Best Foot Forward: How to Photograph Raw Denim
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.
I took these photos in the early afternoon. In this first set, I’m facing into the sun.
Shadows on my inner thighs and around the knees have turned blue into black, and it’s even worse on the back side, where most of the left thigh has disappeared entirely.
When the sun is at my back, the shadows are gone, but the sun is shining directly into the camera, creating that fuzzy light-drenched aura.
The denim looks a little better, but the photographs are far from perfect.
Head out with your camera in tow when the sun is either hiding (behind clouds, buildings, or the horizon) or very close to the horizon.
During sunrise and sunset, when shadows are long, your photographs will have a warm, idyllic glow.
L: Alex Swords / R: Philip Dotsenko
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.
Staging: Depth, Interest, 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
Depth and interest are nice to have, but they’re not absolutely essential. If you choose a background that contrasts nicely with your denim, you can keep things simple and stunning. When exploring your environment, keep your eyes peeled for coloured or textured surfaces that might be used as backgrounds.
Here are a few examples of photos with eye-catching contrast. Even though there is very little here in terms of depth or even of interest, the contrast does the heavy lifting, bringing the denim front and centre.
Hanging Up the Hang-Ups
My first pictures of denim were all taken in the bedroom with the door closed. I didn’t want anybody to see what I was doing. I felt vain and frivolous, and, to make matters worse, I was deeply unhappy with the photographs I was taking.
There’s no getting around this. Nobody starts out perfectly at ease either in front of or behind the camera. It’s only by experiencing this discomfort that we can pass through it. It gets a little easier each time we push the shutter.
In time, the camera will start to feel more comfortable in your hands, and your photographs will begin to improve. They’ll improve again when you step outside and start taking photographs out there.
This is, of course, more difficult than it sounds. When we take pictures of our clothes, we attract attention. Why? Because we are (let’s face facts) doing something unusual. The feelings of embarrassment are not easy to ignore or overcome.
Remember, though we might look peculiar, we don’t look foolish. Quite the opposite. We’ve aroused people’s interest and curiosity. We need to embrace this, to hold our heads high, to be shameless denim enthusiasts. Again, this becomes easier every time we push that shutter.
So push that shutter a lot. Rather than quickly snapping three or four photographs, take thirty or forty of them at a time. When you get home and sift through all of the pictures, there’s almost always a nugget or two of solid gold among them. Even professional photographers delete about 90% of the photographs they take, so don’t expect every picture to be a masterpiece.
Be patient with yourself, and embrace the peculiarity of this passion we share. With your camera in hand, step out your front door and start exploring, and try to ignore the gawkers. If you feel embarrassed, that’s perfectly natural. Focus on your task and the embarrassment will pass.
Do this and your photographs will improve dramatically. You’ll be able to showcase the fades you have worked so hard to produce. Lift your photography game and you’ll be putting your best foot forward.