Metalsmith & Enamelist. Phoenix, Arizona
Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Michelle Startzman earned her bachelor's degree in photography and art history from the University of Arizona and her Master's in Metals from ASU. A full-time art and jewelry teacher at a Mesa high school, she also teaches classes and workshops at Mesa Arts Center, Milkweed Arts, and KP Studio.
Michelle began her art business while in graduate school and has continued to steadily develop her metalwork business over the years.
Despite the responsibilities of her academic and studio employment, she works as often as she can at her converted home studio, where she seeks to portray the complex nature of relationships through her metal and enamel pieces.
Fascinated by the unique nature of relational interactions, Michelle incorporates a meticulous attention to detail with her love of the materials she works with to create intricate, one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry or sculpture.
Her sketch of an idea for a piece evolves into a work she saws by hand, fabricating it in a detailed craftsmanship that reflects the importance and meaning of family and friendships.
Michelle enthusiastically supports the Grotto Gallery's mission of supporting and developing local artist businesses.
Her work for the Escape the Madness exhibit includes wall pieces with layers and depth that reveal the complexity of relationships. We are so thrilled to have her incredibly intricate artwork in our inaugural show at Grotto Gallery!
Artist Q&A: Art and Product Photography
We wanted to talk to Michelle to learn about her techniques and tricks. She got her undergrad degree in Photography & Art History and has become well known in Arizona for her inspiring artwork.
And, yes, every single piercing in her work is hand-cut by Michelle. Amazing.
Arizona Artisans Collective: What was the inspiration for your product / getting your business?
Michelle: I have always been interested in photography, for as long as I can remember. My Father and my Grandfather were always taking photos and I wanted to be like them. Every time my Dad would get the camera out I would strike a pose, but I also loved to be the one behind the camera to look through the lens.
Working with metal now gives me the chance to work with a combination of a strong, durable, and versatile material, and the softness of incorporating photographs that whisper echoes of the past or something that indicates that there is more than meets the eye. I have focused my business on making one of a kind jewelry and art pieces that tell a story about the nature of relationships and the need to look beyond what lies on the surface.
AAC: 5 words that best describe your brand and company mission?
Michelle: Organic, layered, reflective, intimate, detailed.
AAC: Tell us about your Product Photography process: Did you develop your technique thru formal training/experience? Or did it evolve more organically?
Michelle: I mostly developed my photography technique through formal training in college and graduate school, but it’s not necessary to have formal training to learn. With the right lighting and background setup, anyone can do it.
I learned by using studio lights, and placing the object to be photographed onto frosted glass with dark paper underneath. This is how you can get the very traditional gradient background from light gray to a black.
AAC: Is your product photo style and process well established for you now? Or is it still evolving? How long did it take you to get to develop your current method/process? Do you do it all on your own or hire all/some of it out?
Michelle: I think my style will always evolve a little as my work changes over time. I started out with a very traditional look with the gradient background, and then moved to a more contemporary look with a white background, which I mostly use now. It also depends on what I am taking the photo for. I like to have a really simple background for really professional looking photos, but for social media it’s nice to have a little more fun with backgrounds, to show people what it looks like when you are making something, or someone wearing the jewelry, or to give a little snapshot of who you are and what you are about.
AAC: What basic equipment/setup do you use to capture the image?
Michelle: Since my DSLR camera broke a couple years ago, I have been using my cell phone ever since and it has been working pretty well. Although, I would really like to invest in a nice Cannon DSLR camera soon.
I get really good photos using a white acrylic board as a background, and a diffused lighting source, with the light coming from the top. I use translucent paper to diffuse the light. My cell phone works ok for now, but a DSLR camera will take much better photos.
AAC: What type of post-processing do you typically do?
Michelle: I use Photoshop to clean up or crop the image. When the color is off, I adjust the color or make it a little brighter to make the product look as close to reality as possible. The enamel and glass lenses tend to have a glare, so sometimes I have to use Photoshop to try to minimize the reflection or glare so that it is not distracting from the piece.
AAC: What were some of your biggest hurdles or mistakes? Anything you would have done differently?
Michelle: When I first started taking photos of my jewelry, I used cloth or velvet for the backgrounds, and they picked up so much lint that showed up in the photos, and you could really see what kind of fabric it was and all of the folds in it. It was a lot of work to try to clean it up in Photoshop, so I found that using a paper background worked much better. It was much cleaner and smoother, and looked more professional.
I also experimented with different colors of paper for the background, but mostly liked using just a gray or white because the style of my work. Also, because I use colorful stones and enamel in some of my work, I didn’t want the color in the background to take the focus off of the jewelry piece.
Another mistake that I made was spending way too much money on a small photo tent, when I could have made something similar with a cardboard box and some tissue paper that would have worked just as well. Since I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, I though that I needed to spend a lot of money on this photo tent that I hardly ended up using. I still have it, but I find that using natural morning light with my piece sitting on a sheet of white paper gets better results.
AAC: Any hacks or tricks you learned along the way that were pivotal?
Michelle: One trick I love to use sometimes for rings is to use a little bit of mounting putty to make the ring stand up in the photo. You have to get just the right amount so that it will stay standing long enough to get the photo, but that you can’t see it in the photo.
Also, having diffused lighting, or using early morning soft lighting is absolutely essential. Harsh light will not flatter any product.
AAC: Do have a style guide that you use? Moodboards? Etc?
Michelle: What’s a style guide? Haha!
I use Pinterest to keep track of inspirational images or website links. I also look at books, magazines and websites to get ideas of what other artists are doing in their photos and what the current trends are. The Lark books are really good, or any art books that showcase artwork like a published gallery space. A couple magazines I look at are Art Jewelry Magazine and Metalsmith Magazine, and one of the main websites I look at is snagmetal.org.
I pay attention to what types of photos they are publishing or posting because I know that the quality of the photo is equally important to the quality of the work. Each publisher might have something specific they are looking for, but most of them prefer a clean white background.
AAC: What software/tools/apps are your go-to resources? (for post processing)
Michelle: Photoshop. I realize it is expensive, but it is what I have always used and I love it. Photoshop Elements is a better one for a beginner to start out with because it’s a little less expensive and more user friendly. Instagram has some cool, fun photo filters that I think are great for social media use, but not for websites or print.
AAC: 2 bits of advice to share with your peers who are struggling with their product photography?
Michelle: Just keep practicing, and try different lighting sources (such as natural early morning light or studio lights) and backgrounds (like paper or a white acrylic board) until you find what fits for your style. The main thing is to make the work look good, so use a simple background that compliments the colors and doesn’t distract the viewer from seeing your amazing product!
Thanks for the time, Michelle!