Photography for Sewers at Sewing Summit


I had a fabulous time at Sewing Summit this year.


Can we all just geek out together right now? I met Heather Bailey (like the Heather Bailey)! She’s just as beautiful, inspirational and genuine as she is creative. I love her even more after spending time with her.

Of all of the keynote speakers of all of the conferences I’ve been to, she’s the first to actually participate in the conference. It shows how invested she is in the sewing community. I love that. I had a great time gleaning a few tips on sewing with leather, finding that balance lives where the unicorns live and learning to adopt centimeters in pattern drafting (and sewing).

My presentation went well. I had slides with notes, but of course I misplaced my notes right before the class so there were a few key tips that I forgot to touch on (always happens).

Here’s a re-cap of the slide portion of my 2-hour presentation at Sewing Summit. Sewing-summit-photography-01 I may be many things, but there’s one hat I don’t wear. I’m not a professional photographer. When asked if I’m a photographer, I correct and say, “I’m a photography enthusiast.”

Sewing-summit-photography-02 That said, I do know how to use my camera in manual mode. It never leaves manual mode unless someone else is shooting my camera for me. I’m going to share with you some things that I’ve learned about photography that I picked up in my college photography class and with nearly 7 years of blogging.


A ridiculously expensive camera will still give you crappy results if you don’t read the manual. READ IT. It’s not fun, I know. But you’ll save yourself from embarrassment and crappy photos. Nikon and Canon are the most pronounced of the DSLR brands, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look into other brands like Sony, Pentax and Sigma. Do your research and see what camera fits you best. For me, I have a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon 35mm prime lens that never comes off. If you really want to take care of that lens you’ve got, put a UV filter on it. You’d much rather your curious toddler scratch a $50 filter than a $200-1500 lens, amiright?

There are new cameras out there, digital four-thirds cameras which are basically like the body of a point-and-shoot with a lens-mount capable of holding all of your expensive glass. It’s a smaller, light-weight version of a DSLR since the body has no mirror and only a digital sensor. Canon’s SL1 is $500 for the body. Panasonic and Sony have models of this category as well.

I’m not a dedicated photography review site, so check those out before buying. Ken Rockwell will help you figure out what works best for you.


For more resources click here.


No matter what camera you have, you’ll want to get a tripod and remote. I have the Manfrotto 190. It kicks trash. It has the capability to shoot parallel to the ground. Perfect for tutorial videos and shots.

Since my nikon is compatible with a range of remotes, I have 3 amazon remotes floating around the house in case I misplace one (it happens a lot). Using the remote and tripod for taking my style shots has saved my marriage. More on that later.

I don’t have lighting, but I may invest in lighting down the road if I have to switch my studio from upstairs to downstairs. I’ve jimmy-rigged some supplemental lights that help a lot. I’ll share my DIY for that later. If you do have to use overhead lighting, get yourself some daylight bulbs. Heck, while you’re at it, replace all of your lights in your house with daylight bulbs. It’s amazing the difference white light makes.


Where are you shooting your pictures, indoors or outdoors?

Indoors has limitations of space, coloring and light. Indoor light will bounce off your walls and give you a color cast, depending upon the color of your walls (one of the many reasons to despise bandaid tan!). If you can use a room with white or grey-scale walls, you’ll get a better white in your images.

Outdoors is limited by convenience, weather, light types (direct, cloudy, etc) and temperature. It’s easy to find a nice shady spot for even lighting, but unless you have your white balance programmed to compensate, you’ll get a blue cast over your images. If you’re like me, you’ll get amazing light in the winter, but 10 feet of snow would be pretty miserable for shooting a handmade teeshirt. Shooting outside with work schedules and/or small kids is also hard!

Then, no matter where you shoot, you’ll still have to answer the question: Who will shoot those outdoor photos of you? A friend or a tripod? You can do both, but they require some planning and setting up.

Sewing-summit-photography-06 2

(click to enlarge)

There are several of these cheat sheets out there (here & here), but the above manual mode cheat sheet (made by yours truly) goes from light to dark, how each setting will effect the exposure of your image. Everything on the left-hand side will make your exposure lighter. Everything on the right-hand side will make your exposure darker.

I tend to keep my exposure at 1/125 while inside because it allows me to shoot wiggly subjects without blur or camera shake. Outdoors I’ll go up as needed. I want my ISO to be as low as possible. Having a lower ISO means more sensitivity on the sensor and more details are preserved. Even though those photos are dumbed down for web, I like my shots to come out crisp and detailed. Most newer cameras do alright under 2000 ISO.

I typically have my aperture at 1.8 to allow for the brightest exposure possible. If I need details at multiple distances, I’ll reduce the opening to f3.5-4. I rarely go past that unless I’m shooting outdoors and I want a long depth of field.

Metering is meant to show you how far above or below middle-grey your photo will be captured. If your subject is middle grey, you’ll keep the metering at 0. If you have mostly whites in your image (like I do in my images), you’ll want to over-expose by a third of an f-stop (the little dots) or two. Same goes for dark subjects and images. If you want your object to read out as true black, you’ll need to underexpose by a bit.

For me, I’ll set it up where I think it needs to be (over exposed by 1/3 f-stop, 1/125 shutter, 1.8 aperture, 800 ISO), then take a test shot. Since I’m digital, I can walk it in to the correct exposure by taking a series of test shots. Feel free to save and print the above graphic to refer back to as you shoot in manual mode.


You can go pretty low-tech if you’re shooting still subjects. Heck, you can shoot in the middle of the night if you’re shooting still subjects! You just need a tripod.

Above is my dungeon basement bedroom makeover. To the left it’s my hand-held camera with a little bit of filler-flash (pop-up flash, NO NO!), but that’s what my camera automatically shot. It was completely different from the brightness that my own eyes perceived. I ended up using a tripod to steady the camera so I could get an accurate depiction of the light I perceived in that room. I don’t think the image on the left would have been featured on Design*Sponge or Apartment Therapy, but the image on the right was!


Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how awesome your ISO or aperture is, you need more light in order to make a decent photo great.

Flash may be the easiest option, but unless you’ve read the manual and actually know how to use it and how it works, you’re not going to get the kids of results you like.

Reflectors are great for bouncing just a little more light around. Depending upon the size of your subject, they can get really expensive. To go super cheap before you invest in an expensive reflector, try going to an auto parts store and picking up a super shiny windshield cover. They’re anywhere from $6-12. Get a flower frog or two at the craft store to hold it up if you’re shooting solo.

Professional lighting systems may be too expensive or too big for your space. Popping some daylight bulbs in a lamp or two is an inexpensive way to fix that problem!


These lighting tips are according to the book of Melissa. So just keep that in mind. If you’re not sure what to do about the direction of your light, head over to your favorite fashion/home-dec site and pay attention to the direction the light is coming from. That should give you a heads up on what kind of light would read best with your style.

You don’t always want to have the sun at your back, but if you’re going for a bohemian blown-out look you should give it a try and have the sun hiding directly behind the subject’s head. A little lens flare can be fun. Also, if you can’t find your own shade, make your own by having your back to the sun!


This slide really explains everything. And really, even if you have a small corner of your house that’s decorated/clean/well-lit, use it!! It will be come your signature.


If you’re going to go simple, a straight on shot is good, but try to add some kind of context. The photo on the left is quite minimalistic, but who knows what it is beyond the context of the original post? The image on the right is still minimal, but tells a story better.


I tend to prefer the minimally styled shots like the one in the white background above, but if you get time to style something, tell a story. The above purse shot tells more about what the clutch does than the previous product shots do. Having a mixture of lifestyle and product shots is a-okay!


I can’t recall where I’ve seen these specifically, but it’s such a shame when quilts are lumped over a couch or set of chairs and shot with yellow iridescent lighting. What am I seeing? Everyone has their limitations with timing and scheduling. It’s really hard to plan an elaborate shoot for a quilt that’s going to be given away at a baby shower the next day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative. Perhaps ask the giftee if you can shoot the product in her new nursery? Think outside the box!

As you style those shots for large-scale things, shoot them with context. This is my excuse for cleaning the house. And basically the only time I ever clean the house.


I stole the above phrase from Jenny’s Alt Summit presentation we did together back in January. If you’re going to the trouble of making a tutorial, make each shot count.


Try to avoid shooting at the sewing machine, if possible. At the very least, TURN OFF THE DARN SEWING MACHINE LAMP! I have two examples, the image on the left was taking with my fancy-pants camera about 5 years ago for a tutorial. I’ve never taken a sewing machine shot since. The details are blown out and the white balance is incredibly yellow. My hands are BFFs with Snooky’s self tanner here.

Simply turn of the lamp (even if you use a humble camera phone) and your shots will turn out better. Zoom out as far as you can and use a hand for creating context for the fabric at the needle.


Additional tips for shooting sewing tutorials: Create 2-dimensional illustrations with your images. Maybe you don’t have a Wacom Tablet or illustrating skills, but you can flatten your object for a clear statement. If you want to illustrate (sometimes that’s easier), draw it out on a piece of paper and style it with pins, ribbon, fabric, etc and take a photo. Make it look purposeful.


I have a few tips for styling yourself. I’m not the end-all expert on these matters, but if you’ve never shot a good photo of yourself I have some ideas that may help.

Check out your favorite fashion-based sites for inspiration. Here are a few of mine:

The SartorialistThe Haute Pursuit Thread EthicHel-Looks • Cotton & Curls • Merrick’s ArtElle Apparel

It’s not inclusive, but should give you some ideas for posing, styling and lighting.

It’s taken me a few years to perfect this set up. It works well for me, but not for everyone. I like having a corner in my house that’s almost always ready at a moment’s notice. Before I had Chris take my photos. I was always nagging him about getting the focus right and getting lower! He’s so darn tall!


By using a tripod and remote I believe we’ve saved our marriage. I’m no longer nagging him about photos!

As you set up (or have someone shoot for you), have them shoot between waist and chest high. You’ll be able to tell a difference.

Don’t say cheese. Say something ending in “uh”. Like yoga or grandma. Watch the video.

Most importantly, you are beautiful!!! Unless you’re erasing camel-toe, there’s no reason to use photoshop’s liquify tool. Magazines do enough of that, show the world what real beauty looks like. And that’s you.

Speaking of beautiful, I loved this article about Jade Beall’s Beautiful Body Project. Read it and pass it along to a new mother. I wish I had read this after I delivered Penelope. It’s really admiring how she portrays what media portrays as flaws in such a beautiful way.


You may find that you get in the same ruts over and over again. I do.

Toes in. . .  hands on hips. . . 

Try to switch it up from time to time. Sometimes the only purpose switching it up will serve is for a laugh or two. Sometimes you’ll find a pose you really like.


Cropping the feet will make your ankles look fat. Cropping your head will hide the fact that you didn’t do make-up that day.

But seriously, do your hair and make-up. Like you’re going on a hot date! If I knew how to put on the fake eyelashes I bought, I’d totally do it for a shoot. You need to make your features pop. Pencil in those eyebrows, darken those eyelashes, add some blush and paint those nails. Use this as an opportunity for a little pampering.


I’ve not perfected shooting with kids, but these are the things that work for me.

During my presentation, Danielle brought up an interesting point: make sure you have everything ready before you round-up the kids. You’ll also want to shoot when they’re at their best. For my kids, they’re adorable at about 9-10 am. They turn into ornery monsters (that I still love!!) in the afternoon.

If you have a funny little doll, get an elastic band and attach him to the end of the lens for little babies. They’ll love it!

I bribe Penelope with hi-chews, Felix with toy cars.


Make sure you have an overview shot and a variety of detail shots. One or two of those shots should be key images for social media. I tend to save images in 1 of three aspect ratios: vertical (great for pinterest), square and horizontal. I shoot mostly vertical. It’s easier to make a vertical picture square or horizontal, but not the other way around.

Even if you have the perfect exposure, you may want to boost contrast and brightness to make your image pop. It’s all about your personal style, though. No matter what you do with the filters or exposure afterwards, sharpen those images just a hair when saving for web!

I’ll use the smart sharpen tool in photoshop. Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen. I’ll sharpen the images about 50% with a .5px radius and reduce noise by 5%. You may like something entirely different, but there are some settings to get you started.

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  1. Great info! I’m so sad to have missed Sewing Summit. Looks like you had a great time!

  2. Merrick says:

    Thanks for the shout out in your presentation! Also, these are amazing tips — wish I’d been able to go to your class!

  3. Erin Marie says:

    I wish I’d have been able to take your class. it was a tough choice in that time slot. But I’m so glad I got to meet you. I read this whole post imagining you actually saying it (which just makes it so much more fun).

  4. Kristin H says:

    Fantastic design, insight and tips! I adore my Olympus 650 e. I know, I know, I am a dying breed, but seriously, my little known camera is a work horse. I’ve found that a good lens makes all the differnce. My kit 40-150mm lens gives me a lot of red noise, but pop on my 50mm mid grade and holy mole, we are in buidness. I wish I had been able to go to Sewing Summit – looks like it was a blast!

  5. Thanks for your great presentation Melissa – I love your style and sense of humor. I’m glad I got to take your class and it’s making me think much more about my blog photos now. I blogged about SS over 3 posts on my blog :-)

  6. Tabitha says:

    What a great presentation! So comprehensive without being overwhelming! Must have been amazing in person. Thank you! I can’t wait to go try out what I’ve learned!

  7. juju says:

    I took some notes! grandma and yoga!
    I needed to know that, like yesterday.
    your envelope of nibs is in the mailbox waiting to be picked up…

  8. So fun meeting you in person at SS! Thanks for sharing your tips from the lecture – I wish I could have gone to it!

    I think my biggest takeaway is that there is a fine line between pretty-ugly and ugly-ugly. Sigh. ;)

  9. Haylee says:

    Ok if/when you have a baby shower for all your sewing peeps, I’m so coming! Yes this is officially me inviting myself. haha

    Also Melissa thank you SO MUCH for posting all this amazing info. Man I just seriously learned so much by reading this, and I’m definitely printing out that ISO/aperture infographic to put in my camera bag. Soo incredibly helpful, thank you!

  10. Stephanie says:

    This is amazing. Thank-you, thank-you, THANK-YOU! I actually took some pretty awful, grainy photos today and now I know why!

  11. SewSara says:

    watching the photo booth was highly entertaining while i pinned my quilt ;-)

  12. Emily says:

    So cool you met Heather Bailey! Great tips/presentation. :)

  13. Really fun recap! It was great to see you again. Miranda’s shower was fun :) I loved your photography section at the end… really helpful! Thanks!

  14. Trish says:

    This is such an informative post. Thank you so much for all of this. Photography can be so hard by yourself so I can’t wait to use some of these tips!

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