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Shooting the quilt

Hanging the quilt

Many quilters, both traditional and art, have "design walls" of some sort. If you're lucky enough to have that wall located such that you can hang your quilt on it and place your lights and tripod/camera in front of it, you have the perfect (and easy) setup for mounting your quilt for photographing it. If, however, your design wall doesn't have enough space in front of it for this equipment, you'll have to get a little creative. Here are some ideas:

Buy a 4' x 8' sheet of thick foam insulation board (approximately $10) at the home improvement store, and cover it with felt, flannel, or inexpensive muslin (the boards can be dirty). You might not even need the board to remain that large if your work tends to be much smaller, so cut it down with a serrated knife. Another possibility: a small- to medium-sized quilt can be attached to a large piece of artist's foamcore or matboard.

You'll want a piece of foam larger than any of your quilts. It can be slid underneath a bed or hidden in the guest room when not in use, and it can also double as a movable design wall. Quilts can easily be pinned to these Styrofoam boards from behind the quilt by going through the backing or binding in order to hide the pins ... or you can stick the pins straight into the board through the front of the quilt, "removing" them later in your graphics program. Tip: You may need to pin all of the corners of the quilt in order to have it hang flat if it doesn't already.

You'll want to use a colored backdrop of your choice (white or black) on top of the muslin. Black knit polyester is a nice choice as it doesn't attract lint or pet hair the way felt, flannel, or cotton does, and you'll get a nice dark black in the photos. Plus, it doesn't wrinkle! No need to iron each time you pull it out for a photography shoot. You might want to use a white backdrop if your quilts have dark borders, to set off the edges of your quilts (so they don't blend into the background and get lost).

Some other ways to mount your quilt:

  • Take a pair of your curtains down, slide the curtain rod through the hanging sleeve on your quilt, then slip the rod back onto the brackets (this works only if your quilt is narrower than the window!). And since you'll be shooting at night, light coming through the window won't be a factor.
  • Pin the quilt to the curtains themselves (closed). One caveat: it can be difficult to get the quilt to lie flat with this approach.
  • And let's not forget your walls! If you have the hanging sleeve already attached to your quilt, and you've made a hanging device (i.e., a dowel with eyehooks on each end), you can just hang the quilt temporarily on any available wall that has enough room in front of it for the lights and camera.
  • Although the purpose of this website is to show you how to photograph your quilts while keeping the costs down, if you don't mind spending an additional $30, you could purchase a laundry room garment rack and hang your quilts from it.

The lighting setup

OK, you have your quilt mounted, your camera on its tripod, your lights on their light stands ... you're ready to go! (Don't forget to close the curtains or shades, so you won't have mixed lighting problems.) Let's talk about how to set all this stuff up. First, here are a couple of rules of thumb.

  1. You want the camera exactly centered—both vertically and horizontally—on the quilt.
  2. The best camera distance is one that lets you fill the viewfinder with your quilt when the zoom lens is set near the middle of its range.
  3. The lights should be at the same height as the camera and about the same distance from the quilt as the camera, but positioned a few feet to the right and left of it.
Lights (side view)
Side view
Lights (top view)
Top view

Let's talk about those in a little more detail. Number one sounds obvious, doesn't it? But you'd be surprised at how many pictures on quilters' websites are not rectangular. (Take a look at the "keystoning" example in the Gallery of Wrongs to see what we mean.) The only way to make sure you don't have this problem is to measure.

Let's say your quilt is 40" high. Then its vertical center is 20" from its bottom edge. Measure it, and put a pin there just to remind yourself. Then measure up from the floor to the pin. You want to set the camera's height to be exactly the same. Do the same for the horizontal center, using an adjacent wall as your baseline.

What about distance? The main thing to remember is that you don't want your camera's zoom on a wide angle setting, because that virtually guarantees your picture will suffer from barrel distortion. Move the camera back until you can fill the frame when the zoom is at a more or less middle setting. A little toward telephoto is better than a little toward wideangle—there's little noticeable distortion at tele settings.* Second, moving your lights back lets the illumination spread out more evenly, so you're less likely to see hotspots in your picture.

* There's a fairly widespread misconception that you should avoid telephoto settings when photographing artwork. This is exactly backward: by far the most objectionable distortion occurs at the wideangle end of the range. If you have any doubts about this, check out the distortion tests in professional camera reviews such as this one. These tests are always performed at maximum wideangle setting, because that's where the worst distortion always occurs.

Lighting setup

Putting it all together

Here's a 'photography studio' set up in a guest room. Because the back wall was angled, a 4' x 6' foam board was used as a support for the quilt. (The camera, not visible in this shot, is just behind the lights.) By the way, although it may look as though this quilt is wrinkled, it isn't—the top and bottom edges are scalloped. You can see a full-sized image of "Buttercup" on Holly's website.

Taking the picture

Well, finally we're ready to shoot some photos! Setting up is most of the work; the rest is easy. Here are a few tips to make the picture-taking go smoothly.

  • Double-check your white balance  If you're using the daylight-balanced compact fluorescent bulbs we recommend, your camera's white balance should be set to daylight (the little sun icon Daylight). If you're using incandescent lights, choose the light-bulb icon Tungsten. If your camera won't let you choose a white balance setting ... well, you'll just have to hope for the best and make adjustments in your photo software afterward. Don't forget to set your white balance back to "Auto" when you're finished photographing quilts! Otherwise you may have problems with odd color casts in your snapshots.
  • Use your self-timer  Yes, we know your camera is on a tripod. But it only takes a little jiggle when you press the shutter to blur your photo ... so why take chances? Set the self-timer, takes your hands off the camera and let it do its own thing.
  • Use a medium aperture  Most consumer digital cameras' lenses deliver their sharpest images at around f/5.6, so if your camera lets you set aperture manually, try something in that range. This isn't critical, but it can help a little, so you might as well do it if you can. If you can't, don't worry.
  • "Bracket" your exposures  That's a good way of hedging your bets: for each quilt, you shoot one picture that's deliberately underexposed (too dark), one picture "on the money," and one overexposed ... then pick the one that turns out best. This is especially important with quilts that have large light or dark areas that could fool the camera's exposure system. There are hundreds of camera models, so we can't give you step-by-step directions for your particular camera, but we'll give you general guidelines to follow.
        Most automatic cameras have an exposure compensation feature that lets you fudge the exposure in steps called "EV." (If you learned photography the traditional way, one EV equals one stop.) We suggest you bracket using exposures of –1 EV, 0 EV (the camera's recommended exposure) and +1 EV.
        If your camera offers manual control of shutter speed and aperture, you can use these controls to bracket. (If aperture and shutter speed are Greek to you, check out "A Short Course in Using Your Digital Camera"...or just stay in automatic mode as described above). We suggest you make one shot at the recommended exposure, plus additional shots at one stop lower and one stop higher (three in all). A good way to do this is to first set your aperture to some reasonable, intermediate value like f/5.6, then see what shutter speed the camera recommends. (You may have to depress your shutter button halfway to see this.) Then shoot your three images, varying only the shutter speed. For example, if the recommended exposure is 1/60, then shoot at 1/30, 1/60 and 1/125.
        In extreme cases like the "Songbirds of Winter" quilt, you may need to go with larger increments. If you haven't done bracketing before, this may sound complicated, but it's really not—and it's a lot quicker and easier to shoot several different exposures the first time around than to set up and reshoot later on. Remember, you're not wasting film ... so go ahead and bracket!
  • Don't trust the LCD  Digital cameras are great because they give you instant feedback ... but take that little LCD with a big grain of salt. In particular, don't judge brightness or color balance by what you see there. You need to get your photos on your computer screen to really have a good idea of how they're going to look.
  • Calibrate your screen  This may come as a shock, but computer displays aren't always accurate. In fact, we've seen some that are pretty far off—too light, too dark, too pink, too blue ... so if you can (and this is a big if), calibrate your display so it shows accurate colors. Otherwise, what looks good on your screen may look terrible on some judge's screen. If you have a Mac, calibration is easy: just pick "System Preferences" on the Apple menu and choose "Displays." Under the "Color" tab, you'll find a "Calibrate" button that will lead you by the hand through a simple process that ensures your display is showing accurate color and brightness. If you have a PC, unfortunately, there's no built-in calibration tool. If you have Adobe's "Gamma" utility, try that—it's better than nothing. If you don't, QuickGamma and its companion program QuickMonitorProfile are free utilities that are worth trying.

Getting really close

Our next page talks about shooting closeups—for detail views of your work, and to make shiny additions such as beads look their best. Next

STQ home Cameras Lighting Shooting Closeups Wrongs Resources