15 Nov 2010

Why do the simplest ideas take longest to drop?

I wonder sometimes why it is the very simplest of ideas that take the longest to sink home. Sometimes an idea comes to you that is so deliciously simple that you cannot comprehend why it hasn’t popped into your head beforehand.

This is how it was yesterday, whilst doing something entirely un-related and not even thinking about this, I had an idea that was so simple, I have no idea why it was so long in surfacing.

I’ve blogged here (see the archive to the right for various articles) and written at length about small item photography and shown my own personal lighting set up for my jewellery photographs. My ‘fat ball bucket’ diffuser, whilst a source of some amusement, works incredibly well, especially as I’ve gradually modified it over time to address assorted problems and to increase its versatility.

It’s a permanent fixture on my work bench, utilising the magnifier lamp with a daylight ring tube that I already use when working – and which was recently replaced when the one I’d had for some time just died on me.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

The diffuser bucket works well for most photographs and its integral background, when exposed correctly allows me to create ‘infinity sweep’ type photographs in a very confined space.

I use it daily and it makes my work much easier and its small size means that it’s always around for me to pop an item under to photograph without having to set anything up, which I might well find to be an even further deterrent to getting items photographed and offered on-line – a job I find sufficiently tedious that I don’t need anything more to put me off the process.

But whilst it works really well – in some ways it’s a tad too efficient. It uses only one light source yet gives me a good all round diffused and reflected light, which still maintains a little shadow detail to give items form. But occasionally the light is too flat and too well diffused. Some pieces need a bit more reflection and a bit shadow to bring out their form and show their details.

The texture and depth of this copper etching is rather lost in this well diffused image using my bucket diffuser. For some pieces you want to kill reflections, sometimes you need them, to show the piece accurately.

I’ve found this to be the case with the recent copper etched pieces that I’ve made. Because the etching is quite deep and oxidised to bring out the design, when photographed within my diffuser, it looks somewhat flat and the texture isn’t as evident as I’d like to see it. Some pieces featuring crystals etc. can sparkle quite a lot and the diffuser can also kill this too efficiently. I’m also aware that the elbow grease I’ve invested in my highly polished silver work sometimes isn’t obvious from photographs either.

Photographing highly polished silver is a perpetual battle. You don’t want the wrong reflections in the piece, but neither do you want to kill the hardp-worked shine you’ve given it. My habit is to give pieces my own reflections to give the impression of polish.

One of the features of my recently pimped fat ball bucket diffuser was to use the lid, lined with scrunched aluminium foil, as a further reflector. Placed over the top of the bucket, this lifts the light within the photo area by about a third of a stop and also helps diffuse the light further – it also solved the problem of items on shelves above my work area being reflected in shiny pieces through the hole in keep in the top (originally the base of the bucket) for taking overhead photographs.

The additional shine and shadow with using the diffuser and separate reflector is much better at showing dimensional detail like the soft edges (through polishing, they can be quite sharp otherwise) of this deep etching which looks rather flat when too well diffused.

So for pieces where the bucket diffuser isn’t the best solution, I’d got into the habit of removing the bucket and using this lid reflector to the left of my area facing the light and placing a piece of tracing paper stuck into a frame of mounting board to the right, in front of the light – this was actually a cheap photo mount (matt) that I’d picked up from a clearance bin.

This was the first piece I tried the new diffuser with – as the etch hasn’t yet been oxidised, I needed an oblique lighting angle to show the depth and detail of the etching and I also used the blank wall of light of the diffuser itself to reflect off the highly polished surface to remove all other unwanted reflections.

This set up worked quite well for larger items or where I needed more shadow, or where I wanted to hold the items for scale, hereby having much more space to get my hand in holding the item and take the photo with the other one.

With small earrings especially, I like to photograph them being held to give a sense of scale and this isn’t possible within the confines of my diffuser. This was taken using my tracing paper diffuser sheet and a scrunched foil reflector facing the light, and angled slightly downwards, to allow some of the limited light to be scattered back into the scene.

The frame itself was a little cumbersome and would occasionally fall over whilst taking photos due to the weight of the frame and its size. And the tracing paper within the frame would crinkle after extended use with being close to the warmth of the light and from being handled etc., so needed replacing periodically. My idea yesterday was to laminate a piece of tracing paper – making it lightweight and more robust for use.

So using a couple of A4 laminating pouches, I laminated a piece of good weight tracing paper that I usually use for pencil illustration work (so therefore slightly heavier than you’re likely to get in a tracing pad from a stationers) and a piece of very white looking tissue paper that I’d kept aside for such a use that already looked quite translucent.

Using my laminated tracing paper diffuser I still had good even light over the piece, but a little more contrast allowed the texture and polished surface of this copper etching to be illustrated rather better.

The tracing paper laminated well and is pretty consistently toned over the sheet as it was smooth (new off the roll) to start with – and this is slightly more opaque. The tissue, which had already been creased up and smoothed out, does show a few trapped creases, but considering the quality of the original, has smoothed out incredibly well, but went noticeably more translucent as it laminated. This now gives me two versions of the diffuser depending on how much light I want to allow through.

It’s worth noting here that the further your diffuser is from the light, the more diffuse the light will be. So if your diffuser is close to your light source, you’ll still see some shadow detail, but as you move the diffuser further from your light and closer to your subject, the softer the shadows will become. So knowing this gives you a little more creative freedom too.

The new diffusers are lightweight and easy to prop up with a clip or two and as I always work atop my pile of A4 backing papers, the two new diffusers will just stack in the pile and be available whenever needed.

15 Sep 2010

I’d really rather just be making pretty things

As I was uploading some newly prepared photographs to my web site earlier, I noticed that the image file list had passed 2500 files. That’s just the photograph directory for my listed products for sale, which currently counts at just over 422 items.

Granted, not all of those are items actually still for sale, a significant proportion of those (probably about 30%) are now sold and remain on the site in the ‘sold’ category to serve as a gallery of past work and potentially items that can be re-made to order if required. But it set me to thinking about the body of work – and investment of time – this represents.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

When I photograph an item to sell, I need 5 photographs to list on Etsy and so aim to produce more finished images than this, so that I can choose the best, in terms of image and photographic quality (sharpness, exposure, depth of field, colour etc.), angles and an all round impression of the product available. My own site will allow me to add as many photographs as I want, so I set off with the aim of taking something like 20 photographs of an item and post processing and finishing around 8 or so of them and then choosing the best of those to use.

I like to show pieces on a variety of background colours, as well as different angles. After all, buyers will potentially wear them against a varied range of skin tones and hair colouring and adjacent to an infinitely variable selection of fabrics.

It is my habit to produce at least 2 finished versions of each selected image – one each for Etsy and my own shop (required at different sizes) and usually one image per piece of jewellery that becomes a photo business card – where I like the views enough and they’re the right proportions for the artwork. I sometimes produce additional variants to use elsewhere or for print publications too.

Photographs of suitable proportions, that look like they’ll print nicely, are made into artwork for my photo business cards, which I print and laminate myself so that I can keep adding current designs to those in use.

I often take many ‘similars’ – views from the same angle, for example, but with focus placed in a different spot within the image to create different visual effects or highlight particular details of the design. I often bracket the exposure to see which looks best once on the computer – especially important with reflective silver pieces – as is a lot of trial and error in creating decent and controlled reflections.

Polished silver is especially problematic, if it reflects the light too much, it burns out to white, devoid of detail and if you get something reflected, it might not be something you’d want the world to see, so trial and error in creating appropriate reflections is sometimes the only way. Various pieces of black paper were held adjacent with this image to put detail and form into the polished surfaces.

So I tend to end up with a whole collection of images of a given piece, which I know in advance will be seriously whittled down to the quantity I hope to finally publish.

Sometimes I like to deliberately use a shallow depth of field, with a low perspective to give emphasis to a particular feature or just add drama.

So I was curious to calculate how much work this represents. If I allowed 15 minutes per finished published image as a rough guestimate, this gave rise to a total of 625 hours of work for my 2500 published images – which is nearly 16 full time 40 hour working weeks. So if I were to settle down now and start on the task, I’d maybe be finished in time to celebrate New Years Eve. This also serves to illustrate the vital need for a habitual and reliable data back up strategy – a few minutes a day could save you a whole world of hurt in the future – but it’s an oversight that you only tend to make the once – often a very hard lesson learned.

Add to this the further time necessary to measure each piece and keep a record of this information and then write this into a meaningful search engine friendly description with marketing value and then the further time to actually bring it all together on a web page (and possibly several, that may require different formats), with links to associated products and ensure that is is spelled correctly and error free, you can see just how much of an investment it time it all represents.

And of course, all of this time has to be accounted for in terms of both your working weekly schedule (as does accounting, cleaning, stock control, tool maintenance, materials purchasing etc. etc.) and how you price finished pieces. It might take you an hour to make something, but if it takes another hour to photograph it, edit the images, write the description, research details on the materials used, measure it and present it on your sales venue of choice, that time also needs to be taken into consideration. If it’s a design that you can repeat often and make plenty of, obviously that investment may be spread over several sales, but for one-off pieces, it can potentially be as much time as you spent on making it, so all of this needs to be considered within your pricing structure.

I’ve said many times that the quality of work (irrespective of the craft items themselves, this is in addition to that work) shown by artisan sellers undertaking this task is of a very high standard indeed. We each need to be accomplished photographers, copy writers, marketing and promotional gurus and also be fully informed on matters such as postal and shipping methods and often our own tax accountants too.

We also need to be accomplished at gift presentation once sold. I address environmental concerns by making most of my own packaging materials, often up-cycling materials I already have to hand. In this case, I’ve sewn these fabric keepsake pouches from what were quality home furnishing fabric samples from when I had a sewing shop. I make the ribbon rosebuds too – my tutorial for them is in the blog.

Many high street retailers with web sites can’t even come close to the detail and quality of presentation many individual and independent artisan and craft sellers manage – often on top of full time employment- where such retailers will employ a whole army of suitably qualified and dedicated personnel to do the myriad of tasks we all need to master individually.

So kudos to the accomplished and talented members of hand made community, that could teach high profile retailers a thing or two!

7 Sep 2010

My work this week

I’m just working on a series of photographs of a dipper we watched in a river for a while last weekend, to post, but as I seemed to spend most of yesterday working on product photographs in order to create listings, I thought I’d do a quick post on my work of the last few days, as it gives me chance to give a little more background about how a design came about or evolved from something different.

I had an enquiry to re-make a pair of earrings in my sold portfolio, but it transpired, through conversation, that the customer didn’t actually have pierced ears, so I sourced some matching screw earwires to allow her to wear them straight out of the parcel, as she normally adapted them herself for wear.

The design featured some gorgeous glossy golden coloured honey opal briolettes which were heavily wrapped in fully oxidised copper, polished to the lovely burnished black of gunmetal, really setting off the colour of the opals.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

The original earrings on round hoop earwires. I made another pair while I was working.

I’d forgotten how gorgeous the honey opal briolettes are, so whilst I had them out and had got my eye back in for the wrapping technique, I re-made some of the original design with round loop earwires and also a different style, also with darkly oxidised copper. These featured two chunky hoops of copper, wire-wrapped at the top to form a hanging loop and a more simply wrapped briolette hanging below.

I think that I might make another pair, but selectively polish back the copper on the wrapped sections and leave the plain areas dark, to give a two-tone finish, as I’ve already done on some designs. Alternatively, I could just use different metals for a mixed metal finish.

This necklace features large beads of stabilised chalk turquoise – a composite manufactured bead from the chalks associated with turquoise mining, but formed into a new stone when mixed with a resin and dyed – presumably the matrix is added in much the same way that I would do it making faux turquoise in polymer clay, as I have in the past.

Turquoise always lends itself to being worked with copper, the colours just always work so well together – and of course, the actual colour of turquoise originates from the copper minerals in the source materials where it forms.

The necklace started life as a bracelet – by the time I’d spiral wrapped and connected (with my own hand-sawn jump rings) enough of the chunky beads to get to a bracelet length, it became evident that it wouldn’t work that well as a bracelet, the beads were just too large, making sizing it appropriately for a bracelet to be an impossibiity without compromising the design – 6 beads made it too skimpy for most people, which would then necessitate the addition of several extra rings on the clasp – but then spoling the visual balance of the design. But with 7 beads, it would be rather too generous for most people.

So I left it on my bench for a few days whilst I thought about it, thinking that maybe a different feature clasp would be the answer, but decided that the scale was perhaps more appropriate for a necklace. As soon as I started looking at a chunky chain to add to it, I knew this was a better solution, it works very much better as a necklace than it did as a bracelet. I antiqued the copper and polished the chain back to co-ordinate with the greeny brown colour of the matrix in the ‘turquoise’ to get the finished look.

The last piece I photographed yesterday was a pair of earrings with long feature earwires. A customer had asked me for something along these lines, so I had a tinker with some new shapes for longer earwires that in themselves would be a strong feature of the earring design. I liked this shape and just added a simple but chunky dangle to the bottom.

In this case, they’re black spider web jasper beads hung on a chunkier than usual headpin, hammered into a flat paddle pin which has been shaped and polished and then double wrapped above the stone for a little extra weight and balance, then antiqued to bring out the warm tones of the copper and enhance the wrapped texture. I liked the simplicity of this arrangement, so I plan on adding more to my portfolio with different stones.

Some pieces need time to develop – and then you go back to your first idea anyway!

I finished another piece this week too – one I think I posted some time ago when I made the initial central component. This knotted piece of Sterling silver sat in my WIP box for a long while, so that I could think of how to use it/finish it off best. I was working on the principle that as a design didn’t immediately come to mind, my sub-conscious would sort it out on its own in due course if left to work in peace.

I hate forcing designs, I never feel that they are fully satisfactory if you have to labour them to make them work. Most pieces come together pretty rapidly, but the occasional one just doesn’t fall in place immediately and this was one such element.

In the end, turning it over in my fingers one day while I finished my breakfast coffee, I decided that I was simply trying to over-complicate it. So a simple approach might be better in this instance. So in the end, all I’ve done is attach it to some chain by using two sizes of graduating jump rings, to bridge the gap between the weight and width of the end of the knotted section and the finer chain, even though it’s quite a chunky belcher (rollo) chain.

But that in turn left me with another dilemma – the additional weight of the chain has now made it too heavy to sell without being hallmarked.

Oh dear, it looks like I’ll just have to keep it for myself then!

30 Apr 2010

This week I have mostly been photographing copper

There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. ~ Ansel Adams

Further to my previous blog about all my recent work in copper, which included some work in progress photos, I’m going to cheat a little and just add a brief post here to update my previous comments and show some photographs of those pieces completed.

I showed this bracelet in its raw copper, post-tumbled state in the earlier blog. It has now been deeply oxidised and further tumbled to give it a lustrous glossy warm gunmetal finish, just with hints of copper showing through on proud surfaces.

I’ve now managed to clear some of my backlog and have got some of those finished pieces photographed and listed for sale, but I still have many to do – and all the design ideas buzzing around my head refuse to budge until they’re made too. My mind works overtime with shapes and techniques desperate to take form in metal and I can’t wait to get to my tools sometimes and let the ideas break free and see where it takes me.

A single piece teardrop shaped copper pendant, wire wrapped to hold a deep red dyed coral bead in position. I showed a raw copper version of another pendant of this design and they have both now been antiqued to highlight the texture of the wrapping and coiled bail.

I am aiming to treat myself to a whole day of just making things on Tuesday, as I will have a whole day to myself for the first time in a while – so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that nothing crops up over the weekend to change those plans. I will prepare my work area ready the evening before, wash the breakfast pots on Tuesday morning and then allow myself a whole day of just tinkering. I shall plug in my MP3 player, top up the coffee pot and indulge my creative desires. Bliss.

Antiqued copper and rhyolite (sometimes called Rainforest Jasper because of the earthy tones) earrings made before Easter and finally photographed.

One pair in a series of hammered oval earrings with a variety of finishes and metals. I took photographs of these whilst away over Easter, when stuck inside during a heavy downpour and found the forgotten photos with great glee this afternoon.

And sometimes, you see the item in a photograph and realise that it just doesn’t work as well as you hoped. I was really happy with this swirled copper ring wrapped with silver – it actually looks really nice in person, but in the photographs, the antiquing looks scruffy and rough and the wrapping looks loose and undisciplined. So I shall have to give it some more attention if it’s to look decent in the ‘larger-than-life’ photographs. It’s one of the inherent perils of showing small items of jewellery like this, they end up being shown somewhat larger than they are in reality and it really highlights any shortcomings in your workmanship.