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.

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!