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How (not) to Photograph Costumes

Bad SunlightSo you've finally completed your new gown – and you want to show it to the world.

But somehow, every time you try to take a picture, it just doesn't quite seem to capture the full glory of the thing itself.

Photography is an art, and teaching you to be a master is far beyond the scope of this article (not to mention my talent), but I hope to give you some tips and advice that will help make your costume photos as good as they can be.

Thanks go to dance teacher Emma Chapman  for volunteering her time and a professionally made dance outfit for this piece!

Get To Know Your Camera

First and foremost, it's really important to know as much as possible about your camera. Some problems can be fixed or improved after the fact using digital processing, but it's a much better idea to take as good a photo as you can to start with: knowing your equipment is the first step on that road. Outside of professional type SLR cameras (SLR owners probably won't need me to instruct them!) there are two other main types of camera, compact and hybrid.

Compact cameras are usually small and rectangular. They're cheap and simple to use, but don't offer a lot of flexibility in the settings. To use one of these, you need to make sure you have good lighting; and they won't be great for closeup shots unless they have a zoom lens.

Hybrid cameras, almost always digital, offer some of the extra functions of an SLR like an optical zoom or manual control of the exposure, but don't have interchangeable lenses and don't cost as much. All but the cheapest digital compact cameras are essentially hybrids, since they offer lots of functionality over and above “point and snap” photo-taking. My own camera is a hybrid; you don't need top-level kit to get a good picture.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that your camera is digital, and that you don't want to worry about fiddling with complex settings any more than you have to. If you're curious or your camera allows it, there's lots of good information about beginners' photography here

Resolution

For a digital camera, the one thing it's really important to know is what resolution (image quality) the camera is actually producing. Almost all digicams can take photos at several different resolutions; some describe this as large, medium or small photos, some just tell you the number of megapixels the photos will have. High resolution (large photo, or more megapixels) means a big image file and not many photos on a memory card; low resolution means small files and lots of photos on a card – so cameras often come set up to use this mode. Unfortunately, low resolution pictures don't contain as much information, and can't be blown up very far without becoming grainy. Check your manual, check the camera's settings, and decide what you want the photo for – a quick snap to put on the Web as a taster will be fine at low resolution, but if you want to print the photo or put up a big version people can drool over, it should be as high-resolution as you can get it.

Tips: How to avoid blurred photos

  • Stand in a stable position (spread your feet apart a little if you need to).
  • Rest on something steady if you can, or tuck your elbows in to your sides
  • Squeeze the shutter button slowly, don't jab at it – this will help stop the camera wobbling.

Lighting

The amount of light that's falling on your subject will determine how bright or dark the resulting photo is. Most digital cameras have an automatic exposure mode that compensates for small imperfections in lighting conditions, but they're not magic, and starting with good lighting means you'll end up with fewer bad shots.

Too little light will mean colours and folds of fabric can't be clearly seen, like Emma's skirt in this picture.

Underexposed
 Too much light will make any light areas of the photo glare, and will bleach out details in them completely (the piece of paper in this photo actually has 'Too light!” written on it).  Overexposed

 For those of us who aren't lucky enough to have professional studio lights at our disposal, it's usually best to use the light Mother Nature gave us. It's bright, even and doesn't come from one specific direction. Photograph your costume outdoors, or in a room with large windows, and stand with the light behind you, so that it's falling straight on your subject, not coming from one side.

Directional light can create some fun effects, but it can also give you exposure problems, as in this photo.

Here one side of Emma's face is bleached out by bright sun, but parts of her skirt are in shadow and can't be seen.

 Problem with random shadows

 

Tips: Flash

Avoid using flash wherever possible: it can bleach out or alter colours, and because it comes from right in front of the subject it also lessens or removes shadows, so it can make details hard to see.

It's also very likely to create glaring reflections on shiny fabrics, metal corset busks and embellishments like sequins or rhinestones; you can see a similar effect created by bright sunlight on the little beaded dangle that hangs from the top.

Problems with glare 

For photography with natural light, pick a bright but overcast (cloudy) day. My photo shoot happened to be on a very bright day, and many of these photos are actually good examples of why that's not ideal.

Full sunlight can be nearly as bad as flash for flattening out detail and producing strange effects – for example, in this picture Emma looks as if the green background has been added later, because the sun makes it as bright as the foreground, and she's not throwing a shadow onto it.

 Bad Sunlight
 Compare that to this photo – both are taken from the same original photo, but the second one is a better picture because the floor and the shadow she casts help you to see that the background's further away.  Basic Thirds
 Shadows can create problems in other ways, too: in this picture you can see what looks like a bulge on the side of Emma's skirt just to the right of the knee. That's actually the shadow of her shoulder!  Problem with random shadows

 

 

Tips: Troubleshooting Light

If you're having trouble with lighting, check your camera manual for automatic modes suitable for different light conditions. Most cameras have an 'outdoor' or 'sunlight' mode. The really keen can adjust settings manually, if the camera allows it, using semi-automatic or full manual modes.

There are some good explanations of shutter speed, aperture and why some cameras don't like bright light here:

 

CompositionBad Background

Composing a shot so that it automatically helps the viewer to focus on what you want them to look at is not, actually, as hard as most photographers make it sound. Photography may be an art – but like any art, there are basic techniques almost anyone can learn!

First, think about your background. If you can manage, as Catherine Hay did, to set your gown against a sweeping country park with a historical house in the background, go for it – but if not, choose something plain, and in a colour that contrasts (but doesn't clash) with the costume.

A cluttered background can distract the eye from almost anything – even a bellydancer in full bling! 

Tips: background

  • White walls work well, or hang up a width of plain neutral-coloured fabric.
  • Don't use a mirror as a background unless you're sure nothing untidy is showing in the reflection!
  • Don't match the colour of your background to your costume: it will make its outline hard to see.


Compare these two photos, which are both photos of the same outfit

 Spot the Goth  Shadow Dress

 

 

 

Next, check the model and the background for details that clash with the mood of the picture you're trying to take – something that doesn't fit can ruin the effect, as in this photo. If you're using a live model, you may wish to look for someone who doesn't have facial piercings, and consider hiding her footwear unless you have something period-accurate.

And finally, boss your model about. If she happens to be a tailor's dummy, this part will be easy – if not, don't be afraid to ask her to move her arm out of the way, turn left a bit, and so on.

Do remember that this isn't fashion photography: you're photographing the outfit, not the person inside it or the overall “look”.

Bad sock day

 
 What you're aiming for with a costume on a live model is a pose that fits with the tone of the outfit (formal versus casual, for example, or historically appropriate) but is, in the end, relatively bland. This is a simple pose that captures the costume well...  A good pose for the costume
 ...whereas this photo actually focuses more on Emma as a dancer than on what she's wearing. (In fact, she's such a natural at dramatic poses that we actually had to discard quite a few shots like this!)  Dancer, not the costume


It's all in the details

Getting a good close-up shot of a costume detail can be tricky with a digicam, as many cameras have an autofocus that can play tricks at close range. Look for an automatic mode like 'foliage' or 'macro', that will allow you to focus on objects close to the camera. (One more time – read the manual! It will tell you which mode this is.) Also, take care when shooting details around the neckline on a live model – you may be looking at the dress, but others may be more distracted by the historically accurate cleavage!

The two pictures below illustrate two ways of framing a shot to put the emphasis on the clothes, not the body; when in doubt, take a step or two back, photograph a slightly larger area, and crop the picture down later.

Detail shot of the beads  Detail shot of the stones

 

Artistic Merit: The Rule of Thirds, and when not to use it

Have a look at these two photos:

Basic Centered   Basic Thirds
 Basic Centered  Basic Thirds

 

They're actually both cropped-down versions of the same photo – but they look very different. The reason why is that the Basic Thirds photo uses a very common rule of thumb for composition, known as the rule of thirds. It teaches you to divide the photo into a 3x3 grid (like a tic-tac-toe board, or noughts and crosses as we call it in Britain), and place your subject on or close to the points where the lines cross. It's often said to make a photo more artistic or professional-looking. With costume, however, it's not necessarily vital to use this: the focus is less on the artistic merit of the picture than the workmanship in the subject.

In particular, close-up shots of costume details often break the rule, simply to highlight the work itself. You may want to use the Rule of Thirds if you want your photos to be extra-sexy, for example if you're taking them for sales literature, but remember that rules are made to be broken!

And last, but by no means least - Happy snapping!

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