Thursday, October 8, 2009

Etsy Photo Tips For Clothing Designers

THE ETSY PHOTO FACTOR. The following article only applies to my observations about my personal Etsy sales. I've written this to encourage you to think about the photos you take and the models you use. However, you should not change your style simply because of this article. Do your own research and see how you think buyers respond to your photos.

I think it's important to define two words as they are used in this article to avoid confusion. Natural, refers to characteristics of your photos that appear to NOT have been achieved by the use of professional equipment or professional help. It doesn't mean the complete absence of these things, it just means it's not immediately apparent to the casual observer. Natural characteristics, at first glance, look candid.
Artificial, refers to photo characteristics that appear to be unnatural. For instance, perfect lighting, exaggerated model posing, and obscure or unusual angles. These are things that a casual observer would immediately question as to if they could be achieved candidly. Artificial is in no way a derogatory term as used in this article.

I've been selling on Etsy for a couple years. I've been selling regularly for about six months. I, like most sellers, understand the importance of photos when selling items online. And, like most sellers, I've always tried to take the best pictures possible. I've always been happy with my pictures, and my pics have always sold my clothing. I've been featured in Etsy treasuries and gift guides repeatedly - as many as five times in one week. Take a look at the images above to see my handiwork. These examples were shot using a Kodak Z650 Easy Share. I usually use the manual setting. For the inside shots I used a Lowel three - point light set. For the outside shots I used nothing more than a piece of white reflective paper.

I don't really tell the models how to pose. I just tell them to "act natural". I like it when the girls appear to just be hanging out. I also try to shoot the pics from a natural angle. By that I mean I try to hold the camera at a level that is consistent with candid snapshots. I don't get really low down on the floor or climb on things. If the sun is in an awkward position I simply move to a new spot. As you can see with the guitar and red chair, I like to use props, but I don't like to go crazy with it.

Take a minute and look at the pictures below, and compare them to the pics above. These were shot by Meg Schutz a local photographer with special lighting and a professional model. Under normal circumstances most people would generally agree that the professional pics are much better than mine. I would agree too. I'm not totally sure, but I think the photographer used a Canon camera. It was very large with several interchangeable lenses and other accessories. She also used a portable light that produced a clear even halo on the subject.

Notice the bright, clear, and consistent lighting; and how attractive all of the colors are. My pictures lack this cohesion. This high-budget, magazine quality look comes from the use of expensive equipment. Also note the over-sexualized poses the model is using. The photographer and model worked together to find these poses, and while they make for attractive pics, they are not comfortable or natural. All-in-all, I would say these pictures are perfect. But their perfection is artificial. Hardly ever do you walk into a room and have picture perfect light. As a woman I know that we don't normally stand with our arms over our heads and our chests poked out.

I don't want to use other photographers' works without permission so I don't have examples, but there are a few things worth mentioning. I have seen many catalogs with very natural pictures (Anthropologie is the best one) that were achieved using very artificial tactics. Conversely, I've seen some pretty amazing shots, stuff you'd never believe, taken with a disposable camera and nothing else.

The high quality pictures have been very successful on my site. This collection has sold better than anything else I've ever created. When I uploaded the images to my website, my site rank jumped from 13 million to 1.8 million. I also picked up over a dozen boutiques. So the artificial photos are working great - people love them. However, on Etsy, the exact opposite has happened. Etsy sales for this new collection have been slow at best. None of these pictures have been featured in any treasuries that have made the Etsy homepage. And, in fact, it's happened repeatedly that when my clothing is picked for a treasury, it's the older items that I photographed. So, one has to ask, could it be that buyers just don't like the clothing, and maybe it has nothing to do with the photos? This is not likely as sales have been outstanding on my website and in boutiques.

When I noticed that the professional pictures were not attracting buyers on Etsy I began to look closely at other clothing sellers and their photos. I watched new and veteran sellers. I watched high end and low end designers. I watched a wide array of sellers and saw, as a general rule, that sellers who had natural photos had more sales than those with artificial photos. I also observed that sellers who, like me, had a variety of natural and artificial photos had sold more items using natural photos. One seller I followed had a very good track record of one or more sales per day for four weeks. The seller then updated with some very nice artificial pictures taken at night. The clothing looked amazing. The model was beautiful. The colors were outstanding, and the photos were some of the best I'd seen. The seller used good tags and adequate descriptions, and all items were fairly priced. But when she began using these new photos she stopped selling.

This is just a theory based on a limited number of observations. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, and I expect there are more exceptions to the rule than adherents. It is my theory that people looking to buy clothing on Etsy are searching for three things in a seller. The first is the complete do it yourself package. The second is a natural portrayal of the item they are buying. And the third is approachability.

The do it yourself package is perhaps the main thing Etsy buyers are searching for from clothing sellers. Why else would they be on a site that focuses on handmade goods? Buyers want to work with people who are proud of what they make and who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. They (buyers) feel good about supporting the local vendor who can't afford to mass produce or farm out work to ad agencies. For many Etsians the glitz and glam of the mall comes at the cost of conformity. This conformity is abolished when each piece is obviously handmade. High production photos, that mimic magazine ads diminish the essence of the handmade experience.

A natural portrayal of the product is so crucial to the buying experience that it almost goes without saying. We've all seen the hundreds of ads that populate the first half of the magazines we buy, and we know that the clothing in those million-dollar ads will not fit us like it does that million-dollar model. Photos that appear natural give buyers an idea of what to expect when they open that envelope.

Lastly, buyers are looking for approachability. Very few of us will ever be friends with a famous or glamorous model. We may know aspiring photographers, but very few of us hang out with professional shutterbugs. When buyers see girls in strange poses with one leg held high, hips thrust out, and head framed by hands, they think, "cold, posed, and paid". Etsy shoppers in the clothing category are on the lookout for the girl next door who looks like she might have had a walk on part in a background shot of an indie movie no one saw.

Professional photos have worked out great for me. My site rankings and website sales have skyrocketed since working with a pro photographer and model. However, my Etsy sales and placement in galleries and treasuries have declined. I've seen the same level of decline with other sellers who suddenly showcase bold new professional pictures. In the end I think it's important to portray your clothing accurately. If what you're doing now is working there's probably no need to change it. But, if your Etsy sales aren't where you'd like them to be, despite all of your wonderful pictures, maybe it's time to pull out that old camera phone, call your best friend over, and just have a fun afternoon of playing dress-up.


  1. This is a great article. I am a design blogger and I prefer your newer photos. They are bolder and look professional.

    Although I love etsy, there are some designers that I can't feature simply because the photography is really, really bad. If I love a design, I will try to make it work, but it isn't easy.

    I understand that designers can't afford to hire a professional photographer, but simple things like making sure that the photo isn't blurry and garments aren't wrinkled go a LONG way.

    Also, with Etsy, I think there is an undiscovered/underdog mentality, so once you are obviously able to afford great photography you're seen as having made it.

    Keep up the great work. I look forward to featuring your work on the website.

  2. This was a really good interesting read, thanks for sharing :)

  3. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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