Bill Volckening is a quilt collector living in Portland, Oregon. He has collected since 1989, and has more than 350 quilts made between 1760 and present day. Bill recently published a book, New York Beauty, Quilts from the Volckening Collection (Quiltmania/France).

His next book, Modern Roots – Today’s Quilts from Yesterday’s Inspiration: 12 Projects Inspired by Patchwork from 1840 to 1970 (C&T/Stash) will be released in May 2016.

Bill is an expert quilt photographer and has developed a successful process for capturing intricate quilting, color and other important details in his photographs. We asked Bill to share a little about what works for him, along with tips for how to produce great quilt photography in your own home. Feel free to add what works for you in the comments below, and be sure to stop by The Volckening Collection and his Wonky World blog. If you love the rich tradition of quilting then you will love Bill’s passion for quilts and glimpses of his vast and beautiful collection.

Quilt Photography: How I Do It

By Bill Volckening

Last year, my first book was published. It is called New York Beauty, Quilts from the Volckening Collection and the publisher is Quiltmania. One of the unique things about the book is the photography. When you look at the photos, the full-view images of the quilts clearly show quilting detail, and that’s something you don’t see every day.

Quilt from Bill’s 1970s collection, with prairie points around the edge.

I do all my own quilt photographs, including the whole Quiltmania book, and people often ask how I do the photography. Here is the process that works for me in my space; it may not necessarily work exactly the same for other people in other spaces. Also, my college education is in photography, so there are certain things I am trained to know. The thing is, no matter what space it is and what training you have, getting the best possible photo is the goal. There are a few ways to go about it.

My equipment is fairly straightforward. I use a basic Nikon digital SLR camera. This type of camera is very easy to use, and I often shoot with it set to “auto” and do any corrections in Photoshop. The advantages include being able to look through the lens while shooting, which facilitates framing the image, and easy transfer of digital files from camera to computer. I use a collapsible stand made by Savage (similar), and Husky A-clamps. I also keep a large white bed sheet on hand, as well as large pieces of white poster board or foam core and a long, flat board—long enough to go the width of the quilt when hung lengthwise.

Bill’s Loft Set-Up

Lighting is important, but I like to let nature do as much of the work as possible. The loft area in my home has natural light coming from a couple different directions. There is a skylight above, and a large window on the same wall where the quilts are hung for photos, to the upper right. The window light bounces off an attic wall over the dining room, toward the loft. At certain times of the day and year, strong sunlight comes in through the window, balancing the light from the skylight above. There is also ambient light from other windows around the house.

Since the skylight can make the lighting uneven– too bright on top– I try to bounce the light from above using the white sheet spread out on the floor, facing the skylight. I also use the large pieces of white poster board or foam core to bounce light toward the lower section of the quilt if the lighting seems uneven. It works pretty well most of the time, but sometimes I just hang the quilt and wait for the right light, especially when shooting quilts with light or white backgrounds.

The quilt is hung on the crossbar of the Savage stand using the Husky A-clamps. Take care when hanging up a quilt. The clamps have grooves, which fit on the bar, but they can slip off if not positioned correctly. Best practice is to have an assistant to hold one end of the quilt while you’re clipping it up. You’re looking for a straight, taut line across the top edge. If there is some distortion, I can correct it in Photoshop; but if there is a wavy bottom edge, I clip the long board across the bottom edge to straighten it out.

Usually, I shoot a few frames with and without fill flash, trying my best to make sure I am shooting straight on, without any parallel distortion. The goal is to have the light be as even as possible while still showing the quilting detail, especially if the quilting is an important element. When I think I have something, I go to the computer for a better look. If I’m happy with the images, I’ll open one in Photoshop and blow it up to check the sharpness. If it passes muster I’ll begin editing in Photoshop.

The editing may seem a little technical if you are not familiar with Photoshop, but there are a limited number of tools I use so I’ll try to explain how I edit. The first thing I do is balance the light using “Levels” in the Image menu under Adjustments. I also adjust the color in the same menu, also under Adjustments. My camera often produces an image that is too high in contrast, so if that is the case I’ll reduce the contrast, too (same Image menu under Brightness and Contrast).

Photoshop screen shot, partially edited image.

Color correction is one of those skills that will take time to perfect, but basically you’re always looking for the most neutral color. I avoid using mixed light, such as lamplight and daylight. On film and in digital, lamplight will be yellow and/or orange, and daylight will be blue. If you use a mixture, you’ll end up with color shifts that cannot be corrected easily. With one type of light, in my case daylight, the resulting image is much easier to correct. On-camera flash balances with daylight, by the way, so it is safe to use; however, it tends to flatten out the quilt and reduce the amount of quilting detail in the final image.

Most of the editing involves removing the background and the edges of the clamps holding the quilt. I use a Photoshop tool called “Clone Stamp” which essentially grabs information from one part of the image, allowing you to stamp it in elsewhere. There are other ways to do it, but I recommend against using the Magic Wand tool to select and delete the background because it creates an unsightly, jagged edge.

When the final photo needs to be a quilt on a solid white background, I will add white background to the image by increasing the canvas size by a couple inches on each side. The white information from the background is what I use to clone-stamp out everything around the quilt that I do not want in the picture— the wall, the quilt stand and anything else in the frame. When it comes to the clamps, I grab information from elsewhere in the quilt and carefully stamp it over the clamp. When I’m clamping, I’m always looking to make sure I’ll have usable information in the frame for stamping out the clamps.

If there is distortion of the quilt from hanging, I use a tool called “Liquify” to gently warp stroke, easing the quilt back to its original shape. When using this tool, it’s important to be very careful not to create distortion elsewhere. With this took it is key to use the proper size brush. If there is any parallel distortion, I select the quilt using the Rectangular Marquee Tool and the “Skew” tool in the Edit menu under Transform.

During the whole editing process, I like to save the image often. If anything goes wrong, I can always go backwards in the program using Edit and Undo.

Final Image, Pieced Quilt, c. 1870

In addition to this process, I have a few random but very helpful tips. When shooting whole cloth, whitework or any type of tone on tone– with low contrast but a lot of raised relief– shoot outside, in full sunlight from directly above. The sun creates shadows from the relief, and that makes the quilting design pop. Don’t do it on a breezy or windy day, though, and make sure the quilt is safe when going outside with it. I have also shot whitework lit from behind, showing the stuffing inside the quilt.

One of the quilts from Bill’s New York Beauty book.

If you’re working with an especially fragile quilt, you may want to avoid using the clamps. In those cases, I just set up a slant board using two large, folding tables propped against a wall, pushed together, and covered with batting. The batting helps reduce slipping. Since the quilt is on an angle, I usually stand on a chair, step stool or ladder to shoot straight on.

“Wild Eyed Susans,” a small wool quilt by Bill Volckening.

Like anything else, practice makes perfect. A lot of trial and error went in to my process. Eventually I figured out what worked for me, in my space, and sometimes I had to go back and start from scratch. It was a skill worth learning, though. I have saved more than $100,000 in labor costs over the last five years by doing my own work, and it’s helped me get my work out there.