A quick how to guide
(Keep reading and scroll to the bottom to find a freebie Photoshop Action from my Professional Retouch + Makeover Collection. Enjoy!)
Recently I've had a few people ask me how I "style" my photographs, which came as a surprise, because in all honesty I've never thought stylizing my photographs was my gift. I realized that even though I'm a portrait & couple photographer, I do actually style each photograph for a particular "look" I'm trying to achieve. Usually I'm making adjustments to the model's hair, or clothes, directing poses, looking for the best backdrops, using props (such as flowers or picnic baskets for shoots). Photography is all about organizing and styling - which I admit does sounds a little overwhelming - but it's also about being creative and fun! Ideas and inspiration is limitless, you can create any look or theme you want, as long as you're willing to experiment!
Here are 5 easy tips when styling your photographs!
Play around with a theme
If you're not sure where to begin, start with a theme. Use your interests as inspiration for your theme. For example, I love lazy mornings in bed with a cup of chai tea and a book. Being obsessed with birds, I decided to combine my two favourite themes together. I picked my best blue fairy-wren teacup, along with a couple of bird themed books to suit the theme. Usually all my photo shoots are carefully planned but as this was an impromptu shoot, I had to be creative and look for objects on a whim (that truly reflect me)!
After creating this theme, I realized that sometimes it's okay to be a little spontaneous! Work with what you already have, and don't be afraid to think outside the square! It's like that saying, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans" - it's the same with photography. You can organize everything to the letter but nothing ever goes as perfectly planned!
Be prepared that you may have to be flexible with your props and background; if something doesn't feel or look right, change it. Move it around. Look at the colours and tones of your theme, and make sure your prop and background contrast enough so you don't lose sight of what you're photographing!
Use an interesting background
When it comes to backgrounds, you can be as creative or as bold as you like. Bright colours are eye-catching, but plain backgrounds add contrast to your image too! Do you know what look you're trying to achieve? And what would you use as a background? With so many options, it doesn't have to be complicated!
In the past, I have used rustic wooden chopping boards, cheese boards, my white ikea coffee table, fake grass, coloured cardboard paper, and various other backgrounds when styling my photographs. I've found really cheap wooden boards from thrift shops, and pretty paper backgrounds from Kikki K, or Typo. I think I spent a whopping $6 on a piece of bright pink cardboard paper, and less than $10 on my favourite antipasto platter board. And yet when I use these as backgrounds, most people think they're from a wooden table or painted furniture!
If a client has hired me to photograph a product, flat lay photographs (birds eye view) on top of a plain background always makes for a beautiful photo. Or in this case, using my own bed and plain bedsheets with my pillow propped up turned out to be perfect for my lazy morning theme! Instead of using our own boring white duvet, I wanted to add interesting texture to my photo, and used an old throw rug instead. I love it's worn out look, rather than using white on white.
Catch the light
I'm probably going to hear a few gasps from photographers for this, but although lighting makes for a great photo, lighting does not need to be perfect. As you can see during my impromptu photo session with my bird theme, I used a soft warm-coloured lamp to create the "morning glow" I was going for. I wanted my photographs to have a softer look, rather than using my external flash indoors. I had my soft lamp facing on an angle (the same direction as the natural light behind).
We're lucky to have beautiful natural light flooding into our bedroom every morning, and so I only had to open the blinds to create softer light for my photos. If you have a window nearby, try to use natural light whenever possible. You could even prop a small coffee table near the window or even use your balcony / backyard for styled photographs.
Whether I plan for a photoshoot, or spontaneously think of an idea, I always make sure I shoot either in the morning or late afternoon. If you think about it logically, the brightest (and harshest) part of the day is around 11-3pm, so anytime before or after then is more preferable for better lighting. That means less harsh light, and less shadows. The softer the lighting, the more attractive and appealing your photo will be!
Don't worry about making it perfect
Stylized photographs aren't always about being pretty. I prefer photographs to look real, rather than perfect. You can see (above) that I'm attempting to fix the old throw rug to look as though it's just been laid on. This was the hardest part of styling the photograph, because if you try too hard to make it look perfect, it just doesn't look right. I had to remove my props (books, cup), and throw the rug up again for it to sit naturally with a few creases. It was only when it looked less than perfect, that I was actually happy with it!
When I'm looking at a photograph, the message that is being conveyed is far more important to me than a perfectly "set up" photo. I ask myself questions such as, "What is it that I want the audience to understand about myself?", while styling my themed photo. You can bring your photographs to life simply by incorporating your personality and quirkiness. Draw in your audience with what makes your soul happy, and you can't go wrong.
The fun part - Editing
Aside from photographing, I LOVE to play around with softer tones and desaturated colours. You can see in the original photograph that it's a little darker than usual, and the colours are quite cool. During my photo session the sky outside became dull and there was less light to work with, but I still loved the composition of the photo and decided to fix the light in photoshop. There's a few distracting shadows on the pillow which I edited out, but still left the creases in the bedsheet and pillow, to create a more "real" look to my photos.
If you're not into using Photoshop or don't have it, there are plenty of alternative editing apps to use on your phone. You can see my Top 5 recommended list here.
For most of my photographs, I use Photoshop and Lightroom. While I do use VSCO and other presets, when it comes to a more natural matte look, I always come back to my own photoshop actions/presets. I find them very quick and easy to use. After clicking "play" from my action, I can adjust the opacity in 'Layers'.
For this set of photographs, I used (my favourite) "Sweet Color Pop" PS Action and desaturated the cooler colors, and added a slight warmth to my photographs. And as a thank you for all your support, I have linked my PS action freebie below! You can adjust the opacity on any layer you like, or switch on/off any tones you wish. If you have any trouble downloading, or need to ask any questions in using it (though I promise it's super easy to tweak), you can email me anytime! You can find a short video on "how to use PS Actions" linked here.
(If you do download this freebie, don't forget to like this post below, or let me know how you enjoyed the PS action!)