Most of the work required to make your garment look its best is done before a camera is picked up.
Start by pressing. Wrinkles make both people and clothes look tired; get rid of them. Just as pressing is the secret to sewing, it also sets a garment up to look good in front of the camera. If you don’t already have a tailor’s ham and arm roll, buy or make them and use them.
Here are two photos of the same gown. The first was taken just to document it when it was donated to the museum. (KSUM 2012.10.53 Wrinkly) The second was taken for the book Rebel Chic, after the gown was pressed.
All photographs in this article taken by Joanne Arnett, Copyright Kent State University Museum 2012 (Used with permission).
Same gown, same dress form, same lighting set up. Big difference. Press your garments. Steaming works wonders for crumpled crinolines and delicate velvets. After the garment is pressed, hang it on a padded hanger while you prepare the dress form.
Dress forms and mannequins come in generic shapes, and sewing is often done for a specific body. Necklines may gap, waistlines may not sit where they should, and shoulders and hips can sag. Don’t let the fact that a dress form is not custom made be an excuse for a sad-looking photograph. Pad the form out.
It may be as simple as adding shoulder pads or it may be as complex as building panniers, but foundation is important. Batting works wonderfully for this. Meanwhile, for the finishing details, a small piece of tulle can be slipped in a sleeve to puff it out, or laid under a peplum to lift it. Just don’t overstuff. Sagging fabric isn’t attractive, but neither is sausage casing!
Now that the garment is ready to go, it’s time to discuss the photo equipment.
One of the biggest differences between professional and amateur photos is a seamless backdrop. A roll of 107 inch x 12 yard paper costs around $50 and will serve you for ages when well cared for; some examples can be seen here.
Smooth, even light can be achieved with just two lights, one set on each side at approximately a 45˚ angle to the garment. Bouncing the light off a reflective umbrella or through a scrim will help soften it.
All diagrams copyright Joanne Arnett, 2012
This lighting set up works well most of the time, but if you need more dramatic lighting it’s as easy as moving one light. Here are two images of the same gown, the first with the two lights at 45˚, the second with the right side light moved closer and angled slightly toward the background. Shifting the one light brings out more depth in the gown and also flattens the background.
A pair of simple monolight flash units can be purchased for a few hundred dollars and are uncomplicated to use, but if you don’t want to invest in flash units you can set your studio up opposite a north facing window and you will have consistent daylight from sun up to sundown. (When working with natural light, use a tripod. You will require longer exposures than when using a flash.)
My number one recommendation for improving photographs is to get closer to the subject. The background is not your subject. Compare the two images below.
The stays are a little lost in the first, but you can’t take your eyes off them in the second.
Don’t be afraid of getting super close. If fine hand stitching is what you want to highlight, then get close enough to count the stitches.
Don’t plan on creating detail shots by tightly cropping an image later. Resolution is lost as you enlarge an image, so if you just crop in to get the details they won’t be as crisp as when you fill the frame when taking them. Take the picture, walk up and take a few more, then get closer still.
Be on the look out for anything that detracts from the perfect photo. Fix what you can as soon as you can. The 1930’s chiffon dress looks lovely in this photo, but there is a stray curl on the wig that distracts the eye.
So museum curator Sara Hume steps in to fix the problem ...
and even though it's a small change, it helps.
So if a button is undone or a shoulder strap is slightly off, don’t kid yourself into thinking it won’t be noticeable in the final picture. Adjust it. It's no fun trying to fix errors in Photoshop.
Once you have the pictures, edit, edit, edit. Compare images and choose the exposure that has detail in both the light areas and the shadows.
The detail of the green bodice below has been split in half. The left side is the RAW image straight out of the camera, the right is after adjusting contrast and color balance. The bodice goes from dull and muddy to a rich moss green that is clearly separate from the background.
Photo editing programs can be overwhelming when you first start using them. The good thing is that if you save your original image (Save your original image!) you can experiment endlessly while you learn. There are tutorials all over the Internet, so when you have a question, simply do a search and find answers close at hand.
What's your favourite tip for great costume photographs? Comment below!