Perfect Colors Every Time

Raise your hand if the colors in your photos never look quite right.  Wow, that’s a lot of hands!  It seems there’s never a shortage of forums with discussions about light boxes, and light bulbs, and bluish tints, and weird pink and green color casts.  In some of my earlier posts, I told you how easy it was to get great photos, with realistic colors, in natural lighting.  But yes, I do understand that shooting in natural light isn’t always practical.   Many of us, therefore, resort to shooting indoors with all kinds of artificial lighting, and experience a wide range of color problems.  So in this post I’m going to talk about an easy way to get those colors right, each and every time, using a simple “gray card.”

Very briefly, a “gray card” (at least the one we’ll be talking about) is in fact the color gray.  But more importantly, it is “spectrally flat,” meaning that it has a fixed reflectance (18%) over the visible part of the spectrum.  That means that all wavelengths of visible light (basically, the rainbow) are reflected in the same amount.  Film photographers have used them for many years to help set their exposure properly, and they can still be used for that purpose with digital cameras (but that’s not why we’re here right now).  Okay, enough of that nonsense, let’s get started.  Most of this post is going to cover how I did the test to get the photo examples.  If you’re not interested in any of this, and just want to see what you need to do to use a gray card to your advantage, skip down to the “You can do it, too” section.

For my example, I decided to use a thank you card that we recently received in the mail.  The face of the card is primarily a soft off-white color with red and pink flowers.  I put it in my homemade light box and lit it with a single lamp from above.  I first used one of those “daylight fluorescent” bulbs with a “color temperature” of 6500K written plainly on the label.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything about color temperature – I’m just explaining what I did so you can follow along.  I then set my camera’s white balance to “auto,” took my first shot, and here’s what I got:

It’s not bad, but it’s a little on the blue side.  I know there’s no way for you to see for yourself, so you just have to trust me – when I look at this image and the card side-by-side, the image definitely has a slight bluish tint.

Next, since I knew exactly what kind of light I was dealing with, I set my camera’s white balance to “daylight fluorescent” to match the lighting.  Makes perfect sense, right?  Not so fast – here’s what I got:

That is one weird photo.  The colors aren’t even close!  As my wife pointed out, it’s not a bad color – it’s just that it’s all wrong.

Now, the magic of the gray card.  I put it in the light box in place of the thank you card, set my camera’s white balance to “custom”, aimed at the gray card and click, I captured my custom white balance.  I removed the gray card from the scene, took another shot of the thank you card, and voila, here’s the result:

Now this one looks just like the real thing!  So I saved my custom white balance setting, knowing that in the future if I ever want to shoot with the same type of light I can just use this setting and I’ll get accurate colors.

Now on to round 2.  Without changing anything else, I replaced the “daylight fluorescent” light with a “soft white” incandescent bulb (color temperature about 3000K).  I put my camera’s white balance back in “auto,” took another shot, and got this disaster:

Yuck!  Yellow, brown, tan, whatever you want to call it.  I just know it ain’t white!  So I figured I’d give it another chance, this time using the “incandescent” white balance setting on my camera.  And here’s what I got:

Better – definitely less yellowish, but now it has a bit of a pinkish tint.  Pretty enough, but it’s not the real color.  So it’s back to the gray card one more time (remember, the only thing I changed in the setup was the type of light).  I used the same procedure to set my new “custom” white balance, and this is the result:

Remarkable, isn’t it?  Again, it looks just like the real thing.  Two photos (the 3rd and 6th), taken under two completely different types of lighting, made to look exactly the same by simply using a gray card.  And it was easy – in fact…

You can do it, too

  1. Make sure your camera has a custom white balance feature.  Check the index in your user manual for something like “White Balance” and then “Custom.”
  2. Get yourself a gray card.  When you look in your camera’s manual, you’ll probably see that you can set your custom white balance by using any white surface.  That’s a bit misleading.  The truth is, any spectrally flat surface will work, but not all whites meet this requirement.  Worse yet, you don’t know if the one you chose is or isn’t spectrally flat, so you don’t know if you can or can’t trust it.  Just compare a few different types of “white” paper side-by-side and see how different they look.  You’re better off going with a gray card specifically manufactured for this purpose. Do a Google search for “18% gray card” and you’ll find a nice assortment. I’ve found this one to work quite well.
  3. Place your new gray card in the same location as the item that you will be shooting.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a light box, or a table, or on the floor, or outside on your patio.  Just make sure you’re using the same lighting as you will for your photos.
  4. Follow the steps in your camera’s manual to tell you how to capture a custom white balance setting.  It’s usually just a two or three step process, and once you do it a few times you’ll find that it’s really easy to do.  Just make sure that the entire image is taken up with the gray card when you do the capture.
  5. Using your new custom white balance setting, take your photos and be amazed at the accuracy of the colors!

There is another way that gray cards can be used to correct colors during post-processing with some photo editing software, but we’ll save that one for later.

Until then … Happy Shooting!


Histogram Help

Chances are good that your camera has one.  Adobe Photoshop (and Elements) and Lightroom all do.  Apple Aperture and iPhoto have one, too.  So do Google Picasa and Picnik.  And GIMP too.  I’m talking about histograms, a really cool and easy way to evaluate your photos.  Don’t let anyone tell you that histograms are complicated, or that you won’t understand what they mean because it’s too technical.  That’s bull!  They’re simple, visual tools that everyone can learn to use.

So what is a histogram, and how can it help you with your product photos?  Well, a histogram is just a visual representation (a graph) counting how many pixels are at each level between black and white.  All the camera manufacturers and software developers use slightly different terminology (the sample below is from an Apple Aperture user manual), but the fundamentals are always the same:

  • Black is on the left
  • White is on the right
  • The height of the graph at each point represents the number of pixels at each level between black and white

See, I told you it was simple.  But the question is … What purpose does it serve?  Many chapters, if not entire books, have been written about histograms.  They can be used while shooting or editing.  Some folks use them as an aid in getting proper exposures, since in bright sunlight it’s easier to see your camera’s histogram than the image you just shot.  They can help tell you when you should be using a flash.  They can also be used as a guide for adjusting contrast, or even when doing color corrections.  Or to avoid “clipping” of shadows and highlights.   Your personal limitations depend a bit on your individual camera and software.  But the one thing that you all can use a histogram for is to make sure that the image you’re about to use (to sell the item you just worked so hard to create) represents the “personality” of that item.  Huh?  Follow along – you’ll see what I mean.

First we need to clear something up about what a “good” histogram looks like.  Ready? Well, a histogram can only be “good” in relation to the composition of the photo.  It’s easy to find references to those who say that every histogram should look like this one:  

Nonsense!  Sure that photo may have been beautiful, and properly exposed, and balanced, and safe.  But that doesn’t mean that every histogram should look the same.  Think about what a histogram of a polar bear on snow might look like.  Or how about star trails on a moonless night.  Neither would look anything like this example, so why should all of yours?  They shouldn’t.  Okay, but what should they look like?  The answer … it depends.  Come on, keep following.

I want to show you two examples of photographs I found.  The first, from Ellen (Etsy shop ethora) depicts a beautiful shot of a silver and gemstone pendant.

Ellen calls this piece “Tree of Life,” and does a fantastic job of giving the shot a soft, natural look that you would expect from something with that title.  The mainly green, out of focus background really complements this piece.  And this relates to a histogram how?   Well, here’s the histogram, so let’s think about it. 

Despite the complexity of the piece, Ellen does the right thing by understating the shot.  No expanses of black shadows.  Lots of midtones (on the slightly darker side), enough brights to show off the stones and the detail of the metalwork, and only the slightest amount of unavoidable overexposure (the spike at the very far right caused mainly by that little flare at the bottom left of the image).  Overall, a really nice shot!

Here’s another.  This one is from Prizy (Etsy shop prizysebastian), a designer showing her signature dress in bright red.

As intended, the dress certainly stands out against the white background chosen for the shot, and the impact of the small black areas adds a nice touch.  There’s nothing subtle about this shot, but you don’t wear a red dress if you’re trying to be subtle!  So let’s take a look at this histogram and see how it differs from the first. 

Unless you’re not paying any attention whatsoever, you can easily spot the differences.  A spike of the blacks (due to the deep shadows around the door and its handle), very few midtones, lots of appropriate brights (from both the dress and the door) and no overexposed areas.  Another great shot!

So what’s the point?  Well, to put it plainly, both shots are perfect for their intended purposes.  Use your imagination and try to envision Ellen’s histogram with Prizy’s dress and vice versa.  What would they look like?  I’ll tell you – you’d have two crappy photos!

The moral of the story, if you made it this far, is that you should learn about what histogram features are available to you on your camera and in your software, get familiar with using them, and at least take a quick peek at them before you post your images.  Ask yourself, with the help of your histogram, if the photos truly represent what you’re trying to sell to your customers.  If not, go back and try again!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Beware the Glare!

I can’t help but notice that a lot of otherwise good photos on Etsy are ruined by easily preventable glare and/or reflections.  Lighting seems to really be an issue for a lot of folks, but I think that many problems could be solved by taking a few minutes to think about where you’re shooting in relation to the variety of light sources that are present.  To illustrate my point, I’ve decided to use a rather extreme example.  Now I’m not saying that I see photos with problems this severe.  But I do think that by using this example, I can get you on the road to better photos just by taking a little extra time to plan your shots.

Here’s how I set things up for my example:

I took a few beer bottle caps, and arranged them on the granite top of a kitchen island.  There are a lot of windows in the kitchen and the adjoining rooms, so there was quite a bit of natural light available.  But since it was early afternoon, in summer, the sun was high in the sky and there was no sunlight streaming in any of those windows.  I set up my camera on a tripod, opposite a north-facing window (I live in the Northern Hemisphere), so I would be able to repeat my shots without worrying about camera position.  I fixed my aperture (at f/13 in case anyone is interested) and let the camera do its best at automatically controlling the shutter speed to get the proper exposure.  Clicked the shutter and here’s what I got:

Ugly, isn’t it?  I can barely read the bottle caps, there are some nasty shadows, I can’t tell the color of the granite and I can actually see the window mullions in the reflection.  Great shot!

So let’s say that we’re really only interested in the bottle caps anyway, so why not just expose those properly and not worry about the background?  Well, here’s why:

Now I can read (some of) the bottle caps better, but it looks like they’re on a white background (hey, I wanted something of interest in the background).  The nasty shadows are still there, the cap in the back has almost disappeared, and the colors aren’t right.  Another loser!

Now comes the important part.  I made one (yes, only one) small change.  I didn’t move the camera or make any adjustments, didn’t move the bottle caps, didn’t turn on indoor lights or close curtains or hang sheets in the window.  All I did was hold a small piece of ordinary cardboard behind the bottle caps so that the reflection of the cardboard, not the window, was seen by the camera.  Remember, I didn’t block the window – I just placed the cardboard in the small reflected area that was being picked up by the lens of the camera.  Here’s what I got (click to zoom):

Not too shabby, eh?  I can see all the bottle caps, and their colors are true.  The harsh shadows are gone.  I can actually tell that the background is granite.  I can see the gentle depth of field effect that I was going for.  And what about reflections?  Well, instead of the window mullions, now I have some cool looking reflections of the caps themselves.

So you see, it really wasn’t that difficult to turn a really crappy photo into a rather pleasing one.  Just use the best photography tool that you have — your head!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

I like this

Sometimes, rather than discussing specific photographic techniques, it can be fun and informative to study and comment on a photo that “just looks right.”  If we spend enough time looking (and I mean really looking), we can begin to see all the individual components that add up to a really great shot.

I’ll get you started with an example of what I’m talking about, and you can take it from there and find your own favorites and see what you can learn from them.  Now I realize that not everyone sells coffee on Etsy.  But that doesn’t mean that you, as a creator of fine jewelry or clothing or pottery can’t learn from an example of a really nice shot of a cup of coffee.  It’s from Etsy seller katherynmd, and the listing is for Sweet Mountain Mocha Organic Custom Coffee Blend.

So what’s so great about it, you ask?  Well, most importantly, it catches my attention (in a good way) and makes me want it!  Marketing doesn’t get any simpler than that, does it?  But as I said earlier, it’s all the individual components that, in toto, lead to this wonderful composition.  At the risk of being boring, here’s my list of why (as the title of this post says) I like it:

  • It’s not a photo of the actual item being sold (one pound of coffee beans).  That shows in one of the later photos, but those shots are not nearly as special as this one.  This is the one that pleases the eye, so why not have it first?
  • The color scheme is “decaffeinated.”  Although we may certainly enjoy a little caffeine stimulation, good coffee is really all about taste, aroma and pleasant visuals.  We don’t need to see neon or fluorescent colors to know that these beans pack a punch.  We want to enjoy the brew, with all our senses, as much as the buzz.  This photo makes us believe we can do just that.
  • The prop materials are as natural as you would like the coffee to be.  No plastic here!
  • The exposure is well done.  The cup and saucer come off as being bright and clean without being blown out.  The shadows and the pot in the background are suitably dark without being black.  In fact, a histogram (another future topic) of this photo proves it to be a well-balanced composition.
  • The cup isn’t smack dab in the middle of the frame (another reminder to talk about the rule of thirds one of these days), and the angle offers a realistic and natural view, just like you would see if you were sitting at the table.
  • The depth of field is controlled quite nicely.  Several of the beans as well as the cup, saucer and spoon are mostly in focus, while the background gently fades.  We really don’t need (or want) the table in the upper left part of the frame to be sharp and clear.
  • And speaking of background, there isn’t a separate one (it’s just an extension of the horizontal surface), and there’s nothing inappropriate (like last night’s dirty dishes) back there.
  • Reflections are used sparingly and wisely.  The reflection of the spoon in the cup and that of the handle in the spoon serve to add a little interest to otherwise mundane items.  But what you don’t see is just as important.  I don’t see any reflections of the sun glaring through the kitchen windows, or an overhead light fixture, or a flash, or even the photographer’s glasses.

So there you have it.  Now think about your photos.  How do they compare?  Are you happy with them?  If not, don’t just complain — do something about it.  You don’t have to be a professional photographer to get appealing product shots.  But you do have to take your time, think about what you’re doing, and pay attention to the basics.  Oh, and of course, read my other posts!

Until next time … Happy Shooting!