Product Shoot #1 - Yeah Baby, Yeah!

Celebrating wrapping our first product shoot with our friends!

Image: Elation at having completed our first ever product shoot!

Piece by Piece

Looking back on the past few months of our Kaftan Life journey, there are a couple of key milestones that stand out as big wins--the kind where you need to force yourself to stop, take a moment, and breathe a big sigh of relief.

The first was successfully engaging a manufacturer after weeks of peppering the (somewhat small) universe of ethical manufacturers specializing in cotton voiles with our emails.

The second was receiving the first actual prototype for our No Sweat short kaftan. I took it out of its grubby shipping envelope (it had circled half the world, after all) and a few rays of sunlight DEFINITELY peeked through the cloud cover dominating that muggy July day.

The third was the day in October that we received the photo-ready prototypes for all 4 of our launch products. It was both exciting and terrifying. Exciting to see and hold the physical result of 6 months of work. Terrifying because it meant it was time to dive headfirst into photography.

Starting at Zero (maybe zero-point-five)

Neither co-founder at Kaftan Life has prior experience with lifestyle OR product photography. We'd been loosely exposed to it (we both have marketing experience), but only had a rough idea of what went into planning and executing a photoshoot. We had the additional challenge of needing to get this product shoot done on a shoestring budget (#startuplife #funexceptwhenitisnt) and on a short timeline.

Enter Skillshare.com. No, we're not paid to plug them. But we had a trial account and found a few immensely helpful courses on photoshoot planning and management. Our blog post on the Kaftan Life lifestyle shoot goes into more detail about how we applied our learnings the first time around in Charleston.

Here's how we were able to adapt many of our learnings from Charleston to plan a product shoot in NYC in short order--start to shoot in 2 weeks.

Production Team, Assemble!

Our first task was recruiting models. Designer Bonnie Cashin once said, “Never try things on models. They look great in everything.” However, in the 1970s, Cashin modeled her own kaftans to illustrate her belief that kaftans looked great on everyone. 

We agree that everyone looks fabulous in a kaftan, models and pedestrians alike. So for the product shoot, we chose to hire our friends to model as a way of putting our money where our mouths are (granted, we have some great-looking friends, but they aren't professional models). If our friends didn't look great in our product shoot, we’d at least know our original hypothesis didn’t hold water.

Hiring friends to model didn't mean we could skimp completely on costs. To ensure a high quality product, we rented a professional studio space (there are quite a few in Chelsea with reasonable rates, especially on weekends) and hired both a makeup artist ("MUA" in the photography industry) and professional photographer (Karli Williams, the young pro who we had such a great time working with in Charleston).

The Lookbook

Relative to our Charleston lifestyle shoot, which was a tangle of overlapping schedules for seven models, three photographers, and multiple locations, the lookbook and schedule for our NYC product shoot were a breeze! One day, one location, one photographer, one MUA, and four models. The final document ended up at 10 pages, inclusive of all our photo (and video/GIF) editing specs, a good deal shorter than the lookbook we crafted for Charleston.

Excerpt from the Kaftan Life Product Shoot Lookbook

Set Lighting & Broccoli

When we arrived on set, we were greeted by a white paper backdrop--a giant roll of white paper unrolled down and out across the floor to create that smooth, corner-less background you see in most product shots. There were also some professional lights, softboxes (tent-like reflectors that affix to the light mounts to evenly disperse the light) of various sizes, and a power supply.

We did NOT know how to set all this up, and while “fake it till you make it” is often a good ethos, we really couldn’t afford to break this expensive equipment. There was a set aide on hand to help us set up, but we're pretty sure he was nursing a hangover that Saturday morning, because we fiddled around with the equipment for almost an hour before one of us found him in a back room napping. (It was Halloween weekend, so we can hardly blame him.)

We troubleshot just about every piece of equipment, including several studio flash triggers (the transmitter and receivers that wirelessly sync the studio strobe lights with your camera shutter) that seemed to connect, disconnect and fire at random—scaring the living daylight out of the team at least once. Finally, after an hour or so, we were up and running. And a little hungry. Good thing we brought one of those 2-foot-wide veggie trays from the grocery store to munch on.

The first crew member to sample the veggie tray was our photographer. She bit into one of the grape tomatoes when a look of disgust came across her face. "This tastes really funny," she observed.

Large Veggie Tray

Image: The scourge of the Kaftan Life product shoot.

As the others gathered to sample the various vegetables for themselves, we were overwhelmed by an odor of the foulest sort. The kind that for a split second, makes you forget what you're doing and revert to the most basic fight-or-flight instinct.

"The broccoli!" one of us yelled. I don't know who. Someone lunged for the cover of the vegetable tray. I don't know who did that either--it might have been me. Sure enough, under the torrent of nauseating odor emanating from that "Woohoo!"-priced disc of death, the faintest hint of broccoli became detectable.

In a hurry, the broccoli and its fouled companions--the carrots, celery and tomatoes whose own flavors were all but drowned by that deathly stink of rotting brocc--were in the trash can. The furthest trash can we could find, on the other side of the floor from our Chelsea studio rental. Who said healthy food on set was a good idea? Next time, we're going with donuts.

Who's Directing?

After what felt like eons, the air cleared and we started to shoot in earnest. The first few minutes were a lot of trial and error--ensuring that the photographer was happy with her position, that each of our amateur models knew how deep in the set to stand or walk, and getting the right mix of positions. We quickly realized that we needed someone focused full-time on directing the models through the shoot. We needed Austin Powers going, "yeah baby, yeah!" (though with more direction, fewer animal references, and the same enthusiasm).

Austin Powers (credit: New Line Cinema)

Image Credit: New Line Cinema

I did my best, and I think everyone enjoyed it. There was a lot of follow-the-leader: I pose, you pose, I pose harder, you pose harder, and boom! That last shot was usually a winner. Seeing me act the fool really helped our friends let go of any camera-shyness and get into the poses!

That's a Wrap!

We wrapped almost an hour ahead of schedule, packed up, and with the weight of our first product shoot newly lifted from our shoulders, took our model-friends out for post-shoot brunch to thank them and unwind. The shoot had been a success! We figured that the next part--working with our photographer to curate edited photo albums for each product--would be relatively easy...

The Home Stretch

...It was! In the product shoot lookbook, we had specified 7 poses for each product. We diligently stuck to those shots, and so when our photographer submitted roughs for us to peruse, we had an easy time selecting our favorites for each pose and each model.

We also knew that we wanted 2 models for each kaftan. As mentioned before, we wanted to showcase that everyone looks great in a kaftan. We also wanted to consider that our friends did this for free. The last thing we'd want to do is betray them by NOT including their shots, or worse--MAKING THEM LOOK BAD ON THE INTERNET!

Thankfully, our friends look AMAZING in just about every shot. We're having no problem ensuring that each model appears in final product shots for at least two kaftans.

We're still not sure how the GIFs we specced out for this product shoot will turn out. We thought it'd be helpful to customer to see the kaftans in motion, so we took some video of the models switching poses with plans to upload them at the end of the photo albums on each product page... a little like what Zappos does, but without narration. It's tough to get lighting to look consistent across photos and videos though, so only time will tell if we can get there or if we should repurpose our video footage for other media! If there’s one lesson we’re constantly re-learning in the world of fashion startups, it’s that we need to be comfortable with pivoting.

Product Photos Make It Feel Real.

We had a wonderful shoot, and seeing the finished product shots start to roll in is incredibly gratifying. Even more than holding the prototypes in person, the product shots make it feel real. Product shots are so important in fashion because they can make--or break--the deal for any shopper. They're often the last thing someone sees or considers before clicking "Buy".

Now that our product shoot is over, we're focused full-time on production and wrapping up web development. We're incredibly thankful for the talented product shoot team and the time and effort they contributed to make it happen. Thank you, ladies! And as I'm sure someone said, somewhere, "Got the shot!"

Kaftan Life Launch Product Shoot Collage

Image (left to right):

The Team

Photo & Makeup:

Models (above from left to right):

  • Grace - All-around baller who left her former career in fashion to pursue medical school
  • Rachel - Lifetime NYC resident, professional organizer and our new friend!
  • Supriya - Former roommate, mega-boss lady, and our hostess for the weekend (thanks for letting us sleep on your floor and showing us where to get the best bagels in your neighborhood!)
  • Katie - Psychotherapist, former Brooklyn neighbor, and Virginia’s constant source of hair envy 

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Startup Stories: Photographing Our Friends


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