Choosing a Phone Case

I sell many types and styles of cell phone cases in my Etsy shop, and I print and sublimate the majority of them right here in my Pennsylvania studio. Since I often get questions regarding the differences between the various types of cases, or why the prices vary so much, I thought it would be a good idea to offer a thorough explanation of the various cases that I offer, why they are priced as they are, and how they can be expected to perform in real life situations. I also thought this would be a good opportunity to compare my cases to those of the competition, so that as a consumer, you can shop wisely and know that you are getting a good value. So, without further preamble, …


This is the most basic type of case you will find. Supplies are inexpensive and readily available, the cases are easy to make, and the sublimation process used to transfer the image to the aluminum can produce a stunning image. I can’t find anyone who can tell me exactly what type of plastic is used to make these, but I suspect it’s a low density polyethylene (like a soda bottle). Most phone case sellers on Etsy and similar sites offer this type of case, and so do many of the shopping mall kiosks and overseas commercial (re)sellers. I offer a few of these, mainly as special requests, to folks who like the look and feel of the glossy plastic. I also have a few stock designs that I offer at discounted prices. But beware – these cases look and feel a bit cheap, they break somewhat easily, and they don’t offer much in the way of protection for your phone. Here’s an example:

Sunset Sunset2 Regarding pricing, I’ve seen the exact same cases selling anywhere between $7.00 and $40.00. Without getting too specific, my personal opinion is that their value is closer to the lower end of that range. Considering that the cases are more decorative than functional, and won’t hold up too well if used regularly, paying any more than about $12.00 or $15.00 for one of these is just silly, and paying $30.00 or $40.00 is an outright waste of your hard-earned money.


This type of case is very similar to the plastic case described above, with the main difference being the material used for the case itself. TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) is a durable, flexible, rubber-like material. TPU does a better job protecting your phone, offers a nice hand grip, and won’t break like the plastic. The aluminum inserts are the same, so they can look very impressive. Here’s an example:

Outer space phone case Orion nebula iphone case I sell a lot of these in my shop, and think I have them priced pretty fairly (around $15.00), considering the quality of the materials and the anticipated life of the case. Nothing is likely to happen to the rubber case itself, but the inserts are not scratch-proof, and although they can flex a little, they can also acquire a permanent bend if you’re not very careful when removing the case from your phone or if you’re in the habit of sitting down with your phone in the back pocket of your jeans. This is a great option if you’re looking for an attractive, moderately priced case that won’t see a lot of abuse. Is it worth more than $20.00? No way! 


This clever concept, which doesn’t require the use of any adhesive, offers two money-saving advantages: 1. You can change the look of your phone by simply swapping out the insert, not the entire case. If you want a snowy scene for winter and tulips for spring, no problem – just replace your insert. 2. If you do scratch or otherwise damage your insert, still no problem – keep the case and buy just a new insert at a reduced price. Another advantage of these cases is that the inserts are different (better, I’ve found) than those used in the adhesive versions. The sublimated image quality is superior, as is the scratch and abrasion resistance. Also, according to the manufacturer, both the cases and the inserts contain an antimicrobial additive to reduce harmful bacteria. For a case with a single insert, they’re a bit more expensive than the basic cases (I charge around $20.00). But you can save a lot of money by purchasing multiple inserts (rather than multiple cases). I offer these cases in two basic designs:

Two-piece plastic with interchangeable insert (Greenpix Code: PLA-X)

These cases feature a slim and durable hard shell, raised beveled edges and a matte finish for a classy look and a soft feel. Here’s an example of what this case looks like (note the difference between the cases for iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5/5S):

Disney monorail photo Monorail phone case Disney phone case Interchangeable iphone case One note of caution … these two-piece cases are held together by locking tabs. To assemble, you install the insert in one part of the case, place your phone on top of the insert, and then connect the other part of the case. They two halves connect easily and securely, but it takes a little patience and care to separate the two pieces to remove your phone or change your insert.

One-piece TPU with interchangeable insert (Greenpix Code: TPU-X)

This style features a slim, one-piece design made from durable TPU. These cases offer a little more shock protection than the plastic, have raised beveled edges to protect your screen and textured sides for a secure grip. Here’s what they look like:


All the types of cases that I’ve discussed so far have one thing in common – the image is sublimated onto a flat piece of aluminum, which is then either glued onto or inserted into the case itself. As I’ve indicated, these look great, but I consider them to be more decorative than protective. That leads us to a whole different design concept, one where the image is sublimated directly onto a polycarbonate shell. This “3D” sublimation technique allows a continuous image to cover the back, sides and front lip of the case, resulting in a stunning look. The polycarbonate shell is tough, shatter-resistant and feels great in your hand. And it’s made to last. I generally sell these for $35.00 or $40.00 (twice the price of some of my less expensive options described above). Are they worth it? I personally think so (I use one myself). If you like buying quality products made to last, then this is the right type of case for you. I carry two different versions of these “3D” cases. They share a lot of features, but a few subtle design differences change both their look and their performance characteristics. Here’s what the two styles have in common:

  • Image wraps fully around the back, sides and front edges of case
  • Image is embedded into the case (not just printed on the surface)
  • Impact resistant polycarbonate hard shell
  • Shock-absorbing silicone interior liner for enhanced protection
  • Lay-flat bezel to protect your screen from direct surface contact
  • Full access to all buttons, camera/flash and charging/USB ports
  • Fully customizable with your own photo or artwork

And here’s where they differ:

“Barely There” cases (Greenpix Code: 3D-B) … feature a sleek, ultra-thin profile that showcase more of your phone. The design is simple and classic. But keep in mind that although they are very durable and can withstand a fair amount of abuse, they don’t cradle your phone with a lot of padding or offer protection against excessive shock.

Yellow green phone case Pretty floral phone case “Tough” cases (Greenpix Code: 3D-T) … offer more protection for your phone, and feature an enhanced two-piece design and a shock-absorbing flexible bumper for a secure fit and sleek color contrast. These cases both look great and do a fine job protecting your phone against the daily bumps and bruises of an active life.

Grasshopper photo Grasshopper iphone case


There you have it … everything you need to know to shop smarter, get a good value and end up with the right case for the way you live your life!


Before & After – Wine Glass Charms

I got a comment from Becky (Etsy shop theMonkeyButtons) about her wine glass charms. She says: “I have a hard time with black and white objects. I can only get the black or the white to look good in any picture. These are also made with carved mother-of-pearl buttons, and I can’t get the details to show well because they are slightly shiny.” Specifically, she was referring to this set, which includes the following listing photo:

It’s actually quite a nice shot, as are all the others in the listing. Becky obviously has good technique and understands how to control depth of field. But I think that the lighting is just a bit too yellow and warm to capture the true colors and details of the buttons. So I thought I’d try for a more dramatic look and avoid the influence of the tablecloth.

First up, a very simplistic shot taken on a reflective white background (click to zoom):

Same concept, different charms:

Same concept, different charms, and a cork for added interest:

Now for a few on a reflective black background, again with emphasis on the details of the buttons and wire wrapping:

This time, the entire set hanging in front of a flat white background:

Less attention on the charms, more on the setting:

Now for something completely different, a little post-processing to give this shot an aged, vintage look:

That’s all for this post. Click here if you want to see a few more photos, and be sure to check out some of the other cool items in Becky’s shop.

Next time — Glass Marble Pendants.

Before & After – Rectangle Hoop Earrings

Annette (PreciousMetalsWire) took me up on the offer that I made last time for a free studio session for one of her items. She chose a set of sterling silver rectangle hoop earrings, and says “silver earwires are a pain to take pictures of, because they always looked washed out to me.” Here’s one of Annette’s photo of this item: I think Annette was being a bit too hard on herself. That’s really a pretty nice shot – good focus, no camera shake, proper exposure, realistic colors and an overall good representation of the earrings. But since I made the offer, I thought I’d give it a go and see what else I could come up with. First, a simple shot with the earrings suspended in front of a plain white background (click to zoom): Next, a close-up against the same background: Then, for a more dramatic effect, the earrings laying on a reflective black background:

And for a totally unexpected and fun look, and to show some sense of scale, a caffeinated shot:

There you have it. A variety of photos that I hope show off the beautiful simplicity of Annette’s earrings. Click here if you want to see a few more.

Next time — Art Deco Wine Glass Charms.

Free Product Photography Studio Sessions

Important Update 10/10/2012 – Thank you all for your interest in this special offer. Unfortunately, the “limited time” has expired, and I will no longer be offering this service.   

That’s right … FREE! For a limited time, I will be offering free photography services to a few readers. If you would like to be considered, the following requirements must be met:

  • You must have an active Etsy shop
  • You must pay for round trip shipping of your item
  • You must grant me permission to use both your original shop photos (that you took) and the new photos (that I take) in a future blog post

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • About five unique digital images that you can use, without restriction, in your Etsy shop, Facebook page, website, etc.
  • A feature in a future “before and after” post on this blog (with a promotional link to your Etsy shop)

If you would like to be considered for this free promotion, simply comment on this post with a link to a particular item in your Etsy shop that you would like me to photograph.

That’s all there is to it! No fine print!

By the way, check out these two posts if you want to see what I have done for a few other readers:

The Stained Glass Challenge

I received a note from reader Christine, who was having some difficulties photographing stained glass artwork for her Etsy shop. She had previously received some advice in the Etsy forums about shooting in the sun to get some of the glass colors on the background, and after following that advice, realized that she still wasn’t satisfied with her photos. Here’s an example:

So Chris asked for some help, and we worked out an arrangement where she would ship a piece or two to me for a few days to see what I could come up with. I admit that I did like the way the sunlight played off the colors and textures of the glass. If we stayed with this concept, there would be some simple issues that we could address (angle of the shot, filling the frame with the background, cropping, etc.) But it still would have left Chris with the rather troubling prospect of shooting outdoors year-round in Michigan.

When the package arrived and I got my first look at the green jewelry box, and saw the detail and quality of Chris’s work, I knew that the right approach was to just keep it simple and make sure that the photos accurately represented the art. No problem … and it could all be done indoors using a simple setup. I used a continuous white background, with a gradual sweeping transition between horizontal and vertical (no distracting seams). Then I set up the lighting using the proven technique of lighting the background separately from the subject. This little trick solves a lot of background issues, and can be done with either continuous lights (any color temperature) or flash units. I also wanted to make sure that I showed the entire piece (from different points of view) in some shots and concentrate on details in others. Shown below are the results. Have a look, enjoy and be sure to check out Chris’s shop.