Photography Skills Special Tips

Taking Professional Looking Photos Without a Professional

The Setup:

When taking your own photos, you want lots of light – but not direct light. Direct light will cause harsh shadows, which you don’t want. DO NOT USE A FLASH! Flashes wash out colors and details – and even the entire photo if you are taking close up shots. Professional looking product photos have soft shadows and a subtle background. To achieve this effect, you want soft, diffused light. You could buy a fancy “photo tent” or “light box” to diffuse the light for you… but who wants to spend that much money? What I use is a semi clear, frosted plastic Rubbermaid container. Choose a size that fits what you are photographing.

Obviously, this container method will only work for items that will fit inside the container. The frosted plastic of the container serves to diffuse the light somewhat. To do so even more, drape a layer of white interfacing over the container (you can get this at any fabric store – about $1.50 a yard.) You could also use a white sheet. I have two clip on lamps attached to the container, and another lamp in the front of the container with a piece of interfacing draped over it. Be sure to use Daylight light bulbs – they produce a much nicer light than normal incandescent (which produce a yellow cast) or fluorescent (which produce a green cast) light bulbs. You can buy these inexpensive bulbs almost anywhere. Look for GE Reveal light bulbs.

For the background, trim a piece of white matte poster board and curve it inside the container. This serves as your seamless background. You can use any color matte poster board for this – though I personally think white looks the most professional, and is also easier to work with later on.

Here is a photo of the setup I use:

The Camera:
If you can, get and use a tripod. Most people cannot hold their cameras steady enough for slower shutter speeds – and a shaky hand creates a blurry photo. You can get cheap, small tripods on places like eBay.

Know your camera and how it works. The two main settings you will be dealing with are shutter speed and aperture. Many digital cameras give you the option of manual settings – consult your manual and if you do, learn how to adjust them on your camera. For those of you who don’t know what these settings are, here is a quick summary:

Shutter Speed: The length of time your film (or digital chip) is exposed to light. The longer the shutter speed, the more light is let into your camera, and the brighter your photo will be. A shutter speed of 1/30 (sometimes just 30) means your shutter is open for 1/30th of a second. This is considered a relatively slow shutter speed.

Aperture: The diameter of the opening that allows the light to enter the camera. The bigger the opening, the more light is allowed to enter your camera. NOTE: I know I said the bigger the opening, but this setting often seems backwards. Larger numbers (8, 11, 16, etc.) mean smaller openings and less light, whereas smaller numbers (2.8, 4, etc.) actually let in more light.

Other features/settings you should be aware of:

ISO/ASA (film speed): If you have the option to manually select a film speed on your camera, resist the temptation to choose 400. The “faster” the film, the more “noise” will be in your photo. Noise on a digital camera makes the photo appear grainy. Try to use a film speed of 50 or 100 for the best quality photos. Do note, however, that by reducing the speed of the film, you are reducing its sensitivity to light. This is why it is so important to have good lighting in your photo setup. You need more light to compensate for the slower film speeds.

Macro Mode: This is the ability of your camera to focus very close to an object – sometimes within centimeters. This is an especially important feature if you are photographing small items like jewelry, or just want a close up detail shot of an item. This mode is usually indicated by a tulip icon. Learn how to turn it on, and the how close you can get before you need to use it. (For example, my camera focuses in macro mode when the distance between the lens and the subject is between 5 and 26cm).

Light Meter: This is the feature on your camera that tells you how much light enters the camera. A light meter’s sole purpose in life is to create photos where the average is middle gray – an 18% shade of gray to be exact. That is, the average of all the tones in the photo – from pure black to pure white – will average out to middle gray. This is exactly what the “auto” feature on a camera creates – an “average” photo. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. That is why it is nice to be able to control your own settings. For example, if you were photographing a white purse on a white background, you would want the end result lighter than average (more white tones than black). For this photo you may want your light meter to read +2/3 or +1.

A light meter comes in many different forms. Mine is a + or – number in the corner of my screen when I push the shutter button down half way. Other light meters may be more similar to an odometer. A zero or center reading will produce an average photo. Start out by trying to get your meter to read zero. You do this by changing the amount of light entering the camera – in other words by changing your aperture and shutter speeds. Experiment with different settings and see what combinations of apertures and shutter speeds will produce a zero reading in certain lighting conditions. Once you get to know your light meter you can begin to adjust the light as necessary for the particular photo.

White Balance: Most digital cameras have a white balance feature that will adjust the colors depending on the lighting conditions. The names of the settings are not often accurate. I recommend setting up your photo container with lights and an item, and take one photo with each of the whit e balance settings (usually auto, tungsten, fluorescent, halogen, daylight, etc.)… and see which one looks best. If you are using a white background, see which background looks whitest (as opposed to orange or green, for example). Remember this setting and use it. For example, under my lighting conditions and with my camera, the fluorescent setting produces the best photos… go figure.

Taking Your Pictures

When taking your photos, don’t rush. Take multiple photos of each item. Reposition the item, get closer, farther away, choose a different perspective – take photos with a light meter reading of average, a little below average, and a little above average (this is known as bracketing). Photography is often a game of odds – the more photos you take, the better your chances are of getting a good one. And that’s what’s nice about digital – you can delete the bad ones later on.

Making Your Photos Beautiful with Photoshop… (read more)


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