Photography has always been… let’s just go with “challenging”… for me. It’s always been a last minute/low light/let’s-see-if-Photoshop-can-fix-this kind of a thing. So when I get questions like this one, which was sent in by Daisy, you can’t even imagine how flattered I am, seriously:
“I have followed your blog for some time and the visuals (as well as the writing of course) are just great! I, like many, have started a lifestyle blog with a lot of elements focusing on fitness, health and dance (as that is my main audience!). The thing I am currently struggling with is getting professional looking images to compliment my content. Where did you learn your photography skills? Would you recommend taking a short course? Is there a specific type of camera or editing program that you would advise to use?”
Now, flattered though I am, I always feel a bit of a fraud answering questions like this (Er, I’m going to do it anyway, though, obvs.), because the fact is, I know absolutely nothing about photography. Like, AT ALL. I haven’t taken any courses (I mean, I DID actually do a Photography module in high school, but that was a long time ago, and it mostly involved me and my best friend locking ourselves in the dark room for a gossip, while shouting, “No, we can’t open the door yet, Sir, it’ll ruin the photos!” at our poor teacher, so I don’t think it counts, somehow…), but to answer the question, YES, I would imagine it would definitely help, so, you know, do that. Yes.
As for the other questions: I use a Nikon D7000 with a couple of different lenses – these photos were shot with a 30mm portrait lens (in very bad lighting so don’t judge…), which is what most of my outfit photos are shot with too: by Terry, if they’re taken outdoors, and by me, using a tripod and remote, if they’re indoors. If I’m shooting indoors, I also have a couple of softboxes, plus an external flash and diffuser, and I’d say these are probably more important than the camera, because when it comes to photography, there’s one thing that’s more important than anything else:
Seriously, lighting is everything. Good lighting has the power to make a crappy photo look passably good: bad lighting, on the other hand, makes me look like Voldemort, and I don’t care how often Terry tries to convince me otherwise, I AM NOT VOLDEMORT.
I’ll get back to that in a second, though (the lighting, I mean, not not my resemblance to the Dark Lord…): for now, to answer the last part of Daisy’s question, I use Photoshop to edit all of my photos. Photoshop gets a bad rap in blogging circles, because everyone seems to assume that those who use it are all just doing it to make their legs look longer, but, well, you’ve seen photos of my legs, so I’m sure you can see I’m not doing that. Actually, I use Photoshop almost entirely for colour-correction. Living in Scotland, we don’t get a lot of light, and even with the softboxes, almost all of my photos will come out dark and yellow. Here’s the kind of thing I mean:
In this case, the second photo isn’t great either (this was actually taken before I got the softboxes, and there’s only so much you can do with lighting this bad, really…), but at least you can see me in it, and it’s actually closer to reality – believe it or not, this was taken during the day, and my bedroom is NOT the murky yellow colour it appears to be in the first photo!
Other than that, I’ll also use it to correct the odd distracting feature which I think just detracts from the image. If I’m outdoors, for instance, I might Photoshop out a piece of litter by the side of the road; indoors, meanwhile, I almost always have to remove electrical sockets, which would otherwise appear in the backdrop of every photo. Some people would consider this to be a kind of “lying”, I guess, but if it’s a photo of an outfit, I don’t really think it NEEDS an electrical socket on the wall behind it for people to see what it looks like, you know?
Do I advise using this specific camera and editing programme, though?
Well, yes and no. I mean, I have no complaints about either of them, really, but I also don’t have much to compare them with, so that’s not a particularly educated or unbiased opinion. What I would say here – and I think this is really important – is that neither of these pieces of equipment are particularly cheap, and neither are particularly easy to use. I’m completely self-taught here: I do have Terry on hand to help me with Photoshop when I need it, but, somewhat surprisingly to a lot of people, while I’m not good at absorbing and following technical instructions, I’m actually NOT a technophobe, and I can generally find my way around a new piece of software/hardware fairly easily, working purely on a “trial and error” basis. (Which is where all of my photography, er, “skills”, come from, basically…)
Photoshop, though? Photoshop was a pretty steep learning curve for me (I actually didn’t purchase it specifically for my blog: we already had it for Terry’s web design work), as was the camera itself. As it stands, I can use both of them well enough, but I know I’m not using either to their full capacity: they’re both capable of doing WAY more than I really need them to, so while yes, they’re both great pieces of kit, I think that how you use your photography equipment is far more important than how much you pay for it, or what brand it is. Cameras don’t take photos: people take photos, and if the person holding the camera doesn’t know how to use it, they’ll still take a bad photo, no matter how ‘good’ the camera is.
Cameras don’t take photos: people take photos, and if the person holding the camera doesn’t know how to use it, they’ll still take a bad photo, no matter how ‘good’ the camera is.
I’ve taken some flack for voicing this opinion in the past, so just to clarify: I’m not saying you shouldn’t invest in a decent camera or editing software – what I’m saying is that if you do choose to invest in them, you should also be prepared to spend some time learning how to use them. “Fancy” cameras and software like Photoshop aren’t really designed for beginners, and while yes, you can shoot on auto, and get OK photos, there’s not much point in buying a DSLR if you’re just going to shoot on auto all the time, is there? It’s not like you can just expect to pick it up and start creating amazing images, either, though: I’ve taken some truly horrendous photos with my Nikon (I actually ended up taking the photos for this post with my iPhone, for instance, because I got so frustrated with trying to get them to come out the way I wanted with the DSLR…), so, YES, buy the best camera you can afford… but make sure you learn how to use it.
With all of that said, here are some of the photography tips I’ve picked up over the years…
Shoot in natural daylight whenever possible
There really is no substitute for it: not even those studio lights which seem to take up half of my spare bedroom…
But not in direct sunlight
When I first started taking outfit photos for the blog, I’d see a clear blue sky, and think, “YAY! Great day for blog photos!” Now I see one and just think, “Oh crap, here comes Voldemort…”
Here’s what happens if you try to shoot in direct sunlight:
My body is really well lit, but my face is totally in shadow. I can correct that to an extent in Photoshop…
…but it still looks quite unnatural, and not particularly true-to-life. Wait until the sun goes behind a cloud, however, and/or switch up the angle, and you get a more realistic photo…
Still not a great one, mind you – the light was super-weird this day – but it’s more realistic, and my face doesn’t have those awkward shadows on it, so I prefer to shoot on slightly overcast days, or in the shade of a building or something. What you DON’T want to do to try to fix lighting problems, however, is to use the flash. Seriously:
Switch off the flash
If you use the flash that comes with your camera, you’ll probably end up with photos that look a bit like this:
On the plus side, the flash gives you a sharper image, smooths out wrinkles and makes your hair look super-shiny. So there’s that. On the minus side, though, the photos look like ass, basically: or I think so, anyway. I just think a photo with a flash can look really unnatural, and more like someone’s holiday snaps than a super-profesh photo shoot (LOL), so it’s to be avoided at all costs.
One exception to this: I DO use a flash sometimes when I shoot indoors, but rather than relying on the inbuilt one, I use an external flash, with a diffuser attachment. The external flash not only creates much more light than the built-in one, it can also be angled in any direction you like – so rather than pointing it right in your face, as you’re forced to do with a built-in flash, you can bounce it off the wall, and avoid the “rabbit in the headlights” look. The diffuser, meanwhile, does exactly as the name suggests: it diffuses the light, making the overall effect much more natural. So, basically, with the external flash and diffuser combo, you’re able to attempt to mimic the appearance of natural daylight, rather than to effectively just shine a giant spotlight in your startled eyes.
When I first discovered Photoshop filters and actions I totally went to town on them, and all of my photos had some kind of “vintage”filter slapped over them. Now I look back at those photos and cringe (I’m gradually going through them all and fixing them, but it’s a long process…), so nowadays I try to keep the photo as natural looking as possible – so I’ll use Photoshop to crop and colour correct, but that’s about it. It goes without saying, though, that it’s better to take a decent photo in the first place than to try to repair a crappy one, so …. try to do that.
Cropping is essential
A lot of new bloggers don’t bother to crop their images, so they post this:
rather than this:
The first photo shows more of the backdrop, so if that’s what you’re aiming for, fine. If it’s an outfit shot, though, you want the emphasis to be on the outfit, so cropping it (and, in this case, straightening it), makes it a more effective photo for a fashion blog.
Use movement in outfit shots
This is really just a personal preference, but when I’m taking outfit photos, I prefer to move around a little – so I’ll be walking, or turning or something, rather than standing rigidly staring at the camera: it just looks more natural, and a bit less like that one time you got pulled over by the cops and thrown in the cells for the night.
Close-ups and angles can make flat-lays and product shots more interesting
Similarly, if I’m photographing an object rather than myself, I find I like the results better if I shoot it up close, or at an angle, rather than straight-on. Close-ups in particular can make a random household object look a whole lot more interesting, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Keep backdrops clear and bright
People like to make fun of all of those marble backdrops bloggers like to use, but honestly? I like them. They look good in photos, and they allow the product to stand out, and that’s the whole point really, is it? Outfit photos should show the outfit; product photos should show the product. You don’t have to buy a slab of marble just to be like everyone else (don’t let the naysayers stop you, though, if you really want to!), but in general, keeping your backdrop clean, clear and free of clutter/other distracting elements will result in a better photo.
Aaaaand I think I’m done.