In theory, I have a very good idea of what I’d like my product photography to look like. For instance, when I envision the shop page of Wild Naiada Designs, it brims with a joyful and consistent look that also manages to:
- show close-ups of my products in a composition that engages the eye;
- accurately portray the color and size of my products;
- convey a bright and uplifting mood;
- depict the good taste and quality craftsmanship I put into my work;
- include elements from my main source of inspiration – a woodland environment;
- cohesively fit in with Etsy’s general aesthetic.
Just a little ambitious, right? Too bad I’m a total photography noob. The past year of experimentation with my i-phone and my husband’s DSLR taught me that photography is a rather involved art form – all those tools that require understanding and precise control – the lighting, the camera, the setting up of the composition in a three dimensional space… My shop’s look has expanded and improved, but it is still too eclectic and undecided for my liking:
One of the things I am determined to conquer by 2015 is using leafy elements as props in the listing cover shots. Because… to me, a lack of natural elements in that all-important first-impression photograph just. looks. off. It looks dead, it’s not sufficiently “me”, it’s wrong. My photos must have some earthy thing (bonus points if it’s green and alive).
Another aspect of listing cover shots I cannot compromise on: the earrings must be hanging as they would on the ear. Lying flat or hanging off a cup does not work for my designs – the earring shape changes, the silver wire-work gets overexposed, and the visual effect created is simply not true to the way the earrings are intended to look.
So. Combined, these two musts mean that over an over, I use branches as hanging implements for my products. So far, I’ve tried and discarded a shoot of potted English Ivy and a sprig of a weeping fig, and am still evaluating a random stick with two intertwined dried vines of honeysuckle.
Potted English Ivy
I started with English Ivy because it was the only usable plant I had at the time; its sturdy vines could support the weight of earrings, and its leaves were damn cute.
The set-up to the right consists of the “Midnight Waters” Earrings hanging on transparent beading wire that is attached to an empty photo frame with spring clamps. The ivy pot is positioned slightly behind the frame. The white of the painted balcony door serves as background. I took the photo with my i-phone on a bright but cloudy day.
What worked: a) the ivy succeeds as a dynamic element: it breaks up the white space and frames the earrings; b) the green of the ivy reiterates and emphasizes the green of the Thai Sapphires. What didn’t: a) setting up the ivy and the earrings on the same focus plane resulted in a competing amount of detail; b) too much green – the ivy overwhelms the earrings with sheer area; c) in an attempt to capture the plant, I framed too widely – the earrings take up minimal space, and do not feel prominent; d) major bleh – the white background looks stark and flat.
The set-up below is more successful, and even resulted in some lovely shots – but it ended up convincing me that ivy is basically too pretty a prop for the look I’d like to achieve.
Here, the “Full Twilight” Earrings dangle directly on the shoot of ivy that has turned red from the summer sun. The branch position is guided and supported by strategic placing of extra spring clamps on the empty photo frame. The backdrop consists of a square of grey cotton I got at JoAnn’s. I took the photo indoors by a window, in shadow on a sunny day, using a DSLR and a macro lens.
What worked: a) a shallow depth of field blurs the textured fabric into a uniform tone, and conveys space by blurring some of the ivy leaves; b) the shot is framed much closer to the earrings – we have no question where to look; c) the greenish red of the ivy nicely complements the color scheme of the earrings. What didn’t: a) the ivy has too much beautiful detail – the eye is drawn to the veins and the coloring; b) the ivy growth pattern is too dense, and makes the upper part of the shot hectic and busy; c) when the backdrop is grey, it somehow fails to be a neutral grey – instead, it muddies up the feel of the shot. [In contrast, when I use vividly colored fabric for the backdrop to make the shots visually pop (as it does here or here), the overall look of the shop page becomes a garish kaleidoscope.]
Ficus Benjamina, also known as the weeping fig, is a ridiculously temperamental house plant that will shed leaves at the slightest shift in environment (be it a new amount of sunlight, or an unexpected breeze). However, they looks like real trees and remind me of birches, so I just have to own two of them. Last fall, one the ficus thrived so hard it sent an enormous shoot all the way up to the ceiling. After I groomed the plant into a semblance of roundness, I gave the shoot a try as a prop.
In the set-up to the left, the “Lemon Sorbet” Earrings hang on the flexible ficus branch that has mostly been immobilized by that same empty photo frame with spring clamps. The frame is precariously balanced on the balcony railing, against the background of some lovely neighboring trees. (In case you’re wondering – yes, there was wind, and yes, my set-up totally crashed a couple of times. A pair of apatite earrings broke and I had to remake them. So, yah – do not try this at home). I took the photo outdoors on a cloudy day with my husband’s equipment.
What worked: a) I really dig the composition of the diagonal lines created by the branches; b) backlit, the leaves look interesting and epic, but not too distracting, since they partially blend into to the rest of the background. What didn’t: a) backlighting really washed out the lemon quartz in the earrings; b) the blurred background has nice bokeh, but is still too detail heavy; c) the amount of green overwhelms the earrings.
On the right you see the “Falling Leaves” Earrings in a similar set-up, except indoors and against a grey fabric backdrop. This shoot mostly didn’t work: a) against a grey background, the ficus leaves look huge and distracting. The green is not a complement to the yellows and browns in the earrings, and instead cheapens their color. b) the ficus leaves are in the same plane of focus as the earrings, which lets us see a lot of detail on the leaves – this flattens the image, and steals even more of our attention.
Experimenting with English Ivy and the Weeping Fig convinced me that branches with green leaves would always pose one or both of the following problems: a) green isn’t always a complement to the color scheme of the particular earrings; b) the leaves are likely be in sharp focus and distract attention from the earrings. So I decided to try a dry branch instead – leafless, neutral. I found a twig with dry vines of honeysuckle, and really liked its visual properties – full of knobs and imperfections, it looked wavy and dynamic.
To set the branch up, I prop it on a pile of books, and weigh it down for stability with some wool scarves. I like that by turning it, or by using a different segment of it, I can arrange the earrings at engaging angles – one above the other, or one behind the other. At this point, I’ve used it exclusively indoors against fabric backdrops.
On the left, you see “Elina Rose” Earrings against a deep purple shawl. The purple works great as a contrast for both the branch and the earrings, and adds wonderful vitality to the photo. Unfortunately, it is too colorful to work for a listing cover shot.
On the bottom, you see “Slim Twilight” Earrings against a white cotton backdrop (I know, right? It looks totally grey! I couldn’t figure out how to fix it in post-editing without washing out all the elements unrealistically). I am pretty proud of this shot because it’s artsy: I was able to convey perspective by using a shallow depth of field, and create an engaging composition by placing the branch and the earrings off-center. However. The monotonous pale background somehow looks more staged than ever. It’s nice that the earrings are the most colorful object in the shot, but I feel like the background saps their hue instead of enhancing it. The result is a little bleak, lifeless.
I’m going to keep playing with this set-up, of course, but I’m out of ideas. How can I add greenery without distracting the viewer from the earrings? Or how can I make my shots feel vibrant while keeping a white/grey background? If you have any suggestions – do comment!