Five Things to Look for When Photographing Product Shots + Behind the scenes at the Cultivate What Matters Summer Shoot

An art director's job at a photo shoot is to anticipate how the photos will interact with artwork and text later in the design process, and to direct the stylists and photographer toward creating a photo that is best suited for the medium and specifications of its final publication.

If stylists are like the movie stars of the product shoot world, I like to think art directors are the...well, directors. Just call me Baz Luhrmann. :)

Cultivate What Matters asked me to join them for their summer product shoot to help style flat lays, but I also came alongside their awesome photographer Gina Zeidler to do exactly what an art director does and make sure they're getting photos that will be useful for catalogs, advertisements, Instagram, shop graphics and more for the next season. Here are the five things I keep an eye on at photo shoots, along with some examples of what we shot that day. 


1. How much negative space is around the image?

One of the most fun things we can do with product images is overlay text and artwork onto it, making the product integrate seamlessly with information or branding. Negative space is imperative to make this happen, not only to leave room for additional artwork you add later, but to allow that artwork to interact with the product and feel like it was a physical component of the shot. It's not always as simple as getting a wide shot of a styled product shot — that solution often leaves the product "floating" on a large canvas, separate of the artwork that goes along with it. Instead, try removing some propping from one side of the product.

Want a great example of what this looks like in its final form? Take a look at the 2018 Product Guide I created for Cultivate last year.

Nicole A Yang Art Direction 2.jpg
Nicole A Yang Art Direction.jpg

Want in on a secret? Cultivate photo shoot schedules are usually packed, so we give ourselves permission to take shortcuts on the day of. Instead of taking the time to remove props on one side of this new Finance Goal Guide, take a photo, reset the props and do the same on the opposite side, we shot the single photo on the left. We leave just enough negative space between the product and its props to edit out items as needed. It's a bit more work on the post-production end, but it ensures we're able to take all the shots we need to be able to play with later.

2. Is anything cropped out?

In general, I like to ask photographers to shoot wider than normal, leaving white space around all props. Even if we end up cropping in later, we have the option to use the original photo for other pieces of artwork, with all objects intact. This gives designers the freedom to use image in a way the best suits the design, rather than being forced to place the image where it makes sense for an object to be cropped out. 

*If you're asking your photographer to shoot wider than normal, make sure the photo quality still enables you to crop in to your ideal specs without loss of pixel information or quality.

Nicole A Yang Art Direction Cultivate What Matters Photo Shoot.jpg

3. Is everything in focus?

You might be surprised to hear that the answer can be "no!" Your photo style might dictate a narrow depth of field that puts your product in focus, but things in front of or behind it slightly blurry and out of focus. On the other hand, you may want a wider depth of field, with everything in focus. In the photo above, we opted for a higher aperture and wider depth of focus so that the flowers would also be in focus.

4. Will the shot be horizontal or vertical? What angle should it be shot?

Ask yourself where you'll be using the final image. Facebook cover images and shop sliders or headers dictate a horizontal shot. Instagram and Pinterest call for vertical shots. Using the images for everything? Shoot and style for both, or make sure you have plenty of white space available to play with later.

You'll also want to ask what angle best displays the product. Flat products like stationery and books work well in top-down flay lays. Other products that are difficult to lay down, like mugs, bottles, and oddly-shaped items might do best positioned standing on a sweep and shot head-on.

5. What is the scale of the propping around the product?

The product is always the focus, right? Your stylist (that might be you!) will position props in a way that should support, but not distract from the product. However, if you're cropping the photo and cutting props out of the frame, the shape and scale of those props change, affecting how your product is displayed. An easy trick? Take a quick photo of the setup on your phone, do a rough crop to the specs you anticipate, and see what props aren't reading well or are taking focus away from the product. 

 A peek at all the test photos we took on my phone as we styled!

A peek at all the test photos we took on my phone as we styled!



Behind the scenes at the Cultivate What Matters Summer Product Shoot!

This team is so creative and fun. Being invited to help at this shoot made my week. I loved working with old friends and learning how to best serve them, elevate what we had done before, and pick up on new tips from Gina Zeidler.

The summer collection that we shot launches TODAY! Go poke around the shop and explore their new goal guides, Write the Word journals, and more :)

Behind the scenes photos by Traci Huffman.

Cultivate What Matters Write the Word.jpg
 Cultivate's designer,  Casey  working her magic with shoot florals.

Cultivate's designer, Casey working her magic with shoot florals.

 Styling the finer details of the Finance Goal Guide flat lay.

Styling the finer details of the Finance Goal Guide flat lay.

Cultivate What Matters Shoot Behind the Scenes 3.JPEG
 Reviewing and clarifying needs from our shot list.

Reviewing and clarifying needs from our shot list.

 Being besties with Casey.

Being besties with Casey.

  Gina Zeidler  working her magic and reviewing each shot for lighting and clarity.

Gina Zeidler working her magic and reviewing each shot for lighting and clarity.

 The mess of props before it all comes together.

The mess of props before it all comes together.

 A dream team!

A dream team!

How to Keep Your Brand Consistent Across Platforms

This is the question I get asked most often. And no wonder! Your brand was probably equipped with a logo, a color palette, and some fonts when you launched, but then that's it. You were left guessing on the parts of your business that you touch the most — your blog, your Pinterest graphics, and your social feeds.

So, how do you keep your brand consistent on a day-to-day basis without overdoing it?


First, let's get something out of the way. I'm going to assume you were give a brand board like the one above and you're consistently using the same fonts and colors across your website, your business stationery, and other graphics you (or a designer) create.

Brand boards don't take you very far, though. For us to discuss brand consistency, we have to expand our idea of what a brand is.

Truth-fact: People don’t follow you because they love your brand.

Another truth-fact: They follow you because you represent they lifestyle want and the person they want to be.

Consistency means showing off that lifestyle, not showing off your brand.



Consistent and fresh branding is a bit of an art, but there are three key things that I think make a world of difference as you're getting started. I shared them (plus my best tips for finding those components in your own brand and executing them on your social platforms)in my last newsletter!

Sign up to get the juicy details about consistency and be the first to get helpful design tips in your inbox every month!

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Designing a Brand: Joslyn Chase
Joslyn Chase.png

Combining two juxtaposing ideas into one cohesive and powerful brand might sound like an impossibility, but it's not! It's often walking that fine line where specificity gets defined and where the magic happens. Joslyn Chase's brand visuals are one of my favorites that I've worked on for this exact reason.

Joslyn is a personal stylist who effortlessly makes her clients feel comfortable with their own tastes and preferences. She's always impeccably dressed, but she wears her clothes in a way that empowers others to use their clothing to reflect their identity and the things that make them unique.

To start, we wanted to define Joslyn's client persona, or the person we believe her clients aspire to be a bit more like. Then, we came up with a goal for reaching them. 


The Joslyn Chase client persona:

She splurges on classic pieces and big adventures. She's lighthearted and spirited, and can socialize with anymore, whether in a group of socialites or with the locals in a faraway place. She chooses simplicity, but in a bold and dramatic way.

The goal

Make fashion accessible. Style should feel fun and personal, not like a constant quest to live up to the expectations set by magazines and runways. Everyone should be able to determine their own style. Just like one should be able to rock sequins or high fashion on a random Tuesday, she should also feel empowered to wear a killer TJ Maxx dress to a formal event. 

Joslyn Chase Logo.png

The logo

Clean and inspired by high fashion, while still being whimsical and with more personality than a typical brand name. It can transition between working with individual clients and working on commercial projects.

Joslyn Chase Colors.png

The colors

A broad selection across the color wheel with the intention of being used minimally and with lots of black to straddle the line between high fashion and everyday fashion. Geared toward more jewel tones to reflect confidence we hope clients feel, and the glamour we hope the personal styling experience brings to their lives.

Joslyn Chase Patterns.png

The patterns

Can be used as big, bold, graphic elements. They are highly structured, but bring a sense of fun, and spontaneity to the brand. 

Joslyn Chase Mockups 1.png

Bringing it all together

In the end, we created an identity that allows Joslyn and her clients to embody multiple facets of their personalities and environments — from home to work to date night to travel — while also instilling a sense of attainable aspiration that inspires clients to reach out for more styling advice. 


Love this and want more? Take a peek into a few pages of her style guide below.

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Five Things to Look for When You're Hiring a Designer

I've heard so many clients tell me their past experiences working with a designer were far from rewarding. Design is supposed to be smart and fun (all the things you look for in a best friend or life partner), so it's no wonder you need to date around a bit to find the designer who's right for you. It's not just a matter of finding a designer who's available, but finding a teammate who will improve your brand culture. Want to skip the awkward dating phase? Here are the top 5 things to look for when you're hiring a designer.



Has she worked with businesses in your industry or serving similar target audiences? Answering no to this question isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it will mean you’ll have to provide more expertise, demographics, and marketing conventions specific to your industry. You may be paying for her to do more research than she would normally.


Do you share similar values when it comes to business and marketing? If you want a business partner who will anticipate your future needs and suggest better ways to market to your target audience, search for a designer who approaches their projects holistically, inquires about your company history and goals, and is genuinely curious about how your run your business. A designer who simply wants to get the job done and spends little time getting to know what makes you different will ultimately leave you unhappy with the finished product.


Are you comfortable voicing your thoughts with her? Does she clearly explain ideas to you? So much of what makes your business unique and what makes a design effective is nuanced. The exploratory process can also be involved. Make sure you’re both able to talk about those nuances and discuss ideas or disagreement in a productive way.


Is her work high quality? Does she express a mastery of colors, spacing, typography, and balance? Does her artwork have a defined style?


Is she able to complete your project in your ideal timeframe? If not, is she able to explain why the process takes longer than anticipated? Is she within your budget? If she isn’t, what value is she providing that justifies her price?


The best way to discover if you're a good fit? Always schedule a quick call to talk out your ideas and get a sense of how you'll interact together. Consultations might get repetitive if you're considering multiple candidates, but when you've found the right partner, the search will have been worth it and you'll click right off the bat!


Not sure if you need help? Download the quiz: "How to Tell if Your Brand Needs a Little Design Help"

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Nicole A. Yang The Design Lab has Launched!
Celebrating the Design Lab launch!

You’re probably tired of searching for the right design solution. Y'all, I was tired FOR YOU.

Maybe you’ve been doing it yourself for a long time and you’re finally ready for someone else to take the reins.

Or maybe you’ve worked with designers in the past, but either walked away with designs that didn’t completely click with your business or that looked inconsistent when you took a bird’s eye view of the situation.

My biggest craving (after Ben & Jerry's Milk and Cookies ice cream) is for businesses to start bridging the gap between their company mission and what their customer perceives.

How often do you feel like what you're saying falls on deaf ears, or that people are glossing over what you show them?

Bridging the gap means appealing to your customer's sensibilities. Most of that happens through design — consistent and smart design. But hear me out! "Consistent and smart" doesn't mean repetitive and boring! There's a better way.

 The inspiration and final design of my own brand!

The inspiration and final design of my own brand!

Nicole A. Yang the Design Lab launches today and I couldn't be more excited. My biggest passion is engaging with you brilliant business owners and talking about how to make our world better through smarter decision-making. The magic starts at design.

I’ve spent most of my career working with small businesses and taking a holistic view of their needs and their customers’ needs. The best part of this experience is that I don’t view projects as one-and-done deals. I don’t believe in short-term band-aids, but rather long-term overall health.

Every project, no matter how big or small, has the potential to convert your audience into a customer, a brand evangelist, or an admirer. Every project is a part of your brand cocktail. Let’s make it something delicious.


Ready to juice up your brand?

Brand Style Guidance

Product Design

A La Carte

Design Retainers


Not sure if you need help? Download the quiz: "How to Tell if Your Brand Needs a Little Design Help"

Nicole YangComment