Crop ’til you Drop…

… those Worthless Pixels

A few weeks ago, in my “Making Sense of Megapixels” post, I touched briefly on cropping to help illustrate a point on image size.  This week, I’ll be talking about cropping images again, but this time from the aspect of modifying an image to not only be pleasing to the eye, but to best capture the true intent of the photo.

Thanks to Cheri (Etsy shop Swept From the Sea Designs) for not only allowing me to use one of her beautiful jewelry photos, but also for providing me with the original image to use for comparison.  Let’s work backwards and look at Cheri’s listing photo first.  Here it is:

Beautiful image, isn’t it?  It certainly is, but what what makes it so special?  Well, here are four things that Cheri did right when she cropped this image:

  • The 1:1 aspect ratio (same size width and height) is perfect for the size of the subject and accessories.  Your images don’t always have to be 4×6 or 5×7.  Be adventurous!
  • The placement of the charms in the image frame pretty closely follows the “rule of thirds.”  Remember. the centered shell, although pretty enough, is not the subject of the photo.  Don’t know what the “rule of thirds” is?  Well, you can patiently wait for me to cover it in a future post.  Or, if you need instant gratification, you can check Wikipedia (but only after you’re done reading this post).
  • There’s just the right amount of background sand — enough to add interest, but not so much that the subject gets lost.
  • The chain just gracefully disappears from the field of view.  There was really no need to try to capture more of it, and there’s plenty there to see what it really looks like.  Any more would be a waste.

Okay, so we saw the finished product, but what did the original look like?  Here, have a look:

It’s pretty nice, but …  Come on, what’s wrong with this picture?  Well, the first thing I see is that we’re not on a beach anymore, are we?  Looks more like sand in some kind on some kind of plate or tray, maybe placed on a kitchen table with something dark and distracting in the background.  Next, there’s just too much stuff that’s not the subject of the image.  Sometimes this works (when the background is just as interesting as the subject) but certainly not here!  Next, the shell and necklace are right in the darn middle of the frame, where they really don’t catch your eye.  And that chain — it just goes, and goes and keeps on going.

I do have one suggestion, and it depends on personal taste and the background of the page that you’re viewing.  Sometimes adding a border to a photo can completely change its look (sometimes for the better, sometimes not).  For comparison, I took Cheri’s image and added a 60 pixel black border.  I think it makes the shot a bit more dramatic, but you be the judge.

So hopefully you’ve seen just how important cropping can be.  Etsy only gives you so many pixels to work with, so don’t waste them on parts of your photos that really don’t belong there in the first place.  And don’t forget to set your camera to give you a large enough image size to work with.  Resizing smaller is easy.  Resizing larger is ugly!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

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Lighting – Moving Indoors

A few weeks ago, I told you how easy it is to get great photographs by shooting outside on an overcast day.  Well, we can’t always get outside, can we?  Whether the weather is bad or we don’t want to move all our stuff, there are times when it just makes more sense to stay indoors.  But that doesn’t mean that lighting has to be complicated, or that you can’t get a great shot with a very simple setup.

For today’s example, I’m going to use one of wife’s doll dresses that she sells on Etsy (shop name PattiKuz).  She creates her own designs, makes her own patterns, does all the sewing and ironing, and then shoots most of her work indoors.  Here’s a sample of one of her dresses.  Take a look, we’ll discuss it a bit, and then I’ll tell you how it was done.

Here’s why I like this photo:

  • the camera had no problem using automatic white balance
  • the colors came out very natural-looking (right out of the camera with no adjustments)
  • there are no harsh shadows
  • there is no glare
  • the contrast is spot-on (again, with no adjustments)
  • you can’t see the background, but you can tell that there is one
  • the doll is evenly lit from all sides

Now, the fun part where I tell you the secrets about how incredibly easy this was.  We’ll start with the list of what was NOT used:

  • a light box
  • studio lights
  • flood lights
  • Ott lights
  • flashes (either on-camera or remote)
  • room lights
  • diffusers

See, I took out all the complicated stuff and we’re left with what?  Natural lighting, of course.  The shot was just taken this morning.  The sun was up but still pretty low in the sky.  The sky was overcast to the point where it was difficult to see any shadows from trees or buildings outside.  Our house has this room with one large, south-facing window.  Take a look at the drawing below to see how the shot was set up (click and zoom to get a better view).

You see, the only light source was indirect daylight coming in through the window.  But the white background (which, by the way, curved seamlessly under the dolls feet) and the homemade aluminum foil reflector (foil wrapped around a thin cardboard box) was enough to make it look almost as good as a studio lighting shot.  This is without a doubt the easiest, least expensive way to get good indoor shots.  Try it!  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Try different windows and times of day.  Try different reflector sizes and positions.  Play with different background materials.  And don’t forget everything your learned in my “Get the Blur Out” post.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Making Sense of Megapixels

I know I said I was planning to continue the lighting discussion, and I still am, but that’s going to have to wait until next time.  I’ve seen a lot of misinformation lately about digital camera sensor capabilities, and folks routinely throwing around the ole “you need a 10 MP camera or else” gibberish without really understanding what’s needed to get decent Etsy product photos.  I find that quite annoying, so here’s my take on the issue.

First things first – a quote from the Etsy help pages:

The minimum size for your photo should be 570 pixels wide. We retain the aspect ratio of your original, so the height is variable.

We recommend using an image that is around 800-1000 pixels wide. Using an original image of this size lets shoppers use the Zoom button to see the larger image.

We do not recommend using images that are much larger than 1000 pixels square, as files this large can be difficult to upload.

Now that we have a starting point, let’s go backwards to get there again and see if we can make sense out of these numbers, especially when it comes to how your photos might look online.  I’m going to use a shot I took at Biltmore Gardens in Asheville, NC as an example.

The first image below is the original size as it came out of my camera.  It’s 4,288 pixels wide and 2,848 pixels high.  If you have a calculator handy, multiply those two numbers together.  What do you get?  You should come up with 12,212,224 (that’s a little over 12 million pixels, or a little over 12 megapixels, or a little over 12 MP).  That is one very large photo, something that could easily be printed poster-size and still look remarkable.  Go ahead, click on the first image.  You should get a magnifying glass.  Click again.  Now you should get some scroll bars that let you see the entire image at its full resolution.

Well, for the purposes of my Etsy shop, there were two things that I needed to do.  First, I really didn’t need all those pixels to get a good image on my (or your) computer monitor.  Second, I wasn’t all that crazy about the overall photo anyway, so I wanted to get rid of some of the uninteresting junk.

So for my next step,  I cropped the original so it could be printed as an 8 x 10.  What I got as a result is shown below.  The only thing I did by cropping was get rid of unwanted parts of the photo, and my remaining image was 2,143 pixels wide x 1,714 pixels high.  Okay, time for more fun math — Multiply these two numbers together, and you get (hopefully) 3,673,102 pixels (about 3.7 MP).  Right?  But let’s say that this is the image I want to use in my shop.  Well, if we look up above at what the Etsy folks tell us, it’s still too big.  But what if I don’t want to crop anymore because I like the way it looks?  Well, I’ll just have to resize it, just like you can do with whatever photo editing software you happen to be using.  But I’m going to ignore the Etsy rules (just a little) and resize the image to a width 1,500 pixels instead of the recommended 1,000 pixels.  Keeping the aspect ratio the same (still 8 x 10, or more accurately 10 x 8), my height now comes out to be 1,200.  More math — 1,500 x 1,200 equals 1,800,000 (1.8 MP), right?  Right!  Now take a look at the image below.  Click on it and then use the magnifier to zoom.  Now really take a close look.  See any problems with the resolution?  I hope not, or this could be really embarrassing!  And what was the resolution of this one?  1.8 MP?  Do they even make cameras with resolutions that low anymore?

Okay, let’s do one more.  I cropped again, but didn’t resize, and ended up with what you see below.  This time, I was left with an image 954 pixels wide x 763 pixels high.  One last time, do the math and what do you get?  Hint — 727,902 pixels.  That’s less than 1 Megapixel!  And one last time click on the image and take a close look?  Decent photo?  You bet, and not even 1 MP in size.

So what does all that mean to you.  Well, a few things…

  1. You don’t need a 12 MP camera to get great Etsy shots.
  2. But if you happen to have a 6, or 8, or 10 MP or larger camera, use it to your advantage.  Take large photos from a little farther back or with a little less zoom (unless you’re trying a special technique), crop judiciously and resize if necessary.
  3. Look at your Etsy listing photos the way a shopper might.  Click and zoom.  Make sure you’re happy with the way they look, and if not, try again.
  4. And finally… the next time a big box store salesperson tells you you need the next-generation 16 MB camera, you can now confidently and politely tell him that he’s full of crap.

Next post about indoor lighting (I promise).  Until then…

Happy Shooting!

Lighting – Let’s Start Simply

Where to begin?  Natural lighting, light boxes, flash photography, studio lighting, indoor versus outdoor lighting — the list goes on.  So much to learn, and all you’re trying to do is take a few decent photos of your recently-created jewelry or handbags or pottery so you can get them listed and sold.  Right?  Fear not, it’s not that difficult.  For today’s lesson, I’m going to tell you to just pick up your camera, your props (if you use any), your goods and get outside.  That’s right, there’s no simpler way to get good lighting than to use the natural light from our own sun.  But, as with everything, this comes with a few conditions and disclaimers, so read on.

For today, what we’re trying to accomplish are photos that have:

  • realistic and natural looking colors
  • no strong shadows
  • minimal glare
  • minimal reflections
  • correct exposures

Yes, I know, there are times when we want some cool effects or want a shadow or reflection to add some interest to a photo.  But this isn’t one of those times.  Here’s an example of a shot I found while browsing for pottery.  I think it takes full advantage of the characteristics of natural lighting.  It’s from Kim at Etsy shop KbOriginalsetc.  Nice shot, isn’t it?

Now take a closer look, and see if it meets the five criteria I listed above.

  • Are the colors realistic and natural? Absolutely.
  • Are there any harsh shadows?  Nope, just some soft shadowing under the plate.
  • Is there any glare?  Nope.
  • Are there any reflections?  A few, but they’re nothing offensive, and they don’t distract (and there’s not much that can be done to completely prevent reflections from glazed surfaces).
  • Is the exposure correct?  Yes, of course.  But Kim didn’t need to be  a professional photographer to get this one right.  Since the lighting is natural and diffused, even the cheapest camera in full auto mode is going to meter this lighting correctly.

As an aside, Kim’s photo would have just as easily fit in my earlier “Setting the Scene” post.

For another example, here’s one of my shots that I just took this morning.  It’s some hardware from an old mill.  What do you think?  Does it meet the five criteria?  Of course it does, or I wouldn’t have chosen it!  But seriously, it was so easy to get this shot because the lighting was about as good as it gets for foolproof photography.

So what kind of lighting conditions am I talking about?  Well, as the title says, let’s start simply.  And it doesn’t get much simpler than taking your photographs outside on a moderately bright, overcast day.  Not a bright, sunny, blue-sky day.  Not a day where you can see distinct shadows under the trees.  Not a day with big, white, puffy clouds in the sky.  Not  a dark day, with storm clouds in the sky, either.  Nope, just a plain-old cloudy (but bright) day.  Once you try it and see for yourself what kind of day I’m talking about, you may very well end up saving all your Etsy product photography for these days.  It really is that simple!

If you really do need to get some photos, and it is one of those beautiful blue-sky days, all hope is not lost.  Just wait until late in the day, right around sunset.  You can get some beautiful shots at this time, but you’ve got to move fast.  And you have to be careful – this time of day can give such beautiful, warm glow to your photos that you may actually end up with some unrealistic colors.

I hope I was able to help some of you, and be sure to come back for my next lighting post – “Moving Indoors.”

Happy shooting!