How to Get Great Photo Backgrounds with Sparrow Salvage

Recently I ran across an AMAZING blog post by talented jewelry designer, Penny of Sparrow Salvage.  I’ve long admired her work, and now I’m happy she’s agreed to share her wonderful tips for getting gorgeous photo backgrounds for your creations.  PLUS, she’s generously offering a discount on her jewelry — details at the end!

Backgrounds!! That was sudden wasn’t it? But yes here we are, the long awaited backgrounds post, the purpose of which is to teach you the best way to present your product, whether it’s handmade, vintage or supplies.You might not think it’s that big a deal, but trust me- it’s crucial!

The purpose of the background is not only to showcase your item but also to give you shop an overall ‘vibe’- or what the marketing chaps call ‘brand concept’. I’m going to talk about 4 main areas- light, dark, patterned and colour. Light ones will make your shop look bright and airy, dark ones will give you drama, patterns will give you an opulence either way and colour will give you vibrancy.

In order to pick the best background for your product, you have to first do what I’m always telling you to do- know your market! Figure out who’s most likely to buy your goods and market them accordingly. This of course may change over time, but as an example, in all the styles I’ve gone through there’s a strong theme of romance, because I make romantic jewelry. Even if your jewelery doesn’t look particularly ‘of a style’, you can still make it so- from coloured enamel beads to one of a kind vintage assemblage. Here’s a pair of earrings I made in as modern a way as I can manage:

These are what Kim and I call ‘hipster bait’ -they’re a pretty straight forward design, popular with many fashionable alternatives right now. Not much that’s romantic about them, in fact they look a little bit cold (I think) with all their straight lines and silver white. But they look especially cold when shot in this style of most hipster shops- plain white background. Now then- if I shoot them on something romantic like old paper, they suddenly change:

A warmth comes into them. The earrings haven’t changed, but there’s a noticeably more attractive quality about them. Watch what happens the more romantic layering I use…

By the time we get to that last image, these earrings might as well be in the arms of Mr.Darcy for all their romantic saturation. With this deep layering of fluff and ruffles, I can shoot almost anything and it’ll look romantic.


So now you see that it’s very important your background matches your desired style because it will affect your product and your overall shop style. it will effectively dictate the style of your shop possibly more than your work will.

OK, let’s talk pale backgrounds. A couple of you commented that you shoot your product on plain white backgrounds and it’s become boring- not surprising! Though Etsy’s front page seems to favour the bright white background, it can become tired. But you can use a pale background and still have your shop look lovely and non-boring, and the key to this is texture.

Texture is what makes things interesting. A white sheet of office paper is boring because it has no texture. But a sheet of artist’s watercolour paper is more interesting, because it’s uneven surface reflects the light in a more natural way.

White on white is often used to create a fresh, clean look- just be sure to use ‘warm’ whites- ones that are more creamy, boney colours, to avoid a cold feeling.
If you like the look of white on white but don’t want your shop looking too bright, you can add some darker browns in there -stick with a neutral palette when using white-on-white, colour will take you in a whole other direction which we’ll talk about in a bit. In the picture below I’ve angled the stack so you get a bit of the dark brown underneath- this has ‘mellowed’ the light, giving a more earthiness and toning down the ‘bright summer’s day’ feeling, while still keeping the clean feel.

If you can get your pale background to have texture, then it will instantly become not boring. Lilyja has a great pale textured background, caramelsafari does a great job too. Both have just that little bit of texture that you don’t really notice until you’re looking at it.

Now, depending on what you’re shooting, white backgrounds can be tricky. Colour generally does well against a white background, no matter how bright it is, but if you sell something that’s dark, the white background is going to prevent you from showing good product details. If you sell something that’s pale, shooting on a white background is going to bleach our your product. For artistic and blog shots it’s fine, but given that items on our Etsy shop front are represented in such small images, we need that first image to pop.

In the pic above, the item is starting to get ‘lost’ in the white on white theme. It’s not a terrible photo, just a bit boring. In the picture below the background has become slightly darker than the item, thereby making it ‘pop’ out of the image and become more noticeable.

Also, by adding texture to the picture we’ve created a more dynamic image- because the buttons are small I kept the texture to the side so as not to crowd them out- we’ll talk about that more later.

Okay- now let’s talk about Dark backgrounds. These are often avoided due to their low-light nature, but looking around on Etsy you’ll see a lot of shops successfully using the dark background. Up until recently changing my look, I used a dark background well (if I do say so myself). Other good shops with a dark background include Now Vintage and obsequies. The main benefit of a dark background is drama and the key to making it work is having the right light and good tonal variation.

Tonal variation is a natural part of the world around us. Look at a blackbird, or a black orchid– they’re not exactly black, there are patches of brown, grey, purple or blue because of the way the light reflects on the surface. So you want to replicate that using backgrounds that are in some way natural, faded or worn down. Chalkboard, slate and worn book covers are all good sources of dark backgrounds.

Dark backgrounds will make bright things such as sterling silver jewelry or white lace look dramatic and give your shop a gothic or elegant noir edge. The best use of dark backgrounds I think is to help black things show their detail- if you’ve ever tried shooting dark or black patterned items, you know how frustrating it can be to capture that detail. Using a dark background might seem like a bad idea- being that they’re both dark they’d fade into each other. But like white-on-white, dark on dark works good too.

The key to a good dark on dark is lighting- you want some reflected light from your item to highlight pattern and form. When shooting dark on dark your best friend is deep and low angles. (As above.) Straight bird’s eye can work on some things, but generally speaking low angles are better. Low angles are also good for small things, it adds an intimacy that people relate to. You don’t want people ordering from you like you’re a medical supplies catalogue, you want them to desire your work! They must have it!

Just as shooting white on white needs a darker background than the object, dark on dark needs the opposite. the background should be lighter than the object, so that your item looks deep and rich.
Of course, you might have a few things that are black and you need to show detail, but you don’t want your shop taken up with darkness. This is where layering comes in- just like adding the dark brown background under the white stack above gave us a mellowness, layering your black under a paler background will lighten the mood.

In the pic above I stacked white pages up and topped them with an antique ring box, which has a nice distressed finish and a brown tin plate to soften the jump between black and white. It doesn’t make the picture too dark but it enables the detail in the buttons to be shown. When you do this make sure you use things that are no brighter than rich cream, and try to have light dark and midtones in there, again to soften the jump.
Here’s an example of dark on dark not working- the lace relies on being transparent to show it’s beauty, and the dark book board underneath isn’t showing us that. Below is the solution- a scrap of light paper has been placed under the lace, allowing the linework to show through. If you want to keep a dramatic look to the image, allow as little of the light page in the frame as you can. Here the layers of darker opulent textures and pattern keep the image feeling rich.

Okay- now I want to move on to patterned backgrounds. Patterned backgrounds can be tricky as they tend to become the overwhelming element in an image, so many people advise against them. Personally though I think they’re fine, providing they’re subdued; ideally the pattern will be sparse and faded, more of a hint of pattern than an actual obvious design. Texture often counts as pattern as well, if it’s rich enough.

Here I’ve got a selection of my patterned backgrounds. (You can see the details of what’s what in my Flickr.) You’ll notice a beautifully patterned end paper there- but wait a second… that’s bold isn’t it? Didn’t I just say no boldness? Yes I did, but of course, like most rules, this one can be bent! Provided your item is bolder than the pattern, you can use it with no trouble.

In the image above, the background used is a photo album cover that’s become shredded with age – it’s intense texture makes a great pattern. But it’s so highly textured that the earrings are lost in the pattern- great for an artist shot, but hardly making them stand out as a product.

Above you can see that the shredded silk has been put to better use with a pale and rather large item instead. The pattern/texture is still a part of the shot, but isn’t overwhelming things. The general rule you is you must be careful that your background isn’t more fabulous than your product (and it’s getting dangerously close above!). Think of it like a wedding- you want everything to be beautiful, but the brightest star is the bride. Your item is the bride.

If you have a pattern that you really want to use but you’re worried it’s overpowering things, you can use it as a layer in a stack like the one below (on the right).

On the left you have a necklace straight onto the pattern- it’s looking a bit cluttered. By adding the blank page underneath and keeping the pattern just as a border, the necklace stands out more. This is a great way of adding that shabby cluttered look to your shop that pattern will give without losing the showcasing properties. below the detail of the earrings is showcased by having a plain background under them, but the image remains opulent due to the pattern and texture around it.

One other thing- small things can get lost on pattern, so it’s a good idea to encase them in something. I often use a tiny dish or tray- it keeps the opulence of a patterned shot but makes a lot of tiny things essentially into one large thing.

So if you have a patterned background you want to use, experiment with it! One of my favourite shops with a patterned background is pinkgrapefruit – she manages to blend bright pattern and vintage objects together that make for delicious photos. BirdSongStudio does a good job too- her background is faded and doesn’t detract from her supplies- in fact it enhances them, which is your background’s main job.

Let’s talk briefly about colour on colour- that is a coloured item on coloured background. You need to pay a bit more attention here, because the colours you use will have an impact on the item.

I’ve only just started investigating colour and already I can see what a huge difference it makes. But I’ve also quickly learned that the right colour is crucial to representing the item in it’s best light.
Here’s there’s a riot of colour! the earrings are coloured, the backgrounds are all kinds of crazy rainbow- it’s too much. For this to be a showcase of the earrings it needs to tone down.

Above you can see the earrings are now showcased well- they’re on a pale (contrasting) background which makes their dark colours stand out, and the yellow and red either side echo the colours in the beads.

Above, the camera is angled so the red board isn’t seen, and the yellow is bringing the gold tones forward.
In the image below, the red board is dominant, and the earrings appear more rich and deep.It might seem pedantic but it’s a nice little tip that will help you ‘see’ what’s the best background for your item.
So you can see from this mammoth post that there are lots of things to think about, and just choosing one background is going to be very tricky. Well good! You should mix around and change things depending on what it is you’re shooting. Not only to best showcase your item, but for interest’s sake. Using 3 -5 different backgrounds will ‘break up’ the monotony of your shop front and keep things interesting. You can see in my shop that I have largely the same backdrop, but I’ve changed around the stack and made some pages more dominant in some shots. This makes things cohesive and interesting at the same time.

So- in the next couple of days I want you to wander around your house/studio and find a bunch of things you might like to use for backgrounds. keep in mind your target market and shop’s brand image; choose light, dark, and patterned things. (And colour too if you’re this way inclined.) Don’t just look at book pages, think about trays, picture frame backs, the tops of old boxes, textile pieces, linoleum offcuts, wallpaper, etc. Spend time arranging them against each other (remember the bridal theory) and take some photos- things look different in camera so don’t trust your observing eye to see all.

When you’ve found the backgrounds you like, take an item of yours and try shooting it against them. If you have a blog it would be really great to blog it- it helps pass the knowledge along, and don’t forget to give me a link so I can come along and give you any extra advice you might need. If you don’t have a blog or you’d prefer a more private approach, feel free to email me from this blog’s address (see my profile) and I’ll help out.

Yes, it’s going to take time to get this right, and time is something precious to many of us. But we all know quality takes time and practice makes perfect. There really is no cheating on this stuff. Well actually learning all this from me is kind of cheating! I’m happy to pass on what I know, and I’ve learned a few things myself just from doing this. It’s taken me over a week to compile all this, but the driving force is to help you become better photographers and online merchants.

And now for the discount!  Sparrow Salvage is offering 20% off her jewelry in her Etsy store until September 21st if you use the code ARTBEADSCENE at checkout.

You can visit Sparrow Salvage at the following links:
Shop:  Click here
Blog:  Click here

Lori Anderson writes the blog Pretty Things and creates jewelry for her web site, Lori Anderson Designs.  She is also the creator of the Bead Soup Blog Party.

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20 Comment

  1. Kristi Bowman
    September 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Lots of great information, thank you!!

  2. Millie @ ammjewelry
    September 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    This is wonderful information, thank you!

  3. Janet Bocciardi
    September 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Awesome post that I sorely needed. I moved to muslin background, because it seemed a light background is what was required, but I missed staging and designing my shop. I'm going to have fun with this and definitely have you take a look. Thank you so much for all the great tips.

  4. Pretty Things
    September 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Sparrow Salvage was so generous in allowing me to share her knowledge!

  5. Jane Perala
    September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Great information – thanks for the fabulous post!

  6. Lori's Glassworks
    September 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks you for sharing this wonderful post. So much good information; backgrounds are a challenge for me! Just this morning I was searching for a background to use for my Blog Soup photo shoot.

  7. SummersStudio
    September 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    This is a great post and so generous to share all of this information. Makes me want to change things around.

  8. Mel's Art Buffet
    September 14, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Bravo!! Thank you soooo much!

  9. Holly
    September 14, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    *Love* Sparrow Salvage! Her blog is awesome, with cool tips 😉

  10. Anonymous
    September 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Incredible how the different backgrounds completely change the look of an item.

    Thanks so much for posting such an interesting and informative article!

  11. kgille
    September 15, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Thank you so much for all the great ideas. I can't wait to wander around the house and find my bunch of things. I'm hoping it will inspire a name and image for my future Etsy shop.

  12. Mandy
    September 15, 2011 at 9:16 am

    This is awesome thank you!

  13. Kathy
    September 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I really needed this thanks! I have a question though. Do you use a screen or reflector of some type to get the lighting right? Thanks again for all you do!

  14. I LOVE color!
    September 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Sparrow, This is a wonderful Post. One I have needed for sometime now. Photography can be so tricky and so daunting for me. Be Blessed to be a blessing

  15. Little Brown Sparrow
    September 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Hi everyone! Thank you so much for your fantastic feedback, it's wonderful to know I can help so many people like this! Makes it all worthwhile.

    Kathy- in answer to your question, the only lighting I use is natural, overcast sunlight from the window I shoot right in front of. I have my work about hip height (on a table) and that's it!

  16. Sandi
    September 16, 2011 at 12:38 am

    This post is full of wonderful information…I love the picture frame idea for jewelry…there is just so much good stuff here…thanks for sharing.

  17. rosebud101
    September 16, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Thanks, Lori! that is so helpful!

  18. Jenny
    September 16, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    This is one of the best tutorials I've ever seen! Now I'm excited about doing the photography to get my shop opened up. . .and I have been dreading it! THANK YOU!

  19. Starseed Jewelry
    September 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Wow! The transformation of those earrings is nothing short of incredible. I needed this push. I am going to try the layering technique. Thanks a bunch for both of you sharing.


  20. Ewenique
    September 18, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Beautifully illustrated! I've recently started changing some of my product photo style from white background only to adding texture and interest by using props. Your post was very helpful!

Comments are closed.