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?


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.



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!

Creative Lighting Made Easy

I received a note from reader Pat, who was having some issues photographing a set of vintage bowls.  She says:

“I’ve had them outside, inside, dark background, light background, flash, no flash,fabric background. I think I’ve put 20 miles on them dragging them from one place to another and still can’t get them right. The problem is the frosted glass around the trim. It always looks washed out and the details don’t show in the photos. This picture was so bad I wasn’t going to put it in my shop, but nothing sells sitting on the shelf either. So if you have any ideas on what to do with this one I would greatly appreciate it. They are so pretty, but the photos don’t show that at all.”

Here’s one of the photos that Pat was using:

Do you remember the post I did on histograms last year?  Well, one of the reasons that Pat’s photo look so “flat” is that the histogram for it looks like this:

As you Photoshoppers out there know, a few quick “levels” adjustments would help a bit (go ahead and give it a try).  But it won’t be enough.  Instead, what we’ll need to do to really show off the frosted roses is light the bowls a bit differently (okay, a lot differently).  But different doesn’t mean difficult — it just means getting a little creative.  There are a lot of ways to do this, and a little experimenting will show what’s best for you personally, but here’s what I did:

This is my crappy cardboard light box (lit from the top):

If you look at the bottom of the image, you’ll see a plastic storage bin with a power cord disappearing into it.  Inside that bin, in a reflector facing upward, is one of the Alzo Digital lights that I recommend here.  On top of the storage bin, covering the false bottom of the light box and going up the back wall, is some black paper (it looks gray because of the way I had to light this shot to show the bin and cord) with a single hole cut in it.  Here’s a close-up of the hole (you can even see the top spiral of the bulb through a piece of clear plastic I have on there to support things):

Next, I placed one of Pat’s bowls directly over the hole, as shown here:

You can still see the top of the bulb through the glass bottom of the bowl, along with a bright reflection of the top light and all the walls of the light box (not the look we’re going for).  I knew from past experience (it would take you about 10 seconds to realize this) that if I turned on the bottom light as is, we’d end up with nothing but blinding white light shining up like a beacon and ruining the entire composition.  So I took a lid from a small jar and placed it in the bottom of the bowl as shown here:

The purpose of that lid is simply to block the unobstructed light coming up through the bottom of the bowl and redirect it up through the glass itself.  The glass, in essence, radiates from within.  I then turned off the top light along with all of the other lights in the room (did I mention that it was very dark outside, too?).  So the only light available was that single bulb shining from below.  Here’s the result:

A close-up:

So you see, it wasn’t that difficult to get a unique shot that shows the detail that Pat was looking for.  It just took a little creativity and experimentation.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Dealing with Etsy’s Huge Photos

I know I haven’t posted lately, but I’ve been quite busy in my other life.  Apologies to my faithful readers!  With that out of the way, here we go again…

The majority of Etsy sellers don’t seem at all happy about the “new and improved” photo sizes that go along with the “new and improved” wider pages.  There really aren’t any good solutions, other than the Etsy site adapting to its users’ needs rather than the other way around (but we all know that’s not going to happen!).  But there are a few things you can do to deal with it.

First, let me give you a summary of what’s happening.  I did a post a few months ago explaining how your photos should have a minimum width of 570 pixels.  Thankfully, that hasn’t changed.  But … while in the past you didn’t need to concern yourself too much with the height of your photos, now you do!  The biggest complaints seem to be from sellers who don’t like the idea of shoppers having to scroll down the page just to get to the bottom of the photo — and therefore  the description.  Etsy used to do a pretty nice job handling “vertically oriented” photos, but what the site now does (whether we want it to or not) is display the entire image at 570 pixels wide x whatever height you feed it.  Upload a 570 wide x 1200 high image and that’s exactly what will show on your main listing page.

Okay, so what?  Well, for anyone selling small items that photograph well in a landscape orientation, it’s no big deal.  But if your items (and therefore your photos) are much higher then they are wide, you’ve got a problem.  My wife (click here for her shop), for example, sells doll clothes.  If you look at any of her listings, you’ll see that she likes to have at least a few photos showing the entire outfit on one of her dolls.  Assuming that most folks like to see the doll upright as opposed to laying on a table, she really doesn’t have much choice but to have photos that are almost twice as high as they are wide.  She decided to go with…

Option 1 — Leave the photos as  is, and accept that viewers are going to have to scroll down to get to the description.

A lot of folks don’t like that idea, though.  Well, that’s why they’re called options, right?  Here’s what else you can do:

Option 2 — Include a lot of “wide” background in your photos of “tall” items, and crop your image to a 1:1 or wider aspect ratio.

Option 3 — Using your photo editor, place your “tall” image on a larger white canvas (the Photoshop term) with a 1:1 or wider aspect ratio.

Option 4 — Upload undersized photos (less than 570 pixels wide x a reasonable height) and let Etsy fill in the sides with that ugly taupe(?) color.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger — I already told you that there weren’t any good options.  But I thought I’d at least give you some points to consider so you can decide what’s best for you.

Until next time … Happy Shooting!

Warm Things Up a Bit

Imagine this scenario:  It’s a beautiful day outside, but you’re in the house (no doubt doing something useful and creative).  You want to take a few quick photos of the kids, or your pets, or your newest creation.  No time to mess with fancy lighting or custom camera settings — you just want to snap a few quick shots.  With all your camera settings in AUTO, you fire away and assume all is well.  Later that night, you’re reviewing your latest photos on your laptop and discover that they all look like crap.  Your kids look like they’re ill, your Golden Retriever has a gray coat and your green houseplants have a blue tint.  What happened?

Oh, it’s just another white balance issue. Big surprise!  Don’t worry, though, there’s a quick and easy fix.  Simply try setting your camera’s white balance to SHADE or CLOUDY.  It doesn’t always work (sometimes this trick goes a little over the top and you end up with a little too much orange).  But most times it really gives your photos a warmer, more realistic look.  Check out my two examples below, taken with an old Leica compact.

This one shows a lamp against a tan wall.  The bulb is incandescent and the shade is sort of a tan/gold color.  There’s not a bit of blue or gray in the entire room!

Here’s another.  This one shows a small section of a cork-covered wall.  In real life, the cork is a beautiful golden brown, sort of like … the bottom photo!

Try it for yourself (you can even preview the effects of different WB settings on your camera’s LCD monitor).  Happy with the results?  Send me some before and after images, along with a brief description, and I’ll add them to this post.  Let’s see what you can come up with.

Until then … Happy Shooting!