Style Arc Cleo Knit Dress

My apologies for the less than impressive photos. I took these after getting home late from a work event.

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Got a little bunched up back there after I reached for something and forgot to tug it back down again…oops!
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Isn’t this an elegant neckline?

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The Cleo dress from Style Arc is a simple V-neck, below-the-knee jersey dress with optional waist darts. You have the option of making it sleeveless or with long sleeves.

I chose to sew the darts. I think t-shirt style dress can often look rather frumpy, but sewing in those darts made it look sleek and greatly improved the fit. It skims my body without needing to be skintight, there’s definition below the bust without the back tenting out, and there’s minimal pooling at the small of my back.

My wardrobe has been lean ever since I did a big purge a few months ago. On Wednesday night I realized I needed a dress for Friday afternoon/evening. I decided to sew the Cleo because the darts made it a little bit more structured than the average t-shirt dress, and the sleeves were suitable for the cooler weather we’re having right now. I know fitted knit dresses like this are perhaps not the best choice for a pear shaped figure, but they’re more practical than wrap dresses and fuller skirts when the wind blows and both of your hands are occupied carrying equipment…

The fabric I used was a bright royal blue acetate/lycra matellassé knit from Gorgeous Fabrics. The rich texture of this knit definitely brought this dress up a notch. The weave and fiber content made this a very comfortable dress to wear when it was in the low 50s in the morning and mid 70s in the afternoon. The fabric is light as a feather too, and could easily pass for a woven.

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Since I wanted this to pass for a woven as much as possible I hemmed the sleeves and hem on my regular sewing machine with a blind stitch suitable rather than a coverstitch. Look at how invisible it is! The thread just disappears in the texture of the fabric.

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While this knit is incredibly wrinkle-free and would be amazing for traveling, it did not like to be pressed. I needed my wooden clapper when it came time to hem it. The weave of this knit was really odd too. It didn’t grow like some knits without lycra do, but it was difficult to get the darts fitted because stretching it too much would remove a lot of the knit’s depth. It was like sewing a sponge. So if you use this fabric, choose a pattern without a lot of negative ease.

I was pleased to see that the neck binding pattern piece Style Arc included was slightly smallerthan the neckline, which eliminated gaping. (I think it was 95% the length of the neckline opening.) Due to the personality of this knit though, I removed an additional 3/4″ from the length at the ends, and when I stitched the ends together I also stitched inward an additional 3/8″ halfway rather than just straight down the edge. This way the sewn seam  would naturally form a V when stitched to the neckline of the dress.

Alterations:

  • Added 5″ to the hips
  • 1/2″ swayback tuck
  • 1/2″ rounded back alteration
  • 3/8″ forward shoulder alteration
  • Added a 3/4″ dart to the back shoulder for my prominent shoulder blades. Normally with a knit I would just ease in maybe 3/8″ extra fabric or ignore this type of alteration completely in favor of letting the knit stretch, but since this was a more formal dress I went with a dart.
  • Added 3/4″ width to the sleeves, mostly at the elbow
  • The sleeves run long on this. I lengthened them 1″ and ended up needing only 1/2″ extra length.
  • Removed the slight pegging from the skirt, making it a straight skirt. (Pegged skirts, especially pegged jersey skirts, are not kind if you are widest at the lower hip/upper thigh area like I am.)
  • I ended up taking in the side seams 1/2″ each from just below the bust to about mid-thigh level. I think this is mostly due to the fabric.
  • Let out the front darts 1/2″ at the waist. I should have also moved the front darts inward 1/2″. I just forgot in my scramble to get this done.
  • Took in the back darts a LOT. There was a lot of variation as to how much – 1/2″ in some spots and up to 2″ in others.

Despite spending an awful lot of time tweaking those back waist darts to fit my freakishly narrow and hollow mid-to-lower back, I am pretty happy with how this dress came out. As I mentioned before, the darts really help improve the shaping. The neckline is wide and deep without being overly expansive. The skirt length can be tricky to carry off without the help of a nice pair of heels, but it is also very ladylike and helps nicely balance the neckline and slim shape. (Plus skirt length is probably the easiest thing in the world to change.)

Off to bed…more work events on Saturday!

Posing

This is a continuation of my previous post about how I set up my Style Arc Italia photos.

Last fall my office hired a very talented pro photographer. Our photography needs exploded this year, and I’ve been encouraged to learn all I can from him about taking better photos so I can act as a part-time secondary photographer when needed. I mentioned my blog to him, and he took some time one quiet Friday afternoon to show me how to set up lighting and pose for a more fashion-y photo shoot. I’ve been doing my best lately to put what he told me into practice.

I am still pretty new to all of this, and by no means am a model or master at portraits/fashion photography at this point, but since several people wanted to know more about how I went about it in my Italia shoot I decided to write a post. Definitely take a look at the articles I’ve included! The people that wrote them know far more about photography than I do.

Take lots of photos

Unlike many people trying to get photos of their finished garment, models don’t walk onto the set, pose for a shot or two, then leave. They’re usually there for a while, taking perhaps hundreds of shots. The final ad/spread will use just a handful of photos, at best. And that’s in a studio, with a professional model and photographer, and maybe several assistants! The more photos you take, the more you will have to choose from. Digital is cheap – take advantage of that.

Where to look

Photography is a communication tool. When you’re taking a photo you’re trying to tell a story without using words.

When a model looks directly at the camera, they’re saying “I know you’re looking at me.” Models look directly at the camera a lot in glamour shots/men’s magazines because the focus is on her and getting her to connect to her (usually male) viewer. Likewise, you see this a lot in photojournalism because the photographer wants the reader to connect to the subject for optimum emotional impact.

In this shot of my niece Ava looking directly at the camera, you probably feel as if she is about to offer you her lovely dandelion bouquet. You see her dress, you see her face, but focus is really about her connection with the viewer (you).

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One thing you see a lot in fashion photography and photojournalism is the model/subject focusing their gaze anywhere but the camera. By doing this there’s a little bit of intrigue or tension created. The viewer looks at the photo and thinks “I wonder what they’re looking at?” As this article notes, it becomes less about you as the viewer, and more about them. Your eye starts to move around the photo and you start noticing other things. You can either have their gaze focused on something within the frame, or something outside of the frame.

One of my favorite examples of inside-the-frame focus is when I take a photo of a teacher talking to a student, and there’s lots of eye contact between the two people. Your focus isn’t necessarily on either the student or the teacher, but the emotional impact of their connection.

In this shot Ava has her focus to the left, outside of the frame. Now the focus is more on the girl herself rather than her connection with you (the viewer). Her dress stands out a lot more too, and the overall mood is a little more playful. (And no, I did not tell her to pose like this – she did it by herself!)

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Light

One thing I’m realizing more and more: painters paint with pigment/watercolor, and photographers paint with light. This article gives a great overview of the different types of portrait lighting photographers use. I think getting the light right is the hardest because in addition to your setup it depends a lot on where you stand, and when you have to play both photographer and model it is a lot of guesswork. (If you can get someone else to take your photo that can follow your instructions about lighting your face, DO IT.) When you get a professional headshot done the photographer asks you to move your head around at first not just to get a flattering angle, but to make sure the light hits your face the right way.

In the photo below I tried to go for Rembrandt lighting because I wanted a lot of drama to match the bold light and vibrant green grass. If you look closely you can see that triangle of light on my left cheek.

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There’s several different lighting styles (the article I linked to demonstrates six of them) so it is up to you to decide which one to go with. You don’t necessarily need studio lighting either to accomplish a certain look – just use the sun or a window as your light source, with perhaps a reflector. Reflectors are one of the cheapest photography tools available, and the commercial reflectors fold up for easy storage. My 5-in-1 reflector was $50 from Amazon.

Positioning Your Body

  • First of all, remember your posture. Everyone looks better (and more confident) when they stand straight and tall. Watch your shoulders too – make sure they are down and relaxed rather than up by your ears. If you start to tense up roll your shoulders up and back a few times, and shake out your arms.
  • Don’t stand facing the camera straight-on. It is a really hard angle for all but the slimmest to carry off, especially if you have wider hips. Turn to the side a little.
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how to hold your head. Usually portrait photographers tell you to tilt chin down. In my case I don’t tilt my chin down as much as they tell the average person to because I have deep-set eyes, and the more I tilt my chin down the more they get lost in the shadow created by my eye sockets, and I start looking raccooon-eyed and tired at best (and sinister at worst!) unless I can position the light lower or have a strategically placed reflector/fill light. The Portrait Photographer: Corrective Techniques is a good basic starting point if you have something that bugs you specifically that you want to learn how to compensate for.
  • You know how the Egyptian hieroglyphics have the person standing with their lower half and face facing toward the side, but the upper half straight on? This is a good pose if you want to emphasize your upper half. Body builders and swimsuit models use this pose a lot.
  • Try to make a Z shape with your body. Your torso looks slimmer and it makes for a more interesting photo and stronger stance when your arms are away from your body. Bend your arm and hold it away from your body, then do the same with a leg.
  • Balance your weight on one foot. This is why models flex their foot, bend a knee, walk/run/jump, or have one leg up against a wall rather than just standing there with both feet firmly planted on the ground. It looks less clunky and gives the illusion of lightness and movement.
  • Props are really useful. You can use them to give your hands something to do, in addition to helping tell a story. It can be something simple like touching or leaning against a tree, or standing in a doorframe with your hand gently touching it. Staircases are really useful too. I remember one of my cousins chose her venue just because it had an awesome staircase for taking photos.
  • Keep your hands soft and relaxed. Don’t clench them. If you hold something, use a gentle touch where you are just barely holding it rather than firmly grasping it. If you do that pose where you lift up one of your legs and hold your shoe by the heel, don’t grip it, just kind of barely touch it.
  • Don’t hold a pose longer than three seconds, otherwise it starts looking stiff and forced.
  • Practice in front of a mirror. Everyone has their favorite angles and poses. Keep moving until you find an angle you like, then close your eyes and practice moving into it without the aid of the mirror.
  • For more posing ideas I sometimes refer to the iPhone app Posing App.

Italia Photo Shoot Details Overview

Note: If you aren’t interested in photography you’ll probably want to skip this post. 

I got quite a few comments about the lighting in my Style Arc Italia photo shoot, so I thought I would give an overview of what I did. I am still pretty new to photography so I like using my finished sewing project shoots as an opportunity to practice and experiment.

Approach

My blog photos are pretty much the one time I get to experiment with lighting and framing and posing at my own pace, and since I do everything myself I don’t have to worry about time constraints or an impatient/uncooperative subject. For example, Sallie is a gorgeous subject, but she is so wiggly and fast that I spend most of my time just trying to keep her in the frame.

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While the BurdaStyle magazine gets a lot of hate for their poses, I always loved looking at the spreads and seeing what they came up with for art direction. And I admire how they try to do something different rather than the same old stiff, boring studio-set poses that you see all the time on Butterick and Kwik Sew pattern envelopes. So I decided to try for a Burda rather than Butterick style shoot, and if I failed miserably and looked dumb, well, so be it. At least I would try something new and get to enjoy the beautiful weather in the process!

Camera Setup

I took the photos at around 5:30 or 6PM. The sun was very bright, and even though I didn’t plan on it I ended up needing to wear my sunglasses. I could have moved into the shade somewhere, but I liked the background of the spot I chose, plus I wanted to use the fence as a prop. It made for a slightly rustic setting for this denim dress. And the green grass in the field really made the plum-colored fabric pop.

I shot these photos using a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS USM lens. As usual I shot in RAW (Canon’s digital negative format) instead of JPG. I always shoot in RAW now because when you go to “develop” the file in Photoshop you have a lot more flexibility to correct things like underexposure and color temperature.

I also almost always shoot using full manual mode now. When I first started doing this it was really scary; I felt like I was going into it completely blind. And I got it just plain wrong for quite a while and got a bunch of terrible photos. But the advantage is that you have complete control. Letting the camera do the metering and choose an aperture/shutter speed/ISO works really well sometimes, and other times it fails miserably. (I’m sure those of you that are fair skinned like me have had your fair share of photos taken in bright sunlight where you look like a ghost!) Plus if you’re looking for an intentionally overexposed or underexposed image manual mode is probably the only way you’re going to get it. You can definitely shoot in full manual with a consumer-level DLSR, and I think most point-and-shoots will let you as well. Even if you have just an iPhone for taking photos, there’s apps out there that will let you shoot in manual mode.

Since it was extremely bright I set my ISO to just 100. (ISO relates to light sensitivity. Lower ISO (like 200) is great when you have a ton of light, and gives a razor-sharp image. Higher ISO (at least 800) is very useful when you have minimal available light, but you’ll get a grainier photo.)

To have a nice blurred background but keep myself sharp I needed a shallow depth of field, which basically the range/depth of your focus. I set the aperture to f/4 (which is as wide as it will go on this lens).

Then I metered off of green grass; green grass is read by the camera as roughly 18% gray (neutral). This way my highlights wouldn’t get blown out, and my shadows would still have some detail. I upped the shutter speed to 1/1000, which left the image very slightly underexposed. I like to err on the side of underexposure because if you overexpose the details get “blown out” and are just about impossible to recover in post-production. But if your image is a little underexposed you have a very good chance of being able to fix it.

Here’s a few test images, straight out of the camera (I made no changes when converting from RAW):

f/4, ISO 100, 1/400. Not awful, but quite washed out. If I was standing in the frame you would be blinded by my skin ;).

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And here’s the same image again, at f/4, ISO100, 1/1000. See how everything looks so much richer?

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At this point I shot my gray card. If you shoot in RAW it is a good thing to do before beginning so you can more easily color-correct the white balance (light color temperature) if the lighting is too cool (blue) or warm (yellow). If you’re shooting at sunset the light will be warm, and if you’re shooting on a cloudy, snowy winter day the light will be cool. I was happy with how my camera handled the white balance during this shoot, so I ended up not using it.

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Equipment Setup

Now here’s a diagram of how I had things set up. The arrows from the sun show the direction of the light.

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I was taught that when you’re setting up the light for portraits, stand where the subject will be and extend your arms out at about 45º. Set your key (primary) light at that angle, slightly above the subject. Then move your other arm out directly to your side. Set your fill (secondary) light at that angle. Then you position the subject so that they are looking toward the key light.

In this case I used the sun as my key light and a silver reflector as my fill light. If I took the photos without the reflector the strength of the direct sunlight would have been too harsh and half of me would have been completely lost in a shadow.

Reflector

I use this giant collapsible 5-in-1 reflector since one of my primary interests is full-length portrait shots. My first reflector was a smaller white/silver-gold reflector. It isn’t as useful for full-length portraits, but it is much easier to handle when doing head shots or photographing smaller objects. Reflectors come in different colors, but the most popular ones are probably white, silver, and gold.

  • White is matte and gives a very soft, diffused light. You can make a very cheap white reflector out of foam board. The effect is a little weak, so you need to hold it as close as possible to the subject.
  • Silver gives a much more dramatic look than white (which is what I wanted) but due to the very reflective nature of it you may need to place it further away so it isn’t too overpowering.
  • I haven’t used gold too much yet. I heard it is great for darker skin tones, or when you’re doing shoots with a lot of skin (like at the beach) and want to really warm up skin tones.

I’ve been reading about how useful reflectors are for outdoor photos, so as soon as it warmed up enough to be outside for a significant amount of time I decided to try using one. The biggest challenge I faced was getting it positioned correctly. I had to make do with a stand, and whenever the wind below it would start to topple over. (This is why when you look at an overview of an outdoor photo shoot you’ll probably see assistants standing around holding them.) I am starting to prefer them to strobes/external flashes for fill light though because the effect is softer and more natural. There’s a billion articles out there showing how useful they are for brightening up a person’s face and eliminating “raccoon eyes.” (I have deep-set eyes, so I’m up for learning every trick I can to eliminate the raccoon eye effect!) I found this article one of the best for showing the effects of a reflector, and how to position one.

Now for a couple more out-of-the-camera shots.

In this outtake I didn’t have the reflector set up right (it was reflecting too far to my right and not high enough) and you can see how contrasty the image is. A lot of detail is lost in the shadows.

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I moved it for this shot. Now you can actually see the whole dress (and that lovely hem gusset!)

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Post-Production

After I shoot my photos I select the ones I like best, then “develop” them using Photoshop’s Camera Raw:

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As I mentioned earlier, shooting in RAW lets you do a lot of tweaking. Below I’ve played with the fill light. You can see how my left side is a little bit brighter than in the original photo above.

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And in this one I’ve set the white balance to Cloudy, which gives a much warmer light. (It isn’t suitable in this case because it was a very sunny day with minimal clouds.)

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When I’m done playing with Camera Raw I save it as a JPG, then bring it into Photoshop again for further processing.

1. Unsharp Mask

My first adjustment is applying an unsharp mask adjustment of 35%, the amount someone recommended to me for the Canon 5D Mark III:

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Then I immediately fade the unsharp mask Luminosity mode to 100%. This restricts the unsharp mask effect to just light and dark sections, and leaves the color alone.

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The reason for the Unsharp Mask adjustment: many (most?) cameras apply an anti-aliasing filter when taking the photo. This helps prevent moiré patterning (you sometimes see this with photos taken of densely patterned fabric) but also results in a slightly soft image. The Unsharp Mask adjustment helps negate the effects of the anti-aliasing filter.

Before and after. The effect is very subtle, but in the second photo everything is a little bit more defined.

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I keep this Unsharp Mask adjustment saved as an Action so I can just run it on a batch of photos instead of having to do it over and over again.

Selective Color

Next I play around with the Selective Color adjustment. I use this adjustment a lot for increased contrast, and to give more depth to a photo. (As far as I know this is something you can do in Photoshop, but not the consumer-grade Photoshop Elements software.)

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I usually start by adjusting the blacks. This can deepen shadows and other dark areas, giving a more “punchy” and dramatic image. (It is particularly helpful for sports photos when you want to darken the background and help highlight the player. Or if you are shooting something like hockey through plexiglass, which usually results in faded blacks.) It depends on the image (and what effect I am going for), but usually I bump up the Black up to 6%. Sometimes I need to go up to 12 or 15% though.

Here’s the original, then 3% Black, then 6% Black. Notice how when the blacks are increased the trees in the background (particularly on the left) get darker, the grass by my feet gets darker, and the shadows and folds of the dress are enhanced.

Sometimes I play around with the Neutrals too, which can lighten or darken mid-tones. Here I increased the Neutral Black 5%. In the second photo my skin and the plum color of the dress are a little bit more saturated. (I kept the Black Black at 0%.)

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Sometimes I’ll also play with the Levels adjustment, but usually I like to try Selective Color first.

Cropping

After I am done with the Unsharp Mask and Selective Color I crop the image. I used to do very tight crops, but now I prefer more breathing room in my photos and do looser crops. I do try to crop for impact though; the image below was full-length, but since I wanted to use it for making a point about the sleeve I cropped it more closely.

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Conclusion

Here’s before and after. In the After I applied the Unsharp Mask, bumped up the blacks for Neutral 5% and the blacks for Black 2%.

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Aside from erasing things like the occasional zit (which I STILL have at 30 years old) or a nasty bug bite I don’t bother with retouching or body modifications. I just don’t see the point, when everyone that’s seen me in person knows I’m pear shaped and my alterations list things like adding 5″ to the hips. Everyone has their best poses and angles, so I try to work with that instead. I also do as much as possible prior/during to the shoot rather than depending on Photoshop to correct things after the fact. For example, I have deep-set eyes and very fair skin, so I often have dark circles under my eyes no matter how much I rest I’ve had. It is much easier and quicker to touch up my under-eye concealer prior to shooting than it is to fix it in post-production. And my skin-tone is a bit uneven, with redness especially around the corners of my nose, so it is easier to apply/re-apply some foundation than it is to digitally fix it after the fact.