Think you could build a photo studio with $3700 and a week's worth of work? Dave Russell of The Renewal Workshop did, and in this video and interview he tells us how.

Efficiency, research, creativity, and smart shopping are the name of the game. When you’re a startup founded to keep apparel out of landfills, a no-waste mindset carries over into all aspects of your business.

Before we dive in, let’s cover some quick background on how this post came to be, because (a) The Renewal Workshop is extremely cool, and (b) it will help you understand what Dave’s talking about.

When I first heard Nicole Bassett, whom I met during her time as Director of Sustainability at prAna Living, was co-founding a circular economy apparel startup, I was both fascinated and fired-up. I had heard chatter about a “circular economy,” where products stayed in a closed-loop infinite lifecycle courtesy of recycling, but it sounded far-fetched for apparel. Nicole’s involvement told me it was not.

Nicole has spent over a decade building social responsibility programs and investigating supply chains for major outdoor apparel brands, like Patagonia and Prana, and is actively involved with Fair Trade USA. She knows the apparel world inside and out, from farm to factory all the way through purchase, use, and disposal.

She also has the sort of boundless energy that can be exhausting to witness. She does things like relax after a three week tour of factories in Southeast Asia by racing a triathlon, harvesting her garden to host a neighborhood dinner, and blogging about sustainability -- all in one Saturday.

I contacted Nicole to learn more, and to learn how The Renewal Workshop handled product photography. I knew they wouldn’t simply have accepted conventional wisdom: someone would have asked "Why?" and acted purposefully. She connected me with Dave Russell, the Director of Operations and a force of nature in his own rights, who broke it all down for me in this interview.

The Renewal Workshop photo studio, built in a warehouse with lights, mannequin, camera, laptops, umbrellas

The $3700 Renewal Workshop photo studio.

Interview with Dave Russell, Director of Operations

Editor’s note: this interview took place on August 31st. The Indiegogo campaign has since closed, after meeting 105% of its funding goal on September 17th.

What’s The Renewal Workshop?

Basically, it’s a startup that’s attempting to create a solution for the huge apparel industry problem of what to do with returns, overstock, and items that pile up in the warehouse and can’t be resold easily.

Typically, stuff comes back from eCom operations with just a very minor thing wrong with the garment: maybe a button is popped off or a zipper is broken, or it has a stain on it, or the customer just didn’t like it. Brands get it back, but packaging has all been torn off and it’s not in a condition where the warehouse guy can pop it back on the shelf. Typically, it goes into a bin in the corner of the warehouse.

Then after awhile that corner gets overflowing and then pretty soon the CEO is going, “Why is my warehouse full and how come you’re asking for more space?” The warehouse guy is like, “Well, because of all this stuff sitting in the corner.” Then somebody, usually the financial guy, will go, “Okay, just get rid of it, just throw it away.”

Oftentimes, all that stuff ends up in a landfill -- and we’re trying to be a solution for that. We’ve heard mind boggling statistics on how much stuff actually does go to the landfill and we’re trying to be the beginning of a change of mindset on how to prevent that.

Stylist and photographer aim camera mounted on articulating arm

Co-Founder Jeff Denby and stylist Michelle Flores line up a photo

The ethical incentive is obvious: you don’t want to fill up the landfill. What about from a business perspective? Is a brand going to make more money if they’re getting products renewed through you guys?

Let’s touch on the renewable part first. Part of the idea is to embrace what’s called the “closed-loop economy” or “renewal economy.” That’s the idea where you have materials that are recycled and turned back into feedstock to make those materials again. In the case of a garment, it might be start with the cotton and then use it as a piece of clothing and then it gets returned, and then that cotton gets recycled back into new cotton garments. In the case of nylon or polyester garments, you can refine those down and make feedstock for making new polyester fibers and then it can be rewoven and make new fabrics.

The idea is to create this closed-loop economy where you don’t ever have to throw anything away, and you just keep reusing it. Now as far as business incentives, we’re basically setting up to work directly with these large apparel brands as a partner. We’re not just out there rummaging through bins looking for used clothing; we’re actually partnered up with large international brands to be their certified renewal solution. They will ship us the goods that they don’t have any use for and then we’ll renew and then resell them and then they get a cut when they’re sold. There’s financial incentive for them to help us be successful.

We’re not just out there rummaging through bins looking for used clothing; we’re actually partnered up with large international brands to be their certified renewal solution. They will ship us the goods that they don’t have any use for and then we’ll renew and then resell them and then they get a cut when they’re sold.

There’s two ways that can work: one is we might renew the products and sell them back to the brand, or in most cases we renew the products and then we sell them directly on an eCom site.

Renewed apparel hanging on circular rack with sign Photo Shoot Ready!

Renewed items ready to be photographed

Are you selling anything yet?

No, we’re just at the tail-end of our startup phase, so we’ve got the factory pretty much built out. We’re waiting on a little bit more equipment to be installed and then we basically push the button. I’d say we’re about three, four weeks out from being ready to go.

It seems like everyone has a lot of different roles at an indie startup. How did you end up managing photography for The Renewal Workshop?

Well, I got hired as the operations manager, so I don’t think they had any clue that I would be into photography. I never really talked about that, but obviously as an eCom play, photography is important because you’re totally dependent on your photograph.

You’re totally dependent on your photograph.

It just so happened that I’ve been into photography my whole life from the hobby side, a very casual hobby. I’m not that serious about it, but back in the early days I was in the darkroom and processing black and whites and stuff like that. I’ve been taking pictures my whole life, so I’m pretty well versed in how to take a picture. When I came on board here, they go, “Okay, well, buy a camera and then let’s set up the studio.”

I think everybody had in mind that we would just have this little coffee table and stretch the clothes out on the table and take a couple of snaps, but you know it’s obviously a lot more involved than that. I took the angle that we wanted to set up a real dedicated solution that’s always ready to go, it’s efficient, and has a complete workflow to go from starting the process, do the styling and then get it onto the website as quick as possible. We’re 90% of the way there. I’ve got the studio built, you saw the photos. As far as the actual build-out goes, my goal is just to make it efficient and also to make it so it’s an easy space to work in.

We wanted to set up a real dedicated solution that’s always ready to go, it’s efficient, and has a complete workflow to go from starting the process, do the styling and then get it onto the website as quick as possible

I’ve helped out on a lot of photoshoots from other brands and other places that I worked, but you’re always tripping over cords, and there’s light stands everywhere, and things weren’t really set up for efficient flow. Right from the get-go I wanted everything to be off the floor, all the cords up overhead so that you’re not even thinking about it, and make it really easy to set up and just deal with products. You don’t want to be thinking too much about the camera or the location of the lights and everything. Once it’s all set up, it’s pretty much just push-button.

Stylist puts yoga pants on mannequin in warehouse photo studio, co-founder and dog in foreground

Stylist puts pants on mannequin, canine model not impressed

Did you work mostly based off your own past experience or did you use outside resources?

I got some good advice from a local professional photographer named John Laptad, a 30-year veteran apparel/fashion/outdoor photographer. He gave us recommendations on the camera back and lighting setup, and sold us some used Elinchrom strobes.

Then I just basically poked around on the internet a bunch and found some stuff that looked good. I sort of emulated the StyleShoots setup, that big fancy clothing photography machine.

They sell an integrated machine where there’s a light table on one end and then there’s an overhead structure, like a gantry, that contains the camera and the lighting strobes. This all completely set up to be plug and play. Just put the clothing on the mannequin and push the button and it takes care of the rest.

Three Elinchrom 500 lights with umbrellas aimed at mannequin in warehouse studio

Three Elinchrom 500 lights with umbrellas

Is that how you’re shooting mostly? Almost all on mannequin?

Well, that’s our plan to start. We may change that, but I tried to design the thing so it’s flexible. I don’t know what the end result is going to be so I want to be able to do anything. I’m set up to be able to do mannequin. I can do live model. We can also do lay-down on a table, because I can move the camera up high and then shoot down. Then I’ll even do a turntable as well for doing equipment or shoes or gear, because someday we might branch out into renewing hardware and gear.

Overhead view of photographer and stylist at computer, mannequin and lights in distance

Rack mounted camera is fired from computer

I don’t know what the end result is going to be so I want to be able to do anything.

How did you design it to be flexible?

The key thing is the camera mounting position. I basically eliminated the tripod. Instead of a tripod, I’ve got a piece of a scaffolding, like a pallet rack. I’ve got a piece of pallet rack that’s 8 feet long and 42 inches wide and about 12 feet tall. It’s designed for storing inventory in pallets and stuff, but it’s real burly and I can climb around on it. I mounted a couple of … what do they call it? … baby spigot receivers or baby receivers, they have all these funny terms. From Tether Tools, I bought a rock solid mounting arm that allows you to reposition the camera really easily. Basically, I’m suspending the camera from being on this scaffold.

The key thing is the camera mounting position. I basically eliminated the tripod. Instead of a tripod, I’ve got a piece of a scaffolding, like a pallet rack.

I can stand underneath this scaffolding. Then with this adjustable arm, I can basically position the camera pretty much anywhere in front of me. I can put the camera at eye-level and tune it to point it at the right angle and everything.

Adjustable arm mounted on rack fixes camera position for product photography instead of tripod

An adjustable arm mounted on overhead rack replaces traditional tripod.

Are you still going through the optical viewfinder and getting up to it or are you mostly tethering and firing from a laptop?

To get it started I use the optical viewfinder, but then once everything’s set in position I move to the tethering. To expand on why I’m using it like that, I can also move the camera to the top of the scaffolding and have it point down at an angled table. That way I can do lay-downs and other types of products from the top.

I basically have a baby receiver, I can’t remember what it’s called, but the rock solid tether arm has a spigot on each end of it so I can just move that up to different positions on the scaffolding. Just plug that in so basically it’s like a huge tripod that’s really flexible.

Canon camera on Tether Tools articulated arm mounted to scaffolding as tripod alternative

An articulating tether arm can be mounted to different points on the scaffolding for a flexible tripod alternative

Like a big grip head?

Yeah, yeah. I guess it’s a grip head.

Where are you placing the product usually? I saw one photo of an angled lay-down, and it looked like it was on an adjustable pallet bed?

Yeah. I made a table that I could angle to match the camera height. That photo you saw on Instagram was one of the lay-down shots. Basically, I put the camera up high and then shoot down onto that table and I can modify the angle to match so it’s 90 degrees from the lens.

Camera mounted on scaffold turned at angle to match product stylist is laying down on white background ramp

Mounted camera adjusts to match laydown angle for overhead shots

What other equipment do you have? What kind of lighting kits are you using?

We’re set up with 3 Elinchrom strobes, 500 Watt Elinchroms. I just bought those used from a photographer. I have 23-inch reflecting umbrellas. It’s a pretty basic setup. You saw the picture, but I basically just put 2 lights on each side and one on the top coming down, everything at 45 degrees to the product about 8 feet away.

Did it take you a long time to build it?

Not really. I had it pretty much up and going in about a week. I mean we’re just inside a big warehouse so it’s not like I …

You’re in a corner of the warehouse, pretty much?

Yeah. We just kind of took an aisle and set it up. I’d say I’m about 20, 25 feet away from the product. I’m using 85mm, 180mm zoom lens so I don’t know exactly where I end up, but usually around 110mm, 125mm on the zoom.

Closeup of mounted Canon Rebel T6i camera with 55-250mm zoom lens in use for product photography

Canon Rebel T6i with 55-250mm zoom lens

What kind of camera?

It’s a Canon Rebel T6i. It’s not super high end, but it takes a really nice picture.

That’s a $700 camera, something like that?

Yeah. The back is around $800, and by the time we got a couple of lenses we’re about $1600 in on the camera.

What would you say the whole setup cost you to put together?

Well, let’s see, we’ll have to tally it up. $1600 on the camera, about $1000 on lights — but I bought them used, so I got a pretty good deal. I bought some sync cables. I bought a powered tether USB cable from Tether Tools, because I’ve got a pretty long cable. I’ve started a standard non-powered one and it was kind of flaky, so I’ve got the powered one and it solved all that. I’ve got a MacBook Air that we’re running Capture One on.

I had that, but that’s about $1000. Then we have Capture One software, which is basically just $25 a month, it’s on subscription. Let’s see what else I have, I bought a ViewSonic 24-inch monitor, so that we have a nice big juicy image to look at. Then I bought a powered battery pack, so that I don’t have to change batteries, it’s just A/C power for the Canon and that was like $100. I did buy a nice tripod, but it turns out that I’m not really using it because I switched over to the scaffolding idea.

White and black torso mannequins in foreground while stylist prepares product for photoshoot in background of studio

Some mannequins purchased from Sports Authority when they went out of business.

Then the grip stuff, basically, there’s a rock solid arm from Tether Tools and then a couple of receiving plates and then like a little camera mount on the end of that. That was probably another $150. Then there’s the scaffold itself, which we bought used and it was like $150. I think that’s pretty much it. Oh — then I have a light backdrop that I built on just basically a big piece of plywood mounted on a rolling dolly, so I can move it in and out, so maybe $200 on that. Then I’ve got a couple of mannequins, which we picked up when Sports Authority went out of business and those are cheap.

Then we’ve got some apparel racks, rolling racks, so another $100 bucks on those and that’s pretty much it.

(Editor’s note: Dave compiled his build list later. Here it is)

Shopping list with pricing of all materials to build an apparel photo studio

$3620 to build a photo studio? Well spent!

It sounds very reasonable.

I’d say $3,000 or $4,000 all in. It’s not that much really.

A week of work, $3,000-$4,000, and of course you have to have your experience to begin with, but it’s very reasonable.

I’m just a hobby photographer, so I don’t really know anything special. I just poke around on the internet a lot and go, “That looks good.” I was playing around with the idea of having an overhead rack system that moved lights around and everything, but it turns out I just basically tipped the tripods upside down and I suspended them from a piece of angle iron and called it good and it works great.

Straight ahead view of camera with settings, mannequin on table wearing purple shirt, white photo backdrop, strobe lights with umbrellas

Photographer's behind the camera view

As a long time hobby photographer moving into product photography, have there been any big surprises?

Yeah, what’s surprising is how incredibly awesome the photos came out on a nice camera!

What’s surprising is how incredibly awesome the photos came out on a nice camera!

Are you the one actually shooting them right now?

Well, right now I am, but I’m designing a system where I can plug someone into it, because I don’t want to be the guy styling 300 garments a day. That’s actually the hardest part, the styling, but taking the photo is easy and getting a nice looking shot. Once we have it all set up, you don’t have to do anything, just push the button.

Another cool part, and this is kind of a side benefit that I didn’t anticipate, is that Capture One has a little remote app. You can download that to your phone or your iPad, because the camera is 20 feet away from where you’re doing the styling. In the beginning, I was walking back and forth: you get the garment ready and then you walk back over and click the button from the computer or the camera and then you go, “Oh, there’s a wrinkle,” then you had to go re-shoot it, walk back over to the mannequin.

I downloaded the app and then you can just basically stand right off to the side of the mannequin and click the button and fire the shot. You can actually inspect it right there on your iPad standing next to the garment, so just one real simple little thing where you don’t have to walk back and forth is a huge time saver.

You can actually inspect it right there on your iPad standing next to the garment, so just one real simple little thing where you don’t have to walk back and forth is a huge time saver.

Photographer reviews photos on computer monitor with Capture One

Shots are captured via MacBook Air running Capture One and reviewed on 24" monitor

You gotta love technology. Are you sharing with photos with the upstream retailers?

Not yet. We really haven’t had a need for that, but nothing says we couldn’t. Typically, they do all their own photo shoots.

Have you had special instructions from them? Do you have your own style guide, or are you trying to match the style guide of a Prana or an Ibex or whomever?

No. We’ve got our own style guide, we’re putting their product on our website, so they don’t really care. What is important is that those guys set the bar. I have to take a picture of it that’s at least as good as or close to what their product looks like on their websites -- and that’s not a mandate from them that’s simply just competition.

If we want people to buy from us, it has to look good and it has to be at least as good as what they see on the brand sites.

If we want people to buy from us, it has to look good and it has to be at least as good as what they see on the brand sites. I don’t want to pretend that I’m going to be as good as professional photographers, but with the setup that we put together, we can get pretty close. I’ve been impressed with the really early results that I’ve seen. I really haven’t spent any time refining things yet either.

Renewal Workshop product photo of prAna Barclay Sweater from the back

Renewal Workshop product photo of a renewed prAna Barclay Sweater

How much time have you been spending on the photography? How many images are you shooting? How much of your day are you spending on it?

It’s just one small piece, because my role is operations manager here, so I’ve been building up a whole factory. I do everything from assemble racks, to move boxes, to sweep the floor, install washing machines, design a photo studio, and go buy stuff to run the factory. It was kind of focused for about a week and I’ve been playing with it off and on. As the need arises to actually start pushing product through, then I’ll probably do it more, but I’ll be hiring somebody real quick. I’ll get a stylist to come in and that will be their role, to use the system and take the photos.

You’ll have one person who is photographer, stylist, and art director -- a photography manager, would you say?

Yeah, yeah. They don’t have to know anything about photography, really, because it’s all going to be set up and they just have to know how to push the button after the product looks nice. Any stylist has probably been around photography, so it’s not going to be a stretch to find that person, I don’t think.

My goal is to make it so that I can pass this off to somebody that doesn’t necessarily know photography.

I think the important thing is that my goal is to make it so that I can pass this off to somebody that doesn’t necessarily know photography. They have to have the basics, of course, but they don’t have to be worrying about f-stops and lights and how to process the photos.

Stylist reviews captured images with colleague

Stylist Michelle Flores captures most of the photos

Have there been particular pain points where you haven’t been able to automate?

My pain point right now is how to integrate a barcode scanner, because it seems really basic, and I know that Capture One can accommodate it. Basically, a barcode is just like a keyboard input. What I’m trying to do is automate the file naming process and I’ve got the barcode scanner. If I put my cursor into the naming fields as I’m taking the photo, I can easily scan in the number in the garment number. Capture One has this thing called a token that allows you to build an automatic naming convention and it has the ability to pull it from the clipboard of the computer.

I’m just trying to figure out how do I get the barcode scanner to read into the clipboard. Then all I have to do is scan the garment and then the file name can be built off of that ID number using the clipboard. I’ll have it figured out here in another day or so, but it’s just funny that I have gone to Capture One and I said, “Here’s what I want to do,” and they’re stumped. They go, “Well, go talk to the scanner people.” Then I go to the scanner people and they go like, “Well, it’s not us. Go talk to the software people.”

Product photo of renewed plaid shirt

Captured product image of renewed apparel

There’s a funny limbo where nobody knows what to do. I know that it could be done, because it’s just like a no-brainer, but I have to find the right person to tell me the little tricks.

What are you using as your digital asset manager?

Right now, it’s just Capture One. The reason that I got it is just because it seems to be pretty generic and it is also on a subscription basis so it’s easy to try it. As far as managing the photos on the workflow side, yeah, that’s …

Taking the picture is only part of it, because now we have to get it on to the website and there’s a couple of steps there, as you well know. We need to choose the selects that are good and make sure that they’re named properly, so they can be associated with the eCommerce record, and I’m doing that with a barcode.

We’re actually building a whole integrated software solution to run the factory. As a garment comes in the door, we’ll be putting an adhesive barcode onto it, a heat sealed barcode label, kind of similar to what they do in the dry cleaning industry. Then at each station as it moves through the factory, we’ll have barcode scanners that will interact with our software that tracks it through the process and that will happen at the photo station as well.

As I’m taking the photo though, the garment gets scanned and that ID number is used to build the file name and after the photo’s processed and then sent off for any secondary processing like background clipping or color retouching or any adjustments, then it needs to match up with the data record in the ERP system. Then when everything is collected and ready to go, then there’s a trigger that will actually put the product onto the website and then to put the photo together with the data and then goes on to the website.

Have you already integrated with post-production?

We’re right in the middle of that right now so that’s kind of my next push. I noticed you guys have a trial to get free photos.

We do. We also have an API, which might be interesting for you, where do webhook callbacks. It’s a RESTful API. You just post to us and tell us where an image is. We pull it. When we finish, we post back to you to notify you that it’s ready.

Yeah, that will be cool. We’re, like I said, we’re building a whole custom PLM solution based off of this product called Visual 2000 (now called CGS) and it’s fashion/apparel industry ERP and PLM software. It has hooks for the photography piece, so we definitely could be talking to you guys about that with the API. We’re also working with a company that specializes in writing APIs to hook together all these cloud-based services so we can have an end-to-end solution.

Who’s that?

It’s called Retail Vortex. They’re a company based out of New York, a small custom shop that specializes in writing APIs to create full solutions with cloud-based software.

White and black mannequin torsos, with removable pieces for invisible mannequin

Remove mannequin torso pieces to hide for photo

What are you looking for in a post-production partner?

Right now, it’s going to be about clipping the background for inexpensive price.

Actually, I should ask you about that. I noticed on your site, you’re processing an image at $1.45. Does that change according to what you do to it?

It does change depending on what you want done to it. There’s a basic list of features that are included at the $1.45 price and then there are different things you can add on to it, like invisible mannequins, different types of shadow, or a hand drawn clipping path. It depends on your volume, too. The $1.45 is for DIY, at your enterprise level we have custom pricing.

My target is going to be about 700 or 1000 images a week, because I basically have to match the flow of the factory. I could do more I think, but we can’t really repair that many that fast.

Time for some final thoughts. If somebody is following in your footsteps, what is your sage advice for them in building a studio for an apparel startup?

Don’t be intimidated. It’s not that hard and there’s no rules. It’s an exciting time to do stuff like this, because the cameras are so good and they don’t really cost that much. We have amazing software that’s available to pay as you go by the month, and all the tethered equipment is completely dialed and it works. Just go for it and have fun -- I did.

Just go for it and have fun -- I did.

That’s great to hear, because I do think a lot of people are too intimidated. They don’t think they can do it, or they see professional photos and their only experience is using an iPhone for Instagram, so they’re too scared to try.

The crazy part is an iPhone takes an amazing picture for you and for a website. It’s obviously not as good as a professional photo, but sometimes I look at what the iPhone will do and go, “That’s a great shot.”

We have a series of guides that we put out for DIY people on how to do product photography with an iPhone, and some of the photos are impressive. When you think about it, that Canon you have is $700 and so is an iPhone. It’s an expensive, nice device.

For sure. What’s cool about moving up to a nice camera is it really does take the quality up many notches, so like I said that was a nice surprise to me. And this is more from other photographers, pro guys: it’s not about the camera really, it’s about the glass. Just getting a basic back and then spending the money on the lenses is where you’re going to get the quality.

And then lighting, getting the right lighting.

Yeah, the lighting is the key thing, because that’s what kind of makes it pro-level. The other thing is there’s so many tutorials about how to do it on the light. I didn’t even spend that much time looking at all of them yet, because I just kind of wanted to get the thing up and running and then I figured I’d tune everything later, but there’s just hundreds of videos you can watch on YouTube and tell you exactly how to light stuff.

Overhead view of stylists adjusting yoga pant on mannequin for e-commerce photoshoot

Everything is revealed under the photo studio lights

What makes styling so difficult? You said that was one of the hardest parts for you.

The hardest part is knowing when to stop, because you can fiddle with something for way too long and then all of a sudden you’re wasting time. This is about production photography and I figure I want to spend no more than about 7 minutes on a photo and even 7 minutes could be a long time. That’s about how long it takes to dress the mannequin and get it organized and take a test shot or two and make an adjustment if necessary. It’s easy to over-obsess trying to get a wrinkle out or get it so it looks nice.

I want to spend no more than about 7 minutes on a photo and even 7 minutes could be a long time.

What’s cool with the tethered solution is that you get some feedback so you can quickly eyeball your photo and go, “Oh yeah, that looks kind of funny on the elbow and I need to fix that wrinkle over there, because it just doesn’t look right.” It’s pretty quick.

In fact, Capture One has a live view option where you can interactively see what the camera is seeing. Down the road, I might try to hook up a secondary monitor on a TV, like a 42-inch TV or something, so that you could be fiddling with the garment as you’re looking at what the viewfinder is seeing. That would be kind of cool.

I can’t believe you guys are doing everything from scratch. That’s got be pretty exciting.

Yeah, we walked into an empty warehouse, but Nicole had it all planned out. She’s been thinking about it for two years and had a really solid business plan. She found money and basically gave me a budget and said go with it. We’re in startup mentality, so you just put on a bunch of different hats and make it happen.

The store should be going live here in like 3 or 4 weeks, was it?

Well, our operation should be up and running in a couple of weeks for real. Our web store is slated for November 1 and then we want to be ready for holiday season.