Ten Ways to Improve Your Fiber Art Photography Now

by Kristi Schueler

Only other fiber artists truly understand the hard work, time and love that goes into each stitch. Sharing our work with an understanding audience generally means sharing pictures of projects via blog posts and various social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and of course Ravelry. If the photographs are not of good quality the excitement of the audience may not be what you expected. Below are ten ways you can start improving your fiber arts photography right now.

1. Know Your Camera
It doesn’t matter whether you shoot with a point and shoot (often referred to as P&S) or a digital SLR (dSLR). Equipment rarely ‘makes’ a photo. The number one thing you can do to improve your fiber arts photography is to know your camera. Reading the manual and taking lots of pictures are the best ways to get to know your camera.

Find your manual and read it. If you read it when you got your camera, read it again. Chances are you will connect with different features each time because your comfort level with the camera and with photography will have increased. Whenever I feel stuck in a rut with my photos, I flip through my camera manual and third party reference books for it. Pay special attention to sections about the macro feature and the various scene modes available to you.

The more photos you take the more you’ll learn about the features and even quirks of your camera. While practicing photographing fiber arts is good, you do not need to limit yourself to that. Just get out there and take photographs regularly. It is less effort if you always have the camera with you! If you need motivation to do so there are many daily or weekly photography challenges you can take part in on the Internet.

2. Tell a Story Through Your Photos

I put some of the roving and both bobbins of singles in a wooden bowl I use to keep the dogs out of it while spinning to set the stage. Then I focused on the freshly plied yarn on the niddy noddy. This illustrates where the yarn came from and how it came to be.

Photography is meant to tell a story. Keep this in mind as you set out to photograph your projects. Use that story to decide where to take the pictures and what props to include. For projects using handspun yarn I really like to include bits of fiber in each state. Using tools as props can help tell the story of the project’s creation as well. A tableau of a project may include a wraps per inch tool, a niddy noddy, some of the singles on their bobbins, roving, or in some cases bits of raw fleece, washed fleece, and handcards. This tells the story that this is not just any old finished item, but one that began with raw fleece or prepared roving, whichever the case may be.

Also try asking yourself what you would do if you were presented with a lovely project to examine in person. Then try to capture the traits you would observe in person in the pictures you take. It is true that you cannot capture the scent of handspun wool in a picture, nor can the viewer of the picture reach out and touch the fabric. But you will take more compelling photographs if you try to capture those traits visually.

Remember, sometimes handspun yarn is the finished project – at least for a time. It deserves thoughtful photos just as a finished garment or accessory!

3. Separate the Subject from the Background

White posterboard was employed for the simple, background of this shot. Keeping it simple and neutral really makes the roving pop. Using white backgrounds is often called High Key photography.

This is most easily achieved by keeping the background simple. When photographing smaller projects or skeins of yarn use poster board or large sheets of colored pastel paper from the art supply store as your background. For apparel that is being modeled use a bare wall or drawn curtains as your backdrop. You can even purchase clearance drapes and flat sheets in various colors to use as backdrops, just be certain you iron or steam them first as wrinkled fabric will often detract from the texture of your projects. For more accurate color representation stick to neutral colors.

In this photo I was telling the story of the time and place that the yarn was spun. It was late spring and we had just had snow that blanketed our blooming plum tree. I used a depth of field (f/5.6) that would keep most of the yarn in focus as long as a few flowers, but flowers on other branches and the fence in the background would be blurred. If the whole shot was in focus it would feel cluttered and even unsettling as your eyes would not know where to travel.

If you choose a to set a scene to aid the storytelling, use a shallow depth of field to bring emphasis to your subject. Depth of field determines how much of a scene will be sharply in focus. If the depth of focus is shallow only objects that are the same distance from the lens as the item you focus on will be in sharp focus. Anything else in the scene that is closer or farther away from the lens will be increasingly blurred and out of focus the farther distance it is from the subject of shot.

Both photos were taken at the same settings, but the one of the left was shot straight down at the yarn so everything was an equal distance from the lens. The one on the right was shot at an angle, skimming along the length of the hank so you can see there is a slice at roughly the center of the shot that is in focus and it gets blurrier towards and the top and bottom.

The depth of field is controlled by the aperture setting of your camera and is described in terms of the f-stop. F-stops less than 4 or 5 are considered to have shallow depths of field and will help separate your subject from the background. Using the Aperture Priority mode, often indicated by an A or Av on dial selectors is a semi-automatic mode. It tells the camera that you want a specific depth of field and to achieve proper exposure it should adjust the other parameters of shutter speed and ISO.

If you do not have such a mode on your camera, generally the portrait mode often indicated by a facial profile icon will achieve a similar result. Read about this scene mode in your manual. A note of caution, some cameras are now employing soft focus in addition to the shallow depth of field so it does not pick up on every little skin imperfection. While that can be wonderful for portraits, it often greatly reduces stitch definition when photographing finished objects.

4. Capture the Details
A nice shot of the overall project is a good thing, but generally the skill and real beauty of handmade projects are found in the details. This is where you will want to employ the macro function of your camera.

In this shot I wanted to highlight that these socks did not have the more common edge toe, but rather had a spiral toe, so I got in close and used a shallow depth of field to draw the viewer to really look at the detail of the toes.

The macro function is generally indicated on cameras with a little flower icon. It may be found on on the mode selector dial, as a button to be pushed on the back of the camera when you are in any other mode or in a scene mode menu on screen. Your manual should tell you where to find the setting.

If you are using a P&S camera in macro mode you’ll want to have the camera full-wide and move it in closer to the object rather than zooming in. The opposite is true if you are using a dSLR. With a zoom lens attached, zoom all the way in and then position yourself as close as you’d like to be where the camera will still focus.

5. Employ the Rule of Thirds

While this photo contains several things of interest in it, I'm telling the viewer that the plied yarn at the lower right is of interest as that is the portion that is sharply in focus. One of the properties that makes this image appealing is that I set the in-focus portion to land at the lower right intersections of the dividing lines that make up the rule of thirds.

When setting up your shots, often called framing, it is common to center everything. Most times that is not going to be the most pleasing composition. Visualize the photograph split into thirds vertically and horizontally. Setting up a shot with the main focal point at any of the four intersection points of those lines will be more aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, if you are shooting modeled shots outdoors, setting the horizon line at one of the horizontal lines rather than the center will create a more appealing shot.

If you are feeling ho-hum about your shots, even though the lighting and focus are good, don’t forget you can edit the photos, called post-processing. It is always good to attempt to shoot so photos are great straight from the camera, but there is nothing wrong with cropping for better composition or employing other techniques. Most cameras ship with some editing software. Alternately you can use Picnik, a free web-based image editor that is fairly intuitive. Longing for Photoshop’s capabilities without the price tag? GIMP is a free photo editing program more in line with Photoshop’s features.

6. Take More Photos
When you think you’ve taken all the photos you may want, take some more! Stretch yourself to come up with other angles to shoot from or other ways to style the shot. Even try different lighting scenarios if you have the flexibility to do so. You will likely find a favorite spot or two in your home where you really like the quality of light at a specific time of the day. The more photos you take the more you will learn and start to develop a personal style to your project photography.

7. Use Natural Light Whenever Possible
Use natural light whenever possible when photographing your projects. While it can be tricky to get natural light during the short daylight hours of winter, it shows off your projects best. Colors will generally be truer and stitch pattern definition will be markedly improved over flash photography.

It was an overcast late autumn afternoon when this shot was taken. The skies were not heavy with upcoming precipitation so there was plenty of light. Shooting in the bleachers of a ball park also helped boost the light as it reflected off of the seats.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a bright sunny day to capture good natural light photographs. In fact, a bright sunny day can be a detriment. Cloudy skies that are not too heavy soften the light much like a studio photographer’s use of a softbox or umbrella on their lighting rigs. Soft light keeps shadows at a pleasant softness and reduces squinting by your models. It also allows for a slightly slower shutter speed which can produce richer colors in the photograph.

This shot was taken at 1pm local time on a sunny afternoon. I took the model and my gear into a nearby wooded area that provided some even shade so we could capture this wool-silk blend project without the shine of the silk causing spots of overexposure.

If it is a bright sunny day, all is not lost. Find a location in even, open shade – most often found on the north side of buildings. Often times photographing inside near a large window will work well on bright days as well. Having sheer curtains to diffuse the sunlight a bit more if it is direct light is helpful too.

8. Light From the Side
Texture is a large part of any finished knit, crochet or woven project, whether made from handspun or commercial yarn. To see texture you need both shadows and highlights. The best way to capture those in a photograph is to have directional lighting.

This knit has lovely texture, but it was knit in a dark fuzzy yarn, qualities that tend to mask stitch pattern detail. By working with directional, slightly backlit lighting the texture and softness of the project comes through.

Position yourself and the subject of the photograph with the main light source to one side. This requires avoiding shooting outside at midday when the sun is directly overhead. Indoors near a window at that time of day will produce side lighting which you may find optimal for indoor natural light photography. I know I love shooting in our living room with it’s large southern exposure window between about 10am and 2pm.

Remember that on-camera flash lights the shot straight from the camera. Its strength and position in relation to the project and camera will wash out any texture. If you shoot with a dSLR and have an external flash unit, positioning it to the side using a remote trigger system or an extension cord will help bring out texture if you have insufficient lighting.

9. Use Backlight to Show Off Softness
To highlight projects or yarn containing fuzzy fibers such as mohair, angora or alpaca, a bit of backlightling will help pop the softness. You can backlight in two different ways – put the main light source off of the corner to the back and side of the project or add a secondary light source behind it that is weaker than the main light source.

This is a classic backlit shot. It was early evening and the sun was just about to set behind the model. The bright line outline the edge of the headband creates separation between it and the similarly colored background. This particular yarn is quite smooth, but if it were a fuzzy yarn that light would be bolder and you zoomed in closer you would be able to make out individual fibers.

Getting the proper exposure when shooting subjects that are only backlit can be tricky. Consult your manual on the various exposure metering modes and choose single spot metering. Metering is where the camera analyzes the light hitting its sensor from the scene being photographed and makes adjustments to the shutter speed, aperture size and ISO (sensor sensitivity to light) to create what it feels will be the best exposure for the photograph. To ensure the camera exposes for the subject rather than the backlight, set the center focus point on the project and hold the shutter half-way down to set the exposure, then reframe the shot as desired and press the shutter the rest of the way down.

Alternately, if you have a manual mode get real close to the object you want exposed properly and take a shot in your preferred automatic or semi-automatic mode, whether it is a scene mode or aperture priority. Then check the exposure settings from the preview. Set up the shot and set the manual mode aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings to match those of the previous shot.

White posterboard was set up as a seamless background for this shot. The back third or so was propped up on a stack of books. Because the background is light colored it reflects from light into the scene from behind the subject creating very subtle backlighting.

10. Control Light with Reflectors
When shooting with natural light you may feel like you have little control over the lighting of your photographs. Natural light, while not fully under your control, is malleable. If shadows are too harsh or the light isn’t quite as bright as you’d like reflect more light into the scene.

Here you can the set up for the bottom photo of the next graphic. Opposite the large window which is the only light source being used is a piece of white foam core reflecting more light back into the scene to soften harsh shadows.

While there are fancy reflectors for photographers, a simple piece of white foam core or a reflective automobile sunshade will be much cheaper and just as effective. Keep in mind that the larger your reflector, the more diffuse the light reflected in will be. The same holds true for nearness to the subject — the closer you are the stronger the light, the farther away you are the softer. If you need one particular spot filled in more, use a smaller reflective surfacele placed as close as possible to the subject without being in the shot. This technique can be especially helpful when you are employing backlighting. Having a helping hand to hold reflectors is optimum, but you can prop them up against other objects or put a couple A clamps on one edge to form a base to hold it up.

The image on the top was taken strictly with strong southern light coming through sheer curtains in the window. The bottom image was taken the same, but there is a piece of white foam core opposite the window to reflect more light back in to the scene which lightens up the shadows and keeps them from being as distracting.

Often times the effect of reflecting light will be very subtle. Occasionally, I cannot see the difference until I compare images on the camera screen. With practice you will develop the eye to discern the difference in real time.

Reflecting light isn’t limited to natural light. If you find you must use flash, you can bounce it off of white surfaces for more diffused lighting of the scene and less harsh shadows if you have an external flash unit. If you only have a pop-up flash there are diffusers to soften the flash and add-on devices to help you bounce it from behind you.

I’m not going to lie and say photography is simple. Like fiber arts, it can turn into a lifelong learning process. At its core, however, it is simply the capturing of light to convey a particular feeling or tell a certain story. So before picking up the camera to photograph your next handspun project think about your light and what you want the viewer to get from your photo. If you really give thought to both of those concepts, and are familiar and comfortable with your camera, you will find increased success.

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3 Responses

  1. June 12, 2011

    […] Ten Ways to Improve Your Fiber Art Photography Now Feb 18, 2011 … Photography is meant to tell a story. ….. I'm not going to lie and say photography is simple. … […]

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  3. June 14, 2012

    Elizabeth Ramirez…

    […]Ten Ways to Improve Your Fiber Art Photography Now[…]…