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How Threadless adds a wink and a nod to product photography

threadless headerFor many trained, creative photographers, taking product shots may seem like the equivalent of earning a culinary degree only to flip burgers at a fast-food chain. It’s not exactly the most stimulating environment, nor does it push one’s talents to the limit.

Sean Dorgan, photo manager for the Chicago-based online apparel brand Threadless, said he’s heard it all before.

“I used to tell people that I work at this T-shirt company,” Dorgan said. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, that sucks.’ Because they think it’s boring.”

But as anyone who has ever shopped for one of Threadless’ shirts or stepped into the graffiti-laden warehouse of its mother ship, SkinnyCorp – which sources its designs from, helps expose the work of, and puts the printing choices in the hands of a community of artists – already knows, Threadless is no ordinary company. And its photography department has elevated the generic product shot to an art form in and of itself, and could be credited for much of the company’s appeal.

the boys and girls of the threadless
The boys and girls of Threadless’ photo team (clockwise, from top left): Craig Shimala, Nicole Carlson, Jen Lemasters, and Sean Dorgan. Image used with permission by copyright holder

The fact that there is even a photography department – consisting of Dorgan, photographer/retoucher Nicole Carlson, photography assistant Jen Lemasters, and Bandit, a dog that “doesn’t have much to say, but [is] awesome,” Dorgan said – is a sign of the immense success the company has experienced since being founded in 2000. Six years ago, Dorgan was the sole staff photographer.

“When I started here, when it was just me, there were maybe nine new designs released per week,” Dorgan explained. “And now, it can be hundreds. That’s quite an exponential growth of releases…every week there’s literally 10-20 times the amount of stuff than we used to put out about five or six years ago.”

A story that begins with one man and his point-and-shoot

While the company is now outfitted with a couple of Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a 7D, before Dorgan’s arrival and the creation of the photo department, it all started with a simple point-and-shoot and a man who can now claim to be the longest-tenured employee at Threadless at nine-and-a-half years.

threadless bandit dog
Bandit Image used with permission by copyright holder

Craig Shimala – officially the multimedia specialist, unofficially the “culture ambassador” – spends the majority of his time “capturing all the company culture stuff that’s going on” and sharing stills and videos on social media platforms like Facebook, Flickr, and Vine. Like many others at Threadless, he was brought on for one purpose, grew with the company, found something he loved, and turned it into a job unto itself.

“I’ve known Jake Nickell, the creator, since the fourth grade,” Shimala said. “[At the time] I graduated from Purdue with a degree in multimedia development, [Threadless] was just Jake and his partner, Jacob [DeHart], and they just needed somebody to ship orders. I had nothing going on after school, so I did that. Over the years, Threadless just kept going, and I just kept picking up more jobs along the way. And then I got my hands on a point-and-shoot one year and just started recording videos of random, crazy things we were doing at the office. And that kept growing and growing, and then it turned into a full-time gig to capture anything that’s going on in the office.”

Shimala said his job of chronicling the office shenanigans exists is because of Threadless customers, who were eager to see what goes on behind the scenes. He received feedback and realized that people liked to see not only how Threadless conducts its photo shoots and what the shirts look like up on the printing press, but also the “messing around” – the company culture, which now includes “Thirsty Thursdays,” when employees enjoy pizza and their company’s own brand of beer brewed by Finch’s Beer Company. While similar tales of team bonding can be heard at any Internet-based company, Threadless has been documenting them as a way to successfully build its brand. These behind-the-scenes looks were becoming so successful that Shimala decided to launch an Instagram account for the company, which boasts more than 220,000 followers.

“We’re so set up to have a great Instagram account, too,” Dorgan added. “I think Craig does a great job with it, and there’s just so much zany stuff going on that if any other company tried to do it, it wouldn’t be as easy. It helps create an interest.”

Cameras, models, and fun: recipe for a successful product shot

On the surface, the actual process of shooting product photos is about as mundane as one might expect.

“We basically have this little area over here where people bring us their samples of T-shirts and other things that are going to be coming out in the future,” Dorgan explained, pointing out what looks like a makeshift studio space in the back of the first floor of the warehouse. “And we look at a schedule and basically check it all off as we go along, steam all the shirts, find people to model the shirts, concept whatever the photo shoot is going to be, shoot it, edit it – that’s pretty much the day-to-day.”

For a shirt with a Doctor Who theme, the photo team constructed a TARDIS (a time machine disguised as a London Police box) for the background. Image used with permission by copyright holder

But the photography department’s creativity shines through in the concepting and shooting stages of the process, for which they have done everything from using fog machines and blue lights to recreate a cloudy sky, to constructing a TARDIS for a Doctor Who shoot, all in the name of getting good product shots for T-shirts.

“The whole basis of it was to take an element of design on the T-shirt and try to flesh that out in real life and make it part of the photo shoot,” Dorgan said.

“A lot of the photos reflect the artist and design,” added Carlson, who previously worked with a commercial photographer after studying graphics and becoming a Photoshop wiz. “We’re inspired by it. We try to take it and create something around it.”

Along with the Canon cameras, the Threadless photographers regularly create their scenes using 17-40mm and 24-70mm lenses along with a ton of lights – like Canon 530 and 580EX flashes, AlienBees, and old Calumet Travelites – and light modifiers. They’ve even used a projector as a light source to get more of a hard edge from the light.

“We’re pretty heavy on lighting here, actually, which is my fault, because I was really, really interested in it from early on in my photography beginnings,” Dorgan said. “I thought that was always a good way to help us stand out in terms of creating interesting product photography.”

That said, Dorgan describes the unique Threadless product photo style simply, rather than by any of the technical elements that go into creating the shots.

“I think they’re fun,” he said. “I think that’s a good adjective.”

The photographers also have a particular type of fun in working with their “models” – who are all Threadless employees from other departments – and making them do silly things. Carlson said one of her fondest memories is a Conan O’Brien spoof, for which she got to image the talk show host’s famous red hair onto two of her co-workers. Shimala estimates he has personally posed for nearly 700 photos, and those have required everything from having a bowl of spaghetti placed on his head to standing outside in 20-degree weather in just a T-shirt to wearing copious amounts of makeup.

“It’s funny, too, because people stop me on the street and are like, ‘Are you that Threadless model?’” he said. “Yep, that’s me, but I also do more than just wear T-shirts.

“It’s funny to see where photography is here now compared to when I first started, because we just had a little point-and-shoot, and we were just like, ‘Stand in front of this wall,’ take a really poor photo and post that up as the product shot. Now it’s like we have all different angles — front, back and side – you name it. So it’s definitely come a long way.”

Photography now available from S to XXL

For all of the ongoing photographic efforts within Threadless, it might come as a surprise that, outside of some contests partnered with Shutterstock and Lomography, the company only held its first (as far as Shimala could recall) photo-based competition for its community last year, called “Threadless Loves Photography.” But despite photo Ts taking off at retailers like Urban Outfitters, not many photographs have been able to break the barrier of the Threadless community and find their ways onto apparel.

Besides illustrations, Threadless prints some photo-based tees. “It was tough to print this shirt, from what I recall, to get the different tones of gray,” said Sean Dorgan, Threadless’ photo manager. “It was a black-and-white photo with a lot of shades. They had a hard time and had to make 11 or 12 screens.” Image used with permission by copyright holder

“When people submit designs, normally it’s illustrated or Photoshopped or a design that someone sat down and drew; whereas, if someone just takes a photo and slaps it on a T, it sort of had a knock against it before it even went up,” Shimala explained. “I guess it’s because most of the community is illustrators, graphic designers, and not photographers.” 

And Dorgan added that as much as the few photo designs out there weren’t getting picked, there really weren’t many submitted, either.

“I don’t think people really knew that printing a photo was an option,” Shimala said. “That contest sort of brought that to light that with the latest technology we can print photo-quality stuff on fabric.”

The competition was a hit, garnering nearly 900 entries. That said, finding and printing a photo T-shirt wasn’t exactly easy. To start, it required a high-resolution photo, and some of those submitted “wouldn’t cut it to be printed,” Shimala said. Dorgan actually submitted a black-and-white photo – a street photo from his time in Tokyo – that made the cut. (The competition was opened to everyone, employees included.)

“It was tough to print this shirt, from what I recall, to get the different tones of gray,” he said. “It was a black-and-white photo with a lot of shades. They had a hard time and had to make 11 or 12 screens.”

But Shimala said the effort was worth it to expand the variety of what the company offers, and Dorgan explained that the contest even opened the door for some crossover work in the artistic community.

“To go along with Threadless model, it’s another avenue for an artist to share their ideas that isn’t illustration-based,” Shimala said. “But there was also some people would take a photo and then work with that photo in some way.”

“There’s a lot of overlap between designers and photographers, too,” Dorgan added. “There’s a lot of designers who are getting into photography and offering that as part of their creative palette. That’s cool. People take the photos and add another graphic element to it. It’s interesting.”

Shimala said the contest is something Threadless will likely revisit this year, but in the meantime, the company is working internally on ways to improve upon its photography bread and butter – product shots. On the practical side, Shimala said he hopes to soon add model stats to the website along with the photos to give potential buyers a better idea of how a particular shirt might translate to their body types. And while Dorgan said he enjoys his department’s model for success, he is looking to the company’s Select line – a premium clothing line designed by the community that branches out beyond T-shirts – in particular. 

threadless family
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“I think there’s more to experiment with in that realm,” Dorgan said. “We’re always trying to whip something up.

“We have so much freedom here. It’s really a one-of-a-kind, unique job in terms of photography. You couldn’t get away with it at another company, but it works with our brand. It makes sense.”

(Images via Threadless)

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Bill Jones
Bill is writer from the Chicago area. On weekdays, he serves as managing editor for 22nd Century Media. In his "spare" time…
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