October 20, 2012

Upcycled Photography Tips - Part 1

Hi everyone. I'm Meredith and this is my first post! I run Ricefield Shop on both Etsy and our own web site, which is an outgrwoth of Ricefield Collective, a nonprofit cooperative that hopes to provide supplemental income to farmers in the Philippines through knitting and other crafts. As part of our efforts, we've partnered with a family-owned company called Yadu, which makes bags out of upcycled clothes, to design and create a collection for our shop. I spent several weeks last summer sourcing fabric, designing, and cutting to make our bags along with the wonderful workers at Yadu.

One other thing I've done is get an MFA degree in Photography, which is coming in handy as we try to show off our products in the best manner possible on Etsy. This post offers some of my tips to help members of our team to show off their wares in the best possible light.

There are a bunch of tutorials out there about how to generally photograph items on Etsy. If you haven't yet, definitely check out the Product Photography Introduction on the Etsy Blog. I'm going to focus here on some good ways to photograph upcycled products, both from my experience and from observing some of the other members of Team Upcyclers.

I've been coming up with an evolving list of challenges for photographers of upcycled products. Out of all of them, this is the one I find myself grappling with the most:

Challenge #1: Upcycled Products Don't Look New
No matter how you cut it, the raw material for upcycled products come from sources that have been used. They won't always have the shiny appeal that new products do, but there are many ways that you can make them look attractive nonetheless.

Solution #1: Create an environment for your shots.
When I first started photographing our products, I thought that a plain white background would work best in terms of giving people a clear picture of the product. However, I found that it became important to situate our products in a setting. New things look better against a blank background because they don't have the flaws of use. What I've been learning is that upcycled products work best when they're presented as part of an environment. Here are a couple of examples from our fellow team-members:

This image does a really fantastic job of both allowing us to imagine the product in an environment while also keeping the background clean enough to highlight the product and be easy to include in treasuries. Seeing this picture makes me think of having this chandelier on my porch on warm nights, and that image makes it more compelling for me to buy the product.

At the same time, you don't necessarily need to have a super-fancy background all the time to produce compelling images. The use of charming ways to situate your products against a white background can go a long way in terms of making your product distinctive and give your customer a sense of how the product can be used. For instance:

Simply by putting this upcycled school dress--made from a men's shirt--on a clothing line, KallioNYC evokes images of doting mothers hanging up their kids' clothes, immediately making the shirt more attractive.

Solution #2: Package items well.
Though not strictly photography-related, one solution I've seen some people use is to have tags and ribbons on their products that reinforce the idea that even though the product is upcycled, it's been remade and therefore rebranded, or else they package their product in such a way that mimics a new product. I find this works particularly well for reclaimed products that can be used for raw material to make other things. Here's an example of a shop that does this extremely well:

The simple act of winding reclaimed yarn into wonderful skeins that look familiar to any knitter gives a potential buyer the sense that they're buying a product that matches the quality of new yarn. So if you're selling upcycled jewelry, maybe think about photographing it with a reclaimed jewelry box. If it's a figurine, maybe it would look better in a glass case. Whatever scheme you come up with, giving the potential buyer visual signs that what they would be getting would be of the same quality as a new product is never a bad thing.

Solution #3: Highlight nifty and creative details of your products.
One of the ways that upcyclers elevate their products is by reusing material in unexpected ways. It's important to make sure that you highlight really cool aspects of your upcycled goods, and awesome details that make your one-of-a-kind product special. For instance:

While this bowl is an awesome object in and of itself, this photograph highlights the button detail that's photographed in exactly the right place: not so far to the side, but not smack dab in the middle to make it too symmetrical. This kind of attention to detail in the product photography allows this bowl to be seen in the best possible light.

A Final Reminder: Every detail is visible, so take the time to prepare your products.
Because I photograph bags mostly, the steamer and the lint brush are my best friends, and ours is a constant battle to keep our products wrinkle and lint-free. I'm sure you have your own struggles, but it's important to keep in mind that details that seem inconsequential to the eye show up much more clearly in a photograph, and it's much better to use a lint brush than have to clean an image up in Photoshop.

Next time, I'll be offering photographic solutions for another challenge of photographing upcycled goods. We love that they're one-of-a-kind, but it means you have to shoot each item one by one. How can we make that easier?

Also, I welcome photography questions and ideas for photography-related issues you might want me to cover. Maybe I can even collaborate with one of you to help improve the photography in your store!

Until next time,
Meredith from Ricefield Shop


  1. Photographing every single one of a kind item is challenging. Looking forward to part ii!

  2. Great tips! Thanks for featuring my skein of reclaimed yarn. :)

    I love working with upcycled materials because I think they have a lot more character and personality. Upcycled supplies are like that perfectly weathered piece of barn wood--so much more interesting and appealing than a boring new pine board, right? If we market our items well, our buyers will come to appreciate things made from upcycled materials not only for their eco-friendly qualities, but for their visual and sensual appeal as well!

    For example--new cashmere yarn is deliciously soft, to be sure, but reclaimed cashmere is even softer, did you know that? :)

  3. Thank you for focusing on the specific challenges we face with upcycled materials! Your tips were very helpful and I look forward to reading future posts. Thank you for featuring my coiled basket and for your generous comments on the photo. I find photographing my coiled items very challenging and the positive feedback is very welcome.

  4. excellent tips and gorgeous pictures~ all very inspiring (= looking forward to part 2!

  5. Great post! Photographs are so important and there are always ways to tweak and improve. You just gave me some great ideas for doing just that! Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the appreciative words everyone! Sharon, I think you're absolutely right that upcycled materials are so much more interesting! I've been sorting through your shop in search of my perfect skein. :) And PrairirePleasant, I know how challenging product photography can be. But it helps a lot that you have such wonderful products!

  7. Great article and wonderful examples!

  8. Thank you, what a great article! I struggle with wanting to take great photos of my items and wanting my shop to have a more cohesive look. I think I just need to play around with all these wonderful tips and maybe one day will get the hang of it and achieve the look I'm after!

  9. Thanks so much for the great tips! Photographing my items in a way that makes them cool is definitely a tricky thing. You definitely gave me some new things to try!