Must-Have Tools For The Apparel Photographer

Must-Have Tools For The Apparel Photographer

You've all seen these images. It's the knob-and-hanger set up that has become the signature style for many kids retail sites such as Zulily. What you do not see, however, are all the tools that go into creating these minimalist images. The bulk of my work as a commercial photographer is with product, one of which is children's clothing for sites like Zulily, so let me give you a sneak peek into my personal tool bag that I could not work without.

Clothing Shoot Tools

Steamer

A good steamer is necessary, and I don't mean one of those “Shark” steamers you can pick up at Walmart. Those are ok if you want to quickly refresh your morning wardrobe, but if you work in volume and with heavier fabrics, invest in a steamer that has at least 1200 watts of power and a consistent flow of steam. I've personally had great experiences with products from Jiffy, and would highly recommend their steamers. The J-2000 can provide steam for up to 90 minutes, which means less downtime having to turn it off, refill, and wait for it to heat back up.

Most clients will take care to properly steam the product in an industrial steamer and will carefully package the product to prevent wrinkles from forming, but wrinkles are inevitable and for the best outcome, you need to have your own steamer to take out any and all wrinkles you can!

Clothing Rack

You will most likely need several of these. There is nothing fancy to look for here, as long as it doesn't fall apart on you then it will do its job. I like to get my clothing racks with rollers so I can roll them all over the studio; makes it easier to transport from set to set. The key thing to remember here is to give your clothing room to breathe. Many people will pile all the clothing on a single rack which is extremely counterproductive. This is a sure fire way to introduce new wrinkles and debris. Try and leave at least a finger gap between articles of clothing.

Time for a tip! Organize all your clothes by length on the clothing racks. Often times clothing will come in and the pieces will fit into one of three categories of length. If you separate the pieces that way it will speed up your workflow.

Lint Brush

Just like keeping your camera sensor dust free, we want to make sure our product is dust and debris-free. Clothing, unfortunately, is a magnet for stray hairs, dust, loose threads, and many other unidentifiable things. Use a lint brush to get rid of all those imperfections because they WILL show up on camera. Many clients are now doing the “100% zoom view”, which is all the more reason to get rid of all that pesky dirt.

Scissors/Shears

Sometimes you have a loose thread, and sometimes you need to cut out a tag. It’s always good to have a pair of scissors lying around....just don't run with them. In addition, there are times where you will need to cut the clothing itself and later pin it in order to style it correctly. A good pair of tailor’s shears is essential here.

Pins

Keep all sorts of pins at your disposal. Thumbtacks, sewing pins, bobby pins, and safety pins, I have used them all. Every article of clothing is a little different which means it falls and folds in different places. I use bobby pins, safety pins, and thumbtacks on the side of the clothing that is facing away from the camera. The reason for this is that these types of pins have a tendency to warp the clothing. If I need to pin anything in the front, a straight sewing pin is often the way to go.

Fill

I'm not talking about fill light here. There is a reason stores display their clothing on mannequins, and we use models in advertising. Clothing is design to look good when it is worn, not so much when it’s just laying there. Otherwise we could just toss our clothes on the floor and never clean our rooms. When we do these Zulily-style product shots, it is important we give the clothing some life by filling it and plumping it up. This often creates more surface area, which better displays various patterns that might be on the article of clothing, reduces wrinkles, and is easier to style.

There are many things you can use for fill. Clear plastic bags, gift wrap, or even foam. It will depend on the piece you are shooting, but don't be afraid to get creative. Make sure to keep your fill clear or white. Colors will show through the fabric, and introduce a color cast.

Clear Tubing

Clear tubing, the kind you can find at a hardware store in the plumbing section, is a great tool to have. We can weave it through our fill in order to add structure to the dress, much like a skeleton. Furthermore, clear tubing is my preferred method for filling sleeves and giving them shape.

Cork Board

You might be surprised to see this one on here! Why do I need cork board? Often times I will use a piece of cork board attached to the backdrop and BEHIND the article of clothing. This is a good way for me to use thumbtacks and pin the article of clothing directly to the background. I can prevent any unwanted movement this way, and it also allows us to style the dress in a way it would not naturally sit. For example, if we wanted to introduce movement in a skirt, or do something fancy with the sleeves. By using the cork board we are also saving our backdrop from getting pricked with hundreds of thumbtacks and needing constant replacement.

Compressed Air/Tweezers

Once the article of clothing has been styled and sitting out in the open air for some time, chances are it will accumulate more dust. At this point we wouldn't want to use a lint brush as it would be far too destructive. Since we used a lint brush earlier to get rid of all the stubborn dirt, the stuff we will find now will be light surface dust that is easily blown away with some compressed air. Any loose threads or dirt that cannot be removed with a light spray of air should be removed with tweezers.

Flat Iron

Even after steaming, the edges of an article of clothing can remain wrinkled due to the cut, stitching, and density of fabric at the edges. A flat iron is a great way to isolate the heat to a particular problem area, and because it clasps over what you are adding heat to, you can easily do this once the clothing is in the final stages of being styled. If you are using the flat iron over the edges, usually the best method is to slide across the edge in one direction. Do not apply too much pressure as it will begin to pull on the fabric and stretch it out.

Tin Foil

This is another one of those head scratchers. What do I need tin foil for? Am I making tin foil hats so that my thoughts don't get stolen? No. This is actually a tip you can implement in your daily life! Believe it or not, if you've got a stubborn wrinkle that just won't come out, put a piece of tinfoil on the other side of it as you are steaming. The heat from the steam radiates through the dress, and by adding tin foil behind it you are reflecting and trapping the heat in the layer of fabric. This attacks the wrinkle from both sides and "super heats" it, allowing you to tackle even the toughest wrinkles.

Zulily Style Photoshoot

To Sum It All Up

As simplistic as the image may seem, there are a lot of aspects to consider in order to achieve the proper results, and I couldn't do my job without the things I have listed here. Now that you know what tools I use to create these images, stay tuned for future articles where I will explore the various lighting challenges we face when photographing fabrics!

Feel free to visit me anytime at Peter House – Commercial Photographer to follow our work. Till next time.

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12 Comments

Ken Kotch's picture

Nice writeup Peter. My new favorite thing in my bag is Aluminum Foil Tape. Stays where you put it. Get it at your favorite HomeDepot.

Peter House's picture

Thanks Ken! Ahhh yes, good old aluminum foil tape. I like to use that on some of my DIY reflectors! I think the only two kinds of people I see at Home Depot are contractors, and photographers :D

Thanks for the post Peter, I didn't know about the corkboard trick, that's definitely a useful one. Although, I would like to point out that a lot of the things on your list are aspects that are typically handled by the stylist / wardrobe crew so that the photographer and photo team can focus on the lighting, etc.. I hope for your sake, that you're not often finding yourself steaming all the products yourself and then running over to the wall and tacking it all up alone too, that could make for a stressful and very long shoot!

I'm looking forward to hearing about your lighting setup for products shoots like this, being right against the wall your light would have to be very diffused to avoid unwanted shadows!

Peter House's picture

Thanks! Yes, a lot of these aspects can be handled by a stylist or even an assistant, but I think as a photographer it never hurts to have an understanding of the entire process. I'm also a very hands on person, so I like to have a certain level of control on set, even if I'm not the only one there.

I will have an article coming up soon to delve into lighting for these sorts of images. Indeed the proximity of the product to the background does present some limitations. Stay tuned! :)

Yeah I know what you mean, it's definitely good to understand the whole process, either way all the things mentioned in this article are things I definitely didn't know about the first time I shot apparel in a studio so I'm sure a lot of people will find this helpful, can't wait for your next post!

Haha, reading this from my photography studio while actually photographing and importing childrens clothing as i type this!

Great tips, apart from maybe 1 or 2, im glad to say i do all this :)

Peter House's picture

Haha, nothing screams dedication like taking a break from work to read about the same thing you were just doing at work! Cheers!

Great advice! Now...where is that gorgeous blue dress sold? :)

Peter House's picture

This particular dress is actually from the upcoming spring collection for a new brand called Gidget Loves Milo. The collection has not been officially released but I think you might be able to order it from their website already. You will however be able to find this, and all their other pieces on websites such as Zulily, Amazon, and Gilt.

nice, how about the lighting? how many lights do you use?

Peter House's picture

Thanks for the inquiry Leandro. I will have an upcoming article to break down the thought process and technical difficulties in lighting something like this. I use a combination of lights and reflectors, so depending on the size and physical properties of the clothing, that will change. 95% of the time it is between 2-4 lights.

Hi Peter! I just found this article and found it quite useful. Would you mind sharing more detail about the tubing you say you use? I'm picturing very narrow tubing, but if you're using it in the arm area, I imagine that it's much thicker than what I'm picturing. Are you talking about the kind of tubing that one might use on a beer bong? ;-) What diameter do you use? Many thanks!!