even the library could work. Borrow a friends’ studio for a few minutes. Tell your story! People will listen. And remember to listen when they tell theirs, too. Which brings me to my next tip…
You are a brand: Branding / brand building is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment, but there is a lot of useful information hidden under the hype. Every time you post something on the internet, personal or professional, you’re adding to your brand. As a designer, your brand is super important, so make sure not to skip out on prioritizing and humanizing it. Showing a human side gives fans and potential customers something real to connect with, and puts a face to your designs.
It’s much easier to be memorable with a diverse feed of images, instead of just design thumbnails. This could be pictures of you, your pets, your family, favorite activities, things that inspire you and your design process. The possibilities are nearly endless.
Now, go experiment with different photo styles, remember to humanize yourself and, above all else – have fun!
You’re well on your way to mastering the art of capturing your designs in a new light, so be sure to show us what you learned by tagging your design photography with @spoonflower and #spoonflower! Speaking of Instagram – stay tuned for the next installment of the Spoonflower Seller Handbook where we tackle our most requested topic: social media marketing!
About the Guest Blogger
When he’s not filming DIY tutorials for the blog, Alex can usually be found making bad jokes, taking pictures, or cooking weird recipes he found on the internet – sometimes all three at once. There will probably be snacks and cats nearby.