Photography and Design

How becoming a photographer makes you a better designer
Eric Goodwin

I like to consider myself both a designer and a photographer, I love both mediums pretty much equally - which can be really helpful because one helps the other.

First off let's talk about the overarching concept of photography (at least as I see it). Basically in photography you have two things, light and composition. Composition is how elements are arranged within the frame of a photo, and light is, well.. light. Let’s dive into that one first.

A photo is made up of light and shadow, and as you practice photography you begin to see light and shadow differently. You begin to see how light falls on objects, how and when shadows are created, hard light vs soft light, colour temperature, etc. And as you practice photography (especially product photography) you start to become aware of how light falls on a product. How light might wrap and bend around a curve, or how an abrupt edge will cast a hard shadow. How a matte, satin, or polish surface will look when struck with hard or soft light. How you might position lighting to highlight the best aspects of your product. All this can help inform you as a designer, and help you make decisions throughout the design process.

When selecting your materials, being able to foresee how each material will bend and reflect light in a photo can help you make the right choice. Or when constructing a garment it helps to know that a small pucker in the wrong spot, while not very noticeable in real life, might become very obvious in a photo when struck with light from a certain angle.

This brings us to the second part, composition. A wide shot of the whole product can be somewhat forgiving, but when you start moving in and doing closeups of certain parts, small details become extremely obvious. Let’s look at this shot from of an Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Watch Series 6 - (Photo not taken by Lathley)

First off, that is an amazing photo. With this type of macro shot, so much intricate detail can be captured, much more than what human eyes can see. With the development of such a small-sized product, a designer for Apple would know right from the very beginning of the project that they would need photography like this. Knowing the level of precision and detail you would need to get a photo like this is going to help you make decisions for materials, tooling, manufacturing, etc. at every stage of design. Now I can’t say for sure, but I would think that the design studio at Apple would have a dedicated camera with a macro lens so they could run test photos all through the design process. When you need a level of detail like that, you can’t just leave it to the end and hope the photos turn out well.

Photos can be hard and unforgiving on a product. Small details and mistakes can be almost imperceptible in real life, but in a photo they can leap off the page (or screen) and become incredibly obvious. But how a product looks in a photo is so important in today's world where everything is viewed online through photos and videos. And being able to visualize how a product will photograph even before it’s made is such a useful skill to have as a designer.

So how can this help you with your designs? Simple, photograph your designs! Well maybe there’s a bit more to it than that, but here are some tips to get started:

  • A selfie or shot of you wearing your piece in a mirror can be fun but it doesn’t count for this - we want to get some real product shots
  • You don’t need a fancy camera, lenses, lighting, or anything like that to get started - use whatever camera you have, a phone works great
  • Set up your piece as perfectly as you can, smooth out wrinkles, brush away dust, etc.
  • Turn off all the lights in the room and light a single lamp (a small desk lamp works well, or you can use a flashlight) and move the light all around your piece (over, behind, below, to the sides, etc.) Take care to notice how the light spills over it, what angles look good, how the materials reflect and absorb light - are there any details or flaws that stand out?
  • Don’t forget to zoom in - zooming in (even on your phone) gives you a different perspective than just moving the camera closer
  • Have fun and practice! Try adding extra lights, different angles, and above all take lots of photos!

I’m sure we’ll cover all this in more detail in future articles and workshops, but for now I hope this helps encourage you to think of yourself as not just a designer, but a designer and photographer.