If you’ve ever tried to photograph clothing for commercial or resale purposes, you know how challenging it can be. Not only do you have to contend with awkward camera angles, access to a shooting space with adequate ceiling height, and be able to create lighting that is natural, even and dynamic, you also have to make sure the clothing is styled in such a way to make it appealing to customers. Easier said than done! As you’ll soon see, having a photo stylist on set is an absolute must when shooting clothing.
In this lesson, photographer Benjamin Clay examines some of the techniques and tools a clothing stylist uses, as well as some dynamic lighting approaches for clothing in the studio.
The Studio Space
Not long ago, I asked my wife, Tamara, who’s a professional stylist, to help me out in creating a lesson that would demonstrate some techniques for photographing and styling clothing. She thought it would be fun, and so I scheduled a shoot at a local studio space that I often use in Portland, Maine.
We arrived at the studio at around 9 a.m. and I brought in all of the camera, lighting and styling gear I’d be using. I had packed all of the strobes, soft boxes, LiteStands, connectors and cables in a Photoflex Transpac MultiKit Case, the camera gear in a camera bag, and all of the styling gear in an oversized toolbox. Once there, I took out the stands and cables and set them on the floor so that I could quickly grab them as I built the set.
Next, I set up a shooting surface for the sweater, the components of which were kindly loaned to me by the studio manager. I used a 4×8′ sheet of plywood-laminated foam board wrapped in duck cloth and supported it waist-high with two sawhorses.
For comparative purposes, I decided to place the sweater on the foam board and take an auto-programmed shot of it with the built-in flash enabled. Note that I did my best to try and style the sweater so that it would look somewhat appealing to a potential buyer.
As you can see, the result was pretty terrible. The only redeeming quality of this snapshot is simply that it conveys to the viewer that it is indeed a sweater. But due to the poor styling and flat lighting, the result is unappealing and commercially useless. Fortunately, my wife was there to help me out of my sweater-styling bind! While Tamara steamed the sweater off the set to eliminate its fold marks and wrinkles, I went about configuring the lighting for the set.
Building The Set
First, I attached a 300 watt strobe to a medium LiteDome and mounted it to a Boom and BoomStand. Once I had it where I wanted it, I discovered I’d forgotten to pack any Photoflex RockSteady Bags to counter-balance the weight of the box. Fortunately, there were extra weight bags in the studio and I held the Boom steady until Tamara could bring one over to me.
The next issue I had to contend with was camera placement. With the set waist high, the camera needed to be mounted even higher to adequately capture the entire sweater. The tripod I had brought would not have been tall enough for this shot, but fortunately, there were two studio monopods available to use in the corner. I took the smaller of the two and rolled it over to the set.
NOTE: Many photographers, when faced with this height issue, simply opt to lower the set so that it rests on or near the ground. The main problem with this is that it makes it significantly more difficult for the stylist to do his/her work effectively. Bending over and crouching for hours at a time can wreak havoc on a stylist’s back. So if you, as the photographer, plan on shooting more than one shot, be mindful of this working condition.
After mounting the camera to the monopod, I grabbed a stepladder and positioned it right next to the monopod. I then raised the camera up on the monopod rail, rotated the camera so that its image plane was nearly parallel to the shooting table, and loosely framed the shot.
I also set up another medium LiteDome, this time attached to a 650 watt strobe, and secured it to a LiteStand. This light would serve as the right hand fill for the shot.
A Note On Power Settings
Because the overhead 300 watt strobe did not have an accompanying power pack on the studio floor (this was a monobloc strobe), the power settings could only be adjusted at the head. Since I set up this light overhead to primarily control the overall level of contrast, I knew that I would not need a lot of light output from this light and set the power to half strength. I figured that if I needed to make adjustments to the lighting ratios later on, I could do so with the other, more accessible, lights.
Once Tamara finished steaming the sweater, she brought it over to the set and began styling it. When she was ready for a “first”, I came in and framed up the shot. Sharp focus in a clothing shot like this is critical, so it helps to have adequate lighting conditions when dialing it in.
The Predominant Light
After roughing in the frame, I decided to set up my main light, a stand-mounted 650-watt /second strobe with a 7 inch reflector attached. This “hard light” would be the predominant of the three lights in that it would determine the shape and flow of the shadows in the sweater. The other two “soft lights” were simply there to compliment this light and to help control contrast. For comparative purposes, I first started out by positioning this hard light close to the set. Once I had this light positioned to create interesting shadows on the sweater, I was ready to take a shot. Since I was using a wireless trigger, I decided to only trigger the hard light for this first shot.
The Working Distance With Hard Light
Although the light and shadows on this result show the initial styling in an interesting and natural way, there is one main problem with the hard light’s effect, and that has to do with positioning. It is simply too close to the set.
Notice how the light falls off fairly quickly as it travels from the upper left shoulder to the bottom right sleeve? Without getting into the specifics of the Inverse Square Law, this essentially is due to the fact that the hard light is so close to the set. Think of the sun, 93 million miles away. If I had been able to open a curtain in the studio and have the sun’s rays illuminate this sweater in the same direction as the hard light, you would have seen that the light would be even across the sweater. To keep it simple, just remember that by increasing the distance between a hard light and the subject matter, you will be better able to minimize the effects of perceived light falloff.
To lessen the light falloff here, I simply turned up the power on the main light and positioned it further back at the same relative angle. Once this was dialed in, I took another shot.
While not perfect, the main light now illuminates the sweater with much less falloff. But keep in mind that as I add lights to this shot, the falloff will become increasingly unnoticeable. That said, remember that additional soft lights can only enhance, but not substitute for, the effects of the main light.
Accentuating With Fill
With the main light positioned and powered where I wanted it, I then enabled the overhead and side soft lights to fire on the next shot. As you can see, these fill lights really helped to reduce the overall contrast in the sweater and even out the light to a certain degree.
For an added touch, I held up a piece of white foam core to bounce some of the main light into the bottom areas of the sweater and took another shot.
Readjustments To Styling
In reviewing the shot, Tamara said she wanted to restyle the right arm, as it wasn’t flowing as well as the rest of the sweater. After a few moments, she was ready for another shot.
The result was much improved. Now the folds in the arm were more interesting and blended nicely with the rest of the styling.
Reducing Overall Contrast
After reviewing the image, I decided to reduce the contrast just slightly, as well as brighten the overall image. So, first I opened my aperture 2/3 of a stop and then turned the hard light power down by 2/3 of a stop. By opening up the aperture, I was able to brighten the exposure of all of the lights by 2/3 of a stop. But then by powering the hard light down 2/3 of a stop, I was able to keep it at the same exposure level as the previous shot, thereby decreasing the overall contrast. After these adjustments were made, and Tamara had made some final styling touches, I took another shot.
The shot was really coming together. The styling looked great, as did the lighting. Ideally, the photographer and the stylist work together to balance and accentuate the lighting and the styling. And keep in mind that each article of clothing is different and will require different treatments each time. For a final touch, I brought the bounce card in just a little tighter to fill in the dark shadows near the bottom of the sweater. With everything in place, I took my final shot.
Upon reviewing the final result, we were both happy with the shot. It was just 11 a.m. Including the time it took to unpack the gear, set up the lighting, steam, style and light the sweater, it was just under two hours. Had we needed to shoot another sweater or article of clothing, it would have taken about a half an hour to complete the next shot.
Enhancements in Photoshop
Afterward, I downloaded the final result and opened it up in Photoshop for some final image editing touches. Using the Pen tool, I drew a path around the sweater, eliminated the background so that the sweater would rest on pure white and added a drop shadow that mimicked the quality and direction of the hard light.
And now for the comparisons: here’s our final shot next to the first point-and-shoot/poorly styled shot I first took. Hardly looks like the same sweater, right?
As is obvious here, the styling of a clothing shot is paramount to its level of success. Without it, the shot can only go so far, even if you’ve created the most dynamic, visually stunning lighting possible.
The same is true in reverse. Excellent styling with poor lighting is also a wash. For example, just look at the results below. The first is the raw capture of the final result, and the second was taken only moments later, but with just the built-in flash activated.
It’s important to add that the success of a commercial clothing shot is not only contingent on the work of the photographer and the stylist, but from the client and/or art director as well. This particular sweater was styled and lit in a very classic, contemporary way, which worked well for this lesson. But keep in mind that different art directors/clients may want different treatments to their shots, so it’s best to practice and experiment with lighting and styling methods as much as possible.
Have Gear, Will Travel
After we captured the final shot, we packed up all the gear and loaded it all in the back of a Saturn Vue. As you can see, traveling with a full lighting and styling setup is really not that involved!
Written and photographed by Ben Clay.