18 Jan 2010

I’ve pimped my lighting diffuser

Further to my tutorial article on my own hand made – for free – lighting diffuser for product photography, I have added some features which I’d had in mind for a while and thought I’d pass the ideas on.

If you want more information on photographing small objects in this manner, I also have a more general tutorial on the photography process itself, in respect of small items.

I had reason in December, when taking some product shots for a client that were a little large for my usual diffuser, to utilise a larger bucket I’d saved for such purpose, to make another larger one. I incorporated the new feature ideas I had in mind and liked them so much, I added them to my regular small diffuser too. I now alternate between them, depending on the size of the piece I need to photograph, or the set props I want to squeeze in. The new features have been really indispensable, so I wanted to outline them for those that found my original tutorial useful.

By drilling a hole in the side, I can poke twigs, dowels etc.
through to hang earrings. See below.

The basic premise – and I do recommend reading the article linked to above first – is to use an upturned translucent bucket (mine contained fat balls for wild birds) as both a lighting diffuser and reflector, for small item photography. By lining the side opposite the light source with scrunched aluminium foil which reflects a great deal of additional light back onto the subject, I can get away with using a single light source – although granted mine is a daylight fluorescent ring, so the light is quite spread already and a good colour.

I use my upturned fat ball bucket diffuser for all my jewellery photographs.

I already have a magnifier light clamped to my work bench to use when working on small and fiddly things, so I developed the original diffuser to make use of this and minimise the set up time when I need to take photos – for many years I’d been over-complicating things using multiple lights and my DSLR and it was just no fun taking photos at all – once I cut out most of my gear and started using a compact camera, it became much more workable.

Sometimes it’s easier to get an overall flat view by lying the subject flat
and shooting it from overhead, using the hole I cut in the top for this purpose.

My diffuser lives pretty much permanently on the end of my bench on top of a pile of background papers and I just pull to the top of the pile the one I want to work with. Consequently, I don’t have much space to work in and so must do so efficiently.

I made a very rough diagram to show the various features.
Please click to see a larger view, it’s easier to read the annotations.

Further to the original tutorial, I have added 4 features to my bucket diffuser:

  1. Some background paper inside the bucket to give me a safe shooting zone for lower angles;
  2. A small slot cut in the top/bottom to take a clip to hold additional background papers;
  3. A hole drilled in the side to allow a dowel, twig, rod or wire to be passed through to hang earrings off;
  4. I’ve lined the lid with scrunched kitchen foil to use as an additional diffuser and protect from reflections.

1. The original bucket was lined on the light side with tracing paper to diffuse the light and the opposite side with scrunched aluminium foil to scatter and reflect the light back from my single light source. The lighting just needs to be diffuse enough to soften any harsh shadows from your light and prevent any unwanted reflections from items outside the bucket. I still like to retain some soft shadow to give the subjects form. If the light is too diffuse and too flat, items can start to look a little unrealistic and lacking in shape.

My original bucket worked pretty well, but I had to be mindful of my angles taking the photos and keep above the subject, so that I didn’t catch any of the inside of the bucket in the background. But occasionally, you want to shoot something as though it were at eye level and this perspective requires a suitable background behind. So I tacked a fairly narrow piece of vellum textured white card opposite the opening I take photos through to give me a small region of safe background to align myself with when needed. As most of my subjects are small, it doesn’t need to be very wide. Using white as a starting point didn’t impact on the light levels.

Sometimes I like to shoot from below the subject, or at eye level and this requires a safe area behind the subject.

Using tracing paper on the light side of the ‘bucket’ diffuses the light source nicely and softens the shadows from the uni-directional light, but I still like to see some shadow to give the subject form and depth, so I don’t diffuse it too heavily.

2. To supplement this, I also cut a slot in the top (what was the bottom) of the bucket to allow me to use a small stationery clip to hold additional backgrounds in this area. I made this slot by drilling a row of holes parallel to the edge and then cutting the spare plastic out from between them and sanding off the rough swarf.

I tend to use long thin background papers with this clip, to allow me an infinity sweep type background behind long earrings etc. If I attach it at the top and let it naturally curve behind the subject and onto the base, I have no ‘joins’ and this increases my space visually.

Using a long narrow piece of background paper, clipped only at the top, I get a natural curve behind my subjects.

3. As you can see in the photograph above, the earrings are hanging on a piece of dowel. My third new adaptation, was to drill a hole in the side of the bucket so that I can poke a rod, dowel, wire or twig through the hole – clamped securely outside of the bucket – and hang earrings and other pieces from it. Previously I had a stand I used within the bucket, but this is much simpler and works much better for me – I found the earlier incarnation to be clumsy in use.

I used a ‘helping hands’ style clamp outside the bucket to hold my dowel in place. I’ve since made a purpose built clip on a weighted base that takes up less space and frees up my clamp for other tasks.

4. After trying to trace a bright yellow reflection in some polished silver one day, I realised that the open top of the diffuser bucket is quite a vulnerable spot when taking photos of flat reflective surfaces. The hole in it (cut to allow overhead photographs to be taken) offers no protection from reflections – my yellow spots were from something small on a shelf above me – so I lined the lid from the original bucket with the same scrunched aluminium foil and just sit this over the top of the bucket to kill any overhead reflections and to further reflect a little light back in – I found that I have gained a third of a stop exposure just from using it and it makes the overall light that bit more diffuse too. So I just leave it in place unless I need to access the top.

In this case, I used a dark blue clip to hold my background paper, so that you could see it in the photos, I usually use a white one. You can see the foil reflector above, stuck to the inside of the spare lid.

I can easily lift it off when I need to use the hole or clip papers in place, or just use the overhead hole for wrangling my subjects. I actually lined the outside of the lid as it had a lip which stood proud and this allows it to sit in place over the smaller base.

The hole to take a twig and the slot to clip background papers allows me to hang long earrings naturally with minimal working space.
21 Aug 2009

Using reflections creatively to remove hot spots

This blog should be read in conjunction with my tutorial on small item photography and my article on my ‘free to make’ lighting diffuser.

Yesterday I had to photograph a flat silver hammered pendant and it reminded me that this was a blog I had in mind to post.

Photographing flat metal parts on jewellery can be very problematic, especially highly polished silver, as it is mirror like and tricky to show any detail in – or to avoid showing detail that you don’t want. But I have a couple of little tricks that should help you out. The examples used below are not especially competent, but slightly exaggerated – and done rather quickly – to illustrate the points – I’d recommend a little more time spent will get more subtle results. Please click on the photographs to see better views, they look rather dark on the page here.

Unwanted reflections:

Unwanted reflections can look pretty unpleasant – you don’t really want to see the photographers distorted face in a curved surface on a piece of jewellery you might want to buy or a shiny prop used in the set – a huge great nose-heavy hamster like face gurning out of you from the metal. By simply angling the piece away from front-on will change what the item reflects – and hopefully the ceiling or inside of the light tent will be more attractive than the photographer’s hands etc. and in many cases, this simple step alone will be enough to remove the unwanted details – or at least make the reflections less distracting. Angle the piece so that any flat surfaces reflect areas with little detail in or at least avoids items that are recognisable – we’ve all seen the examples of reflective eBay items with nekkid photographers. {{{ shudder }}}

With small digicams that are hand-held out in front of the photographer for them to use the screen display on the back, you often see a pair of hands and a camera in reflections – even in tiny areas of metal, where simply re-positioning the piece might not be enough. One of my methods for combatting this, where a simple change of position doesn’t suffice, is to make a screen for my hands – I have a square of kitchen paper (just because it’s flexible and easily replaceable) where I cut a circular hole in the centre, just large enough to slip over the camera lens – on mine I’ve taped a couple of tabs on the back so that I can keep hold of it too, to prevent it flopping in front of my lens. I hold this in front of the camera as I work and the only thing to reflect then is some white and a grey/black circle for the lens. A little less obvious and distracting than the pink of hands.

You want the true colour and detail of your piece to show, not be bleached to white from your lights.

But we can do better than this can’t we?

Yes, we certainly can. And it doesn’t take much. With flat silverware, especially in a setting where you’re adding lighting for your photography, such as a light tent – or I use a translucent bucket as my diffuser/reflector – you can get very bright hot spots of light reflected off the metal surface, especially if it’s highly polished. This can lead to what photographers call blown highlights. Highlight areas on the item where it is so bright white that no detail is recorded at all.

A blown highlight is one where the pixels in that area are completely white – no image data is recorded at all. Once this happens with an image, the blown area is lost forever, there is no detail at all to work with in your image. Underexposing the image can overcome modest highlight issues, but for a really hot reflection, this simply won’t be enough.

You can see how the light source on the right has created a very hot reflection, with no detail at all, on the shiny surface of this polished silver.

These blown areas not only look unattractive, you can’t see any detail and it’s maybe important that you do. You want your piece to look shiny and for the polish you’ve worked hard to give it to be evident, but not at the expense of too much detail being lost. So the best way to combat this is to create more appropriate & creative reflections. Actually make the piece reflect something other than the light.

The creative use of a manually added reflection has put the detail back into this otherwise hot surface. I had to make a modest adjustment to the exposure of about two thirds of a stop to counter the slightly darker image.

My own favourite technique is deliciously simple and I use it a great deal. I have a collection of small pieces of black and grey card – ranging in width from around 13mm (½”) to 40mm (1½”) and about 200mm (8″) long and I crease them a couple of inches from one end and bend it at right angles. These cards can be positioned around the perimeter of my diffuser, at the lighted side, the bent tab at one end trapped under the edge of my diffuser, to reflect back onto the piece where otherwise too much light is reflected. The tab sticking out allows me to swivel it around the outside of my ‘diffuser’ to find the best position.

This causes the grey or black area of the card to be reflected off the metal where previously light was being reflected back. This kills the hot reflection and allows the detail to show. Where you position it and what size and colour of card you use will be determined by the size of your piece, your lighting source and a little trial and error.

I’ve used black card in these examples to exaggerate the effect, grey would have given a more subtle effect in this piece. Just hold the card initially and move it around see where you get the best effect. Sometimes a long thin piece will give a nice striped band over the surface, making it look shiny, sometimes you need the entire surface (if you have an engraved surface or similar) to reflect something back, so a larger piece would be more appropriate.

You can also use something like a ‘helping hands’ tool or simply a paper clip, blutak or stationery clip to temporarily position a small reflector where you get the best effect. Look through the camera and move it round in your hand until you like the effect on your subject. Sometimes I put the camera on a tripod or bean bag and set the 10 second timer and move the reflector until I like the effect, then hold still for it to take the photograph. I sometimes do the same with a little LED torch for the opposite effect, if I want to try and get a highlight in a particular place.

As you can see, you don’t need a very big piece of card to reflect back and darken the surface. I used black in this instance to exaggerate the effect.

Reflected light may be more subtle:

My own lighting set up, as linked previously, uses a ‘bucket’ diffuser with a single light source at one side and scrunched aluminium foil pasted inside the opposite side reflecting that light back onto the subject. Where I find I get very hot highlights, I have found that rotating the subject within my diffuser so that it faces the reflector side rather than the light source often gives better results. I have a little less light on the subject this way, but that’s often just what’s needed. The aluminium foil has been scrunched up before sticking in place, so the reflected light is scattered over the subject, removing the more direct light that often causes the hot highlights.

This image was taken facing the reflector rather than the light source and is more subtle as a result. I used a small reflector to put some shape into the bail and some darkness at the bottom of the oval where it was otherwise brightest.

One of my finished images, taken with the set up shown above. I wanted to make it look shiny and show some form to the bail, so used a thin black reflector in this image.
15 May 2009

Aluminium kitchen foil as a photographic tool

One corner of my workbench is allocated as my photography studio, specifically for jewellery photographs for my site and Etsy shop, so I don’t have much space to spare, so I have to work efficiently.

I’ve written two articles on how I take my jewellery photographs and this blog is a supplement to them. One on the general photographic techniques needed to get the best out of small item photography and how to overcome most of the technical pitfalls people encounter and the other specifically on the lighting set up I have adopted.

I struggled for a long while with getting my photographs how I wanted, I was very much over-complicating it, because I had good gear and I felt obligated to use it. But it was unwieldy and impractical and eventually I stripped it down to absolute basics with a small digicam with a good macro mode and immediately my images both looked better and my workflow was significantly quicker and more enjoyable. I’ve since bought a digicam with better features specifically for my jewellery photography, I’ll keep my DSLR for when that is the best tool for the job.

A finished frame after a little cropping and post-processing.

The lighting set up I use utilises a magnifier light I have on my work bench which has a ring fluorescent tube around a magnifier – I use it extensively for close work and it is clamped with an angle poise type frame to the end of my work bench. Whilst the light is certainly more diffuse than from a single spotlight bulb, it was still rather too harsh and unidirectional, so I made a lighting diffuser from a wild bird fat ball bucket which has two holes cut in it for camera access. I use the light on one side of it and I have the other side lined with scrunched aluminium kitchen foil. I have kept pieces of foil folded in my camera bag all my photographic life, it is an amazingly powerful yet simple tool to have in your arsenal – and can lift the light and brighten shadows more than you might expect.

When setting up some photographs today and was framing with the camera, I realised that I hadn’t put my diffuser back in place after setting up the scene and as I replaced it and was looking through the camera, I was surprised to see how much it really did change the scene, so I took two photos to illustrate the difference.

This is the scene without the diffuser in place, there are
deep shadows behind the driftwood and the scene would
need more exposure for a better result. My camera was already
set in anticipation of using the diffuser, so you can clearly see how
much advantage it offers as this image would be much too dark.
I guess that the advantage is about two thirds of a stop.

Both photographs were taken with the same, manually set, camera exposure and with the camera, light and scene exactly the same – each file was prepared to post with exactly the same workflow and settings. The only thing that changed was the placing in position of my ‘bucket’ diffuser. The light has been diffused by the translucent material on the right side where the light was positioned and the opposite/left side has been lifted by the light reflected back into the scene with my scrunched aluminium stuck on the inside of the bucket, opposite the light source.

As you can see, the lighting level generally has lifted noticeably
and the deep shadows to the left of the driftwood have been
softened considerably. A bit of remaining shadow is good as it
shows more form to your pieces – diffusing the lighting too much would
actually give rise to rather flat lifeless results.

So if you’re struggling with not having enough light on your scene, or deep shadows from unidirectional lighting, try scrunching some kitchen foil and then smoothing out and sticking it on some card – you can then move it around to see where you get most advantage. Using foil flat – or a mirror – will result in brighter spots of light and maybe reflections. Scrunching the foil to make it creased, then flattening it out causes it to scatter the light more evenly and will lift the lighting level generally without high spots or reflections.

The top of this pair of shots was taken with my foil reflector and the light only, no diffuser in this instance – I was curious to see just how much difference to the lighting the reflector alone made.

I took the first frame and all I did with the second image was swing my left hand holding the reflector out of the way and take a second frame – at the same manually-set exposure – just to show how much light a small piece of kitchen foil can add to the scene – in this case, about two thirds of a stop. The top one is still a smidge under-exposed and if I wanted to use this frame, I’d tweak its appearance, including correcting the colour, a little in post-processing, but the exercise was just to illustrate the difference to the overall lighting levels in the scene and the general distribution of the light and lifting of shadows, just with the addition of some reflected light.

This is the finished frame I’ll use, from another frame taken with a slightly better exposure and the diffuser in place too.

29 Oct 2008

What camera should I buy for small item photography?

This question comes up routinely in the Etsy forums and other crafting sites, so I thought it timely to add my thoughts on the matter here.

My comments supplement my writings elsewhere on crafted items photography – see my tutorial at http://www.boo.myzen.co.uk/artisan.html – I recommend it as supplementary reading to explain some of the terms used below.

Knowledge and understanding may negate the need for an upgrade:

For most posters, who are crafters, not photographers, it doesn’t really matter so much what model of camera you have, as knowing how to use it properly. Knowledge and understanding is a far more important tool to have in your arsenal than specific models. Learning appropriate tricks and how to get the best from your camera may serve you better, so only upgrade your camera when you know this is the limiting factor. See my tutorial referenced above for some small item photography pointers – and there are other tips here in my blog. It might also help to spend some time with the camera manual and acquaint yourself with various camera features like exposure compensation and white balance – the use of which will solve most of the problems I witness.

OK, so which model?

You will be best suited to choose a camera that has the specific features for the type of shots you intend taking. For some people that will be the option to get close to small items like jewellery, for others, good exposure for outdoor shots, or good colour rendition might be more pertinent.

It might help initially to write a list of the features you think you need – I don’t necessarily mean camera buttons you might press, but aspects of your work where it is vital that the camera performs well. Maybe list what your current camera is falling short on, or where you already think your photos have room for improvement. This will help you hone in on what to look for.

More megapixels are not necessarily better:

There is a current trend with camera manufacture, especially at the low and mid ranges of the market, to have become fixated on megapixels – the public started this numerical obsession and the manufacturers have pandered to it. I’m not alone in thinking that this is a retrograde step in camera development. I’d prefer quality over quantity any day. So please don’t be seduced by large numbers alone.

Don’t be too worried about the amount of megapixels a camera has – a bigger number is not necessarily better (in this context), and in many cases, is absolutely not a measure or indicator of superior quality. I often get asked, when toting my large black DSLR – “how many megapixels is that?” as though that were all that mattered and when I answer, you can see their chest swell in pride as they declare that the silver matchbox in their pocket has more. They depart, smugly thinking that theirs is clearly a superior piece of technology.

For posting item photographs on-line to sell, the features a camera affords you in terms of allowing you to actually secure the shots you have in your mind as you start, is far, far more important than how big the pictures are. And knowing how to get the best from what you have.

What is a megapixel?

‘Megapixels’ (MP) is the term of measurement applied to the physical dimensions in pixels of the resulting digital photographs. A megapixel is simply 1 million pixels of screen area – something like 1280 x 780 pixels – a typical modern computer monitor is about this sort of area and therefore about a megapixel. So as you can see, having 10 or more megapixels is certainly more than you need for web based photographs. Large resolution images of big MP numbers are only really necessary if you plan to make enlargements of your images in print form and for fine art and professional uses.

So it may be that an older model, probably to be had at a much better price (my current jewellery camera was bought as a clearance item at half price, when it was superseded by new goodies), may offer you more than adequate quality for these purposes. Any camera in the range of 4-6 MP will give you good quality photographs for screen viewing – allowing some capacity for cropping and choosing the best bit of the photo, then still reducing it in size for screen display. The working features, performance and appropriate results are far more pertinent factors in making your selection.

Which model will be best for you will depend on your particular personal needs. Any recent model from Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus etc. will do the job more than adequately – the limitation in getting good results, is almost always the photographer’s lack of understanding, not the camera. Learning some good practices and technique will serve far better than buying a new camera for many people. And maybe putting some of your budget into a table top tripod or bean bag will help you get the best from your camera.

Look at exactly why your photos aren’t satisfactory before thrashing the plastic. If lighting is an issue, which it is for most of us – look at my DIY lighting diffuser tutorial for some ideas of how you can improvise for free at home with items you probably have to hand.

Beneficial features:

If you have smaller items, choose one with a good macro feature – Canons have good macro which is why so many crafters use this marque – macro focusing it allows the camera to focus when much closer to the subject and therefore fill the frame with your item so that you can see lots of detail. Fujis also have features like super macro which is good for very small items like jewellery – allowing you to get as close as an inch away from the object.

Another feature that may be very worthwhile is a countdown timer. Many cameras have the option for a 2 second or 10 second timer and with close and macro work, this may prove to be a very valuable tool. Especially where light is low and you therefore can only achieve a slow shutter speed, which may mean that you record movement while handling the camera.

Being able to place the camera on a tripod or other improvised stand (a folded towel on some books is good, I use a home made bean bag filled with polybeads) will be a great help with eliminating movement. But even then, just pressing the shutter button, if you’re heavy handed or your support has some spring, is enough to jiggle the camera as it takes the shot.

But using the cameras timer allows it to settle from your hand movement before taking the shot – the 2 second timer will probably be enough in most cases. Sometimes you may be casting a shadow or impeding the light by standing over your scene – or causing reflections or a colour cast (bright clothing can often influence the appearance of reflective items) by being close at hand, so using a timer allows you to set it going and withdraw until the shot is taken.

I have a range of cameras and work as a semi-pro photographer – but for my product shots, I use an inexpensive digicam (Fuji now, a Canon until recently) – the perspective and handling of them when taking close shots in a confined space is ideal – much better than my unwieldy DSLR.

The small sensors of current digicams mean that they offer a good depth of field for a given lens aperture compared to larger format cameras. What does this mean? Depth of field (DOF) is the amount of your subject, from front to back, that is within acceptable sharpness. Whilst a shallow DOF can be used creatively for interest, you often want as much of your creation in focus as possible – and this feature of smaller cameras is useful for helping to achieve that. In short, for the same scene and lighting, it is easier to get more of it in focus than with a bigger camera. There is also the added benefit that if you move between focusing and taking the shot, you have a greater room for error and less likely to have out of focus failures.

Pick one up and handle it:

I would also strongly urge that you ensure that you handle a camera in the flesh before purchasing – no, I don’t mean go shopping nekkid. It gets old very fast if you can’t easily reach a button you use regularly, or keep catching one each time you use another feature. My recommendation for buying is to make a shortlist of suitable models on paper first, based on your wish list discussed earlier and price and availability etc. Then find them, where possible, in stock on the high street and handle them. Ensure that you can reach function buttons easily, can see the display etc. etc. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in its company, ensure that you’re going to get along.

Helpful links:

See this site – Digital Photography Review (DPR) for reviews and feature lists of all current and recent models: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs.asp

This is a very big subject and I’ve only tickled it a little, so I’ll no doubt add more on this subject over time. I urge you to also visit my tutorial on small item photography for more explanation of features like macro mode and depth of field and how they apply when taking small item photographs.

Also see my tutorial article on making my own lighting diffuser, for free, from found objects.