Business Spotlights

In Conversation with Rhea Bailey of Halona Studio

I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon Rhea Bailey’s Instagram feed (maybe from another ceramist??), but I do remember scrolling through her feed and thinking about how beautiful her ceramic pieces and photography was!

We hopped on a Zoom call a few weeks ago and chatted about her journey into photography, ceramics, and the story of how she began to sell her work online. She’s an amazing woman and I had so much fun chatting with her.

Enjoy the interview!

Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into ceramics and what type of items do you make?

My name is Rhea. My studio is called Halona Studio and I make functional ceramic pieces like plates, bowls, and things like that. The way that I found pottery was really by happenstance. I’m a public health practitioner, and I left a long career in that field in May of 2018. A colleague of mine at the time was an artist and I always admired the fact that she had a creative practice in addition to her work as a social worker.  And so, at my going away party when I left, she gifted me a set of acrylic paints.

So I signed up for an acrylic painting class. On the first day of class, the instructor was a no-show, so I was told that I could either come back next week, or I could sit-in on the ceramics class that was also starting that night. Long story short, I fell in love with ceramics that evening and never left.

What made you decide to sell your pieces online? How did that manifest?

It really came about rather serendipitously. The interest in my work manifested as a result of the recent uprising and quest for the liberation of Black people.  In June, immediately following the murder of George Floyd’s there was a sudden uptick in attention to Black lives, and subsequently a newfound interest in Black-owned businesses.  Somehow my work was found on social media and it began to be shared quite a bit. At that time, I gained a number of new “followers” and inquiries about how to purchase my work.  But there was one problem, I wasn’t selling my work.

To be honest, I had thought about selling my work, but I felt like that was down the line well into the future. I felt like I wasn’t ready yet and that perhaps my work wasn’t good enough. But with so much interest and inquiry, I decided to give it a shot. I guess the attention I was receiving served as a source of validation – a shot of confidence. So I decided to seize the moment and see it as an opportunity to further my dream of becoming an independent artist. I made a website and officially launched my first shop which by my standards was a great success! I’m working towards launching my second shop in the Fall.

That’s really moving to hear that’s how your business came about. It’s very different from the “I had a friend/family member tell me I should sell my art and so I opened up an Etsy shop” story you often hear.

I appreciate that. But it is not lost on me that in order for me to move closer to my dream, a man had to die – actually countless Black people had to die. As I sit here in my home, I am not on the frontlines as many of my brothers and sisters are. But I do feel very connected to our collective quest for liberation. And for me, that means having the space to be fully actualized, and the freedom to be fully self-expressed. I think this moment helped do that in a way I didn’t necessarily think was possible.

How did you learn to take photos of your pieces? I know you do street photography and also photograph families, but how did you translate that to photographing your work?

Again, It’s another one of those “right place, right time, serendipitous” stories. In 2013, I had two small children and I wanted to learn how to photograph them better using a “real” camera as opposed to my phone.  So, I ordered a book on Amazon that would teach me how to take photos in manual mode on my husband’s old DSLR camera. 

I devoured that book and I became obsessed with photography. I love the medium of photography because it freezes time. Photos tell the stories of our lives. Anyway, my entire photography career had been spent taking pictures of people, families, and my community. So when I started doing ceramics and I had to take pictures of my products, I applied what I knew about light and composition and translated it the best I could to product photography. The truth is I learned through practice, experimentation, and making lots of mistakes. And I’m still learning!

What’s your process for photographing your pieces? Do you have a certain spot where you take all your photos?

I particularly love window light, especially when it’s from one direction, so I usually set-up near a window and place two pieces of foam core on a chair in an L shape. I then use another darker piece of foam core to block some of the ambient light so that window light is the strongest. That was the set-up for most of my project photos in the beginning. 

Recently, I’ve been really attracted to a different type of aesthetic, which incorporates more hot light and produces long shadows. Think of sunlight at high noon. I like to photograph outside on my deck around 1 or 2 pm. My set-up is still pretty simple and involves a couple of pieces of foam core (foam core is my best friend). It creates these wonderful shadows and shines a spotlight on the piece. I used that method for my product shots on my website. As I said, I’m constantly learning. It’s really all an experiment and mostly involves what looks and feels good to be at the time.

What’s one thing you wish you had learned in the beginning about photographing your products?

One of the things I wish I had learned, and still want to learn, is artificial light – flash photography and studio lighting. I do have some lights and strobes, but I don’t really use them very much. I use them for self-portraits when I’m inspired, which is not very much these days.

What advice would you share with somebody who’s learning how to photograph their products?

Find a window and turn off all the overhead ambient light. Place your piece on a chair or a table and use a sheet, a piece of foam core, or whatever you have as a neutral background. Shoot your piece from various angles. Play around with it.

In what ways has photography been important for your business and your art?

It’s really everything. I’ve never done craft fairs or in-person sales. The way I get my art out into the world is through social media. People generally find my website through social media and I think the higher the quality and the more attractive my images are, the greater the opportunity I have to sell my work. People are introduced to my work through photos, and my hope is that they are both intriguing and tell a story. 

What’s happened since getting yourself out more in the maker/artist world? Have you dealt with any challenges?

As a maker and a ceramicist, I feel like I’m still playing in the shallow end of the pool. I feel like I’m still quite new to this maker/crafter/artist space in a way. 

I do feel like I’m part of a really loving and supportive community. I’ve found fellow artists and makers to be so helpful and encouraging. One local artist saw on Instagram that I had lost access to a kiln due to the pandemic and connected me with a local maker who was renting space in his kiln. I have to give her a shout out. Her name is Niki Shelley of Manu because she’s just a beautiful person. She’s been an incredible support. 

In terms of challenges, I’m still not super comfortable with putting myself out there in terms of social media marketing, and marketing in general. I’m a bit shy and private so tooting my own horn it’s a strong suit. I’m learning how to show more of myself and not be so self-conscious. But I know it’s something I need to do to be successful. 

What do you love most about what you create?

I love the process. I appreciate the slowness of the practice – the many, many, MANY stages and steps that must occur in order to make one ceramic piece.  This art form is a daily lesson in patience, staying present, and in nonattachment. It has healed my soul in many ways.  The process that it takes for clay to manifest from its raw form to a bowl or mug is pretty extraordinary. 

What’s one thing most people might not know about you?

I think most people that know me as a ceramic artist would not know that I am also a trauma-informed, public health practitioner, and social worker by training. I have a consulting business called Radical Joy Consulting. I’m still very much focused on public health. From the healing of communities and populations to helping shift power from those who historically had it to those who have been shut out of it for generations.

I don’t share much about that side of me on social media so I imagine folks don’t necessarily know that about me. I’m an entrepreneur 3x right now with consulting, ceramics, and photography.

Who or what are your biggest influencers? 

The first person that comes to mind is Justina Blakeney. She is a designer, artist, mother, and woman of color. I really love her work, but I mostly love what she stands for. She is grounded in her identity as an artist and an overall free spirit. I view myself in a similar light, but I don’t always know how to communicate that to the masses in a way that feels authentic. She models that for me.  I admire the way she tells her story, her vulnerability, and how she celebrates herself in a beautiful way. 

There’s also another ceramicist Golden Ratio Clay Works that I love – both her work and her as a person.  She’s someone who (back in the day without knowing me) got on a zoom call so I could pick her brain about how to run a business as a ceramicist. This was a long time ago when I first left my career and well before I had sold a single piece. She didn’t have to do that and I will always be so appreciative of her generosity. I’m enjoying seeing her trajectory and how she’s come into her own as a businesswoman in this field. She’s a huge source of inspiration for me. And fun fact: She’s also a fellow photographer turned ceramicist. 

What’s your favorite thing about having your business?

The first thing that comes to mind is freedom and flexibility. As a mother, that’s very important to me. I feel really lucky that I now have the freedom to set my own schedule and have more control over the pace of my work in a way that I haven’t had to this point. 

I’m also working in a field in which I feel extremely passionate. As the old cliche goes, my work doesn’t feel like work.  I understand what people mean by that now. When you are doing something that lights you up and you get paid for it, there’s nothing better. It’s really a dream come true. And even though my ceramics business is still very new, it’s been amazing to pour myself into something that feels so right. 

You can find Rhea online at her website and on Instagram for her ceramics and her photography.

In Conversation with Marja of MGG Studio

When I became involved with the local SF Etsy community and going to craft shows, I’d often see Marja selling her jewelry. I’d consider one of the OG’s of the local Etsy community! She was always so kind to me anytime I’d swing by to say hi and ask if I could take her photo. 

As her business evolved over the years, so has her product photography. Jewelry isn’t one of the easiest things to photograph (ask any online jewelry seller!), especially when dealing with shiny, reflective metals, but Marja has it down!

Keep reading to learn about how she photographs her work and how it has impacted her business brand.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you make and sell?

I’m Marja (rhymes with aria), the designer and maker behind MGG Studio. Once upon a time I was convinced I was going to become an academic, but after I finished my Ph.D. the siren song of the jewelry studio was just too strong. I create bold, sculptural jewelry that is designed to feel as good as it looks. Because I believe that good design and sustainability go hand in hand, I prioritize recycled metals when crafting my jewelry.

Photo by Nicole Morrison Photography

What made you open up your online business?

I launched MGG Studio in 2014. Before that, I had started another jewelry business, lemonade handmade jewelry, which still exists on Etsy. (although MGG Studio is the focus of my attention).

 Bizarre Bazaar in San Francisco in 2012

I started MGG Studio because I wanted to push myself creatively. I enjoyed making the designs from lemonade handmade jewelry, but I wanted to explore bolder, geometric, and more sculptural shapes. Initially, I tried folding those new designs into the lemonade handmade brand, but it was confusing for my customer; I realized that I was actually looking at a different customer for these new pieces, so I split the line and MGG Studio was born. I kept lemonade handmade jewelry because I still have a great audience for those designs!

How did you learn how to take photos for your business? Do you have any resources you’d like to share?

So, so, so much trial and error. I also asked just about everyone I knew for advice. I quickly learned that photographing jewelry is very challenging. 

What’s 1 thing you wish you had learned in the beginning about photographing your products?

There’s actually two things: 

1) Never underestimate the importance of lighting. Lighting is everything. 

2) Every photo will need some editing, no matter how good it is. I killed myself trying to shoot the perfect photo straight from the camera until I realized that EVERY good photo that I saw had been edited to some degree. Learning just a little bit of Photoshop has made the biggest difference in the quality of my photos.

What’s your process for photographing your products? Do you have a setup or system in place?

For product photos with a white background: 

I use a (relatively) ancient camera (it’s a 11-year-old Canon DSLR).  What makes the biggest difference is I shoot in a photo box with quality lighting and I shoot raw images so that I have the largest file size to work with when I’m editing. I edit all my photos in Photoshop – I know relatively little about the software, but I know enough to crop, clean up the background and alter the white balance and clarity of the photos to my liking.

For lifestyle/ behind the scenes shots:

I’m lucky in that my studio has amazing light, so I’m able to capture behind the scenes/ process photos with just my iPhone. I don’t bother editing these photos in Photoshop, but I have some apps that I like to use to tinker with the white balance and contrast. My favorite is VSCO – it has a free version but it recently started tagging the photos edited in the free version with a VSCO watermark so I sprung for the paid version. I think it was about $20 for the year, and it was totally worth it. VSCO also has lots of filters presets, although I don’t really use those that much.  I also occasionally use the app Snapseed, since it allows you to select and lighten just certain areas of your photos if you just need a little extra brightness in one spot.

For my model shoots: 

I work with other photographers for my model shoots since that is way outside of my comfort zone.

In what ways has photography been important for your business? 

I think having good photos has been a game-changer for my business. In addition to providing my online customers with a better feel for my product and how it looks in real life, strong photos have leveled up my brand. Learning more about how to photograph my pieces has also given me a better ability to style my photos to position my brand and pitch it to the audience that I think it’s best suited to.

What are 2 pieces of advice you’d share with someone who is learning how to photograph their products for their online business?

 

  1. Ask for advice. There are wonderful makers out there who have lots to share about how to get the best images of your specific kind of product. Cultivate a relationship and see if they’d be willing to share any tips!
  2. Keep your eyes open! While it’s always good to have photos of your pieces on a clean white background for website and PR use and applications to shows (some shows require it), they’re not all that interesting. So I’m constantly challenging myself to find other ways to display and photograph my work – whether it’s behind the scenes at the studio or on models.

Do you have any brands, social media accounts, or websites that inspire you in your business?

So many! I really love a clean, clear photo, so brands that embrace that aesthetic are really appealing to me. Yield Design Co is a great example.  

What’s your favorite thing about having your business?

I’m one of those people that always wants to be learning, and having this business pushes me to learn and grow continually. I love that I get to use all parts of my brain from the creative to the strategic to the number-crunching – it’s very satisfying.


You can find Marja’s jewelry at her website, and follow MGG on social media on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

 

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In Conversation with Avery of Beanstalk & Company

Beautiful photos of plants almost always stop me in my tracks. So when I came across Beanstalk & Company on Instagram with its beautiful photos of air plants, I just had to send a DM asking, “Do you take your own photos? They look great!”

I got a message back saying, “I do!”

Once I got that response, I knew I wanted to talk with Avery, the owner, and hear more about her business and learn the secrets to her gorgeous product photos.

Hello!! I’m so excited to talk to you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your business?

Avery here, owner of Beanstalk & Company! While this is my favorite side hustle, I am primarily a Brooklyn-based designer, photographer, occasional comedian, and dog enthusiast.

I’ve been creating handmade air plant vessels since early 2018, and these tiny homes contain greens that have been selected with oh so much love. Each air plant vessel is designed with tubing or wire helixes that come with an air plant inside, all hanging seamlessly with fishing line. Terrariums and hand-potted goods are a fan favorite, too!

You may have seen Beanstalk originals at FAD Market, Artists & Fleas, Hester Street Fair, a friend’s gala, or on a coworker’s desk! 

What inspired you to open up your Etsy business?

I had always wanted to open an Etsy shop! I’ll admit I had several accounts as a kid trying to sell handmade buttons, collages, jewelry, and little things your mom encourages you to craft. 

As a graphic designer, I spend most days looking at a screen. Trying to balance creative energies, I try to physically make or work on something each day. With a love of plants and making things with my hands, I found a way to marry the two. Sharing these little creations with people brings such joy to my life (and apartment) and I’ve kept the business running all this time.

I think opening an Etsy shop or personalized website helps you to solidify your status as a maker while reaching the larger plant-loving market. The question I get asked most at markets is, “Do you have an Etsy or whatever?” Yes, always yes!

How did you learn how to take photos for your business? Do you have any go-to resources when it comes to learning how to take photos?

As a one-woman show, you have to become the whole production team, finance queen, poor intern, and a marketing expert. With a background in theater marketing, photography, and design, what could go wrong? (Lots of things, of course!) Even so, I’ve finally figured out how I want my business to be perceived online and on social media. 

All of this works through photography and how you develop your voice on social media. I have my own camera and set aside time each week to photograph new pieces for review. Through trial and error, I’ve found the right formula for lighting, detail, and presentation. 

My go-to’s: photograph with indirect lighting from a window, take multiple photos to show off the entirety of the product’s scale and features, and always use the same wooden surface as it’s become part of my brand. 

What’s 1 thing you wish you learned in the beginning about photographing your products?

Girl, don’t take ANY photos with your phone!

I know it’s tempting and Apple touts a mean camera but put that away…Invest in something a little nicer that you can manipulate in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom. It makes all the difference to get that depth of field and lighting adjustment control. 

Don’t have a DSLR camera? Find some friends who would be willing to help take pictures of your pieces or teach a mini photograph lesson! 

What’s your process for photographing your products? Do you have a setup or system in place?

You bet! Natural lighting from the window, a wooden IKEA bar cart, off-white wall, and the hexagonal flooring in my kitchen. These two textures work beautifully with plants because they’re opposites. 

When photographing your work, think about what medium you’re showcasing. Metals work well with wood textures, just like greenery goes well with varying colors of wood or deep gray stone. It helps to have the juxtaposition there so your product pops. 

In what ways has photography been important for your business? 

Photography is important for people to understand what your product is. The photos I use on Etsy are also used on social media, and I pride myself in curating a crisp grid on Instagram for audiences. 

What’s 1 piece of advice you’d share with someone who is learning how to photograph their products for their online business?

Play around! Give each product the time and attention you would give to a human subject you’ve scheduled a photoshoot with. Feel free to experiment until you find that sweet setup or boss lighting situation! 

Do you have any brands, social media accounts or websites that inspire you in your business?

I actually pull inspiration from fellow makers and industries outside of the maker’s market. It’s helpful to be informed on what other brands are doing. It just might help you with your page! 

What’s your favorite thing about having your business?

The people! When I go to a market and set up my table, I love meeting new folks and explaining what these weird air plants have to offer. There’s always someone tugging their boyfriend over to the table, a little kid carefully poking a cactus, or a little old lady looking for a gift for her “grandson who just loves plants.” Watching an enthusiastic customer engage with your product and appreciate what you made is priceless. 

You can find Avery and her air plant vessels on Etsy and follow her on social media on Instagram and Facebook.

In Conversation with Heidi Shenk of Row House 14

I’ve known Heidi Shenk for a long time since we were both part of the Etsy Greeting Cards group. I even ordered a custom greeting card for my dad for his birthday back in 2011 from her which he loved! 

I wanted to chat with her to get a little more background in how she started Row House 14 and get insight in how photography has played a vital role for her online business over the years.

Heidi Shenk of Row House 14

Welcome Heidi! I’m super excited to chat with you about your business. Can you give us a background of your business and what you make?

I’m the owner and designer of Row House 14, an independent greeting card and stationery goods brand based in Baltimore, Maryland. While greeting cards make up the bulk of my product line, I also design pencil sets, notepads, vinyl stickers, gift wrap, and other such stationery and gifting products.

Greeting card and other stationery gifts

What inspired you to open up your own online business?

My business originally started as a necessary creative outlet — something I could do that was not related in any way to my teaching job in Baltimore City. After showing a friend some of the cards that I had made, she suggested I open an Etsy shop. Ten years later, my business is now my full-time job and Etsy is no longer my main focus. The bulk of my business is as a wholesale supplier for boutiques and gift shops both larger and small across the country.

How do you take photos for your business? Do you have any go-to resources when it comes to photographing your products?

I have been practicing photography for years as a total amateur, probably since I was in high school. I’d shoot film photos on my parents’ Pentax k1000 and then process them in our high school darkroom, sometimes getting permission to stay after school to do so. I feel as though the bulk of my understanding of the basics started then — aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. 

However, after acquiring my first DSLR camera, about 12 years ago, I felt I had to relearn some of that. The basics are similar, but there are so many more options and capabilities! While I don’t really use any resources now, I did turn to the Digital Photography School website a lot when I first started using my Nikon. And for photo-editing, I used PicMonkey (picmonkey.com) and Pixlr before I was able to get Adobe Photoshop.

What’s 1 thing you wish you had learned in the beginning about photographing your products?

When I first started trying product photography, I just thought I needed light of any kind, so I would use any source of it in my house — overhead lights, lamps, and such. It led to a lot of yellowed, off-color photographs and lots of editing in Photoshop. Since then, I rely completely on natural light with very little editing.

Early product photos

What’s your process for photographing your products? Do you have a set up or system in place?

My set up is super simple. I have massive north facing windows in my studio, which provide nice even lighting. I use white foam board as my background and use sheets of solid colored scrapbook paper as backgrounds sometimes as well if I want a pop of color. I use a silver reflector to even out light and reduce shadows. I have two small, self-standing, adjustable photography lamps with fluorescent bulbs that I use on the rare occasion that I don’t have enough natural light. Sometimes I use a tripod, but most of the time I don’t.

Current set up for product photos

For my Instagram product shots, I usually use my iPhone and don’t even mess with using one of my Nikons. 

In general, my typical setup probably cost me $60, so it’s not cost-prohibitive for anyone who thinks they need something fancy to get great photos. My general attitude is to keep it as simple as possible. And if you don’t have windows with good light, take it outside! I used to sometimes shoot on the deck of my house when I didn’t have adequate natural light. The neighbors may have thought I was crazy, but who cares?

In what ways has photography been important for your business? 

Great photos are super important! When selling online, the only thing people can use to base the quality of your product is through photographs. I definitely noticed over the years that as my product photography got better, my sales increased. If I can’t tell what I’m looking at, I’m not going to buy it online, and I think most people have the same mentality. 

Ride Those Good Vibes Card

 

What advice would give a new online seller who is learning how to photograph their products for their online business?

Have patience and be willing to troubleshoot and try new things. Unless you have a major photography background, it’s not something that will happen overnight. 

My product photography was definitely a process. If I look at product shots from ten years ago, I cringe. But the good news is that I kept at it, and that has changed. If something didn’t get the results that I had hoped for, I learned from the process, made adjustments, and tried again. 

And keep it simple. You don’t need expensive equipment to create great shots. If all you have is your iPhone, then great! Start there! There are so many free editing options out there that you can always brighten up shots or make minor adjustments if necessary.

Do you have any brands, social media accounts or websites that inspire you in your business?

I follow a lot of other accounts that are in the same industry as me. It’s generally inspiring to be able to build a community around that and see others thriving in the same way that you are, but everyone doing their own thing at the same time. 

I also love following people that inspire me in general — favorite athletes, musicians, artists — that sort of thing. 

There’s a paper shop in Paris called Papier Tigre that I stumbled upon during some travels there that I really love (@papiertigram). I love the colors they use in their line and their IG marketing is so good! I’m a huge art fan and find a lot of inspiration in the colors in paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe (@okeeffemuseum) and I always pick one of her wall calendars for my studio every new year. 

What’s your favorite thing about having your business?

I really enjoy autonomy. No one tells me how to run my business or sets the rules. Only I do! My general motto as being my own boss is ‘I do whatever the hell I want.’ Even if it isn’t always popular, I love the freedom to do exactly what I need to do to thrive creatively. If people love it, then that’s just an added bonus. But ultimately, it’s about doing what I love and fulfilling my own happiness.

Stickers

Thanks Heidi for sharing your journey with photography in your online business! You can follow Heidi online at Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and at her website.