Making a Custom Phone Case: Start to Finish

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the wide variety of mobile phone cases that I make and sell in my Etsy shop, and how to best choose a case to match your needs. On a similar note, I thought it would be interesting to share the process of making one of these cases, and more specifically, what is involved with personalizing the case using a photo provided by a customer. It all begins with a listing, which includes a thorough description of the case, ordering instructions and a photo which looks something like this:

Greenpix custom phone case

As an example, I’ll use a recent sale to a customer who wanted a photo of her dog, Chloe, on an iPhone 4/4S case. The first step of course, was getting Chloe’s photo. I provided the customer with a link so that she could upload her photo to my file hosting service. This approach avoids the possibility of file corruption or compression that may occur when sending as an email attachment. Here’s what the uploaded photo looked like:


That’s a great shot of a beautiful dog, but there was one problem – the aspect ratio. You can see easily enough that the aspect ratio is 1:1 (it’s square). However, as you could probably guess, the aspect ratio of the iPhone 4/4S case is more like 2:1 (about twice as high as it is wide). Depending on the specific details of the photo, there are some creative ways to fit the entire image on the case. But in this situation, we were left with cropping as the most practical solution. To make sure my customer got what she wanted, I created the following digital proofs showing two cropping options:



She decided on the portrait orientation, which unfortunately meant that the date stamp was included in that part of the image. Luckily enough, it was in an area that was easily edited using Photoshop. Speaking of which, I use Phototshop to prepare my images for printing, and for phone cases usually print in groups of three for economic reasons. Here’s a screen capture showing Chloe, along with two of my more popular photos, ready for printing:


Here’s what that looks like coming out of the printer (notice how the images are reversed):


Positioning sublimation blanks on paper (two ready, Chloe next in line):


Getting ready to press:


Successful sublimation:


Chloe on her insert:


Insert and case, ready to be assembled (no second chances):


Got it right!


Making sure the case fits the phone:


One last inspection:


Ready for packing and shipping:



That’s really all there is to it, and it sure is nice to have full control over each and every step of the process.

Point & Shoot? I Don’t Think So!

Nikon D800 ModeLast week I wrote about a new series of tutorials that I will be launching in the coming months. As I wrote my first one (Image Sharpness – Part 1: Techniques to Eliminate Motion Blur) and was working on my outline for others in the series, I came to realize that there would be one common thread among all the lessons. Regardless of what I would be discussing, or what tips I would be sharing, or what techniques I would suggest you try, it always came back to the same prerequisite — you need to know how to use your camera. I don’t mean that you need to know how to turn it on and press the shutter release. I mean that you need to understand what features your camera has, what those features do, and how to adjust the settings to achieve the results that you’re after.

Sony RX100 Top Control DialEvery camera has a unique set of features, and every manufacturer has their own terminology and format for their user manuals. I don’t know what cameras you all are using, and even if I did I couldn’t possibly cover the wide variety in each and every lesson. I also don’t see much point in using the first page of every tutorial telling you how important it is to understand how to use your camera. So I’m asking that you help me to help you. If I instruct you to change your ISO from AUTO to 400, or your exposure compensation from 0 to +1, you need to know how to do that. I’ll explain why you need to change it, and give you some general guidelines on how to do it, but when it comes right down to pushing the right buttons or turning the right dials, it’s all you.

zoomcontrolSince the manufacturers have already done their share, your homework is to spend some quality time getting familiar with your camera and user manual. Trust me, it’s time well spent, and certainly more productive than continuously re-shooting your entire inventory. So spend a cold, rainy afternoon with your favorite beverage and your camera’s user manual.  Learn about the features of your camera, what settings can be adjusted, what they do, and how they affect the finished image. So much for “point and shoot,” right? Sorry, but there’s no such thing when it comes to product photography. And when it comes to learning how to use one of the most important tools in your shop, there’s no time like the present.

Greenpix Testimonials

Here’s what people are saying about photography advice from greenpix …

“LOVE your site and the information you so easily communicate. It really is an artform in and of itself! Your posts have inspired us at our shop to take some pretty good looking pictures if I do say so myself. We’ve received lots of feedback and all are positive. Thank you again for all your hard work…We really do appreciate it!”  ~Christine

“Great post, Greenpix, outstanding!!”  ~Sue

“Greenpix is always spot on and very informative. I appreciate the attention to detail and the useful info. you bring each and every time. I also have to say ‘THANK YOU VERY MUCH’ for including my ‘Wagon Wheel’ pic in this feature of ‘Nice Folks, Nice Things’…Very unexpected, but very nice indeed. Your blog is one of the most helpful I’ve ever read regarding digital cameras and photos in general. Layman’s terms is one thing, but your clear concise wording is what makes it work so well…that and your very approachable manner. Keep up the great work.”  ~Jeannette

“Cheers dude, love the posts, you’ve helped me so much already!”  ~Joe

“Thanks a million! I have been wondering how to do that and you make it sound really easy. I can’t wait to try it out!”  ~Brandeye

“Great post! It’s 100% useful to do this homework: take a really good photo and learn it step-by-step. What is right, what is wrong, what can be changed to improve the shot, etc. For an amateur and learning photographer it is extremely important. Thank you very much!”  ~Natalya

“Wow, I have learned so much from this blog! Thank you for breaking down my tree picture for me. I had no idea how it looked as a histogram…I just knew that this particular photo turned out well. Thanks again, and have a great day!”  ~Ellen

“This is an amazing post. I’ve followed my camera’s instruction booklet by selecting a white piece of paper to do this, but never had any luck. Now I know why. Thanks so much for taking some of the mystery out of photography!”  ~Vicki

“Good info, much appreciated and many thanks to you.”  ~Patty

“Thanks again for a very clear, concise explanation of something that can make our pictures even better. I truly like your step by step breakdown, it makes it very easy to follow and understand. Great pic by the way! Another excellent post!”  ~Jeannette

“I am so pleased I found your blog. You seem to be answering all the questions I have been asking about taking photos with my new camera. As usual, it’s finding the time to go through it in detail and putting it into practice. I must set aside a day for ‘getting to know your camera thoroughly’ and work through your posts. Thanks so much for taking the time to pass on your knowledge and experience. Your photographs are awesome by the way.”  ~Tialys

“It’s absolutely amazing what proper lighting can do – I bet the seller you helped is jumping for joy!”  ~Liliruby

“My product photography has improved a lot the past few months, and still working on it with more reading. (Love your blog, Greenpix). But I am still lacking that emotional content. It’s also easy to get into a rut with using certain angles, your post made me think about that again. So I love reading posts where it deconstructs into elements with comments on why it works. Really useful post!”  ~Jacqueline

“Very constructive, certainly shows how a simple procedure can really improve a product.”  ~Ron

“Thanks so much for the article, so appreciated. I love the way you explain things, it makes it seem so much easier. I just recently got a SLR camera and am still struggling with AV, P etc settings and depth of field issues. Thanks so much, you are a real teacher.”  ~Jeanne

“Very helpful! Short, sweet and to the point…my kind of blog!”  ~Marge

“What an amazing photo…incredible!! I have just found your blog and so far have only read 2 of your articles but I already learned several things I am doing wrong. Your info is clear and easy to understand. I have struggled from day one with my photos and they have improved but they are a LONG way from being good. I spent the last year practicing and trying many, many things (including the infamous OTT bulb) but have gotten so disgusted with myself and ready to just settle for so-so photos. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and I can’t wait to read all of your previous posts as well.”  ~Karen

“Wow. A lot of bang for my buck in this article.”  ~Lara

“Thanks Mike – that’s incredibly helpful. Your suggestion to ‘meter on the sky’ I had never considered doing before, but it’s something I’m going to do in future. Your wife’s photo using the AE with multiple metering is also great – very natural looking without too much contrast or washout. It’s shocking how little of the digital camera’s features I actually use – for example, following your excellent advice about setting the white balance, I’ve just started to do that every time I use the camera. My latest product shots look very much better because of it.”  ~Sally

“Simple, applicable, useful. Thank you!”  ~Sue

“Thanks so much for the info, your advice is invaluable.”  ~Leigh

“I am very impressed with your blog. You are answering complicated questions in terminology and directions that are very easily understood.”  ~Maggie

“Wow! What a difference!”  ~Anita

“Great article, definitely taught me some new things. Taking pictures of glass has been one of the hardest things for me. Now to apply to all my photos. Thanks for the help!”  ~Jenny

“Great advice”  ~Melody

“Simple, applicable, useful. Thank you!”  ~Sue

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!