Getting Great Photos - Anna Carson Dewitt
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers. You can find the rest of the miniclasses here.
Anna Carson Dewitt is a photographer whose work is described as “honest, vibrant, sweet, and relationship-focused.” Her focus is in-studio photography services for makers and small businesses -- but she does everything from maker studio photos to family and newborn shoots to photos of products in lifestyle settings. Anna started her photo practice photographing newborns and kids, which she loves because of their lack of artifice or self-consciousness. She says the transition to photographing makers was intuitive because, “When I moved back home to North Carolina, I found this awesome community of makers and craftspeople… And I started realizing that adults are the most childlike when they are making something -- they have that un-self-consciousness that can be hard to get from adults normally.” When she does these photo sessions, she says makers find customers feel more connected to them, their products, and their service.
In this miniclass, Anna shares how to get great photos, whether you are taking every shot yourself on an iPhone or if you’re hiring a photographer to do a daylong shoot with you. She talks about how to not just get a pretty picture, but how to really tell your story and communicate your process through these images. And she shares a range of approaches, for every budget and style.
On getting photos that are honest, warm, vibrant, and relationship-focused
When I started going into makers’ studios, there was a lot of anxiety about whether it was clean enough, worries about the light being terrible, concerns about looking a certain way. But then I ask them to engage in an activity that is meaningful to them related to their craft -- and actually do the craft, not pantomime. I could really help them to become immersed and then that childlike quality would come out and their expressions would be so beautiful, and the movements of their body would be so evocative, and the color and the textures would be there, and it would all come together. This can take a lot of preparation on the front-end but it’s worth it.
The biggest thing to getting photos that feel that way is to make your subjects (even if that’s yourself!) relaxed. A huge part of it is a sense of ease on the part of the subjects. And a sense of purpose. And those two things go hand in hand. I tell makers: choose a project that we’re going to work on together. They have that sense of ease, and a sense of immersion in the project. And they end up talking about their relationship to their work. They’ll narrate their work and educate me. In a picture, you’ll see a moment of stillness after they’ve told me something about their work.
Technical pieces that you have to have in place to get great photos
Light is so important. That said, I’d rather have less natural light than more artificial light for photos like this. Often, I’ll end up turning all the lights off. And it’s OK if it’s just a window.
Certainly when it comes to depicting color, product, and texture, it’s really important to not have overhead fluorescent light because that is going to take away from the color and texture and dimension of what they’re doing. I’m happy to have less light but it has to be directional light (meaning coming from a single source) and natural light. In some of my pictures, I don’t have a signature lighting style because I use what’s naturally available, just so long as it’s natural light.
What to do if you need pro photos but can’t afford to hire a photographer
If you have zero budget, do not despair! It can be done. The most important thing, as I mentioned before, is natural light from a directional source (not overhead.) That means, of course, that you need to take your photos during daylight hours . And you’re looking for as much light as you can get, but it’s most important that you use natural light, and that that light come from a definable angle. Windows are great because it highlights shadows and showcases the texture and dimension of the item.
I teach makers how to take great pictures with an iPhone often. Take a couple of hours the first time, to experiment. Play with answering: What are your best angles? Where is the best light? What do you like the most? Then, once you find the settings (on your phone or camera) and angles that you like, stick to them. Eliminate the need to do it differently every time. Find a formula within your space, with your product, and what you have.
In terms of staging for product or lifestyle photos, I recommend putting something in its natural habitat. It sounds counter-intuitive but for staging, I find that the more layers you have, the better. It’s really hard to take a great photo of something against a white background or in a lightbox. If you make mugs, I’d rather see you take a picture of that mug on a kitchen counter, surrounded by a few bags of your favorite tea. Context also distracts from imperfections if you’re taking the photos yourself.
There are certain photos that you can only get with a photographer. But there’s no shame in looking at process photos you like and trying to hack it on your own. Look at photos you like and try to replicate them. Look at Instagram and think of it like a singer “covering” a song -- you can “cover” photos that you love. For instance: take photos with your tools… do one with one of your hands… or your feet… or your materials…. take pictures of your workspace before and after you work. That’s all stuff you can do on your own -- and you can do it beautifully with an iPhone.
Why a fancy camera is like a potato
People say that a fancy camera is like a potato. You can make it any way you want, but if you do the right things, it will not be edible.
I have clients that kill it with a cellphone. I would rather see my clients work more regularly with their phone camera than take shots with some great camera and then not upload them, not use them, and feel intimidated about editing them. We know that perfect is the enemy of good. Use your camera phone and learn the limitations of that device. If you want a DSLR, really invest in the learning process. And that can be really fun, if that’s a priority, but you’ll want to really educate yourself and go through that learning curve, because otherwise, the photos will be worse than what you’ll do with your phone.
4 investments that can be good if you’re taking cellphone photos:
I recommend the VSCO app rather than using the native in-camera app. You can tweak much more right in the app and it takes better photos, too.
If I were to suggest one investment, it’s $20 on amazon and it’s a foldable reflector. It helps if you don’t have a lot of light, because it will take the light you have and magnify it.
If you have really detailed work, you could try the macro lenses that are available for the iPhone.
You’ll get more out of taking a basic class than you will out of upgrading your equipment.
A hybrid approach if you have some budget but not a lot
Makers can’t afford to hire me all the time, and they often feel like they need photos because there is a thirst for content. So I often help people figure out how to hack it without me when I can’t go.
For instance, a maker will sometimes bring me in once a year, but they’ll need photos more frequently than that. So I tell people where to stand, where to place items, what light to use to get great shots on their own. You can absolutely take decent pictures with your cellphone or whatever you have. You can take your own process shots without breaking the bank by hiring a photographer every time. But ideally, it can help to hire a photographer at least once to get that consultation on where the light is and what a good approach would be.
And it terms of affordability, you can consider a trade with a photographer. For me, it’s a delight to do trades with makers. There are some manners related to working out a trade or suggesting a trade but don’t be afraid to look into it.
On photo selection and photo curation
These days, customers tend to respond to a mix of cellphone photos and professional photos anyway. If they see just pro photos, it doesn’t feel authentic. So long as you have some really beautiful photos mixed in (whoever took them), you can take pretty crappy day-to-day photos showing your customers what you’re doing, and they’ll be happy with them.
Viewers want variety, even if it’s a variety that shows a greater range of quality of pictures. So posting the same stuff from the same shoot over and over again is not going to serve you well. The biggest mistake is taking a bunch of pictures at once. Having one solid set of pictures that reflect all the things you do as a maker is a good investment. But trying to take all your process pictures or product photos at once won’t give you the breadth you want -- you’d be better off taking a few photos every day.
It’s ok to stick to the same look in the photos -- in terms of how and when you take them -- but try to get diversity in the content of the photos.
How to hire a photographer and get the most out of it
Most importantly, you have to feel like the photographer’s pictures are things you personally respond to. It sounds simple, but it’s a really big deal. The other thing is that you want to put yourself in the position to work with the photographer enough so that if you don’t like some of the shots, you still have some you like. Cast your net wide.
You’ll get the most interesting work out of a photographer if you give them the time and space to get to know you and to experiment in your studio. An extra investment in time with them is the thing that will make that happen. It allows you to get comfortable with each other. There will always be cost constraints, but the more wiggle room you give a photographer, in terms of time, the better the outcome will be.
As far as cost management goes, I don’t think that you really need to hire a photographer so frequently. I think it’s better to hire a photographer for a longer time once… and then doing other sets of photos yourself.
What to do if you’re self-conscious about your look or your studio
Unless your studio is literally filthy, don’t worry about how it looks. Most photographers will move things around and not be shy if anything needs to be different. If there is dirt everywhere, clean up the dirt. But if it’s cluttered, let it be. If your natural way of working is to have your tools around you, then let it be. Of course think about how people see your workspace and act accordingly. Think about how you want to portray yourself.
As a photographer, I love it when the studio gets messy and the photos get interesting. But if you have your heart set on your studio looking a certain way, set up your studio before the photographer comes… and get those more staged shots at the beginning of the shoot before things get messy.
In terms of the maker’s look, I think it is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about how you want to look, before the shoot.
Some things to keep in mind here:
Most importantly: wear whatever feels like you. I would not be afraid to try to dress in your signature style. The photos will be so much more interesting and textured and layered that way.
Don’t feel like you need to wear extra makeup for the camera. If makeup makes you feel good, but don’t wear more makeup than you normally wear. It is better to wear no makeup than too much makeup.
In terms of hair, clothes, and makeup, do whatever makes you feel relaxed. That might mean getting a blowout before the shoot, or it might mean throwing your hair into a messy bun -- but choose something you won’t be tugging at or messing with. If you’re fussing with yourself, your clothes, and your makeup, it will take away from your sense of ease, and that won’t create great photos.
Consider having a few clothing options for the shoot. It can be nice to have something, like a sweater, that you can take on or off. Or, you can set aside a few outfits that you take on and off over the course of the shoot.
Be vocal with your photographer about how you want to present yourself and they’ll be thrilled to help you with that.
The step-by-step of hiring and managing a photographer
People usually reach out to me and with makers, because I have to get a feel for what they’re looking for, I usually schedule a phone call. I ask them to describe to me, very specifically, how they’re going to use these photos. Whether the photos are for a show entry, a marketing event, an Etsy feature -- that affects how we want to take the photos.
Once I know what they’re looking for, I quote them a couple of packages. Generally, the idea is that I come to their studio and photograph them doing what they do. Then, they choose among those packages.
We arrange a time. Then, we have a conversation about prep. To prepare, I ask them to imagine their favorite cooking show. You know how it looks like they made the dish from start to finish but they didn’t? We do that. I ask them to have a product they make at three different stages of production and then we can take photos of the whole process. (Side note: people can do that themselves, too. If you have a friend who can take iPhone photos, prep these product stages and you can do those process photos yourself.)
On the day of the shoot, I show up and ask them to talk me through their process. I ask a lot of questions about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I’m not shy about moving things, turning lights on, turning lights off, or around asking people to change their shirt.
After the shoot, I edit the photos and I deliver a commercial license with the photos. It’s typical for photos that the ownership of the photos remains with me. If someone wants to own the rights to the photos, photographers generally don’t do that or it will be very expensive, but you do need the commercial license.
A commercial license contract very clearly establishes the terms of that license and you have to look at that carefully because different photographers have different terms. You should ask for that contract to make sure that you can use the photos for everything you want to use them for. And you should make sure that you’re comfortable with all the rights the photographer has to the photos (whether it’s posting them to social media or something else.) Get to that agreement way before the photoshoot.
Anna’s guidance is incredibly useful for makers who are hoping to tell the story of their inspiration and process -- but without taking on debt or spending huge amounts to get those photos. Anna’s suggestions work beautifully for makers at a variety of stages.
Some of the key takeaways from what Anna shared include:
The biggest thing to getting photos that feel that way is to make your subjects (even if that’s yourself!) relaxed. One trick to feel relaxed? Engage in an activity that is meaningful to them related to their craft -- and actually do the craft, not pantomime.
Light is crucial, but you don’t need to have a ton of it. Just make sure that you have a source of directional, natural light.
You can take great cellphone photos, but invest the time to experiment with the best angles, location, and settings in your space. And once you find them, don’t change them up each time you take photos.
Mix pro photos and more spontaneous daily photos for the most variety and authenticity. This will also help keep costs down, since you can hire a photographer once a year (for instance) and do the rest of the photos yourself.
In terms of hair, clothes, and makeup, do whatever makes you feel relaxed. That way, you won’t be fussing over these pieces during the shoot.
“Cover” photos you love, as a singer would with a song -- study shots for elements you think work well and then pull those into the photos you take.
Use whatever photography equipment you already have, feel comfortable with, and will shoot photos with frequently. If that’s a cellphone, great. If you’d like to invest, invest in simple tools (like light reflectors from Amazon) or a class to learn how to take better photos.
Consider doing a trade with a photographer if you’d like to hire someone but can’t afford their fee.
In choosing a photographer to work with, make sure you love their work, give them the time they need to experiment, and double-check the licenses and terms of the photos.
Have questions or need a hand?
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers.
As always, we’re here to help! If you have clarifying questions, want us to take a look at what you’re working on, or would like to schedule a coaching call, just drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.