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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.