Of Making Hay and Glamour Shots

As the daughter of a dairy farmer, one phrase has always had great meaning to me: “Make hay while the sun shines.”

We needed hay to feed the cows during winter. But wet hay, that which had been rained upon, would moulder in the haymow or, worse, could spontaneously combust, burst into flames–the last thing one wants in a barn.

So, we watched the weather and did as the proverb told us—grabbed the sunny days, put other chores aside, and brought in the hay.

Now I am equally aware of sunny days but I grab them for a different purpose.

Now my motto is, “Take pix when the sun shines.”

I’ve been selling vintage linens on Etsy for over 8 years and probably the single most important aspect of that is good photos. And good photos of vintage linens, or anything, really, depends on natural light.

When I initially get the linens I sell, they are often in pretty unappealing shape. I’ve written elsewhere about my whiz-bang techniques for getting out stains and brightening up the linens.

But the rest of the process is equally important. 

When I get a sunny day, I approach my linen photos as glamour shots. 

Do you remember glamour shots from the 1980s and 1990s? Was that only an American thing? Women would get a makeover, with big hair, lots of dramatic makeup, some glittering jewels or maybe a feather boa, and a professional photographer would employ soft lighting and maybe a bit of blur or air brushing to create the glamour. 

I never had my glamour shot taken, but my linens get them regularly!

First, I iron; that’s the makeover part. I’m always surprised, when I go looking at the other listings on Etsy for vintage linens (or even more so on eBay) how many sellers don’t bother to iron! The ironing might be my favorite part and certainly it transforms the linens from bedraggled to beautiful.

Then I find a sunny window, where there’s good light that doesn’t shine directly on the table I’m using.

The combination of a sunny day and the light shining just right in a window is a tough one here, in the winter.

I usually take 15-20 photos of each set of napkins or tablecloth or hankie. I can use up to 10 of those photos in an Etsy listing. 

After all these years of doing it, I have a sort of routine. First, the boring photo of the full item.

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This one will be the last of the 10 photos customers see. If the item has any flaws—a tiny hole or a noticeable spot, I take photos of those, too. 

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I take extreme close-ups if the item has amazing detail, like hand embroidery or fancy lace. 

I take photos of different angles, trying to catch the beauty of the fabric and colors.

Damask linen, which has a tone-on-tone design woven into the fabric, can be the most difficult to photograph well—it can just look like plain old white cloth.

Early on, I read on the internet that, to capture the beauty of damask linen, one needed “strong, raking light,” or light from a deep angle, which can reveal texture. 

So, I stalk around the table, bending low, moving the item slowly around, until the pattern emerges, until the lush sheen of the linen and the flamboyant damask design of mums or roses or fleurs de lis show to advantage. 

I love this process and can get WAY too caught up in it, spending 20 minutes trying to get the perfect photo of something I’ll be selling for eight bucks. 

Like my farming forbears, I watch the forecast and look for sunny days. I set aside other obligations and plans for those days and use them for taking Etsy photos. In mid-January, we had two sunny days in a row and I took over 425 photos.

I see now that Monday will be sunny and you know what I’ll be doing . . . making hay taking glamour shots of napkins!

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73 thoughts on “Of Making Hay and Glamour Shots

  1. The textures do show beautifully with the angles and natural light. Jim and I have worked for years to get a good set-up for taking quilt photos inside, and it’s not bad. But pix are almost always prettier and show the colors better for people who take them outside. So, we haven’t *quite* captured it yet. Enjoy!

    • My photo space is limited in winter so I can only take photos of smaller items, like sets of napkins and hankies. When nice weather comes, I get outside with old quilts and tablecloths!

  2. I can really relate to this post as I sell vintage and antique items online and can spend ages photographing them as I think it’s so important. I know, as a buyer, I’m really turned off by bad photography. I admire your linen photographs – especially the damasks – as I find that really difficult. I have an (antique) suitcase full of old linens which should be in my shop but I’m never satisfied with the photographs I take. It doesn’t help that my house doesn’t have a great deal of natural light – although, at risk of attracting cat hair, I can take them in the conservatory. If I take things outside, it’s too bright. One day, I’ll try to get round to those linens and move them on.
    As for ironing – why wouldn’t you? It amazes me that some people don’t do it and I’m even more amazed when they then manage to sell something.

    • It’s funny–I’m the opposite. Taking photos of linens is quick and easy (if I have the right light), I guess because I’ve specialized in linens and have done so many. The “other” vintage I have around, wanting to sell, just sits because I find photographing those things much more daunting!

    • Yes, all of us of a “certain age” have plenty of old linen. I find I sell a lot to what seem to be younger people, often in cities like New York. I’m always surprised by that. No, I don’t think I’ve ever written about ironing hints–not sure I have any particularly helpful ones!

  3. Thanks for the tips! I have a stack of beautifully embroidered guest hand towels that were done by my great aunts, plus monogrammed napkins and damask table cloths. I try to use them when appropriate but the ironing afterward is a challenge! I’ve thought about selling some of them but didn’t know there is a market for them! Now I may try it!

    • Thanks, Sharon! The handwork on some of these old linens is astounding. Kind of breaks my heart that these old things just languish without people recognizing their artistry.

  4. Well captured! It’s great to see that you put your heart into your selling,I enjoy seeing a person excited about what their trying to sell,and if they are a “born” sales person it’s amazing how compelling they can be.

  5. Great advice on cleaning up old linen. And what beautiful shots! I like plenty of sunlight for pictures, too. Right now, I’m waiting to get a particular shot at the library. Doesn’t look like it will be today.

    • Thanks, Caroline! Winter is aways frustrating, from an Etsy point of view–so little sunshine and at odd hours of the day. My usual spot for taking photos is on our big glassed-in porch . . . but it’s well below zero out there right now!

  6. Your photos–and linens!–are lovely, Kerry! The weave in the white and pink napkins really caught my eye. I’ve had mixed success with natural lighting, mostly because I have only one window which get direct sun, and when the sun is shining directly in, the result can be harsh. In the spring though, when the maple is leafing out, it softens it nicely. I dream about a sunny enclosed porch which doubles as a studio space and photo corner!

    • I have a sunny enclosed porch . . . but it’s unheated and REALLY cold in the winter! The weave on those pink and white napkins really caught my eye, too–I was weaving a plaited twill shawl at the same time and was comparing the two!

  7. Very good post. I can definitely relate! I love taking photos for my listings. Sometimes it’s easy…the lighting and angles are just right. And sometimes I can’t get a good picture no matter what. Then I just give up and wait for another day.

    Back in the 1990s my mother, daughter and I had our glamour shots taken. My brother commented that the one of the three of us looked like it was an ad for one of those nighttime soap operas ( like Dynasty ) and belonged on the side of a bus. He was right!

    • I knew you’d be able to relate to this! Your photos are always so evocative and warm looking. I wonder if the “look” on Dynasty and Dallas was part of the inspiration for those glamour shots? I’m just as glad I never had one done–they look pretty funny from the 21st century!

  8. Your photos always impress me and reading of your process here I’m even more impressed. I shall keep in mind several things you mentioned and might even remember to try them out when taking photos for my blog – god knows I need the help 😀

    • I think your photos always look good! On Etsy, we’re all trying to break through the sheer volume of listings and catch the eye of buyers. I try not to obsess toooooooo much but i know the photos matter.

  9. I read a blog where the young woman was photographing food for Instagram and her blog. She had the close in shots of tasty treats, then the longer shots showing the treats on the coffee table in a room full of toddler toys and general stuff. It was the place the light was best. (The other place was her daughter’s change table. I wasn’t so sure about that one!)
    Your linens are beautiful, and very appealing photos.Each one shows how much you enjoy doing it.

    • It’s amazing what some judicious cropping can take out of a photo! I’m forever cropping out cat’s tails and the yardstick I use to measure what I’m listing. It certainly helps that I love the linens–it makes the time I spend with them really enjoyable.

  10. I like that saying but never have seen the literal haymaking. Some (most?) of those glamour shots of the 80s were over the top or weird. Your makeovers and photos bring out the natural beauty and appeal of the linens.

    • I think lots of the sayings we use every day represent old customs we aren’t familiar with in any personal way. Didn’t we think the glamour shots were quite lovely at the time? I can’t remember–they certainly look odd now!

    • Judy! It’s so good to see you here! I have to admit, I’m been cornered about you–I hope all is well. I have placed many linens in forever homes–I feel it is my mission!

  11. I love your photos of linens, and have learned a lot from them. You made me smile about the light. I go for months not taking photos of my vintage stuff because there’s not enough natural light!!!. This week the light was good. I took 22 photos just to get 6 good ones for two pieces of fabric which I sold for a total of 85NZ cents. LOL. But I look at it this way. The fabrics, linens, etc, are precious. This is their time to shine, and for us to give them some love and attention.

    • I figured you’d be able to relate to all this! You take very good photos and do a lot more with the “styling” than I am willing to do. I don’t really resent the time I spend, even if I am going to make very little from the sale–as you say, every linen must have its day!

  12. I like this insight into photographing fabrics. I’ve also learned the value of good strong daylight and side-lit items, especially when the colours are subtle and the fabrics are quilted. You can lose the entire impact of a pale quilted item with bright full-on light which will flatten and bleach the image. Also, living where I do, too little light is not the problem, it’s more a case of needing to manage the harsh glare of the sun. I do love the crisp curled edges of your stacked linens; I might need to steal that layout some time!

  13. I can see why you would spend quite a bit of time with the photography – it’s almost like food photography! First impressions count here, and if I were to look for your product online and see a crumpled piece of linen it would be the same for me as looking at a recipe with an unappetising food pic that I wouldn’t want to recreate.
    I like the way you photograph your products from different angles and how you vary it according to what the specific piece requires.

    • I only wish I had your photography skills, Kiki! But I think it’s a lot like food photography, except I do very little with extra “styling”–it’s usually just the linens, standing on their own.

  14. J > Well, Kerry, you really to seem to have found the answer to the problem we share with you : getting just the right light (especially difficult in winter) to show up the qualities and detail of the item in question. Agreed that soft natural light is best. A problem with wool – and especially black/dark wools (as indeed dark/black anything!) is that the automatic focus on many cameras (and especially smartphone cameras) can’t handle the matt/fuzzy material – it doesn’t return light well to the sensor.

    • Yes! I’ve had that problem, too, with dark colors. Actually, I have a lot of problem getting many colors to show correctly, especially subtle shades and anything that is red-dish. Thank goodness for photo editing software!

  15. D > I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again any time, that you really do have an eye for beautiful linens, and you really do make them shine – metaphorically, that is! I would get carried away and end up keeping lots myself. What you say about the importance to selling is so true : it’s astonishing how many sellers seem to be ignorant – or uninterested – in even the basics of presentation. Or, on eBay, of listing under the correct category.

    • Truth be told, I started in the Etsy business because I had hoarded so many linens for myself and was kind of horrified when I realized all I had! I’m more willing to let them go now, to good homes!

  16. It’s all totally worth the effort, Kerry – I love how you can see that damask texture so clearly. And thanks for the good laugh at the 90s glamour shots – so redolent of the age!

  17. I really enjoyed this post. I learned a lot from your photography tips that I’ll be able to adapt for use with the food photography that I do on my blog. –And, as another former farm girl, your farm analogy worked well for me.

  18. Great instructions on how to photograph something well enough to sell it. I point and click. I can’t see it before or after I’ve taken the photo so I pray a lot. 😉 Your linens are lovely and you take great photos of them. I hope you keep selling them for all the work you are putting into them.

  19. Pingback: Hand Quilt Along – Piecing Life Together One Stitch At A Time

  20. Wowza! Those pink napkins are so dreamy! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that sort of pattern on Damask! They really looked handwoven to me.
    I have a question for you – do you hem your hand towels by hand or machine? I am making some for a show/sale and I’ve actually been doing both. Machine hemming and then hand sewing the tiny edge to make sure nothing pops out.

    • I was weaving a plaited twill shawl when I ironed those napkins–the pattern of the damask was so similar to what I was doing! And, to answer your questions–for towels I hem by machine. It just feels sturdier to me, for items that are going to go through the washer and dryer over and over. I hand hem other stuff and sew up the side, as you say, but I haven’t done that with towels.

  21. I really enjoyed this post, Kerry. My mother has some napkins that look very similar to your pink ones except hers are green. I believe she had a set of six and a tablecloth as a wedding present in 1956. I love damask! Your ironing and careful photography bring out the wonderful patterns!

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