I’ve seen so much skill, talent and sheer hard work go in to the unique creations of crafters and jewellery artisans, I feel it’s a shame a lot of the true beauty of these creations is not captured in the product photography I see on many websites. So, I’ve put together a few easy product photography tips to help artisans capture the magic of your work in its best light. I’ll demonstrate how to make the best use of available light, including artificial light. We’ll cover mainly daylight in Part 1. It’s all about controlling and making the most of the light you have.
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KIT AND KABOODLE
CAMERA – You’ll need a camera of course and here we’ll be working with an iPhone 4S and Compact Camera and I know from existing Modahaus customers many artisans use Smartphones and Compacts to capture their work. We’ll refer to them all as cameras. If you have a DSLR, then many of the tips still apply. I know Androids and other Smartphones can achieve equal and sometimes better results than the iPhone and apologize I can’t demonstrate that here, for now.
LIGHTS – Daylight on an overcast but bright day can be great for a product shoot session and this time of year in Bonnie Scotland, that’s what we have. You need a versatile tabletop studio like the Modahaus Tabletop Studio Pro 216 and Steady Stand kit.
ACTION – Well not quite yet! First, let’s set the scene. In my humble opinion, this unique piece you have painstakingly created deserves to be center stage – in the limelight. Every piece should have its ten seconds of fame – that moment when it sings out from the page and immediately captivates the audience. I don’t prescribe many do’s and don’ts but would discourage overdressing a set as this can detract from your piece – remember – center stage! Sure, if the size/scale or purpose of your piece is unclear, then include a shot with some PLAIN prop that sets the scale or demonstrates its purpose, if you think it’s necessary. There are many ways you can set the mood and atmosphere but in this article I’m sticking to demonstrating a few simple lessons on how to get the best quality from your camera and available light and leave image composition to your creative talents. Let’s start with some simple daylight shots using the Modahaus Tabletop Studio Pro 216 with the brand NEW Modahaus Steady Stand. This is an awesome combination for jewelry and crafting photography and now comes as a complete versatile set.
LOCATION & SET UP
Wherever you have the most daylight i.e. next to a window or glass door and ideally not direct sunlight as that can cast hard shadows and passing clouds can be a nuisance causing rapidly changing light conditions. Now we set up the Modahaus 216 backdrop support, attach the opaque white backdrop, lay on the translucent blue backdrop with translucent red on top, assemble the Steady Stand and position on top of the Studio Pro 216 which should take all of 3 -4 minutes. As you know, I don’t normally say don’t, but don’t mix your light sources. As we are using only daylight, switch off any room lights. Switch off your camera’s flash, set the ISO to the smallest number i.e. 80 or 100 ISO. Set your camera to highest image quality and set camera to delayed shutter release/self timer – ideally 2 second delay. This helps prevent camera movement when you release the shutter.
PLONK & SHOOT METHOD
Take your piece and artistically plonk it on the backdrop, place your camera (iPhone, Android or Compact) on top of the steady stand plinth, compose your piece in the cameras LCD screen and shoot ensuring your camera locks on focus. Viola! You’ve just taken probably your first overhead, totally square on, tack sharp, perfectly color balanced, perfectly exposed and perfectly composed product photograph that will sing out to your audience. How did this happen and what can we learn from it?
Craftily we’ve outsmarted our smartphone or compact camera. We shot on Program, which lets the camera decide on exposure settings and the normal default ‘Evaluative metering’ or ‘Average metering’. In plain speak the camera assumes you are taking a typical averagely lit scene in daylight like a BBQ in the garden perhaps. So we’ve just gone along with this assumption by using natural daylight and an average mid-toned coloured background. I chose clear quartz crystal and glass pieces as I know capturing these can often be frustrating. The even light the translucent side walls of the Steady Stand creates help us achieve a predictable, well exposed photo using the plonk and shoot method. Easy peazy! The camera has also used its default Auto White Balance (AWB) where it decides you’re probably using daylight. If your results have a slight color cast then you may find setting your camera to a preset like cloudy or shade fixes that, but most point and shoot cameras these days have a pretty good guess with AWB. iPhone 4 is usually very good and the iPhone 4s is even better with AWB. How is our image so sharp? The Steady Stand and self timer are responsible for image sharpness. The self timer eliminates camera movement when you press the shutter button and the Steady Stand ensures your camera is square-on to your subject and is perfectly still during the exposure. You’ll be amazed at the latent image quality your Smartphone or Compact Camera has. In general, the most common reason for un-sharp images from these devices is due to ‘shutter lag’. You’ll have noticed that when you press your cameras shutter the actual picture is taken a moment or two later – that’s shutter lag. When you press the shutter, camera immediately locks focus on your subject and if the camera or your subject moves in the moments in between, you loose focus and have a blurred or soft image. Modahaus Steady Stand eliminates this 😉
SHOOTING OVERHEAD ON A WHITE BACKGROUND
Achieving well exposed images on a white background is easy when you know how and it’ll only take a few minutes to learn how. Typically when shooting overhead you needn’t worry about depth of field/focus (DOF) as all or most of your subject is the same distance from the camera. We can go in to DOF later in Part 2. There are so many subjects that are so much easier to shoot from above and you seldom have awkward shadows to worry about as most of your light is coming from the sides and above. Let’s start with an easy peazy shot where our subject almost fills the frame. What makes this so easy is you can still use your cameras default plonk and shoot settings. On the left, shot with the iPhone 4s, we have a pure white background with a hint of shadow underneath the purse which helps ‘ground it’. This was achieved with the light source to the right of camera (see image above). On the right, shot with the Canon Powershot, we turned the top of the purse to face away from the light so we had a soft shadow at the top of the purse. This helped keep good definition in the clasp and metalwork at the top otherwise this would have been lost in the white background if it were facing the light. The translucent side walls of the Steady Stand let diffused light in and the interior of the walls also reflect some light back on to the subject – hence the soft shadows, rather than hard shadows. That’s what I meant by ‘controlling and making the most of the light you have.’ Told you it would be easy!
In our next shot, as our subjects don’t fill the frame, we’re going to make a simple change to the cameras metering mode by changing from the default setting to ‘Spot Metering’ or ‘Spot’ as your menu might say. There are only two pages in your camera manual you occasionally need to refer to – the index and the page with the feature you need to set. Look for some mention of metering in the index. Spot metering enables us to take our exposure from the center spot in the frame i.e. where your subject is. This ensures the camera is not metering on the white background as this would typically give you a dull underexposed result. So with camera set to self-timer, compose image, press shutter halfway checking you obtain focus lock, then shoot. The Artisans Fin Chocolat on the left was shot with daylight to the right with the Compact Camera and the spot meter was targeted on the dark chocolat. This gave us a good exposure with soft shadows between the bars and a reasonable white background. The Sweet Apple Chutney, again using spot metering, was shot with daylight to the top, thus creating a soft shadow beneath the jar, and in this case, an almost pure white background. We achieved the whiter background by using ‘Exposure Compensation.’ Exposure Compensation simply makes an image brighter or darker by adjusting the light up or down. A bit like a dimmer light switch. We adjusted the chutney shot + 2 notches (2/3 of a stop) brighter on our compact camera. Again, Camera Manual>Index>Exposure Compensation> one paragraph! The images below the chocolate and chutney show how we re-orientated the subject and camera to change the direction of light.
SHOOTING REFLECTIVE SUBJECTS
Shooting reflective subjects like jewelry with reflective stones and shiny gold or silver metal is a breeze with the Modahaus Steady Stand and this is where the Smart Wallet comes in to play. The Smart Wallet, as well as a convenient storage folio for your Steady Stand kit, has a very important role to play here. With metalwork and facets in stones picking up reflections from all directions, – dark, colored and cluttered reflections can be a real menace and can confuse the eye to the actual form and color of the jewelry. Simply place your Steady Stand in the center of the Smart Wallet using this as your ‘copy board’ once you’ve composed your set, you then fold up the top and bottom flaps, thereby ensuring your subject is surrounded by white and translucent. Not all reflections are unwanted however as they can assist in helping define the true contours and detail in metalwork, if they are introduced where you actually want them.
Here we introduced a dark reflection with a piece of black card before turning up the top and bottom flaps. The image on the left was shot without the black card and the side flap weren’t folded up. This resulted in the spherical silver beads picking up dark reflections from the open ends of the Steady Stand. You can also see a small dark rectangle reflected in the centre of the beads- that’s a reflection of the iPhone 4S above. That’s easily fixed with the iPhone Anti-reflection plate that comes with the Steady Stand as well as one each for Compact Cameras and Smartphones . Image on the right we shot with the opaque white Anti Reflection plate in place which masks out the iPhone reflection leaving a small hole for the lens, we turned up the top and bottom flaps, locked focus and shot. This resulted in loosing the unwanted reflections in the metalwork and left tones that define the shape of the beads. The translucent blue stones have better defined facets. You can also see at the bottom edge of the bracelet, there’s dark reflection following round the bottom edge of the bead and the scalloped shell charm has better definition. That’s the reflection of the black card we introduced. Another simple example of controlling light (and reflections in this case).
SHOOTING MACRO ON AN ELEVATED PLATFORM WITH IPHONE 4S
In this section we’re using the Modahaus Steady Stand with an elevated macro platform. There is a white macro platform plate that comes with the Steady Stand but in this case we just used a selection of drinks coasters elevated on a glass to the height we wanted. Whilst we shot all the following with the iPhone 4s we could just as easily have used our Compact Camera. The iPhone 4S and many Compact Cameras boast very close macro distances (some as close as 3 cm) but in normal practice it is very tricky to compose and focus a shot like this when the camera and lens are so close to the subject. With the Steady Stand it’s no problem. As always, I used my trusted Camera + App on the iPhone and Mac users may be interested to know I also used the iCloud photostream to automatically transmit my images to my iMac where I previewed and processed them in Aperture 3. A really smooth and simple workflow! All the images apart from the two rings are full frame and none of the images have been doctored (excuse dust specs) other than downsizing to appear on this page. I also subsequently ‘saved images for web’ in Photoshop to keep the image file size manageable. (The rings were cropped to about a quarter of the full frame). As I’d run out of daylight I shot with artificial light but could have easily achieved similar results with daylight. I’m particularly surprised with the watch results. I’ve recently completed a vintage watch catalogue shoot using my DSLR and I know only too well how tricky it is to avoid unwanted reflections in the watches glass over the face. Using the Steady Stand with the anti-reflection mask plate has worked well even at a very close macro distance. I’ll be posting an article on the vintage watch shoot soon, in which I used HDR techniques in post processing so be sure to subscribe or follow if you’re interested in that. Incidentally, did you know the reason watches should always be photographed at 10 minutes to 2, or 10 minutes past 10, is so the watch face is smiling at you, saying ‘Buy Me!’ 😉 It’s true!
That’s enough for Part 1 for now.
To summarise, here’s what we’ve covered.
Locating your studio set
Using ‘Program’ use low ISO, high image quality setting, self timer.
When to set alternative to Auto White Balance (AWB) (Cloudy/Shade white balance presets)
Outsmart your Smartphone or camera with plonk and shoot technique
Shooting easy white backgrounds
Shooting not so easy white backgrounds by using Spot Metering and Exposure Compensation
Controlling daylight and shadows
Shooting macro on an elevated platform
In Part 2 we’ll cover: working with available artificial light, using custom white balance, controlling depth of field/focus, shooting straight -on and shooting suspended subjects with the Modahaus Steady Stand.
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p.s. The first shot below was shot using the Modahaus Tabletop Studio Pro 216 with available artificial light with some other examples below that.