Best Foot Forward: How to Photograph Raw Denim

October 19, 2021

While denim is notoriously difficult to capture in living colour, we don’t have to settle for lacklustre photographs. With a bit of practice and a bit of ingenuity, we can take pictures that are even better than the real thing.

Though we will make the case for investing in a digital camera below, this guide is not only for those who have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on equipment. You don’t need fancy gear to take beautiful photographs. You just need to make the most of what you have. This raw denim photo guide will help you do that.

Light: Less is More

If you’ve struggled to take good photographs of your fades, it might simply be a problem of light, and probably too much of it. Your camera needs dramatically less light than you might think it does.

Denim is a serious and heavy fabric. Lean into this serious quality by giving it less light than you think it needs and you’ll see your denim’s rich inner character shining through in your photographs.

Start by getting outdoors. No amount of fiddling with your camera will manage to produce beautiful photographs when the only light source is artificial indoor lighting. Indoor shots lit by incandescent, fluorescent, or LED bulbs are flat and uninteresting. They always look rushed, and the denim appears drab and lifeless.

NB: All negative examples below are mine

Windows with indirect light can be excellent light sources for indoor photography, but for the best light, we need to go outside, and we need to stay out of the sun. Direct light flattens out texture and drenches our denim in dark shadows.

The best denim photographs, whether taken by amateurs or professionals, showcase every inch of the denim and its texture. They do this by reducing shadows to an absolute minimum. When we get out of the direct sunlight, the light is diffused evenly, giving the most accurate picture of how the denim actually looks.

It’s worth planning your photo session to capture the last few minutes of good daylight. The most striking denim photographs utilize this late light.

There’s no hard and fast rule that will help you capture the ideal evening light. Some cameras need a little more light to function optimally, others less. When you find the right light, you’ll know it.

Gear: Spend a Little to Get a Lot

Camera gear isn’t essential. Get the light and the staging right and you can point and click with just about anything and snap a great-looking photograph.

If you’ve got the budget for it, though, a small investment in photo gear will give you more control over your photographs and a much higher resolution, which allows you to zoom in on photos without them becoming blurry messes.

A good entry model DSLR will set you back about the same amount as a pair of top-shelf Japanese selvedge. You can, if you like, spend thousands of dollars for premium photo equipment, and there’s value for money if you exploit the camera’s full range of settings. If you’re only really planning to point and click, though, the budget models will be more than enough.

This difference isn’t immediately obvious until you see side-by-side comparisons like the ones above. The camera phones take nice pictures, but the digital camera captures a mountain of texture and detail that the phones miss. A quick glance should be able to tell you which is the DSLR.

At 200% magnification, the differences become even more obvious.

iPhone 8 – 200% Magnification

iPhone 11 Pro Max – 200% Magnification

Sony Nex3 DSLR – 200% Magnification

Staging: Depth, Interest, and Contrast

To do justice to our beautiful denim and the fades we’ve worked hard to produce, we need to do more than simply throw our jeans on the ground or on the bed and snap a few photos. We need to stage our photographs for interest, depth, and contrast.

Unless you’re taking boudoir shots, beds and photographs don’t mix.

Same goes for your toilet, your couch, your laundry pile, or your TV. Remember that we’re showcasing workwear, not loungewear, and definitely not lingerie. Put your jeans in an appropriate context.

If you absolutely must take your photographs inside, do so next to a window and use only the natural light. As a bare minimum, clear a space for your photographs. There should be nothing in the background of your photos that catches the eye.

A little bit of out-of-doors exploration can go a long way. Parks are often brimming with perfect locations for a quick photo shoot. A patch of grass or a wooded area will be an immense improvement over your bedroom, bathroom, or living room.

Grass and wood are great, but there’s no reason to shy away from brick, mortar, rebar, and concrete. Parking structures, train tracks, or back alleys (sans trash) can all provide excellent backdrops.

Keep your eyes peeled for a perfect location, and then come back either very early or late in the day when the light is just right. If you don’t have somebody to take the pictures for you, bring a tripod and a remote shutter (both small investments that pay big dividends).

Here are a few examples of monthly updates that have been staged in ways that arrest the eye:

What you’ll notice in all of these pictures is depth. There is a foreground (in sharp focus) and a background (in softer focus). This bokeh effect makes denim leap out at you, and it gives photographs that glossy magazine quality.

Go out of your way to find a location for your photographs that allows for this kind of depth and interest and you’ll never want to go back to taking indoor photos.

A bit of depth goes a long way. A few trees or a textured wall can make an excellent background for your photos, provided that you put some distance between foreground and background.

L: Cheerayu Phokrachang / R: Patrick Gessner