Good photographs sell products

If there is one thing we’ve learned at Fit Couture over the past three years, it’s the importance of good photography. The better your photographs show your clothing, the more likely someone will decide to buy them from you.

Take for example, some early photographs of the Miami II yoga top from our collection.

Version 1

I shot those pictures on a mannequin in an upstairs bedroom with a $99 digital camera I bought on sale at Walgreens. I then used Photoshop to pull out the background, try to correct the color, and smooth a few wrinkles. Compare to later photographs we took:

Version 2

Version 2 was taken with a Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera in a makeshift studio constructed of white paper backgrounds and some borrowed studio lights. We used an amateur model we found on Craigslist who had some experience, mostly with promotional work. An improvement over original, but still obviously amateur. A whole site filled with this sort of photo is a sales crusher.

Version 3

Version 3 was shot with a professional model using the same camera as version 2. Note the difference in skin tone between Version 2 and 3. Version 2 has a grayish cast that make the model look a little ghoulish, distracting from the garment. That cast was caused by an inexperienced photographer – the model certainly had a healthier skin color, though she was very pale.

For the final version, we went with an experienced professional model. She was slightly taller and a little thinner than the first model, which makes a significant difference in terms of how the camera treats you. She also had a very slight tan, which gave her a skin tone much easier to light and photograph than the paler earlier model.

One word of caution, while we haven’t yet proven that there is such a thing as “too tall,” we have found that it is possible for a model to be “too thin,” especially for our type of clothing. The version 3 model fits neatly in the middle of our size small and if she were much thinner, would look very unhealthy in our type of clothing.


Using Professional Photographers
Early on, we looked at using a professional photographer to shoot our pieces but dismissed that option. To do 25 pieces with a professional photographer, stylist, hair/markup artist and two models was going to cost $10,000+ and that was just beyond what we were willing to spend.

We could certainly have reduced that price if we’d gone without a stylist and hair/makeup person and/or used a less expensive photographer. But, each time we looked at that, we still kept coming back to “how is this better than doing it ourselves then?” So, we decided to build a modest studio in our shop and Amy learned photography and Photoshop. Its given us the flexibility to shoot what we need, when we need it. We also own the copyrights on the photographs and can use them for whatever we need. If you use a professional photographer, be prepared to negotiate the usage terms of the photos.

In our experience, the typical scenario with a professional photographer is that they own the copyrights on any photos they take and then license back to you the rights to use them in certain specified ways. This can be ok, but be aware that some photographers will try and put time limits on the photos and then charge you again for the same work in the future. This is usually a bad idea for DEs, so try and find photographers that will give you full rights in perpetuity. Or, if the rights must be limited, make sure that the limitations are ones that you can live with.

For more input on this, I consulted with Rachel (a professional photostylist) who has found in her experience that this usually only applies to shots to be used for advertising campaigns rather than product shots. Different photographers are going to have different pricing models; the key thing is to make sure you understand what you are getting for your money. Rachel works out of Prague, in the Czech Republic and mentioned that larger lines may want to consider outsourcing some of their photography there. Rates are much less expensive than in North America but you still get first rate photographers, models, and stylists. (You can email Rachel directly for more information.)

A modeling agency will also limit your usage rights, though they will not own the copyrights. You will usually have to pay extra if you want to use your photographs for product packaging, billboards, or posters – none of which you need to sell online or via catalog. Make certain that you are 100% up front with the agent about all your expected usage.

Finding Models: Agencies
The easiest way to find a model is to call your local modeling agency and talk to an agent. Let them know what you are shooting and in general what sort of model you want. If you have specific needs in terms of height, weight, ethnicity, tan, (this is actually really important and most people forget while making requests), age, proportions, etc let the agent know. For example, the model we used in version 3 is a class of model known as a commercial model. An agency will put together comp cards (like a model’s business card with pictures and stats) from models that they represent and either mail, courier or email them over. Be professional when working with an agency. Do not ask them to send comp cards for every model they represent.

From there, the next step is to pick out the models that you think would work best and ask the agency to have them stop by so you can see them in person. This “casting” is normal and there shouldn’t be a charge if it is quick.Do not ask them to have more than two or three girls stop by for casting. If we’ve never met or worked with a model before, we’ll ask her to stop by and we’ll take a quick photo in our pieces. Do not skip this step. You will find that the appearance of the model in person or in your garments is often vastly different than their appearance on their model comp cards. The entire process should take no more than 5 minutes and have a place for the models to comfortably change. If you’re reviewing female models it’s customary to have another woman present.

Experienced professional models via agencies are expensive. Expect to pay between $150 and $250 per hour for the model with a two hour minimum. Rachel mentions that in Prague, costs are much lower and that models are most often paid by the job, not by the hour. I’m not surprised by this; you can pay a lot more for models here if you want, but this is what most DEs can expect to pay. Of course, if you insist on going with Ford you’ll pay more.

Finding Models: Craigslist
We have had some success in using Craigslist to find models. We advertise that we’re shooting soon for our line of fitness & yoga wear and are looking for models. We usually put the height/weight range we’re looking for and the hourly rate we’re paying and ask them to email their cards or photos to us. We actually located the model used in version 3 this way. She was new to Houston and looking to build up her book. If your product is good, sometimes a model will work in trade for merchandise but you should offer a regular payment first.

Regardless of what you write in your ad, you will get dozens of responses from amateur models that are nowhere near your specifications. Sometimes you will find a diamond in the rough, but its rare. Rare enough that we don’t even try any more.

Finding Models: Modeling Sites:
There are a variety of self-listing sites for models on the web such as One Model Place and ModelMayhem. We’ve tried to use these in the past with little success. Like Craigslist, you have to wade through an enormous quantity of models to find ones that you are interested in. And, at least based on our experience, you’ll almost never receive responses from them. I suspect the problem is that the models are getting so inundated with requests for “time for prints” work (code for: let me take pictures of you for free) that they eventually just stop reading their email. Rachel says she’s had good luck with ModelMayhem for styling work and that models she knows, check back often. For reasons I don’t completely understand, ModelMayhem does not allow clothing designers to become members. If you aren’t a member, you can’t send a model a message. Rachels says that designers can sign up as Wardrobe Stylists so maybe we’ll try that next time we’re casting but maybe we’ve been spoiled with agency models. It’s easy, no hassle, and the shoots are faster.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up with part two of this series: Styling Tips

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  1. Carol Kimball says:

    Another tremendous difference between models 2 & 3 is that 3 has a more relaxed stance and is smiling. You could fix the grayish skin tones in PhotoShop, but not the posture and warmth of the expression.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This post is right on! I too was surprised MM does not allow designers and signed up as a stylist and OPM for being the huge site they claim to be has very few views on their bulletin boards. Musecube is the same, and you get a lot of people- and I mean people, not models sending you vacation pictures and no measurements. There is also and Talent Hunter, but I haven’t had any results with them either. Craigslist is absolutely the best board to post on.

    I found one photographer I’m talking to about working with on my project and she also has contacts with agencies so if anyone is looking to use a professional photographer, see if they have any models who they want to work with or have worked with in the past who fit your needs. Also, when reviewing photographer applications, pay attention to the lighting, image clarity, composition, etc. There are a lot of photographers out there who charge a lot because they have professional equipment, but that still have a long way to go until they can take good pictures.

    I would like to add these links to modeling agencies. Some of them might not be current, but it’s a good place to start.



  3. Christy B. says:

    I’ve had success finding fit models on craigslist. I posted the measurements I wanted them to fit in and got annoying emails every time, but have found 3 good models this way. We have weekly 1 hour sessions with a male and female model; it’s a good option for DEs.

  4. Leslie says:

    Thanks for the information Mike! This is really helpful in pointing out areas to focus on.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to address a niche market in terms of modeling? I’m in process of producing a line of skating apparel and am at the point where I’d like to get some pictures taken on real people. The problem with my market is that skaters can recognize a non-skater body type in an instant. To show my product on a real model (aka non-skater) would be like showing spandex running shorts on someone with no leg tone. Does this matter?

    Can you address where the tradeoffs are in using a professional model vs. an actual representation of your target market?

  5. Mike C says:

    You could fix the grayish skin tones in PhotoShop, but not the posture and warmth of the expression.

    I’m fairly certain we tried to fix version 2 in Photoshop. However, like our photography skills, our Photoshop skills have improved over time.

    I’ve had success finding fit models on craigslist. I posted the measurements I wanted them to fit in and got annoying emails every time, but have found 3 good models this way. We have weekly 1 hour sessions with a male and female model; it’s a good option for DEs.

    We had the opposite experience with fit models. We got a few dozen responses, but no one with the correct measurements. (And some of them were WAY off.)

    We finally found our fit model through an regular modeling agency. She was part of their talent agency, looking for acting work.

    These days, the vast majority of our fit modeling is done digitally. We use our human model much more rarely.

    One thing that Craigslist is great for is finding semi-professional models that you can use to learn how to shoot your pieces. You can find decent models for $15-$30 that will happily stand in and pose for hours on end while you fiddle with your camera, its settings, and your lighting. In our first few shoots, we ended up taking something like 600 pictures a session.

    That trial and error + a lot of Internet photography research was invaluable in learning the basics.

    We shoot FAR fewer pictures now and do it much more quickly as a result of that practice.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to address a niche market in terms of modeling? I’m in process of producing a line of skating apparel and am at the point where I’d like to get some pictures taken on real people. The problem with my market is that skaters can recognize a non-skater body type in an instant. To show my product on a real model (aka non-skater) would be like showing spandex running shorts on someone with no leg tone. Does this matter?

    All I know about the skaing market is what I read once about Lovie Couture in Apparel magazine. Given what you’ve said, it sounds like you would probably be better off with a model with a shape familiar to the market you are addressing. (Or, perhaps, the shape your market aspires to if there are significant variations.)

    Your model should resonate with your market. If you use a commercial model that doesn’t look anything like a skater, it may very well hurt more than help for the same reason using a 5’11” commercial model might not work if you are selling a line for petites.

    In a niche market like skating apparel, I might explore endorsements as well. If there are skaters that really represent what you are trying to create, it might be worth finding out if they would agree to model and promote your line – and find out what that might cost.

    We’re sort of at the bleeding edge of my expertise on the issue, so you’ll be best served to follow your own instincts on model selection.

  6. Miachelle says:

    I think the biggest challenge to small business owners is the cost of professional photography. I’m still working with trying to photograph my own jewelry-and some photos are good, some are lousy. I don’t have the budget for a professional, and what you stated about the copyright issues is very true. It’s a very frustrating situation when you are this small.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I’ve had success finding fit models on craigslist. I posted the measurements I wanted them to fit in and got annoying emails every time, but have found 3 good models this way. We have weekly 1 hour sessions with a male and female model; it’s a good option for DEs.

    Shortly before Mike’s article went up yesterday, we had a fit model (Charlotte) visit the blog. She’s in NY. Her comment got buried but she had this to say:

    I have been a fit model on and off for the last 3 years in NYC. The job has been very part time, and I’m interested in finding more work, but don’t know where to begin, since I initially got the job off of craigslist. I am just under 5’8″, with a 27.5inch waist. Any suggestions to help point me in the right direction?

    I checked her out and am reprinting this here, hoping to throw her some work. She looks to be a good size and nicely shaped. She’s actually a singer/songwriter, just the kind of stuff I like (I bought her CD).

    Then Esther said:

    You mentioned that you set-up your own photo studio. Could you give an approximate budget? Maybe an equipment list?

    Sounds like a great topic for part three! Part two of Mike’s entry will be up later today. Also, we have a guest entry from Rachel (the photostylist from Prague) slated for next week. She’ll be offering some tips on shooting flats. I also have a line on a professional flats photographer (she works for Darien -Zolowear in Austin) who will do product shots by mail. I’m waiting to hear back from her.

    We should also have Miracle weigh in on this. She mentions that she’s had products photographed *at market*, and that the set up is a good deal for retailers like her. Of course that’s another angle of services you’d offer to buyers at market but it’s good to be considering that stuff as you wend your way through the ins and outs of selling at market.

    Great article Mike! Very helpful.

  8. Pam says:

    Last year when we started our kids clothing line I took the photos myself on a child form in our home made studio. Sales were so so. Then I found models and it has made a world of difference, the clothing comes alive and the buyers can see what it looks like on another little girl. Sales have improved quite a bit.

  9. Leslie- don’t compromise and use a “real” model. Go scout your local skate park for the right kid to fit your company. I’m sure that any skater would be more than happy to make a few bucks modeling! Besides, your shots won’t be as much about posing but about movement and you need a real skater to do that. I would do a shoot with the model skating in the each outfit and then shoot each piece separately in studio witout a model, laying out flat. Then you’ll have an action shot and a detail shot for all your product.

    Check back for more information next week on how to make those studio flats look good!

    Miachelle, you’re in a tougher position. You won’t be able to get quality photos of your jewelry without a pro setup. It would be best to outsource to an affordable photographer who knows how to light well and has a macro lens. Email me if you need references. I can get it done cheap and reliably in Prague, CZ with British or American photographers here much, MUCH cheaper than you can do it in the States.

    Good luck!

  10. It is SO TRUE that good photos sell products. And that pretty models make good photos. The photo essay with that article was very compelling.

    Photographing slings is especially tricky, because you have to get both mom and baby looking good, AND the sling has to be positioned just right. Like the woman with the skating clothes, it really helps when we have someone who is used to wearing their baby. You can just tell when a model is not used to babywearing – they get that deer in the headlights look. The models that wear their babies all the time look so much more relaxed, they are able to focus on smiling and hiding the spit-up on their shirt.

    Recently, we had the best model ever. This mom has done professional modeling AND wears our slings. In fact, the sling she showed up for the shoot wearing was so faded and worn out that I recognized the style (mine) but not the color. It was the easiest, most productive shoot ever. This woman does not have a bad angle. Now I need to get her to come back!

  11. Leslie says:

    Thanks for the input. I am considering using this girl. She’s a good friend of mine since we skate together a lot. This is a picture from last year (I didn’t take it – it was my dress at a competition, though). I think she photographs well, she’s an international competitor, and has the typical “skater physique”. I’m not sure shooting on the ice would be the best idea, but it might be worth a try. (And yes, I already have a signed release form from her.)

  12. jme says:

    working as a stylist part time, and also as a designer myself, i am fortunate to have some talented people to work with…but i really feel if you cannot afford good photos- you cannot afford a business, especially online. you should be able to spend $500-1K min for a days worth of photography work for a GOOD photographer…the main point being they have the proper equipment and lighting capabilities (anyone can snap a shutter)…and even agency models do tfp (trade for prints) through those sites listed above- you just have to dig a bit through the 5’1″ dreamers…you just have to bite the bullet and KNOW that good photos will produce sales. so then, how can you afford NOT to have great pics? you can sell CRAP with good photos…certainly somethign great will even better with hot pics. people spend way more money on wedding photos without batting an eye- why is advertising/ business photos any different? too many people just don’t understand that- and i suppose such is the difference between good and great businesses and the people who run them.

  13. Miracle says:

    We should also have Miracle weigh in on this. She mentions that she’s had products photographed *at market*, and that the set up is a good deal for retailers like her.

    I haven’t had products photographed at market for selling use, although showrooms let me take digital camera pictures of items for later reference.

    But what I am doing is going after market and borrowing the samples for a few hours while I run them down to the photo studio that’s in the Mart so that I can have the photos long before I get the actual inventory. This really works best if you’re shooting on mannequins, otherwise you can have a tricky time coordinating all of that with the model’s time.

    Usually right after market, they have all their samples, few appointments, and they haven’t hit the road yet. If you go before market, they may not have all of the samples as some samples literally arrive at the last minute.

    if you cannot afford good photos- you cannot afford a business

    It depends on what you’re selling and who you’re selling to. For a DE selling 5 collections a year to retailers, expensive photography may be an unnecessary expense.

  14. Alisa says:

    I’m a swimwear designer, and only really sell twice a year (hope to increase this), but with the photos I have figured out how to use PhotoShop, a good digital camera, a tripod, – and the crazy part I shoot myself in my own swimwear.
    I had a really hard time finding a model, and I needed to have the photos done, and no one was around to take them – So, I just went for it! Check out the results on my site I guess we really do what we have to do!!

  15. carly jayne says:

    Mike, I know you don’t want specific questions about technical stuff-but an article about your studio set up would be exciting! I am especially curious about lighting that doesn’t cost a fortune. Are you still borrowing your lights or did you invest in a set of studio lights?

    Miachelle-for shooting photos of your jewelry try contacting someone who shoots slides for artists. They should have the equiment and knowledge of shooting small sculptures and fine art jewelry and will run you about 10-15 dollars per piece to photograph. Folks who document artwork for artists have no rights to the image so you don’t need to pay for copyright things-at least not in my experience. You won’t get any fancy shallow depth of field trendy photos-but you should have clear photos the professionally display your product.

  16. Mike C says:

    Mike, I know you don’t want specific questions about technical stuff-but an article about your studio set up would be exciting! I am especially curious about lighting that doesn’t cost a fortune. Are you still borrowing your lights or did you invest in a set of studio lights?

    Technically, we’re still borrowing the lights. But, their owner has upgraded his setup and so now they are sort of on permanent loan.

    The camera is a Canon Digital Rebel SLR. The “studio” is made from foam core – the kind you can buy at your local art supply store.

    I’ll see if I can’t take an inventory and maybe a few pictures of our setup and do a followup entry next week.

  17. kathie says:

    how bizarre that this was exactly what i’ve been in the process of researching. i’ve been really lucky to have a close friend who is also a professional photographer who has done all the pics for my site- but i’m now trying to set up an online shop for one of a kind stuff where (hopefully) it will be more of a “make-it, post-it, sell-it” kind of online deal for my one of a kind stuff as opposed to getting my friend to do a couple big shoots a year for market lines. sadly, my dad was a professional photographer my whole life who i did learn alot from but who has been plauged by health issues that have lead to his not remembering much about photography these days! anyway, i’m trying to set up an in house mini studio. so this is so great! thank you!

  18. Vesta says:

    Like Darien said, we’ve also found photos make a world of difference, and the model needs some experience with baby carriers to look right. I can always tell a professional or non-babywearing model when the model looks like the baby is velcroed to their body.

    We’ve found a way to remedy this a bit. When we do our model cattle calls, we send them home with a carrier to play with, and ask that they put some time in using it. Our other challenge is working with babies. That’s the hardest part. When the baby won’t cooperate, you’re screwed. And you’re there with stylists, photographers, etc just passing time on the clock. We schedule multiple babies in a day, with overlapping shifts. It’s still challenging.

    As for learning to do it myself, there’s no way. As if I don’t have enough to do, even with two employees. I was cursing Darien just two days ago for having a professional photographer on staff. At which point I turned and berated my own staff for not being professional photographers ON TOP OF what they already do for me. Kidding. Sort of. They’re used to me and I pay them well :-P

  19. Laura says:

    Finding a good photographer has been my biggest problem. All the limitations are boggus as well. When the photographer washes all the color out and then tells me I can’t edit her work, I say it’s not worth a dime. I too decided that I would become my own photographer. It’s been a learning curve for me, but it’s better than paying someone a huge sum for pictures I can’t use. Because I know nothing about lighting, I do my photo sessions outdoors, which means I can’t do pictures in the winter. PLEASE give details on how to set up a small studio with the proper lights. Thanks!

  20. Katie says:

    I have just recently started updating the pictures on my business website using a professional photographer. This was actually someone who bought one of my dresses and then approached me about taking pictures for me.

    Since we are both just starting out in our business ventures (and hoping to make it big!) we decided to do business for trade. So she ( has started by taking pictures of 6 of my dresses and I made her a dress for her little girl. Then she took pictures of 6 of my hats, and I made her a hat for her little girl.

    It has been working out great for both of us. I am getting great picutres of my line. And Rachel is getting the experience, promotion, and custom handmade items for her one year old. Look at the results on my website: I think it’s been a huge improvement.

  21. Nearly two years gone form this post, but I thought I’d add a a reply. Model Mayhem does allow Clothing Designers to become members now. Previously you had to list yourself as a “Wardrobe Stylist”, but I should remind all of you designers, that that is what you virtually are, AND you should be styling your own shoots anyway. What’s the point of being a designer if you don’t consider the whole look and lifestyle when designing. After all you are designing for a specific type of customer, right?
    As for MM, I’ve had very good luck with models and photographers. I’ve also been scouted by magazines there as well. I will admit that you do have to wade through the masses and deal with “no-shows” and pretentious photographers. Here are a few of my own suggestions.

    a. Post a model call instead of emailing individual models.
    b. Confirm more that 3 models for the day of the shoot (you will have no-shows, and 1 is better than none, and if 3 or more arrive, then you have group shots!)
    c. Make sure you state in your call that it’s TFCD (Trade For CD of images), unless you’re wiling to pay. You will also need to state that the model will need to sign a release for commercial use.
    —A lot of models are signed with agencies, but they like to do “test” shoots to add to their portfolio. In these cases, be sure to ask them if you can use their image for commercial use. Both you and the model can get in trouble if it’s NOT OK.
    —New models can be fine, but you’ll need to work with them. And you might actually get work with someone “up and coming”.
    d. Contact a few photographers and ask if they’re looking to update their portfolios (you might want to do this first). A lot of photographers like to do “test” shoots with models they would like to work with. Tell them what your product is, what you need and the “theme” you’re creating and if you have a location. Some photographers just like to shoot regularly, but already have their own ideas and themes. If your product fits into it, they’ll let you know; let them run with it. You could get some amazing product shots out of it, with only having to add their copyright to the image (it’s really not a big deal), just clarify where that will go on the image before hand.
    e. Take a photography course at a local community college ($20 a unit), most have night courses. If you can shoot your own stuff, that eliminates a huge part of the equation. Also, knowing what your photographer is shooting, and knowing whether or not they’re shooting what you need is important. (I know some designers have paid big $$$ to photographers, didn’t know anything about photography and got absolutely nothing.) Whether you’re paying the photographer or not, as a designer you need to be able to step in and say something if you don’t think your getting commercial shots. A lot of photographer don’t like designers to be at the shoots for this reason, that’s why I mentioned before that the designer should always be the stylist as well.

    There’s so much more advices I could give, but I’m getting typers cramp! Maybe I got lucky, but I’ve been doing pro shoots for the last 2 years for my swimwear and haven’t paid for models or photographers or MUA and hair. Yes, I do buy everyone lunch and sometimes pay for gas if the location is far. Compared to $10,000 it’s a steal. What’s great about TFCD shoots is that everyone is getting something that will better their business or portfolio.


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