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.

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.
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.