Monday, August 24, 2015

Tutorial: How to take better outfit photos!

Over in the comments on Gorgeous Fabrics' recent post, a number of people mentioned that they'd post more projects but they're not happy with their photography skills.   I love photography, though I would not yet describe myself as any great photographer.  I've put a lot of thought and effort into taking outfit photos.  I asked if anyone would like me to write a tutorial, and several people said they did.  So, here I am! 

I hope that this will be the first of several tutorials.  This one is for non-gearheads.  It's not too technical, and it doesn't require great camera gear.  Later, I'll post a follow-up tutorial for people who have or want to buy better camera gear. 

The Internet is filled with tutorials like "THESE 10 TIPS WILL TEACH YOU HOW TO TAKE PRO-QUALITY PHOTOS IN 4 HOURS OR LESS!!!"  This is not one of those tutorials.  Photography is like sewing.  There's no royal road; there's no substitute for practice, critiques, and learning from one's mistakes.  This tutorial discusses some of the fundamental issues-- what to think about, how to recognize problems, and how to fix them in a relatively straightforward way.  These tips won't make you a great photographer, but they will keep you away from some of the worst technical and artistic problems.

Let's begin!

In order to do all the things I discuss here, you will need:
-- A camera that has some kind of remote trigger.  This could be a self-timer with a 10 or 12 second delay (press the shutter button, then run into position), a wireless remote (trigger your camera's shutter using a remote), or an intervalometer (set the camera to take pictures every X seconds).

-- A tripod or some other means to hold the camera in position.  You can totally buy a cheap, crummy tripod for this.  You just need the tripod to hold the camera so you don't have to.  You do NOT need a multi-hundred-dollar tripod which is capable of holding a heavy camera with a giant, heavy lens very, very steady for long periods of time in freezing temperatures while still weighing less than five pounds.  Will it not drop the camera?  Will it not fall over?  If so, you're good.  On the other hand, if you don't have a tripod, you can work around it.  Tape the camera to a floor lamp.  Rubber-band your cell phone to a vacuum cleaner and set it on a chair.  Get creative!

I had originally planned to recommend a companion of infinite patience in place of the tripod and the remote trigger.  Having thought it over, though, I don't think it's a good idea.  First, unless your companion is a photographer, they don't have that much patience.  Second, repeatability is key.  Take some pictures, see what happened, make adjustments, repeat.  Having the camera in the exact same spot, not just the same general area, can be crucial when it comes to troubleshooting.

Anyway.  Let's say you are ready for your photoshoot!  You're wearing your outfit and you have your equipment.  What do you do first?  What do you think about first?

Find a background that isn't distracting.
No matter how expensive your gear and how much effort you've put into lighting and styling, a lousy background is guaranteed to make your photo look awful.  First and foremost, you want a background which will not distract from you and the outfit.  There is nothing wrong with a plain wall.  Ever.  Eventually, if you're ambitious, you can start looking for more creative backgrounds, but they require much, much more attention to detail.

Let's look at some examples of my photos and dissect what exactly makes them good or bad.  Man, I feel so self-conscious posting the bad ones...

Me in front of my bedroom wall.  Plain and simple.  No visual clutter.  The tan color of the wall complements the tan of the skirt and the brown of my shirt, tights, and boots.  I'd rather not have the outlet there, but it's not too bad.  I'm deliberately standing right in front of the outlet to hide it.

In contrast, here I am standing in the shade in front of some sun-dappled foliage.  There is much higher contrast between the sunlit and shaded areas than there is on me.  The eye is naturally drawn to the well-lit parts of the trees and the sky, which is distracting.  I'm lost in the shadows.
Here, I stand out from the background with the pink dress against the green foliage and gray gravel path.  As an added bonus, the gravel path forms a kind of X with me at the center.  This tends to draw the eye towards me.  On the other hand, the background is cluttered, unattractive, and distracting-- check out the street sign, the bench behind me, and the cars parked along the street.
This is much better.  The background still frames me nicely-- for instance, one of the arches is centered around my head-- but the background is dark enough that it doesn't overwhelm me.  I have also taken great care with the framing so that you don't see the two nearby trash cans.
Eventually, you get used to noticing a ton of obnoxious little details that wouldn't matter if you were there in real life, but look awful in photos.  For instance, in this photo, some dude is walking through the picture.
There's a pole growing out of my head! 

By this point, it should be apparent that it's best to start simple.   A plain wall will never let you down.  Once you've nailed taking photos in front of a plain wall, then you can branch out into something more artistic.
This was as close to a plain wall as I could find in that locale, but good enough.  I've centered myself on the different-colored bricks, and the colors of the chalk complement my dress.

Pay attention to the lighting.
Honestly, lighting is to photography as pressing is to sewing.  If you don't do sewing/photography, you probably never think about it.  If you are into sewing/photography, you understand how fundamental it is to getting a good result.  Poorly lit photos will drive you just as nuts as a poorly pressed dress.

First, it's important to think about the lighting situation in the foreground and background of the photo.  Generally speaking, your body should be lit as bright or brighter than the background.
For instance, in this photo, I am standing in deep shadow while the background is well-lit.  You can't see much detail in my face or my outfit, and the background is distracting.
This photo has the same problem.  I'm not so poorly lit that you can't see my dress at all, but the background is so much better lit that it draws the eye away from me and my outfit.
In this photo, the lighting is the same on me and the background.  It looks fine.
In this photo, I am much better-lit than the background.  My dress and I stand out against the dark city.
Note that this photo breaks all of the above generalizations, and it is still an awesome photo.  There's a powerful flash right behind my head which is lighting the grass, and I'm lit by a minor amount of light coming from my camera's flash.  This photo works because the ring of light on my body sets my poorly-lit body off from the dark background, and my poorly-lit skirt contrasts with the brightly-lit grass.  I put this photo in to underscore the point that all the generalizations I've made here are guidelines.  Once you reach a certain point, you'll start throwing them out as you push your technical and artistic boundaries.

Next, it's important to understand the difference between hard light and soft light.
Here's an example of hard light.  Notice the bright highlights, the dark shadows, and the sharp transitions between the two?
Here's an example of soft light.  You can still see shadows, but there isn't that much contrast between the highlights and the shadows, and the transition between the two is much smoother.

Generally, hard light comes from midday sun and small, harsh light sources, like a bare bulb.  You can find soft light indoors, at dawn and in the evenings, and in shadow.

It's possible to get good photos with both hard light and soft light, but soft light is way harder to screw up.  If you want to use hard light, be prepared to spend a lot of time figuring out how to point your head so that you don't get weird shadows on your face.
For instance, this photo would have been fine if my face were half-lit.  But, the only part of the dark side of my face which is lit is the hollow of my eye, which looks pretty strange.

This is way better.  I'm facing towards the light source, so the side of my face is lit with raking light.
Here, my nose and cheeks are casting weird shadows on the lower part of my face.
If I tilt my face towards the light source (which is up and to the left in this photo), the lighting on my face is much better.  One of my cheeks is still in shadow, but it's not distracting this time.  Always pay attention to the direction of the light!

It's also important to pay attention to your expression, because sometimes the lighting can interact with it to produce a weird effect.  For instance, me smiling in harsh sunlight generally looks really bad.  I usually have to use a more neutral expression.

If you had a photographer, they would generally tell you how to tilt your face so that the lighting looks good.  You won't have that, so it's just a matter with experimenting with a lot of different expressions and orientations for your face until you hit on something that looks OK.

Hats can cause all sorts of lighting problems, so I generally avoid them in photos.  I wear them all the time IRL, though.

Don't stand like an awkward person.
I'm not great at this one myself.  It tends to look better if you don't stand perfectly symmetrically.  Put one foot forward.  Put more weight on one leg than another.  Do different things with your arms.  Tilt your head up or down or away from the camera.  Lean up against something.  You will have to spend a lot of time experimenting with what looks good and natural and what doesn't.

Check for major technical problems.
Make sure that the photo is not over- or underexposed.  You don't want your body to look too light or too dark, and you don't want to blow highlights or have large parts of the image be completely black.  Try zooming in or out, or moving to a different part of the frame, so the camera meters differently.  If this fails, your best bet is probably to move to a different location.

Nope, this photo does not capture my transformation into some kind of etherial energy being.  It's just overexposed.  Sorry, folks!
This photo is also overexposed.  Note the lack of contrast, especially in my skin, and the desaturated colors.
This photo is underexposed.  The white dress isn't even close to white, and my face is lost in darkness.
This photo isn't as bad, but it's still underexposed.  My skin is too dark, and the wall is too dark.

Make sure that you are in focus.  If the background is out of focus, that's fine, and an out-of-focus background can even be used for artistic effect.  But, generally, the whole of your body should be in focus. If you're not in focus, try moving yourself or your camera a bit so that one of the camera's focus points catches on you.  You can also try moving yourself towards the center of the frame, since that's generally where the most focus points are.
This is a focus miss-- the camera focused on the background, not on me.
This photo is entirely out of focus.

Make sure the photo does not show motion blur.  This generally indicates that you're trying to take the photo in low light-- the camera tries to compensate with a longer exposure, which gives more time for either the camera or the subject to move and blur the photo.  The best solution is usually to try taking the photo again in better light.

My skirt clearly shows motion blur, which could be artistic, but at higher resolutions, it's clear that the rest of my body does, too.

Make sure the photo is not too grainy.  This problem is also caused by trying to take a picture in low light.  The camera tries to compensate by increasing the sensitivity of the sensor, which results in a granier image.  This problem tends to be particularly bad in cameras with small sensors, like cell phones and point-and-shoots.  Again, the best solution is usually to try taking the photo again in better light.  I'm sorry I don't have an example, but you probably know what I'm referring to-- my current camera is badass enough that it doesn't take photos that look grainy at web resolutions unless it's pitch black or I specifically order it to.

Don't zoom out to a wide angle, and don't use a wide-angle lens.  Wide-angle lenses tend to distort proportions.  With landscapes, it's generally not a problem.  With people, it looks...well, I'll let you see for yourself...
This definitely does not look right, though it might be hard to put your finger on what's wrong.  The most obvious problem is that my hands and feet look way too small for my body. 

Take lots of pictures.  Lots and lots of pictures.  Then take some more pictures.
With this setup-- camera on a tripod, triggering the shutter remotely-- you have no feedback about how you look through the lens of the camera.  The only way to combat this handicap is to try out a ton of different poses and expressions and hope that something turns out right.  I usually run through 100-200 shots for 4-6 keepers.  This is not a mark of shame!  It is a mark of PRAGMATISM!  Good thing SD cards are so cheap.

Keep practicing.
Look through your work and think about what went well, what didn't go well, and what you could change to get better results next time.  Look through other peoples' work, both good and bad, and repeat the same process.  Find some photographers you like and think about their work.  Honestly, I wouldn't bother with modern fashion photography.  I'm not a photographer with mad Photoshop skills and a kazillion flashes and strobes, and I'm not a model with an army of stylists and makeup artists.  The sorts of results they achieve are simply not attainable for me.  Heck, they're not even desirable to me.  Instead, check out street photography.  These photographers shoot people out in the real world under less-than-ideal conditions.  They take people from all walks of life and make them look interesting, even beautiful.

Good luck!


  1. Excellent tips, thank you! I've bookmarked this one. :)

  2. Wow, what an epic post! I really enjoyed reading through your photography tips, since I'm trying to improve my photography. I particularly liked reading what you thought was good or bad about each picture!

    1. Thanks so much! And yeah, I find critiques to be particularly helpful. There are also a lot of video photo critiques on Youtube that might be worth looking through.

  3. If there is such a thing as a color nerd, I am a color nerd. My goodness you know how to pick colors!! Every one of your garments is spectacular with your coloring.
    Nice photos, too ;)

  4. Wow. Thank you. This is very comprehensive. I have a Nikon D7100 and i think i am wasting its potential. I really should learn how to use it properly. Thank you once again.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I'm working on a few more tutorials that are specific to DSLRs, so hopefully that should be useful for you, too. It's just that it takes so long to put one together!

  5. This is, hands down, the absolute best photography improvement tutorial I've seen. Thank you for taking the time to write this post!

  6. I'm taking a photo class right now and we're working on portraits this week. Your tutorial covers everything the teacher has and make a LOT more sense. Thank you for taking the time to do it!