Anyone have a well defined process for taking good photos of furniture and
other woodworking projects? I took numerous photos of the Shaker style
sewing chest of drawers I had at Woodworker's Showcase in Saratoga Springs a
couple weeks ago in an attempt to get good photos. I have yet to get any
photos that do the chest's workmanship or the figure of the curly maple top
I'm using a 3.2 megapixal digital camera that is well regarded in it's class
for good photos--Fuji Finepix 3800. I've taken some really nice photos of
people, landscapes, etc., but getting pictures that really show the detail
of my woodworking projects escapes me. Anyone got a reliable process?
On Tue, 6 Apr 2004 23:04:05 -0400, "John Grossbohlin"
Good composition, accurate focus, and very bright (natural?)
lighting without using direct flash if at all possible.
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Photography is all about light.
I suspect you are shooting your woodwork porjects indoors?
Get them outdoors in natural light and you might notice a big difference.
Otherwise you need to rig up some good powered lighting in your shop to get
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Lighting is the key. It doesn't matter how well composed the photo is,
unless it's properly lit it's not going to look good.
To start with, don't use the on-camera flash. Use bounced light instead.
If you have one or two 500 watt floodlights, try aiming them at the wall and
ceiling a bit behind you and off to the side. The idea is to light the
object with bounced light only and avoid any direct light. You'll have to
adjust the white balance for tungsten lighting. You can light small objects
by placing them near a window (but not in a sunny window), with a large
white board or piece of styrofoam placed near the shadow side to provide
There's a lot more ideas I can offer, but I'd suggest you go to the library
and browse through some photographic lighting books. A picture speaks a
thousand words. You'll see examples of different kinds of lighting compared.
To take your photos you don't need any fancy studio equipment or gidgets. A
500 watt shoplight bounced off a white piece of posterboard, styrofoam, or
even a wall is the functional equivalent of an umbrella or softbox.
All good advice. But the softbox and umbrella are a lot easier to manipulate.
First, we don't know what kind of controls John's 3.2 MP camera has. If it has
auto white balance, and no manual, he may have problems. Same with focus. He
needs some form of manual focus to lock the focus right on that dovetail or
grain figure. He can use halogen shop lights for floods, if he has white
balance control. He might also use a space blanket to help point up highlights
in the hardware...for larger areas; Reynolds wrap also makes a good reflector.
As you note, the best general reflector is a lightweight white board. Styrofoam
comes in 4' x 8' sheets and weighs next to zip. Using the 2" thick stuff, if
you plan to shoot more than a couple photos with it, is a good idea because the
1" breaks too easily (if you're not as clumsy as I am, this may not matter).
A quck check shows the Fuji 3800 does NOT have manual focus (and the LCD is so
grainy it wouldn't matter if it did). It does have a white balance over-ride
and 7 settings, though I don't know what they are from the precis.
Essentially, without a manual focus, that camera will NEVER do what John wants.
"It is not strange... to mistake change for progress." Millard Fillmore
On 07 Apr 2004 10:19:38 GMT, email@example.com (Charlie Self)
If he is near a large city, he may be able to rent a professional
camera for a day. Set up all the lighting and try out with the 3800.
Have all the pieces lined up to move into place one after the other,
an plan the day out carefully.
Then rent the camera and get your money's worth out of it.
But start by studying books on photographic lighting.
Rodney Myrvaagnes J36 Gjo/a
The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the
simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.
- Richard Dawkins, "Viruses of the Mind"
But you have to go out and buy them, along with the appropriate hotlights.
One decent softbox, stand, and lamp will cost more than his camera.
I would hope so. Any camera that lacks white balance for incandescent lights
is pretty useless.
There's a bit of a parallel here with woodworking tools. It's nice to have
purpose built tools, but you can improvise a lot of the tools you need. Like
you say, styro and foil work well. So does a white wall, white sheets, white
posterboards. Posterboards are cheap enough that one could get a selection
of white, silver, and gold foil for under $10, and they'll be fine for
lighting smaller items.
I think he was just looking for a few quick tips to get some better shots.
If wants professional quality promo shots of his work, especially prints,
he's going to have to hire a photographer with the know-how and equipment.
Hotlights? Good hotlights are no longer that much cheaper than low end studio
flash. My softbox setup, with boom and overstrong stand did cost more than his
camera, without the White Lightning 10,000 inside it. Later this year, I hope
to add a couple more lights to replace the 20 year old Spiratone strobe I
bounce off an umbrella. I'd also like to be able to work with at least a
semi-decent snoot that I don't cobble up out of seamless paper.
Well, there are certian minimums on gear, but practice is what makes a good
photographer, so there's really no need to hire a pro. Just add in a few bucks
and stir. A pro is going to cost about what a decent set-up does, for a one
time shoot. And that's a minimum charge that has to be repeated every time he
has a project to be shot.
"It is not strange... to mistake change for progress." Millard Fillmore
Charlie is right on using strobes. Consistency is what it's all about.
Halogen is second best, but the lights all age and if you use more than
one, you can have several lights all of different color, though around
3200 kelvin. Strobe is more or less 5600-6000 kelvin and like daylight.
The LAST thing you really want is to use overcast daylite. The light
changes, the color balance is cool and it changes as you shoot sometimes.
While some of the lighting equipment has gotten cheaper, one way to save
on a soft box if you can't afford one of the fabric boxes is to make a
frame from PVC and cover it with translucent shower curtain. That will
yellow over time, but is cheap to replace. You can put halogen or strobe
behind it, you can move it etc. One way to support it is to get one of
those small metal paint buckets, and put a 1 x2 in it embedded in some
cement. It won't move and you can clamp lots of things to it and it's
cheap to make several in an afternoon.
But if you're going to do an amount of photos, invest in a strobe of
enough power to at least give you ONE powerful light source. With the
frame and some reflectors you can do a lot. There is a LOT of used photo
equipment with so many studios closing today. The day of the cheap,
royalty free photo and the corporations not wanting to pay for anything
is or has taken its toll. I'd say much stuff is available for .10 on the
Stay away from using multiple light sources. The amateur won't handle
that well when even the pros have trouble. Remember, there is only ONE
SUN in the sky!
While you can use foamcoare, don't dismiss matte silver cards. You can
find them in an art supply store here and there. Some photo stores have
Many say get white paper for small stuff to shoot on. A better
re-useable choice might be white formica. You can roll it up. Best of
all you can "sweep" it out along a table and wall to make a seamless
background. That way you can have your product in the front, lit and a
darker shadow in back, all the way to black if you do it right. Best of
all don't bash it and it can be cleaned to stay white with household
Got small stuff? Well the formica is perfect even in colors. Want it to
look even better? Clean the formica then wipe it with some "Liquid Gold"
and polish it in. The surface will have a sheen and produce some nice,
subtle reflections in the foreground that will be stronger the lower the
If you're going to use film, I'd use Fuji. It's far more consistent and
such than the Kodak products. Provia needs little color correction with
strobes if your box has silver inside which also gives better color
saturation than white boxes while giving you more light.
I've had a studio in Chicago since 1976 and done food to cars, including
furniture and rooms. Theres more of course, but it would take hours and
lots of posts.
But ask questions if you have them or email me.
"The measure of a man is what he will do
Good advise. . . . . BUT beware bouncing light can cause as many problems as
direct flash if you do it the wrong way! If you do not have a neutral
surface to bounce off of you are introducing the color of that surface into
the scene. Lets say you have a red wall you are bouncing off of onto a green
surface the color will turn muddy on the green surface.
Watch the distance of the surface you are bouncing off of too. If it is to
high you might as well not use it.
I'd like to elaborate a bit further on this point, as it's important. The
size of the light source in relation to the subject is what determines how
hard or soft the light will appear. The larger the light source, the softer
the light. When photographing woodwork, it's generally best to flood the
item with soft, diffuse light, especially if the item has any pronounced
sheen to it.
For most people without photographic lighting gear, an easy way to do this
is to shine bright lights (like $10 halogen shop lights) against a light
coloured wall or ceiling. In order to have a large light source, you'll need
to position the light some distance back from the wall. Five to ten feet
would probably be good. The lights should also be aimed high on the wall, at
the wall/ceiling juncture. This way you'd have some side lighting and some
overhead lighting. Position the lights so they're a bit off to the side, 45
degrees or so is good to start with. If you use more than one light, try to
slightly vary the brightness of each light so that the different surfaces of
the item being photographed are lit with different amounts of light. Anyone
who's tried photographing woodwork with direct flash will be amazed at the
improvement a change in lighting will make.
I have years of photography experience, all sorts of cameras both
analog and digital, fancy studio lights, flash meters, soft boxes,
umbrellas, the works, but you don't need any of that to make good,
maybe even great, images. The fancy toys just make it easier to make
good images any place you might be, at most any time of day. I tried
to teach my father-in-law how to use some of these nice toys to make
goodl images of his fancy pottery for e-bay sales, but it mainly
confused him. What follows is what I taught him that does work.
If you have a porch with a roof, or a large picture window, this can
be pretty easy. In good daylight, cover said window or porch exposure
with a large, white, semi-transparent cloth to diffuse the lighting.
You might want to find another large piece of opaque fabric, or studio
paper (under $35 for a large roll and its reuseable if you are
careful) to use as a backdrop. Cluttered backgrounds really detract
from a produc type shot. Pick medium, neutral tones to start.
Photograph on an axis parallel to your diffuse lighting panel. Go to
the art store and pick up some large foamcore panels. Hinge two pieces
(2'x4' for each, perhaps a little taller if your piece is taller)
together with some duct tape on the long edge. Open these up like a
dressing screen, duct tape seam to the outside, and place out of frame
on the unlit side to fill in the shadows. You can also play with
opaque panels, on the lighting side to 'flag' or block some of the
light on portions of your subject.
The above description is a bit terse, but a decent photo book that
covers lighting should have a simple diagram to get you started. A
stop at the library or a peek in the bookstore will get you started.
If not, ring back and I will forward you a .jpg line drawing.
One of the keys is good product lighting does NOT come from an on
camera flash. Getting the light off of the camera to subject axis will
give your subject depth and dimension.
The other issue that crops up is color balance, Experience and a good
eye are great, but you can cheat a bit by learning to "color balance
by the numbers." See the following site for a more complete
It does help to be in the ball park to start. Look in your camera
manual to see if you can set a manual white balance. If you can, set
your balance off of a couple sheets of "white" paper ( laserjet paper
with a brightness in low 90's from Office Depot, Staples, etc.; normal
copier paper is too yellow, and the ultra bright papers have optical
brightners that can give you fits).
You can also make a small white/grey/black target. These should be
non-reflective. A playing card piece of flat metal sooted up over a
smoky candle works great for black. You should buy a Kodak neutral
grey card from your camera store for the grey, and the white can be a
few layers of your clean white copier paper. Coble them together in a
small target, then tape/set/sticky tack to the object you are
photographing, make an image, then remove it and quicky take a second
shot. Use the first shot, with the target to nail your color balance.
These curve and level adjustments can then be saved and applied to the
second shot. Ideally, shoot for the following RGB values: Black,
10,10, 10, and White 245, 245, 245. The grey should end up somewhere
in the 100, 100, 100 to 150, 150, 150 range, depending on how you like
the midtones to look. Tuning the RGB values on your neutral target to
be equal will ensure proper color balance. Note: equal values on your
neutral grey is the most important. If this is a bit confusing,
please ring back. It will make sense after you walk through it a
couple of times.
A couple of other things, it helps to shoot in manual, and bracket
some shots around your indicated exposure. If you white target has any
RGB value above 250 (yes I know 255 if pure white), then your shot is
likely overexposed. Similarly, if any of the black RGB values fall
below 5 then you are underexposed.
Next, use a tripod,a cheapy is fine for this purpose, and use the
camera in self timer mode. Works just like a cable release for
subjects that don't move.
If you are having problems with reflections, a polarizer might help,
although complete relief likely is not possible.
There are some good product shot type books out there. Again check
your library. Don't worry if they are primarily film based. The
fundamentals aren't any different.
A little patience helps.
Thanks for the points to ponder. I appreciate your effort as I'm finding
that the deeper I get into the woodworking the more design, meaning,
interpretation, and aesthetics have become important to me. The mechanical
aspects of woodworking have been gained through a ton of reading, watching,
and doing and my level of understanding of the mechanical things has come
along pretty well. Now I'd like to delve deeper into the art side of things
and capturing that on film is far more difficult than I ever imagined!
I had a very interesting conversation with Michael Puryear (see the cover
story on him in Woodwork last fall) at Woodworker's Showcase last month.
From his reaction to the discussion I think it was interesting for him too
as it didn't deal with the mechanical things that were at the center of
everything else he was asked during and after his seminars. Rather our
conversation dealt with how his back ground and interests in anthropology,
Chi, hiking, bicycling, canoeing, learning, teaching and his overall
evolution, came across loud and clear to me in his presentation. He isn't
the same person he was 10-20-30-40 years ago... I mentioned to him the sense
of frustration that I detected from Norm Abram last summer at the luncheon
as Norm explained his evolution and how people continue to slam him based on
years old reruns of NYW. Puryear commented (with a grin) that Norm still
wears his tool belt but conceded the tool belt was now more of a trademark,
a thread that ties him to his past, than anything else.
I'm not the same person either... just ask my father. He'll tell you that my
working at Colonial Williamsburg ruined me! This because I used to slam
things out with a relatively high level of workmanship and move on to the
next project, now I worry about proportions, style, form, meaning, etc.!
When he finds out I'm moving even further into the soft side of the art he
will be sure of my complete ruin. Thanks for helping my progression to
complete ruin via a better understanding of photography techniques. ;-)
On Thu, 8 Apr 2004 21:15:48 -0400, "John Grossbohlin"
And thanks for the appreciation. I really enjoy passing on what I have
learned and it nice to hear that someone else might find my
information helpful. Photography, like woodworking and many, many
other activities, is technique driven. Yes, certain toys, like a
camera, film if its analog, a computer and Photoshop, GIMP, etc. if
its digital, and a tripod, are a given, the rest can be slowly added,
and need not prevent you from making great images.
Best of luck with your endevors to make images of your beautiful
furniture. Having patience to make such objects, especially by hand,
puts you about 2/3 of the way down the path to photographic
enlightenment. The marketing folks do a pretty good job convincing the
inexperienced that they can be making great images within five minutes
of picking up the newest, bestest "Wiz Bang SnapShot 2000." Of course
they might make a couple of decent shots, more by accident than
design. Its like turning a inexperienced newbie loose in a nicely
equiped shop and expecting him to make a heirloom quality chest of
drawers in the first week. Even if he has good mechanical aptitude, he
will likely be overwhelmed by both the toys and the assignment. Reduce
the tool kit to the bare minimum, and the task to something
reasonable, say turn out a nice spice box, and he just might succeed
Feel free to send me an e-mail if you have any specific questions. I
don't always check the list on a regular basis.
dlglos at hotmail dot com
Well defined procedure for product photography? Not usually.
One thing you might try is getting one of those large fold out white
reflectors. They're nice because they fold up to a small size and can be
flexed to adjust the light. (They work realllly well for hoomans too).
Try a shot with indirect light to one side and the reflector just out of
the frame on the other side (to fill).
Alternately, have light shining directly on the reflector and use it as
the light source.
You could just use an old white bedsheet if you want to see if the
general idea is helpful.
Also, keep your camera perpindicular even if it means the chest is not
in the center of the frame. Move the camera position back if necessary.
Then crop your picture.
It would also be helpful if you posted a picture you are unsatisfied
with to ABPW.
I posted a picture there last evening. It was of the top of the chest of
drawers I had at Woodworker's Showcase in Saratoga Springs, NY last month. I
had previously posted some pictures I took at Showcase but even I understood
the lighting conditions there were horrible. On top of that the finish
looked splotchy in the flash because it wasn't evenly dry! I'll repost the
top... items don't seem to stay on that news group long.
There was definitely a theme in the responses to my original inquiry.
I kind of like the outdoors idea as I've gotten some really good photos with
this camera outdoors. However, given the nearly constant overcast days we've
had around here this year, and the fact that I have to work for a living, it
could take weeks if not months to get ideal conditions that match up to my
The reflector and indirect lighting techniques should be doable with things
I've got around the house. I'll give that approach a whirl.
I'm not looking to become a professional photographer but it would be nice
to get decent photos of things that I've taken a lot of care in making. It
looks like some reading on lighting is needed. The couple of books I have on
photography and digital photography deal more with choosing cameras and
editing the output in Photoshop than they do with actually taking pictures
and lighting techniques...
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