Kitty says: How to Photograph Using a Backdrop

Today I'm going to share some photography tips with you that will be helpful for anyone taking pictures, whether they be of products for your store (like mine) or portraits. I'm going to focus on product shots for now, as I've been doing a lot lately for my Etsy store. One thing I learned at the Etsy Success forum back in June is, photography can make or break you!

Don't be scared though, with a few little adjustments and some preparation, you can get great pictures without spending a fortune on equipment or a studio setup. These tips are helpful not only for products, but also taking pictures of yourself, your family or, of course, your cats. These tips are directly related to using a backdrop, but can be helpful for other photography applications as well.

If you are shooting an outfit, or products, whatever it may be, make sure you are prepared with everything you need before you start shooting. I get all of my products lined up ready to go so that I don't have to run back and forth in the middle of shooting. As far as this setup goes, I use a piece of colored fabric, some pegs and my washing line. I also use a stool to sit on and of course, a tripod and camera. If you don't have a tripod, you can improvise, any flat surface will work. Try a chair, table, railing or even a stepladder!

Don't judge my backyard. I'm working on it! As you can see, I have a very glamorous studio to achieve my product shots. I feel like I'm peeling back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz here.

This setup is not ideal by any means, but it does the trick. I'm using a piece of cotton which is great as it is readily available and cheap. The bad points would be that I maybe purchased a piece a little bit too small, so I have to be careful that I sit in the exact right spot to avoid popping off the edge of my backdrop in the photo. Also, cotton creases easily so I have to give it a really serious ironing when I need to use it. Finally, it is lightweight, a heavier weight would perhaps work better, it wouldn't drape so readily where the pegs are holding it and I probably wouldn't need all those pegs on the bottom to weigh it down. As you can see though, it works for now!

I put a stool as far away from the backdrop as possible, allowing for enough distance between me and the camera. It's best to check through the lens as you are setting it up and take some test shots to check your position and framing. If I wanted a product not on a person, this setup could also work having a product on a table, in front of the backdrop (but not against it) or hanging from the line!

The reason you want some space between your subject and the backdrop is that the further away you are, the more blurry the background will be, and it will become and nice color rather than a detailed backdrop. This gives the full focus to your product/person rather than unimportant details. A vague background makes your item stand out a lot more than a busy or detailed one. IF you have a camera with manual settings, an f2.8 or less is ideal for this kind of shot. It gives a shallow depth of field which means only a shallow slice of your image will be in focus, with the rest blurred out.

Unless I have my magnificent photographer, I use a lot of trial and error. The most important thing is getting the camera to focus on the right spot. A close second (it's essential really) is making sure your shot is framed properly, your subject needs to be fully contained 'inside' the backdrop, otherwise you'll need to crop the photo, or worse, photoshop the background in. Never fix it 'in post' if you can help it! It's way better to get it right in camera, trust me! As far as camera settings to achieve shallow depth of field (a blurry background in this case) this is what I use on my manual camera:
20mm 1.7 pancake lens (Panasonic Lumix) Similar lenses would be Canon's 50mm 1.8 or the Nikon 50mm 1.4 If you have a manual camera, try to choose a prime lens (50mm is great) with a large aperture (2.8 or larger - the lower the number, the larger the aperture) Prime lenses are always that bit sharper than the zoom lenses.

If you use an automatic camera, it's still possible to get great shots. No matter what, DO NOT use the flash. If you're shooting portraits or products, do your best to take them in a well lit area, OUT OF DIRECT SUN. Not shouting, but it's so important! You want soft shadows, and direct light creates harsh shadows the do not flatter your subject (there are exceptions to every rule) If you are in the sun, try to move into the shade close to the sun, or put something between your subject and the sun to diffuse the light. If you're using an automatic camera, also try switching it to macro mode, you may have some more luck with the shallow depth of field. The best time of day to take your pictures is during the "golden hour", which it the time of day just after sunrise and just before the sun sets. The light is soft and golden and 'special' at this time, and it's the most flattering. It's a fleeting moment, so you generally have to plan for it.

As you can see, my pictures need cropping in photoshop. I also lightened them and treated them a little with a vignette blur which is a stylistic choice for me. The most important things for shooting your photographs are:
1. The subject is in focus
2. The subject is not exceeding the boundaries of your backdrop
3. The subject is lit well with no harsh shadows (mine are a bit dark here for my liking)
4. The subject is not pulling a stupid face (unless you are going for that?) This is the most tricky thing for me. I'm a photo flincher. Hundreds of snaps on the cutting room floor ;)

 The finished product. You'd never know it was shot in my backyard under the clothesline (I hope!)

I hope that helps you out. Please ask me if you have any practical or technical questions, I'm more than happy to try and help you solve your unique problems that you may have with this!