Clay Culture: Documentation

By considering the purpose of photographs of ceramic work—from use on social media to web shops to applications—artists can make informed decisions on their approach to documentation.

Holding a ceramic object is a special experience. In person, in your hands, the feel of its surface, heft, and proportions are readily accessible. However, rather than this haptic experience, most viewers will encounter work through an image viewed on a screen. Ubiquitous use of social media and continuing social-distancing measures mean that images of ceramic pots and sculptures are more prevalent and important than ever.

Documenting ceramic work requires that you make decisions on a few factors, like your equipment, lighting, and backdrop. Base the overall style of the finished images on how you plan to use them. For example, images that show an object being used in a kitchen are great for social media and advertising, but don’t necessarily fit the formal requirements of exhibition or academic applications. So, how do you plan to use the images you take? If there’s more than one answer to that question, you may want to take images in a variety of ways. I turned to a handful of artists, business owners, gallerists, educators, and graphic designers to ask their thoughts.

2 Jenna Vanden Brink’s trays. Photo: Cara Rufenacht.

1 Jenna Vanden Brink’s jars, staged in process on the photo area set up in her studio.

From a Small Business Owner

Jenna Vanden Brink, a Pittsburgh-based potter and small-business owner, considers the function of images when taking pictures herself and working with a professional photographer. She uses images of her work on social media, as product photos for her online shop, for a wholesale catalog, and in print for marketing purposes (like banners for booth displays). In her studio, she has a small, simple photo area consisting of a birch plywood tabletop placed against a white painted plywood board that hangs on rails on the wall, with the natural lighting from one window. She uses this setup to take casual finished or process images for Instagram. These images are taken and edited on her phone. Straightforward and authentic, they contribute to the feel of her brand and better engage her audience than formal product images. Images used for sale—both wholesale and in her web shop—and any high-resolution photos that will be printed are taken by photographer Cara Rufenacht. When the two started working together, the process of capturing images that represent the work began with a brand questionnaire from Rufenacht in which Vanden Brink described the tone of her work and business. Vanden Brink takes an active role in photo shoots, which often take place at the studio or in her own home in order to save money and provide the pieces with a setting. During shoots, she’ll watch on the computer that’s hooked up to the camera, bookmarking an image that she likes so Rufenacht knows it’s a keeper. Vanden Brink pays particular attention to representing objects truthfully and in use—their detail, various angles, thinness or heft, color, and scale in the hand or on the counter.

Professional product shots work well when the focus is on customers making a purchase, whereas more spontaneous, behind-the-scenes images resonate on social media. What’s key for Vanden Brink, though, is that she is able to use images she takes and those taken professionally together and harmoniously across platforms. Avoiding obvious shifts in image quality between the two prevents gaps in posting content that would happen if she could only post professional images. A cohesive visual language helps unify the various styles of documentation.

3 Jenna Vanden Brink’s mugs. Photo: Cara Rufenacht.

A Teaching Artist’s Perspective

Chanakarn Semachai is a ceramic artist teaching at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. She takes images of her work to use in her portfolio, for applications, and for her website. Semachai’s work is characterized by vibrant, bold colors and illustrated detail. To capture these elements as true to life as possible, Semachai gravitates toward shooting work in a light box with a sheet of acetate sweeping behind and below the piece to create a subtle reflection in the foreground. She finds this format to be less serious than a traditional gradient background, which matches the feel of her work. She pays careful attention to the exposure and white balance of images when shooting and editing, and takes plenty of images, focusing on areas of a piece that may be important to a customer buying from her website (like the handle or foot) or to have record of in her portfolio.

When asked about documentation of student work, Semachai expressed that she requires students to photograph the work they’ve made at the end of each semester and explains to them that an image will often outlast a piece—you never know when something may sell or break. Students have access to a large light-box setup and take a photography foundations course as part of their art curriculum.

4 The photo setup at Saltstone Ceramics.

5 Documentation light box used by Chanakarn Semachai and students at Chulalongkorn University.

Pieces that Semachai sends to galleries are generally photographed on-site according to the venue’s house style—whether that entails a gradient sweep or white void. Semachai is comfortable with her work being shown in different formats for the sake of consistency on a gallery’s website.

Reflecting on her experience as a juror, both for galleries and within the academic setting, she stresses that high-quality images are fundamental as they demonstrate your care and professionalism, and that good work deserves good photography. The basics like a clean background and proper cropping are the first critical steps. From there, an artist should consider what’s important in a piece and focus on that element in a detail when possible.

A Gallery’s Take

At Saltstone Ceramics in Seattle, Washington, the primary function of images is to sell work. Because of this, Sarah Steininger Leroux and Steve Leroux, co-owners of the gallery, have worked over the years to develop a cohesive look that appeals to customers online, as well as efficient systems for taking photographs. Though the whole staff has been trained to document work, they have found, especially in recent months with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions and some necessary rearranging of space, that it’s easiest if Sarah and Steve shoot all the work. They use a large table, a roll of white paper, and a series of photo bulbs mounted to a wooden structure that is hung from the ceiling to evenly light the space. Documenting light work on a white background like theirs is challenging, but the pair ensures light pieces photograph well by properly illuminating the paper sweep and increasing contrast in post processing. This setup provides an efficient system for quickly shooting dozens of pots and creating consistent images.

6 The naturally lit photo area in Jenna Vanden Brink’s studio. Plywood boards that are painted white and a few other colors hang on rails from the wall so that different backgrounds can be used, or even taken down and used as the ground for images.

The gallery’s “Mug Madness” exhibition is their annual open call for submissions that takes place online and in the gallery every March. Sarah notes that one goal of this juried exhibition is to break down some of the barriers between artist and gallery—artists are encouraged to apply even if they have never entered a show before. Since they reshoot each selected piece, it isn’t critical that images sent in with submissions adhere to any one format. Instead, Sarah and Steve ask that the image is in focus (which can be difficult to confirm on a small camera or phone screen), displays colors accurately, and is on a plain background free of clutter. They recommend using a DSLR camera over a smart phone because the difference in image quality is noticeable. However, if you are shooting with a smartphone, zooming in slightly can mitigate some of the distortion that happens with its camera.

Ultimately, the documentation choices made at Saltstone Ceramics reflect the gallery’s contemporary feel and ceramics-inclined audience. They take crisp product photographs that clearly display a piece for sale, as well as some lifestyle images of pieces in use in order to simultaneously inform and engage customers.

Print and Publication Requirements

To get a unique professional perspective on images of ceramic objects, I spoke with my colleagues, Ceramic Arts Network (CAN) Senior Graphic Designer Melissa Bury and Production Artist Kerry Burgdorfer. They are responsible for the graphic design of Ceramics Monthly, Pottery Making Illustrated, and other CAN publications. While much of what audiences see on a regular basis is in a digital format, it is good practice to have images suitable for print. Magazines, books, advertisements, postcards, business cards, posters, and other forms of printed materials require high-resolution image files for the printing process (typically 300 dpi, whereas web use requires only 72 dpi).

7 Sarah Steininger Leroux’s fermentation crock. Photo: Steve Leroux.

8 Sarah Steininger Leroux’s Shapes mugs. Photo: Steve Leroux.

To use our own in-house production processes as an example, we generally ask authors for high-resolution images that are ideally 8½×11 inches at 300 dpi. Files are converted to a series of settings established by our printer for best results. Part of this conversion changes images from RGB color to CMYK for printing purposes. Burgdorfer explains that this is essentially changing light values to ink, so images will always appear flatter and duller. The next steps include color correcting to counteract some of that decrease in vibrancy, and other editing as dictated by the layout of an article. One key point to consider when submitting images for print, as opposed to those you may use in an application or your own portfolio, is to avoid cropping out excess free space surrounding an object. Designing layouts for articles or covers requires that an image has enough free space surrounding its focus to fit text or to make it more versatile for use as a full-page image. Keeping some free space around a piece within the image frame allows designers to accommodate printer requirements for page margins and extra bleed beyond the page edges.

9 Sarah Steininger Leroux’s bud vases. Photo: Steve Leroux.

10 Chanakarn Semachai’s Star-Crossed Event in Dino District Series (detail), 20 in. (51 cm) in height, stoneware, underglaze, glaze, luster, 2019.

Other key takeaways from the pros regarding image quality include:

  • Use diffuse lighting (to avoid hot spots and glare), have plenty of it (daylight works well), and don’t mix different types of lighting (daylight, fluorescent, incandescent). Dark, atmospheric images don’t usually print well, and if an image is on the extreme end of dark or light, it can’t be edited in Photoshop to heighten contrast or correct flaws because the pixel data simply won’t exist.
  • Use a tripod and check that the image appears crisp in the area intended to be in focus. Images should have a wide depth of field, meaning the entire piece, from the front edge to the back edge, and from top to bottom is in focus. Images with a narrow depth of field cannot be edited to improve the focus.
  • Maintain an organized and systematic photo-editing process. Retain original files and save edited versions as copies. If you are sending images to a graphic designer, they may prefer to work from an original file rather than one that has been edited. If you are inexperienced with photo editing but have something in mind (like outlining an object or adjusting the color), ask! The designer will be able to get better results faster.
  • Ensure your backdrop and piece are free of dirt, dust, and marks.
  • Since designers will likely not have access to the physical object for reference, make sure that the images are generally representative of the color of the piece. If an image is taken on a white or neutral gray background, it’s usually pretty easy to tell if the color needs to be corrected, but staged images are harder for graphic designers to adjust properly. Using more than one type of light source creates inconsistent color in an image, making it difficult to color correct.

11 Chanakarn Semachai’s Finger Gun Dino Cup, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, stoneware, underglaze, glaze, luster, 2019.

12 Chanakarn Semachai’s What’s for Dinner? Vase, 8 1/2 in. (22 cm) in height, stoneware, underglaze, glaze, luster, 2019.

Build on the Basics

While seeing ceramic pieces in person is ideal, images provide a means to share work widely. Like many elements of ceramics, the choices you make in documenting your work are personal and there is no single way to take a high-quality image. However, having good lighting, a sharp focus, and a neutral, distraction-free background are a great start.

Special thanks to Jenna Vanden Brink (jennavandenbrink.com), Chanakarn Semachai (numpucsh.com), and Sarah Steininger Leroux and Steve Leroux of Saltstone Ceramics (saltstoneceramics.com) for sharing about their practices.

the author Katie Sleyman is the acquisitions and content editor for Ceramics Monthly, Pottery Making Illustrated, and CeramicRecipes.org and the books manager for the Ceramic Arts Network.

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