How to Photograph Denim Fades the Right Way

Want to Highlight Your Fades Like a Pro? Here’s How

This post was written by Bryan Szabo, the founder of the Indigo Invitational.

At the time of publication, we’ve just crossed the halfway mark in year 1 of the Indigo Invitational Fade Competition.

Though we won’t cross the finish line for another six months, we’re all starting to think about what we can do to get our jeans onto the podium. In the end, it’s going to come down to two things: fades and photography.

On June 1st, everybody in the competition will submit a final gallery of fit pics and close-up shots of their fades.

As a group, we’ll be voting on these galleries, and the top 10 will move on to the final judging round (the good people at Rivet & Hide will be judging our top 10 and picking our winners).

Visit to learn more and stay up to date! If you need a new pair of jeans, check out our buying guides.

Photos will be all our judges have to go on. Since most of us are better faders than we are photographers, we need to up our photography game if we want to grab that brass ring.

With a little bit of learning and a bit of time, we might be able to do just that. Provided we’re willing to experiment a bit, our photography game might start to catch up with our fade game.

Please note that the rules of the Indigo Invitational do not allow editing and/or using filters for the monthly updates nor for final galleries.

First time hearing about the competition? Check out this Q&A with the founder and these East / West profiles of some of the competition’s top faders.

Take FULL Advantage of What Your Phone Can Do

It’s been 20 years since the first phone equipped with a camera hit the market (only in Japan, of course). The feature was a novelty, and it remained so for quite some time—at least until this decade when the selfie became an important mode of self-expression.

Since then, phones have started to nip at the heels of entry-level digital cameras. They might not boast the same number of features, but some of the best denim photographers on Instagram produce incredible photographs using only their smartphones.

@sennah0j with a great close-up smartphone patch shot.

Here are a few tips for smartphone users:

#1: Upgrade Your Phone

If you’re looking for an excuse to upgrade to a newer model, consider yourself excused.

The latest iPhone model boasts a multi-camera array that takes spectacular pictures, and the new Google Pixel (if initial reviews are to believed) has upped their camera game even further than this.

Those who have recently upgraded their smartphones have a leg up in the photography game.

#2: Try a Tripod

If you are as proud of your boots as you are of your denim, a small tripod will help you get those great low-down shots that highlight your cuffs and your footwear.

A taller tripod will allow you to work with your surroundings and experiment with more varied compositions.

Thomas uses and recommends the Huawei af15 selfie stick, which also acts as a remote shutter. Photo from Revick.

Resting your phone on a car window or a park bench works in a pinch, but a tripod gives you far more flexibility.

#3: Experiment with Third-Party Apps

The camera app on your phone will do the trick. But there are third-party camera apps that will help you take fuller advantage of your phone’s built-in camera.

Look for an app with a macro mode that will let you get those extremely detailed texture shots that really jump off the screen.

While you’re at it, download a remote shutter app.

Thomas uses his tripod and its remote shutter to take pictures like this one.

Remote shutter apps allow you to set the camera up (ideally with a tripod), check that the composition is right, and then snap the photo whenever you’re ready (all through a paired device).

Delay the shutter release a few seconds and you’ll have time to slip the paired device into your pocket.

A remote shutter is a must for those who’ve worn their partners’ patience thin with constant photo requests.

#4: Consider a lens system

To really kick your smartphone into high gear, consider an add-on lens system.

When combined with a third-party app that allows you to take macro shots, an added lens will give your photos that rich, professional sheen.

Ditto For Your Camera

I’m going to go out on a limb here: I’m guessing you’ve coughed up the dough at some point to buy a reasonably nice DSLR camera.

Now, I’m going to step out a little further on the same limb. Though you love the pictures your camera takes, you haven’t really explored your camera’s full capabilities.

If this describes you, you’re in good company.

Most people who buy digital cameras use them in very much the same way as they use the cameras on their phones. They put the camera on auto and they point it at their subject.

*CLICK* Job done.

We’re happy with the resulting photographs, even if we know they’re not nearly as good as they could be. We leave the fancy stuff to the pros.

But why not explore your camera’s full potential? Spend an hour or two exploring the menus, read the manual front to back, or try a few online tutorials. Experiment with every feature.

The better you get to know your camera, the more it will be able to give you.

Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your gear:

#1: Remove the Training Wheels — Take Your Camera Out of Auto

This is frightening for amateurs, but you’ll soon get used to the manual settings.

Take the training wheels off and, once you’re coasting along, you’ll never put them back on again.

#2: Learn What Those Letters on Your Camera (P A S M) Mean

I’m not going to dive into too much detail here, but on your camera’s dial there are four main settings, three of which you should start experimenting with immediately:

Time to take off the training wheels and start exploring your camera’s capabilities

P = Program Auto: Like Dad’s hand on your back as you pedal on your own for the first time, program auto helps you gain a little confidence before you are well and truly shooting on your own.

You can adjust the light sensitivity (ISO) and play with the focus, but the camera is still doing most of the work for you.

A = Aperture Priority: The training wheels are fully off now. Adjusting the aperture affects the depth of field (the amount of background blur).

Chances are you’re not shooting denim in landscapes, so the background is far less important than the foreground. Select a low aperture value to blur your background for that beautiful bokeh effect.

Thomas took the picture to the left below with his Sony a6500 with a Sigma 16mm f/1.4 lens, and it has a ton of bokeh. The picture to the right he took with his iPhone 8. The low aperture value is responsible for the difference.

S = Shutter Priority: This setting allows you to manually control the shutter speed and ISO (your camera will automatically select what it thinks is the right aperture for you).

If your subject or background is moving, this can help you either capture a split second in time (low number) or lend a sense of movement to your photograph (high number).

Chances are, neither your denim nor the background is moving when you photograph it, so you can stick to a lower number, which will give your photograph a crisp look.

If you’ve got, say, traffic or running water in the background, try playing around with slower shutter speeds.

M = Manual: This is like going from a kid’s bicycle to a unicycle.

Once you have a relatively complete understanding of how playing with the shutter speed, aperture priority, and ISO affect the result, you can move into manual mode.

Congratulations, you’re now in complete control of your camera (you’re also now a fully qualified wedding photographer).

#3: Avoid the Skids — Experiment in Ideal Light

One last spin with the training wheels metaphor: You’re heading for disaster if you take your training wheels off when the pavement is wet or icy.

We want ideal conditions for our first test ride, so, when you’re experimenting with your camera’s settings, do so with ideal or close-to-ideal lighting conditions (we’ll turn to this next).

Yes, you can have too much light.

If the light isn’t right, you’ll never know whether it’s the light of the camera’s settings that are at the root of the problem.

Want the Best Light? Pay For It or Wait For It

Like real estate, there are three L’s of photography: Lighting, lighting, and lighting.

No matter how much you fiddle with your camera, if you haven’t got the right lighting, your photographs will never turn out as hoped.

If you want complete control of your lighting, you’re going to have to drop a big bundle on professional lighting equipment and a studio setup. Most people (myself included) have neither the funds nor the inclination to take things this far.

Here’s what we do to make the most of free light sources:

#1: Use Natural Light

Most drab denim photographs have one thing in common: indoor lighting.

The light we read by or eat under just isn’t suitable for good photographs. The best lighting source (other than professional studio lighting) is, of course, the sun.

If you must take your photographs indoors, try to find a window that lets in a lot of light. A table placed by right next to a window or underneath a skylight can work very well, provided that the time is right (very early morning and early evening are best).

Natural light: one of the best ways to highlight your fades.
#2: Rise for the Golden Hour or Wait for the Blue Hour

Legendary English playwright and performer Noël Coward said, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

Coward was, of course, referring to the stifling noontime heat in tropical climes, but it’s true of photographers as well. You’ll end up pulling your hair out trying to get a good shot in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky (when reasonable people are eating or napping).

Take your photographs in the few hours before or after lunchtime and the result is inevitably denim that looks flat and washed-out.

Direct light will flatten out the picture. It’s better than indoor light, but indirect light is much better.

The early-morning or twilight hours are vastly superior.

In the hour or so after sunrise and the hour before sunset (the golden hour), the air is suffused with golden reddish light. In the hour before sunset or after (the blue hour), the dim light has a bluish tint that can really work in your favour if you can capture it.

This (not the worms) is what makes so many photographers early birds. They know that the best photographs are often taken while the rest of us are still snug in our beds.

#3: When Laying your Jeans on the Ground, Point them at the Sun

Point your jeans’ waistband towards the sun so the light falls down your jeans—it looks unnatural the other way around.

Blue Blooded, Instagrammer, greenvinedenim, Pure Blue Japan, 17oz-011,
Light should move from the top down.
#4: A Flash of Inspiration — Experiment with Your Camera’s Flash

If you’re taking a photograph in fading twilight or on an overcast day, the result might be a little drab. Try turning on your camera’s or your smartphone’s flash.

In the right outdoor lighting conditions, a flash can make colours more vibrant. It can just as easily give an unnatural look to the photo, so experiment. Let your eye be your guide.

Don’t Just Stand There! Get Your Posing and Composition Right

When it comes to producing excellent photographs, posing and staging are nearly as important as lighting. If we want to take our photography to the next level, we’ve got to move away from hand-held selfies and start thinking about what is going on in our photos.

Step outside of the conventions that dictate what so many denim photographs look like and you might start a trend (just look what @corymahlke has done with his iconic birds-eye seated and reclined shots). Even if you don’t start a new photo fad, at the very least you’ll be bucking the trends, and that gets noticed.

To get your posing and staging just right, try the following:

#1: Consider Your Background

If you want the jeans to be the sole focus of the photograph, go for a simple contrasting colour. White backgrounds work well, but the result is rarely a compelling photograph.

Wood floors or tables provide excellent contrast, and so do light-coloured fabrics (wool blankets or textured rugs are popular for good reason).

Great example of a textured background and the bokeh effect by @fitted.underground.

Whatever you choose, make sure it draws the eye forward towards the denim. If the background is complex, textured, and in focus, you’re pulling the viewer’s attention through the foreground and into the background. Keep the in-focus texture up front.

#2: Make Your Setting Purposeful

Not all locations are equal. Too many denim enthusiasts, keen to share photos of their fades or their latest purchases, snap a photo without considering where they are or what they’re doing. If you want to highlight your denim, find somewhere that will help you do this.

Getting outdoors is a great start. Parks are particularly good places (usually better than fenced backyards), as are forests. The setting doesn’t need to be natural. Alleys, fences, and brick walls all make great backdrops. Colour and contrast should be key considerations.

A colourful setting for a cuff check by @nordicedc.

You might also be tempted to place yourself in front of spectacular vistas (either natural or manmade). Remember, the more eye-catching the backdrop, the less attention the viewer will pay to what you’re wearing.

#3: Lose the Clutter and the Couch

If you insist on taking pictures in your home, keep things as simple as possible—and for god’s sake, stay out of the bathroom. Try to keep big pieces of furniture (beds, wardrobes, couches, etc.) out of the shot.

Covers most of the what-not-to-do bases. Poor lighting, unfocused, and cluttered.

Remember, great denim photographs are uncluttered. A stack of pizza boxes in the corner, a pile of laundry (clean or otherwise), or a flickering television in the background will make any photograph a dud.

#4: Stuff It

If you’re experimenting with flat lays, stuff your denim (thick paper or bubble wrap work well). You’ll need to experiment with the art of stuffing to get it right, but it can breathe life into your deflated flat lays.

The goal of stuffing is to give the illusion that the jeans are being worn. Stuff them as tight as sausages and the effect is ruined. Don’t overdo it.

#5: New Denim? Get Up Close and Personal

Brand new selvedge simply doesn’t photograph well from a distance. We can get an idea of the cut, but, until you get up close, the denim is simply too dark to reveal anything of interest to the viewer.

@mark.kiecker got up close and personal with his new Roy Loomstates.

As a general rule, when you’re photographing your denim, the newer it is, the closer up you should get. Save the full-length shots until some of the contrast begins to develop.

#6: Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Mold

The vast majority of denim photographs fall into three of four categories. Our feeds are crammed with variations on a few themes, so if you want your denim photographs to get noticed, you’ll need to swim against the current.

Step outside of these and showcase your denim in a way that highlights your unique style and lifestyle. Do something other than stand in front of the camera with your hands in your pockets. Breaking the mold gets noticed.

Cory Mahlke has one of the most recognisable photography styles on Instagram!

Using Photography to Tell Our Stories

Denim is a visual storyteller’s medium. When we learn how to use photography to showcase our fades, we are becoming better and more-engaging storytellers.

It might not make us better faders, but it will help us lift our voices above the din of the crowd. In short, it gets us noticed.

Still one of the best mold-breaking photos we’re received in the competition so far.

And, of course, getting noticed is the name of the game in a competition like the Indigo Invitational. Adept visual storytellers (and there’s no small number of them in this competition) will have an undeniable advantage when we cross the finish line.

But we’ve only just crossed the halfway mark. There’s still a lot of track ahead of us. Even if your photographs are, at the moment, dull and uninspiring, you’ve got more than enough time to become a better visual storyteller.

If we all try to improve our photography, we’ll all cross the finish line together.

It’ll be a photo finish.

Love Denim and Fades? Join the Competition!

The Indigo Invitational is a year-long fading competition. It’s free to join, and all brands and weights are welcome. All you need is a brand new pair of raw denim jeans, and the best fades win! Oh, and the prizes are insane!

Visit to learn more and stay up to date! And if you need a new pair of jeans, check out our buying guides.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top