Sunday, November 14, 2010

Goings on

Ingrid and I took a workshop at MAC with Michael Healey a couple of weeks ago on how to photograph your 3d artwork. It was really helpful and I not only learned a great deal about optimal setup and equipment, I also found some new features on my camera that I hadn't known about- go figure.  Since I actually do product photography as part of my job at the Heard, my main goal in taking this class was to learn about what equipment I need to request for the budget next year as well as optimal setup and how I can achieve better quality images in camera so I don't have to do quite as much Photoshop work to get the pics ready to upload to the online shop. So here's Michael's basic setup:

Michael's set up
He sets up a good solid wood board on horses then has a bar across the back with a photo paper roll (he uses a light gray) which then gets pulled down in a nice arc and taped to the front of the board. He usually uses one light which is just over and in front of the set up. The trick to getting a dark fall off going up the image is to put a shade structure up over the set up so light hits the piece but not the background as it goes vertical. Very clever. He also has the background a good distance away from the piece so depth of field is just on the work which allows the background to just fade into non-detailed darkness, which is also very clever.

An example of how Michael's photography looks with this set up

My set up at work involves a gifted piece of black photo paper (I need to get with my boss and see about ordering some rolls- they aren't that pricey) and two lights with umbrellas. I turn the lights completely up facing the ceiling and that causes the light to bounce back off the ceiling and the umbrellas to diffuse the photo area. It reverses my light to dark though so the floor of the set up is dark and the vertical wall gets lighter.  I'm sure I can rig something up to mimic Michael's set up but it may have to wait until after high season because I'm way too busy having to get product online right now to take time out to mess with the set up.

my set up
Looks a bit on the minimal side, doesn't it? Amazingly it gets the job done 9 times out of 10.  One thing I also learned in Michael's workshop is that he can spend quite a bit of time problem solving the set up to get the very best quality shot he can. And he does and it looks amazing. On any given day I may need to put anywhere from 10-40 pieces on the web and that's on top of processing orders, taking phone calls and emails that are all over the place topic-wise and preparing the content to go online as well.  I have to have a setup that is sort of a one size fits all, which is not optimal, but I'm amazed that I'm doing as well as I am considering all its shortcomings.  Here's an example shot:

This was shot in my light tent, which I don't like but it's not bad, eh? I'll have to take a pic of what my light tent looks like but here's what Michael uses for a light tent:

Michael's home made light tent- pvc and a vellum-like heat resistant photo film used in theatre
The only reason I don't like my light tent is because they designed it with velcro as well as zippers and the velcro is constantly shedding little white fluff all over my black paper! Apart from that, it's okay. Here's a typical example of a product shot not in a light tent. You can see how the background gets lighter and the "floor" is dark.

Another issue with my set up is that I don't have time to measure for optimal depth of field so I just have to crank up the depth of field as high as possible to accommodate the different sized pieces and different focal lengths I need to get the shot. I can't back away from my setup by more than 4 or 5 feet, so the background is almost always in focus. That makes for additional grain in the image no matter what the ISO but for me right now it's unavoidable. Here's the other side of my office/ studio:

Michael's class was really great and also allowed me to see that I was doing some things as well as I could so I've stopped beating myself up a bit on the struggle to get good shots. Even with all of his expertise and the right equipment, he still struggles with getting the best shots possible.  And for you jeweler's out there, he says that's the hardest stuff he ever has to shoot! I think he's planning on teaching it in the spring (it's a weekend workshop) and I highly recommend it if you need better shots of your work for shows or galleries and you need to take them yourself.  If you can afford not to have to take them yourself, I recommend you hire  Michael because he's really good :-)

About equipment: the product shots you see here that I took were shot with an old Nikon d40 with a Nikkor ~17-55mm lens. My lights are tungsten lights. The camera ISO is set to 200 and to Aperture mode. I have the white balance set to incandescent +2, which means tungsten on this camera. I adjust the exposure rather than the shutter speed to bracket because that's faster. I do not have an external light meter. Every image is brought into Photoshop CS4. The most common adjustments outside of cropping and sizing for the web are levels and selective color (using layers). I also do a lot of background fuzz cleanup with the patch tool.  BTW, sizing for the web means reducing the dpi to 72, which is the highest resolution for the web.  You do not want an image that is 300 dpi ever to go up onto the web. It just hogs memory and causes the whole system to bog down. I also bring the image width and height down and compress all jpegs for web viewing. The quality is usually between 60-80%.

My personal camera is a Nikon D300 and my main lens is a Tamron 17-55mm, which I love. All the other photos as well as just about any photo you see here or on my design website was shot with the D300.  My next big purchase for photography is going to be a tripod over a flash. I learned another thing in Michael's class, keeping the ISO down makes for better photos but that also frequently makes for longer exposures. I need a tripod for a lot of the work I really like to do.  As of my research right now, I'm leaning towards an RRS ball head with quick release plate and I'm pretty sure I'll get that but the legs I really want are from Gtizo and they are quite pricey so I may go with an Induro set for about half the cost. I think they'll work out just fine.  That little gift to self will have to wait until after the holidays though :-)  Sigh, something to dream about....

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