Photographing Dark Wardrobe Items

  Written By Cameraman Jim: http://www.sigma-2.com/camerajim/index.htm  
In this Guide, I'll discuss clothing and fashion photography, with special emphasis on hard-to-shoot black and dark items.

A lot of the questions I get on eBay discussion boards have to do with clothing photography. For the most part, this isn't a difficult photo subject, as long as you pay attention to proper color balance and exposure.

The lighting is simple, since it follows the rules for good portrait lighting. In most cases, what you want is a main light which can either be diffused or direct and a second fill light or reflector to cut the depth of the shadow areas.

Photographic Backgrounds

As eBay items go, however, clothing tends to be large, so the matter of backgrounds gets more important. These backgrounds don't need to be complex. Even a simple white sheet or large piece of fabric hung from a rod can do fine.

You could, of course, get more professional-looking results with a seamless white paper background. That's what fashion photographers often use in their studios and even on location. These aren't expensive and I'll show and discuss these in a minute.

Dark Clothing Photography

Black Coat Dress

 In my examples here, I'm going to be showing dark clothing, because that seems to be a challenge for many eBay clothing sellers. When looking at listings for black clothes, what I often see are either washed out gray clothes or featureless black blobs, with almost no hint of shape or texture, like this...

I'm going to show you how to deal with that, but first, let's go back to the window to look at a simple, basic clothing setup.

In the setup shot below, I've hung a large white muslin fabric from two background poles. The background poles I'm using (Bogen Autopoles) cost about $100 for a pair, but you could just as easily do the same thing with fabric draped over a wooden rod hung from the ceiling or a wall.

Here, I let the folds of the fabric show. If you don't like that look, you could stretch and tack the fabric down at the bottom. Muslin is often used as a photo background because it drapes so well and doesn't wrinkle a lot.

Clothing Setup

There are two other important elements in that setup: a tripod and a mannequin/dress form.


Tripods Make Sharp Photos

What most people think is an out of focus shot is very often blurring caused by very slight camera motion. Either natural window light or low-wattage indoor lighting can result in fairly slow shutter speeds. A slightly shaky hand or even the beating of your pulse can cause motion blur.

A tripod is almost always important, but it becomes essential for clothing photography, where you're often shooting while standing at a decent distance from your subject.

Mannequins Exhibit Shape and Drape

I also think a mannequin or dress form is important if you're going to sell clothing on eBay because that's how you demonstrate the shape and drape of the clothing.

Live models can also be a good idea, but eBay clothing sellers disagree on when this is appropriate. Some say it's OK if you're selling vintage clothing, but not so acceptable for new clothes, when you want to assure buyers that the clothing has never been worn.

[A digression: I understand that children's clothing is often shown on ebay laying flat and that seems to be OK with both buyers and sellers in that category. However, if you're selling adult clothing, I think it's better to avoid the "body vaporized up by aliens" look of clothing lying on the floor.]

Determining Camera Exposures with Dark Clothing

In dealing with dark clothing, it is important to get your exposure on the money. Unfortunately, you can't always rely on the auto exposure control on your camera to do that for you.

If you followed my information about exposure in the second of these Guides (Camera, Controls & Settings), you'll know automatic exposure cameras expect an average scene, with average amounts of dark, light and in-between shades. We hardly have that here, with a dark dress on a white background, so the camera gets it wrong and underexposes or overexposes.

You can use the exposure compensation control on your camera to adjust for this, adding or subtracting exposure until it looks right. Or, you could use a photographic gray card, to measure the exposure.

Using a Gray Card for Accurate Camera Exposure

Again, going back to Part I of the workshop, a gray card is calibrated to have the exact 18% gray value all automatic cameras try to find. Such a gray card is cheaply available at your local camera store or here on eBay and I recommend getting one.

Here's how I'd use it here, with an assistant holding one in front of the dress I'm going to shoot...

Clothing Gray Card

Zooming in, look at a close-up of the card.

Gray Card Reviewing that photo on my camera's LCD screen told me the exact shutter speed and lens aperture the camera used for the close-up. I then switched my camera into manual exposure mode and set the shutter speed and aperture for these values.

That might sound like a lot of trouble, but that is the last time I will have to worry about exposure, as long as I use the same lighting setup. Every shot I take from then on, whether of a dark item, a light one or anything else in between, will be exposed just right.


Here's the black dotted dress, shot using this technique...

Polka-Dot Dress


Using a Photographic Reflector to Lighten Shadows

That shot has a full range of tones, from jet black to pure white, but I wasn't totally satisfied, because the shadows were too dark on the left side. So, I added a reflector, in the form of a sheet of posterboard held by an assistant...

Using a Reflector Polka-Dot Dress Improved

This gave me what I think is an improved image...


A Possible Moire Effect

Moire EffectYou might notice some wavy lines in this smaller version of the photo above. This can happen when ebay reduces the size of your photo, causing what is known as a moire effect. This happens when two patterns overlap and interfere with each other. In this case, the patterns are the dotted pattern of the cloth and the pattern of pixels in the image.

The only solutions for this problem are to shoot at different distances or angles, to blur the image or to use a larger image size. Unfortunately, as of this writing, ebay limits the size of photos in certain instances.


A Studio Lighting Setup for Clothing Photos

Now, let's go to a studio setup, instead of using window lighting. Here, I'm using a roll of the seamless white paper I mentioned above. This one is 53" wide and 12 yards long, but you can get it in 8-foot or 12-foot wide rolls, too. The 53" size is cheaper (about $20) and lots easier to handle around the house. Savage is a good brand name to search for.

Once more, I'm using my Bogen Autopoles to hold the paper, but you put a roll on a wooden dowel or metal rod and then hang that from a ceiling or wall.

Dress Studio For my lighting, I'm using two tungsten lights in small reflectors. The main light on the left side is placed high, so any shadows it throws will fall behind and to the right of my subject.

The other light is shining through a translucent photographic umbrella. This isn't a very expensive accessory and it's one I think you might consider if you sell a lot of clothing. It produces a very soft, diffused light that's very flattering to many subjects. Or, you could substitute any other diffusion material, such as a plastic panel from a fluorescent light.

The light with the umbrella is being used here as a fill light, to help cut the shadows. With a fill light, the idea is to have a weaker light than the main light. If you have two lights of about the same strength, you can moving the fill light about 50% further away will do the trick.

This was the result from my two-light studio setup...

Polka-Dot Dress in Studio

Notice how this gave me a pure white background. Some people get this by painstakingly erasing their backgrounds with photo editing software, but this shot is unedited, except for resizing. If I wanted to get a complete "floating" look, I guess I could have erased the mannequin's support post at the bottom.

And do you remember that black blob of a coat dress I showed earlier? Here's how it turned out with this indoor lighting setup... Coat Dress