How to photograph craft: purses, washbags and hot water bottles

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In our new How to Photograph Craft series, professional photographer Yeshen Venema shares his tips on how to photograph handmade products for your online shop, with each post focusing on a different product type. Last time around Yeshen talked us through cards and notebooks, this week it’s flat textiles like purses, washbags and hot water bottles. Over to Yeshen…

It’s the second in my series of posts looking at different types of products, with tips on how to create great photos for your Folksy listings. This time we’re looking at bags, purses, washbags and hot water bottles. I’ll be breaking it down into sections (preparation, lighting, props and composition) with examples for each.

Preparation
With product photography, the devil is in the details. Small specs of dirt, dust or other marks on your products will show up. So use the best example of your product that you have and make sure it’s clean, crease-free and unmarked before starting. If you’re thinking ‘I can fix that in Photoshop later’, trust me, often you can’t. Also check for dust and marks on the surface and background you are setting up. Bear in mind that what the camera sees can be different to what your eye sees, so do some test shots and zoom into 100% size to check your shots before moving on.

You want your products shots to show the weave of your textiles and the small details that make your product special, so any loose thread, creases or stains will be glaringly obvious when you focus in on the details.

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Detail of a purse by Jenny Sibthrop

In this example of a screen-printed purse by Jenny Sibthorp, you can see the material weave of the purse, the quality of the stitching and the zip, the label and the print. It’s a good all-round detail shot.

Lighting
On items which are flat, the lighting should be even. Watch out for too much light though because you can easily wash out details. Different materials react to light in different ways: cottons and linens will appear more matt, absorbing light; silk, wool or synthetics can reflect light, causing unwanted highlights. If you hold the product in your hands and move around the room, you’ll see the light playing on its surface. Try different angles with your camera and compare the results.

One of the best sources of light is a north-facing window or skylight. Avoid direct sunlight, unless you are going for a particular effect in a lifestyle shot.

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Even lighting on a Lobster-print purse by Jenny Sibthorp

Props
Use props that feel natural. Unless you’re creating a fully styled magazine shoot, keep it simple. For pencil cases, use pens, pencils and stationery items, but be original. In the example below, Jenny brought along some lovely gold scissors which added a unique touch. Try to avoid brand names on your props – you don’t want to distract from your own products.

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Try to keep props simple and natural, like in this shot for a Pencil Case

Composition
Think about the size of your product relative to the props you’re using. It’s important to show scale so your customer can easily get an idea of its size. In the example below, for Jenny’s coin purse, we used English coins and a business card. A pencil and mobile phone in the background add some context, and we used grey card for the surface to give a soft, neutral tone that doesn’t detract from the product. This shot was intended as a secondary image, rather than the main image, to show detail, context and scale.

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A secondary image of Jenny’s ‘Grass’ Purse designed to show the detail and scale of the piece

Also, note that the above shot is in a portrait format, but would also work if cropped square. Think about your end crop when framing your shots. It’s always best to have some room to be flexible when cropping, so avoid zooming in too close.

The shot below is an example of a tricky product to shoot: oven gloves. It’s all about the context here. We didn’t have the use of a rustic country kitchen, so a few choice props and a carefully framed angle of view show off the product in style. There’s also a sense of movement here, of the product being used. The depth is created by the lighting and by the focal point being on the product.

Cecily Vessey oven gloves, product shot, London skyline oven gloves

This shot of Cecily Vessey’s London Skyline Gloves gives an impression of the product in use

Shooting from above is a great skill to learn – I use this technique in almost every shoot. Some tripods will allow reverse mounting where the central column can be inverted, allowing you to position the camera pointing straight down. However, there will be limits as to how high you can place the camera using this technique. If you have a live view and articulated screen (as on the Canon 60D for example), you can hold the camera out in front of you and frame your shot. When I shot this water bottle by Jules Hogan I was standing on a chair above the table. You can arrange items on the floor, but be aware that the angle of light will change, and it can appear different from a table surface.

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Patchwork Knitted Hot Water Bottle by Jules Hogan shot from above


You can see some more examples in my fashion and textiles gallery
Also, check out my #phototip album on Flickr for more secrets

Next in the series will be jewellery and small items, including those pesky reflective surfaces. Don’t miss it! 

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Yeshen Venema is a freelance photographer, specialising in product and lifestyle photography for designer/makers. Inspired by his mother (a photojournalist in 60s Munich), he picked up a Nikon 35mm aged 13 and hasn’t stopped taking photos since. He is based in east London, but works across Europe, shooting for documentary, landscape and education commissions, and writes on the subject of photography for various blogs and magazines.

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