Product photography has, for me, been a constantly elusive beast. It requires more care and attention to detail than I’d ever anticipated. It wasn’t until I ventured into amateur pet and portrait photography that I began to understand the finer details of creating a cohesive look to an online selling venue. While still refining my own product photography technique, I have learned a great deal about style, equipment, methodology and, most importantly, photographic faux pas which disrupts your opportunity for establishing a successful online presence.
I am by no means an expert, nor sufficiently schooled in the use of all cameras or equipment and have learned these lessons by taking awful imagines. Many, many awful images. If I can save you a single awful image, I’ll consider this a job well done.
Lens. Though I recommend the purchase of a reliable camera with excellent macro capabilities, typically $300-$500, that does not mean the Kodak EasyShare you got for Christmas wont work. It’s not ideal equipment for product photography, but there are fabulous tools at your disposal to make even the most inexpensive camera take sharp images. The Little BigShot is an image amplifying lens attachment used for most models of point and shoot cameras, at an unbelievably reasonable price. This attachment will transform a $100 camera into a $400 camera with a removable lens and some velcro… because let’s face it…. when is velcro ever bad? Google it, visit the blog, watch the videos, peruse the photos and be amazed. With that said, I stick by my philosophy that a great camera is tantamount to great product photography, and this lens is a wonderful, albeit temporary, solution for artists on a budget.
On-Camera Flash. Don’t use it. On-camera flash is, to professional photography, what a child’s wiffle ball is to the NBL. It causes glare, especially on metal or reflective surfaces, which post-processing cannot rectify and which detract from the product or photo focal. Jewelry artists can’t afford to misrepresent their work in an online environment, where the photograph is your only impression. A client can’t appreciate the value of a beautiful piece of labradorite, for instance, if the flash obstructs the “fire” of the stone. If you feel you have absolutely no choice but to use a flash (it's perpetual night) then create a small bubble of wax paper, folded in quarters and tapeed over your flash, and this will help diffuse the intensity of the light. It is not ideal, but it will help reduce the possibility of glare while still providing ample (and usually excessive) light. Though difficult to juggle, especially if your camera is heavy, you can also hold a small white envelope or piece of cardboard between your on-camera flash and the top of the lens, in front of the camera, and angle the envelope or board upwards. This will bounce the light away from the subject, while still filling the room, allowing for an indirect fill light. If you can afford to invest in equipment, purchase an off-camera flash, such as the SB-600 ($250 or less) for Nikon or the Speedlight 320EX for Canon cameras, or ask a sales associate to show you off-camera flash for point and shoot cameras, because they do exist. An off-camera flash is an excellent substitution for full studio lights, with practice, and a phenomenal alternative for the jeweler without the work room or space for a permanent studio.
Studio My studio consists of a light tent on a chair and a shop light on either side. Assuming you all have chairs as equally functional, this entire set-up cost $75, including all of my props and bulbs. Amazon has fantastic opportunities for product photographers, including the $10 light tent by Photo Tents (Model PT40), and shop lights, courtesy of Lowe’s at $7 a piece. I own four lights (both sides, back and top), but mostly use only two, depending on the time of day and other available ambient light.
Though natural light is the most inexpensive “studio” available, it is, at best, inconsistent. You must avoid direct sunlight (which creates shadow and glare), and the time of day will alter the temperature, white balance and over-all “mood” of your final image. An extra layer of clouds across the sun between shots will create a vast difference between two images and require a great deal more time in post-processing if you aim to provide a cohesive look. Not to mention I’m simply not so dedicated to my craft I will photograph outdoors in a Michigan winter, for the benefit of natural light. Me likey toes. Me no likey frostbite.
But do you have to order equipment, you ask. Absolutely not. Is ordering an inexpensive light tent easier than mapping Mother Nature. Yes. Easier than making one and just as cost-effective? You betcha, in my best Sarah Palin voice (which is to say… not her voice at all). And, in my opinion, a far preferable solution. This tent comes with four colored backdrops and folds into a convenient carrying pouch which tucks neatly in my camera backpack. You will NOT find a studio that takes up less room than this, I guarantee, and in my 1000 square foot home, a space saver is a life saver. Pull it out of its case, set it on a chair or dining room table, use an off-camera flash, and I have a portable studio. However, if you are dead set on creating your own light tent, here are a few options for your creative entertainment.
Milk Carton. Wash and dry an empty opaque white milk carton. Cut off the top 1/4 in a reasonably straight manner. Place daylight bulbs on either side. Use a cloth, tile or other backdrop and get to shooting. For “floating” images, poke a small hole on either side and run fishing line through the inside of the milk carton. Hang your pendant or product from the fishing line (which wont be seen in the final image), and voila… you have a “floating” pendant. Why is this listed first? Because it’s the cheapest alternative. Not pretty, but functional enough.
Tupperware. Oh Tupperware, how my obsessive compulsive disorder loves thee. Tupperware is a great studio alternative and, best yet… you can store your lights, jewelry and tools inside and pack it away when you’re done. Lay your opaque or clear container on its side, line the walls with wax paper to diffuse (or soften) incoming light, place your lights on either side, and you have an insta-tent. I recommend a size no larger than 14″ square for jewelry photography, or your product will get lost in insufficient lighting. The smaller the container, the less room in which the light must reflect… meaning a brighter studio, less work for your camera and a sharper image overall.
PVC Pipe. This is my last suggestion because, quite frankly, it’s just too much work in my book. Get yourself enough pipe and connecting elbows to create a box shape, drape an opaque fabric (or wax paper) so all but one side is covered, place lights on the outside and you’re good to go. There are diagrams aplenty available in a generic Google search for PVC Pipe Light Tent. Yes, you can attach clip-on lamps to the pipe, which is convenient, and the pipes can be dismantled for storage, but it’s not as time-friendly a process as the other options mentioned.
Creating Atmosphere The inside of my light tent consists of a handful of things: several pieces of 10 x 10″ card stock in different neutral colors, a black river rock, a slate tile, and, if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, a prop head or hand. Keeping these things inside the tent while shooting (with the exception of the prop head or hand) allows for easy transfer of product to achieve multiple photographic looks. I also own a piece of black and white acrylic. Acrylic, as featured in the photograph at the beginning of this post, has a rich professional appeal, with a nice reflection to compliment the piece and a smooth flow of light. I also use small props like the single river rock featured with the stud earrings, however, a porous log, piece of driftwood, bright red or green leaves and pine cones also make excellent props. But the use of backdrop and prop is completely dependent upon the desired mood. Without mood, you have an uninspiring final image. Who wants to buy an uninspiring product? My mood changes frequently and, as such, my photographs do as well. Acrylic for a stylized professional approach. Stone or slate tile for an earthly ambiance, cardstock for an appealing middle ground. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating atmosphere in your product photography.
Your props should compliment the background and create a subtle contrast. A white rock on a black piece of acrylic, a multicolor leaf, or beans and multiple small accessories all detract from the overall enjoyment of the artistry, and creates a sense of visionary confusion. Your props should not compete for attention, but compliment the focus of attention. A black stone on a piece of gray slate, however, is much more complimentary to one another, and therefore creates no unnecessary contrast to detract from the product. Black props with black backgrounds. White or beige props with white backgrounds. Avoid beans, rice or pebbles, which could detract from detail, especially in wire wrapping or chain mail. These are trusted guidelines for creating solid images.
Also, when you change photographic styles, I recommend changing ALL the images in your shop, which should reflect your vision as a unit. Two photographs with a bean background, one photograph with black acrylic, one photograph with doilies and newsprint and scrapbooking paper create an uneasy sense of confusion. This doesn’t mean 128 pieces should be re-photographed immediately, but you should aim to replace several a day in your effort to achieve a cohesive look.
Technique Techniques will always vary dependent upon the camera, lenses or other equipment at your disposal, but those offered here will be generically applied to all.
First. I recommend a photo-editing software that extends beyond that which comes with your camera or installed on your computer. They are, and always will be, woefully insufficient for the processing of professional images. Photoscape is an excellent program, free, easy to use, and works well on laptops, netbooks or hardware that has little available space. Gimp is free, but hardly user-friendly unless you are familiar with extensive programs like Photoshop, and it can monopolize a lot of space on a netbook, and slow your computer to a crawl. If you have the computer capacity and the funds, I highly recommend Lightroom 3 (Lightroom 4 is now available, but not as appropriate for beginners) for photographic editing, which is easier to use than Photoscape, providing extensive user control, and is wildly more affordable than other Adobe post-processing or image manipulation programs at just $75.
Second. Learn. Your. Camera. Read your manual…. and then read it again. Take shots in every mode allowable by your camera, in every possible lighting scenario. And keep in mind these terms: ISO – determines how sensitive your camera is to available or ambient light, Aperture – the size of the opening of the lens through which light enters, and Shutter Speed – the speed at which the shutter of your lens opens and closes and the amount of time during which light is available to the sensors of your camera. Too much light (slow shutter speed) will wash out a photograph and create motion blur. Too little light (fast shutter speed or small aperture) and your product will be underexposed. And though excellent photo editing programs can recover some poorly shot images, getting it right in camera will save you time you never knew you were wasting.
Depending on your camera, keep your ISO at 400 or less (point and shoot) or 1000 or less (most DSLRs). Higher ISO and your pictures will contain noise or grain which cannot be removed post-process without sacrificing the integrity of the final image. To keep your ISO at one of these manageable levels, you may need to adjust your settings manually and take your camera off Auto Mode for full control. Aperture Priority (usually indicated by an A on your camera mode dial) is sometimes preferable as it creates a sense of depth with appropriately placed background blur, as seen in the image of the stud earrings above. Note how the stone and earrings are in focus, but the background (which is a ridged piece of gray card stock) appears to be a nice smooth surface with consistent color? That is all thanks to an appropriate aperture setting of about f/8, though exact settings will depend on how close to the subject you intend to get. The further from your subject you get, the more your camera will see your background and subject as existing on a similar “plane”, reducing background blur and creating more focus.
You can also use Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, which allows the operator to set only the Aperture or Shutter Speed to a desired level, and adjusts all other elements automatically. It’s a step up from Auto, while still allowing for a high degree of ease. Just remember the following: a larger aperture allows for more light and creates more depth-by-blur, represented by a small F-Number (f/4), and a smaller aperture allows less light and creates more focus, represented by a large F-Number or F-Stop (f/18). In the photo of the stud earrings, I felt the ridged backing board would detract from the jewelry if it were in focus, so I chose to use a larger F-Stop. In the photo at the beginning of this post, background blur wasn’t the desired effect, and full focus was preferred, so I used a smaller F-Stop of f/16.
Third. Tripods. When using a point and shoot camera, especially, (though this holds true for mid-range and professional DSLR’s as well) which doesn’t allow for low-light or studio work, you may find your camera automatically compensates for low light conditions by adjusting its shutter speed to less than 1/60 of a second, in most cases. Sometimes adjusting to as slow as 1/3 of a second! Any shutter speed less than the length of your lens is unacceptable for quality images. A 90mm lens, for instance, requires at least 1/90 of a second shutter speed, assuming you are holding your camera in hand. At 1/60 of a second, with camera in hand, you begin to fall victim to camera shake. What’s camera shake, you ask? It’s when, during that 1/60 of a second, your camera records all the movements you make while holding it. This presents itself as unintentional blur in your shots, resulting in soft edges and a loss of detail. A tripod allows you to stabilize your camera and prevent operator movement (and its resulting blur), and for point and shoot cameras is remarkably affordable ($30 or less) and, in my opinion, absolutely necessary. With a tripod, you can use a slower shutter speed in less light, without capturing unintentional movement. This will provide cleaner and sharper images overall.
Fourth. Use sufficient lighting. The more lighting you have the less work your camera has to do to capture a clear image. If an off-camera flash is out of your budget, daylight bulbs and shop lamps are a wonderful addition to any studio. They allow you to shoot any time of day or year, regardless of the elements, and gives a consistent stream of light every time, assuming your set-up remains the same. An important thing to remember in regards to lighting is that your lights or flash should never point directly at your subject. Your camera will read this as “Woah! Too much light!” and will likely over or under expose the shot. If using shop lights, place them directly to the sides and above your product. Rely on your light tent to bounce the light an appropriate amount. If using an off-camera flash, adjust so the flash bounces off the inside top or side of your light tent. The white walls will do their magic and move that light around in the 1/100 of a second it takes to finalize your shot in-camera.
Fifth. Post process. You may think your image is fine in camera, but in almost every conceivable scenario, (save a professional photography studio) it needs to be post processed in an editing program to achieve a professional look. If you aren’t using gray cards in your shots (you can find YouTube videos to explain the use of these) the temperature or warmth, white balance or tone, clarity or contrast enhancement, brightness and depth are all things to adjust manually per the allowable limits of your software. Adjusting these allow you to maintain true color and richness that amateur photographic equipment simply cannot process, and sufficient lighting cannot always provide. Play with your software, learn every available function and, most importantly, have fun! Keep in mind, however, over-processing an image, especially an image from a point and shoot camera, which, by its nature, has less pixels and less “information” with which to work, may damage the integrity of the shot. If your camera allows, shoot in RAW (read your camera manual for further information), and over-processing becomes less likely. And please, try not to crop a full res image down to a tiny square in the center of the shot where your subject rests. Get CLOSE to your subject and shoot. Don't shoot far and crop close, which will degrade the image and, depending upon the severity of the crop, cause horrible pixelization and photo "fuzz".
Sixth. Sharpness. Do not have fun at the expensive of abusing the “sharpness” function on your editing software. If you have sufficient lighting, a dependable camera and whatever accessories necessary, dependent upon your other gear, you should never have to adjust the sharpness of an image during post processing. This creates a type of unattractive static which looks fake and generally unappealing. The sharpness button will not hide nor detract from motion blur captured in your image, which is a common misconception. Avoid it like the plague and your images will have naturally appealing focus. If you find yourself gravitating towards the sharpness button, delete the photo, turn off your software and start again in-studio. Add an additional light and, when a tripod is unavailable, prop your camera on a steady surface to shoot. Retake your shot and apply to your editing software again.
Notes Floating Jewelry. To create the look of weightless or floating jewelry, stand a piece of card stock against the back wall of your light tent, hang the earrings over a small stick (I actually used a bottle rocket stick!), place that stick over the ridges of two glasses, at least five inches from your backdrop, and begin to shoot! I like to tilt my camera when shooting, to really fill the frame. If shooting straight up and down, you end up with empty (or negative) space on either side of the pair of earrings, which I find less effective than shooting corner to corner. Use a larger Aperture (remember, that’s a small F-number), which will reduce the focus on the back drop, and you have yourself a pair of floating earrings. You may need to crop (slightly) the very top of the earrings out of frame to hide or remove the stick, or, if you are handy with photo editing programs, you can remove the stick if it shows with some technical graphics know-how. Photoscape has a “clone stamp” which allows you to effectively remove unwanted elements from a shot, and for which you can find how-to information on their website or YouTube.
Wearing Jewelry in Shots. I have neither the hands nor the neck nor the ears to compliment the jewelry, and unless you have the hands, ears or the neck, or employ a model who does, I would avoid the use of your own body parts in shots. Nothing detracts from a beautiful piece of jewelry more than damaged skin on which it rests. Or, in my case, damaged skin, broken nails, and blotchy tone! Use head forms, neck forms or hand forms, which can usually all be purchased for less than $10 a piece, and remember to correspond the color of your forms with the color of your background for a great cohesive look.
Reflective surfaces. Avoid them. Acrylic is an acceptable reflective surface if you are using studio lights only, and a sufficient number of them, but an on or off-camera flash will completely destroy the integrity of your shot on any reflective surface unless heavily diffused first. Avoid using neck forms, displays or cloth that are reflective in nature, such as any high-shine leather, silk, or faux suede. The faux suede has tiny fibers which are all reflective in nature. You’ll find, in photos using these types of displays, every fiber is visible and reflecting the light away, ultimately, from your subject. Display forms and props are best if made from a faux (or real) wood or plastic that has a matte finish.
Watermark. I highly recommend watermarking your images, at least until your brand and style are recognizable. In a technological age where images are, sometimes, used without permission, making sure your name is attached is incredibly important. Keep your watermark consistent between your images, and in frame but off your subject. You can even watermark with a website, if your web address is small enough.
And that’s it. That’s Nicole Hanna Photography 101 in a nutshell, or a conch shell… or some other slightly larger shell. Some of these tips and techniques may not apply, and others you may blatantly choose to ignore and, you know what? That’s FINE! I don’t blame you if all the F-Stops and Aperture talk made your eyes glaze over while you succumbed to unintentional drool. Ultimately, the real challenge is to find your photographic voice, capture it and share it with others in a manner your clients find appealing. Do that, and your job is done. And, on your journey, I wish you the best of luck. Maybe I’ll meet up with you somewhere along the way. After all, I’m still discovering my voice as well.