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.

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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.

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.

Reflections Aren’t Necessarily Evil

We all know that if we’re not careful and don’t pay attention to proper lighting and subject positioning, we can end up with some nasty reflections (usually on our subject). So, naturally, many of us assume that we shouldn’t have any reflections on our backgrounds either. That’s often true, but if staged properly, reflections can add dramatic effect to your images. Check out the following examples and see if you agree.


If you like the way these look, and want to try it for yourself, here’s a link to the reflective background I used for these shots: http://www.etsy.com/listing/97176853/photography-background-material

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

A Shot in the Dark

It doesn’t get any easier than this … A simple, single-bulb light tent for photographing  your small items, any time of the day or night.

I started by cutting an old cardboard box I had laying around the house.  I ended up with two “frames,” about 11″ x 17″ on the outside and about 9″ x 15″ on the inside.  Don’t try to match those dimensions — use whatever you have on hand.

Next, I took two pieces of a diffuse fabric and “velcroed” (not a real word, but you get the idea) them onto both sides of one of the cardboard frames.  I also velcroed a piece of reflective fabric onto one side (what will eventually be the “inside” of the tent) of the other frame.  Then I taped the short edges of the frames together to make a hinge and stood the assembly up like so.

You can only see the blue backside of the reflector fabric in the above image.  Here’s what the reflective surface on the inside of the tent looks like up close.

Next, I put a 5600K bulb in a clamp reflector, aimed it at the diffuse side of my light tent, turned off all the other lights in the room (it was pitch black, except for the light coming from the single bulb), and got this.  Notice how uniform and soft the lighting is in the area under the tent.

Now, for the test.  I don’t particularly like white backgrounds, so I put a warm and natural looking cork tile under the tent.  I chose to photograph a fishing lure called a Jitterbug, not only because it’s one of my favorites, but because the huge convex lip makes it a challenge to shoot without getting nasty shadows.  Here’s the result – uniform lighting, good colors, subtle shadows and an overall pleasing shot.  All that with one bulb!

There are a few things to keep in mind when choosing your diffuser and reflector fabrics. Most importantly, they both must be relatively color-neutral (unless you’re going for a specific look).  And the diffuser fabric needs to allow plenty of light through, without being so transparent that it looks like a flashlight is shining on your subject.  Also, don’t worry about wrinkles — they can actually be beneficial.  These materials are readily available at just about any local or chain fabric and craft store.  If you want to save yourself some time and money experimenting with different fabrics, I offer the ones I used in this tutorial as part of a light tent kit in the supplies section of my Etsy shop.

If you need an easy and inexpensive way to shoot small items, the give this setup a try. As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

A Lesson on Lighting – Updated

Earlier in this series, I did a few posts on the benefits of using natural lighting for your photo shoots (check the archives if you haven’t seen these yet).  But what about shooting with artificial lighting, say in a light tent or a light box?  Or how about just adding some supplemental lighting to your tabletop or floor setup?  Choosing the right lights can make all the difference in any of these situations.  So today I’m going to give you some lighting basics, help you to be a smarter shopper and even give you my recommendation.  To keep things as simple (and as brief) as possible, I’m only going to be covering “Compact Fluorescent Lamps” (CFLs) today.  These bulbs have become pretty popular, and they’re nice for photography because they’re cool enough that they won’t set fire to your light box like a halogen or incandescent bulb can!

What’s a Watt?

Don’t worry about it!  Seriously, a watt is nothing more than a standard unit of power, just like a second is a standard unit of time.  In terms of choosing lights for your photography, it’s pretty much meaningless unless you’re trying to save a few pennies on electricity.  A watt is a measure of how much electricity a bulb consumes, and it has nothing to do with how much light is produced or what that light looks like.  The only thing you need to know is that generally, for a particular type of light, “more watts = more lumens.”

Lumens?  Huh?

Want to compare different lights?  The first step is finding the “lumens” rating on the packaging.  You don’t need to know this, but a lumen is a measure of “luminous flux.”  That’s a measure not of how much light is emitted by a bulb, but rather how much of that light makes it to a specific target.  Need more details?  Just ask – I’ll be happy to oblige.

But all you really need to know regarding lumens is that “more lumens = brighter light.”

What Does “Color Temperature” Mean?

Simple…

Lower temperatures = more yellow = warmer look

Higher temperatures = more blue = colder look

Here’s a pretty picture saying the same thing:

So what’s a “Daylight Bulb”?

There’s really no such thing!  Think about it.  Look at the color temperature graph above.  Look at the difference in color temperatures at different times of day.  Now confound things even more with different times of year and different weather conditions.  Think about it some more.  Picture yourself outside at the beach at sunrise or sunset versus mid-day.  Or just go outside right now (if it’s during the day) and look at the sky in several different directions.  Does it look the same?  No way!

The best a bulb can do is to provide light at a specific “correlated color temperature” (CCT, for short).   The CCT is simply an approximation of the color temperature as our eyes perceive it.  So a 5500K bulb can only be a “daylight bulb” at a particular time of day, during a particular time of year, under a particular set of weather conditions.

But it’s a start!

Full Spectrum Bulbs Are Good, Right?

Absolutely!  If you can figure out what that really means.  “Full spectrum” means all the colors of the rainbow, plus a little infrared and ultraviolet.  Sunlight is full spectrum, as this spectragraph shows:

Are there any lights that actually match this spectrum?  NO!  That’s a pretty straight-forward answer, right?  Okay, let me expound on that a little bit.  Umm … NO!  Sorry, that’s all I got.  Some lights do cover a wide range of wavelengths (colors), but unless you can find a spectragraph for those lights, you really have no idea what you’re getting.  Seeing “Full Spectrum” written on the label is not enough!

What the Heck does “CRI” Stand For?

CRI is short for “Color Rendering Index.”  It can be important when you’re shopping for light bulbs for your photography.  It’s an old and somewhat obsolete standard, geared more toward video production, but it’s the best information we have available right now that represents how closely a light can reproduce colors in comparison to an “ideal” (whatever that means) light source.

Don’t pay too much attention to CRI values, other than these two considerations:

  • All else being equal, a higher CRI is better than a lower one, and anything above 90 is good for our purposes.
  • The difference between a few CRI points is meaningless, so don’t get hung up on comparing between values like 89 and 91.

Are “OttLite” Bulbs Any Good?

Well, yes and no.  There’s really nothing wrong with them.  But they’re not that special either.  There are plenty of CFLs on the market with equal or better specs.  Although the OttLite website isn’t very informative, and their packaging and labels are pretty useless, I did manage to get my hands on some data for the three CFLs that they offer.  To save you all the trouble of searching for the information, here are the specs for their “brightest” bulb, the 25EDP2R.

  • Luminous Flux – 1300 lumens
  • CRI – “Above 90”
  • CCT – “Between 5000 and 6000”

The specs for CRI and CCT are a bit vague, so I asked the OttLite folks for more detailed information.  Nada.  I also asked for a spectragraph on these bulbs (to see how they compare to natural light), but they told me that the information was proprietary. Oh well.

Okay, So What Do You Recommend?

Well, a lot depends upon your specific application.  But you can’t go wrong by following these three simple guidelines:

  1. Get unstuck from the “brand name” mentality.  Buy based on what the product does, not what it’s called.  Generic acetylsalicylic acid is a better bargain than Bayer aspirin, right?
  2. Learn what’s important about what you’re buying (luminous flux, CRI and CCT) and compare that information between bulbs.
  3. If you can’t find this information on the packaging or the website, don’t buy the light.  Period.

Luckily, there are a lot of options, and now that you know what’s important you shouldn’t have any trouble finding appropriate bulbs for your photography needs.  If you want me to point you in the right direction, I prefer bulbs manufactured by Alzo digital.  The company offers quite a variety of products and their prices are very reasonable.  Alzo bulbs can be purchased directly from their website or from any number of online retailers like Amazon.com.  Or, if you decide against Alzo altogether, there are plenty of other options.  You just need to do a little research, compare some specs, and make sure you’re getting the most for your money.

Until next time … Happy Shooting (and Shopping)!

These Guys Can Shoot

It’s been a while since I did one of my “Things I Like” posts, so I thought I’d put one together using some great product photography examples I found from fellow members in the “Men of Etsy” team (tag “menofetsyteam“).  These guys not only make and sell a variety of cool items, but they do a really nice job with the photography as well.  Be sure to check out their shops (just click on the shop name hyperlinks).

Before I get into the discussion about the individual photos, I want to let everyone know that there will be a teamwide sale from July 17 through July 24.  Just search for “boysofsummer” to find participating members.  Also use the “boysofsummer” coupon code to get your 15% discount.  Now, on to the photos…

From GalloGrotte

Why it works — There is often debate about whether hands (or ears, feet, etc.) should be included in product photos.  In this particular case, there’s no room for debate.  The tips of the fingers (not the whole hand), coming from the corner of the frame, provide a good sense of scale without interfering with the subject.  You’ll notice that the fingers are not dominant and don’t draw the eye.

What I might have done a little differently — Tried a darker, richer background color.

*****

From TAGSMITH

Why it works — White backgrounds, if done properly, can make a dramatic statement (especially if the entire shop is done the same way).  That’s just what you get here … variations in color, texture and depth of the luggage tag set nicely (and with realism) against the cleanliness and simplicity of the background.

What I might have done a little differently — Put some humorous text on the ID card (just to see if anyone notices).

*****

From blkphoenix856 

Why it works — There’s more to the photo than just the subject.  The rough wooden blocks and smooth stone have nothing to do with the bracelet, but they add a lot of depth, texture and interest to the photo.

What I might have done a little differently — Used the “levels” tool in my editing software to add some dimensionality.

*****

From jerryswoodworks

Why it works — This is just a nice, soothing combination of colors, textures and patterns.  The wine label and wooden block suitably complement, yet don’t detract from, the bottle stopper.

What I might have done a little differently — Cropped a little more off the bottom and right side of the image to bring more attention to the handle of the stopper.

*****

From bradgoodell

Why it works — Good background choice, striking arrangement, realistic reflections and good use of the rule of thirds.  Not much else to say!

What I might have done a little differently — Adjusted the lighting to make the back edge of the table a little less prominent.

*****

From AdornmentsNYC

Why it works — The background pattern and texture really add interest; the visibility of the background through the crystal is an added bonus.  The components are nicely positioned within the 1:1 aspect ratio frame.  Overall, a pleasing arrangement.

What I might have done a little differently — Lowered the camera angle a few degrees to add a bit more perspective.

*****

That’s all for now.  Happy Shooting!