When you negotiate a book deal part of the conversation revolves around what images will be in the book, how many there will be, and, perhaps most importantly, who will create the images.
There are a lot of different approaches to consider. Some craft books are text-heavy with just a few step-by-step images within the instructions supplemented by full-page beauty shots of the finished projects. Others have computer drawn diagrams or hand-drawn illustrations showing key steps that are best represented visually. And still others rely on step-by-step photos to illustrate the text.
My first book has an opening chapter that explains all the basic techniques you'll need to know to make a fabric bird. My publisher flew me across the country to their studio and had a professional photographer take the photos that illustrate this section. Being in a real photo studio was fascinating. There were big rolls of backdrop paper, umbrella lights, and simple white foam core sheets to reflect light.
When I began planning Stuffed Animals I felt strongly that I needed step-by-step photos to illustrate the 16 patterns. I wanted additional photos to accompany the 52 lessons that break down how the patterns were created and really teach you how to design your own softies. We were looking at creating hundreds of photos for this book, in addition to those that would be taken by Cynthia Shaffer, the wonderful photographer in California who took the beauty shots of each project.
In order to make this happen I knew that I’d need to take the photos myself, in my studio, as I was working on each project. This was a pretty scary prospect for me. I had a digital SLR (a Nikon D-40), but I really didn't understand it very well. The last time I’d studied photography was in high school where I’d spent most of the time in class lusting after our handsome teacher, Mr. Foo. He drove a Harley to school and wore motorcycle boots. Mr. Foo, my love for you is still unrequited. Call me!
Needless to say I had a lot to learn.
After I signed the book contract I headed over to one of the last locally owned camera shops in the Boston area, Newtonville Camera, and asked for some help. I bought four things and with those four things I was able to take all of the step-by-step photos that you see in the book. Here is what I got:
1. A tripod. I bought a Benro tripod, but I think any sort of sturdy tripod will do. Play around with it when you get it home. I didn't realize at first how flexible it was. It can get seriously tall, lean forward, and swivel. I love it.
2. Studio lights. I bought two Smith Victor KT400 photoflood umbrella lights. First, I will tell you that the day I set them up was the day we went from feeling like my studio was in our bedroom to feeling like we were sleeping in my studio.
Umbrella lights in your bedroom will do that. But, these puppies are amazing. That’s two 500 watt bulbs. I can take photos after dark and on cloudy days with no trouble. It's tempting to leave them on while I'm working because they flood the room with light and I love light. But, alas, that wouldn't be good for the electric bill. Natural light is still best, of course, but I love my umbrellas.
3. A lens. My camera came with a standard 18-55 mm lens that I still use all the time. In fact, I took the photos for the book with that lens because it hooks in with the autofocus on my camera so I could feel confident that my shots were in focus. But I bought a nifty 50 mm lens while at the camera store and ended up using it to take all the beauty shots for my self-published patterns. You can dial it down really low and get wonderful depth of field that really highlights the details in a handmade toy while gently blurring the background.
This plush rubber duck is one of my two dozen self-published patterns.
4. A lesson. I’m a thrifty DIYer and tend to always feel like I have to learn everything on my own. "Pay someone to help me? Oh, no, I'll just figure it out." You know what? This last piece ended up being the most important on the list. While at the camera shop I asked if they knew of a photographer who might be able to give me a one-on-one lesson in my home studio. Sure enough, the guy who helped me choose all the equipment said he'd be happy to do it. We set a time and he came over and it was incredibly valuable! Why? Because we were in my space, with my light, my camera and lenses, and my softie parts. I took tons of notes. I asked every single stupid question I ever had. When he left I knew I was all set. I had this thing under control.
I have a permanent photo studio set up on my workspace in our bedroom. It's a low table with a big piece of fabric taped to the wall so that it drapes down to create a seamless backdrop. I have a brick I wrapped in white fabric and taped up with surgical tape that props up a piece of white foam core to reflect light. Sometimes I change the backdrop to a piece of white poster board or various other big sheets of paper.
Do you need to go out and buy the exact equipment I use? No, of course not. In fact, I'm sure there's other, better equipment to be had. But if you're serious about creating craft tutorials, whether for your own blog, as a guest blogger, for magazine work, or to write a book, I think it’s worth saving up for some quality equipment and some know-how. There are great online tutorials, books, and online classes for taking better photos. Start there and play a lot, then get yourself a one-on-one lesson. It's worth it.