Friday, February 23, 2007

Studio photography on the cheap

(Click on the photo to see a better version of it. Blogger is re-sizing it poorly, so it looks a little funky here...)

It's cold outside, so lately my creative juices have been flowing towards studio photography. Truth is, I have a real interest in it and I'm looking to start building a portfolio incase I get a chance to do some photos professionally.

So, this means I need practice (and hopefully some good photos). For "proper" studio photography, most people purchase light tents and photography lighting in order to get that soft light that eliminates harsh reflections as well as harsh shadows. -I'll probably buy the proper equipment eventually, but I wanted to demonstrate how I get studio shots without any investment in special equipment.

For those who are not interested in studio photography, note that the goals in studio work are the same as for portraits. It's just that for portraits, the subject's a bit bigger...

So, here's a walkthrough of a successful (in my opinion) studio shot McGyver-style.

Equipment and supplies that I used:
* Camera
* Tripod
* Shutter release cable (a self-timer works if you don't have one)
* 2 pieces of copy paper
* A white plastic garbage bag
* A 5-foot piece of wire, bent
* A paper towel
* A drinking glass and empty boxes for propping stuff up.
* A bright lamp (a halogen desk lamp is perfect)
* At least one other lamp (another desk lamp, a clamp light, or a floor lamp -whatever you have around)

I set up under a halogen spot-light that's in the ceiling above my kitchen counter. (I've also set up in the bathroom successfully -under the lights above my sink.)

I propped the copy paper up against the drinking glass so it was sitting at a 90* angle. This created the white below the bottle and pills in the picture as well as the white in the background without creating a "seam" between the two. (This works well with white poster board as well when you're shooting larger items.)

I then set the bottle on the paper, and arranged the pills around it in a non-centered way so the overall shape of the subject was more interesting -it also gave the pills a more hap-hazard look I think.

Next I needed something to filter the light through to spread it around. This is what the walls of a light tent do, so I looked around for something that'd work similar to that. What I ended up doing is taking a white plastic trash bag and some wire to make a frame to keep it flat. You could just as easily tape the corners of the bag to 4 boxes or something to keep it flat. It doesn't have to be perfect, and you don't need to cut the bag either -double-thickness (at least for the brand I'm using -regular Hefty bags) seems to work just fine. (Of course, if your light is significantly brighter or more dim, this may not be the case.

I propped my trash bag light filter up so it's middle would be over the bottle and under my halogen desk lamp. -I then turned the lamp on and checked how the lighting looked from the perspective I'd be shooting it from.

I ended up with a lot of glare on the label because it's glossy and I also had 2 bright spots on the bottle. This meant that the light was too bright. I placed a paper towel on top of the trash bag and moved it around until the highlights and hot-spots were gone.

The next thing I noticed was that, while my "trash bag light filter" made the shadows fuzzier, the shadows were still more noticeable than I liked. I grabbed a fairly dim floor lamp and propped it at a 45* angle against a chair, and aimed it directly at the bottle (from the front so that it eliminated the shadows in the front where they'd be visible in the photo).

I checked the view through my camera once again and found that this created more hot-spots, so I lowered the floor lamp until it's harshest light was below my subject, leaving it's softer (more diffused light) to fall on my subject and eliminate much of the shadows that I had a problem with earlier.

At this point, the setup was done. I was happy with how the scene looked, and the next thing to think about was exposure. -I had a fairly dark subject on a very light background which is always tricky. I knew the camera's light meter would see all that white and would try to tone it down, which would my my photo darker than it should be. -On top of that, my goal was to over-expose the background so it ended up looking all white! (but not so much that it over-exposed the white label on the bottle.) I decided I'd start with exposing the scene 1 stop above normal or at +1.

Next, I had to decide what setting to use on the camera. For studio shots I tend to go with Aperture Priority so that I can control the depth of field without worrying about the shutter speed because it really doesn't matter much in still-life photos like this one. Generally, an aperture of f/8 to f/16 is the sharpest part of any lens, so I try to keep within that range if I can. -I wanted a fairly shallow depth of field, though, so I decided to try f/8 to start with.

Last, I turned on mirror lockup. -Not all cameras have this option, but if yours does (on my Canon 30D it's Custom Function 12, for other makes and models, check your manual). Mirror lockup can help you get sharper photos when you're using slow shutter speeds and here's how it works: When you take a photo what happens is the mirror that allows you to see the image through the viewfinder flips out of the way so that the image can get through to your film or sensor. When the mirror flips up it causes the camera to vibrate ever so slightly. Mirror lockup creates a delay between when you click the shutter the first time (and the mirror flips up), then you wait and click the shutter a 2nd time to take the picture (after those micro-vibrations have probably stopped). You can get sharp photos either way, so if your camera doesn't have mirror lockup, don't worry about it; but if you do, I think it's worth playing with.

At this point I was ready to take my first shot. From start to finish I arranged the photo 2 different ways and I took about 25 shots total. -I had to play with the exposure compensation and aperture just a little bit each time before I got it to come out how I wanted.

After I was pretty sure I got a "keeper", I connected the camera to my computer, downloaded the photos, and opened it in Gimp. I used the "Levels" tool (Auto) to fix the white balance (I compensated for the warmth of the incandescent lights in the camera, but not quite enough.). After that, I used curves to just slightly adjust the darkest and lightest portions of the photo. Then, I cloned out the dust that was on the bottle. (I'm a dork -I missed the most important part of studio photography -preparing your subject to be photographed!) When I was done cloning, I applied a slight Unsharp Mask, cropped the photo to a square, and saved it.

I'm pretty happy with it as it stands right now except that I think as a result of editing it on my laptop screen, it appears that it looks a little washed out on my work monitor. I may have to go back and fix that...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A prayer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster...

Our Pasta, who art in colander,
Draining be your noodles.
Thy noodle come, thy sauce be yum,
on top some grated parmesan.
Give us this day our garlic bread, and
forgive us our tresspasses as we
forgive those who trample our lawns.
And lead us not into vegetarianism,
but deliver us some pizza,
for thine is the meatball, the noodle,
and the sauce,
forever and ever.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A sharp(ish) macro shot!

Best viewed LARGE to show detail...

After a run of bad macro shots, this is my first macro to turn out sharp (or really close to it) in a few months!

All day yesterday I watched the snow fall from my office and all the plows and salt they were dumping on the road simply weren't making a dent. I dreaded the drive home. When the whistle blew I got in my Jeep, put in 4WD, and gingerly left the office parking lot. Once I got to the first stop light, however, I sat there watching the snowflakes fall and stick to the (cold) windshield. They were all so beautiful!

I pulled into the first gas station I saw and parked infront of a green gate that lead to the dumpster. (I thought the green would make a nice background if it was thrown out of focus.) Then I pulled out my camera and tried taking some photos of the snowflakes on the windshield (through the glass).

Just like with the previous bug shot, I was having problems getting the shutter speed high enough to hand-hold the camera and get a sharp shot. I didn't have my tripod, so I piled a bunch of stuff up to try to set the camera on, but that didn't work. Apparently I learned some lessons from the bug photo, though -I upped the ISO (first to 400 then to 800), put the camera on manual, chose a large aperture (to get more light so I could get a faster shutter speed), exposed for appx -1 and took some shots. It was kinda working, but none came out as sharp as I had hoped. As I continued the windshield got more and more foggy. It was clear that I'd soon have to make a choice: sacrifice my comfort for this photo opportunity or fire the Jeep back up to get warm?

Another glance at the snowflakes and it was clear I had no choice. I went outside. I took pictures of any single snowflake that stood out from the piles on my Jeep, the trees, or the nearby lamp post supports. This particular shot was off the hood/fender flare of my Jeep with that green gate in the background. When I parked infront of it, I intended it to look green in my photos, but with my exposure set to about -1, it turned out looking black. I don't mind, though. I like it this way too.

After about 15 minutes outside my hands were numb (it was like -4*F out!), so I had to call it quits. I jumped back in the Jeep, took a couple more shots through the windshield, then fired the engine up hoping it'd get warm quick. Before heading back out into traffic, I hesitantly turned my windshield wipers on and smeared those beautiful snowflakes all over the windshield so I wouldn't hit the cars that remained infront of me for the next 2 hours as I inched my way home.

This morning, I went through the photos and there are only a few of any interest, this one being the best of them. I cropped it in Gimp, used "levels" on it to make the snow a little whiter and then did a very slight unsharp mask to crispen it up a bit.

It's not perfect. If the depth of field were deeper it'd be much better, but it seems I'm learning... This success has increased my confidence, although I did get some sharp macros of bugs outside this fall when I first got this lens (Canon 100mm f/2.8). In fact, I think that being outside has a lot to do with it -more available light means it's possible to use higher shutter speeds which eliminates motion blur, leaving you with the simple yet monumental task of getting the focus right. Practice. I'm sure it's just a matter of practice. (Although I'm not sure I'll be heading back out into the 0 degree weather to practice. -Let's hope it warms up!).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Well, they say you learn more from bad photos than you do from the good ones...

The making of a bad photo....

I ordered a rock for my aquarium from eBay and received it this week from the seller who lives in Texas. Along with the rock, I received this kinda cool looking bug, so I decided to use it for macro photography practice. This is the best of about 200 photos I took last night... :-\ Looking back on the session, I did a bunch of stuff wrong, but I can't say the time was wasted. -I learned a few lessons last night, and figured I'd share the whole experience here...

First, I set up the area like I usually do for studio shots: I did these on the kitchen counter, so I set up a white background to use under and behind the bug. I turned on the overhead halogen spot-light thingy for direct overhead lighting, I had a the soft light from a ceiling fan (2x 40w equivalent fluorescent bulbs) behind me and overhead, a floor lamp with a 60w equivalent fluorescent bulb leaned at about a 45* angle so it'd be pointed directly at the subject from my (lower) left, and a halogen desk lamp on the counter to my right and very close to the subject. The desk lamp is really powerful, though, so I placed my other homemade softbox in front of the light to eliminate the harsh reflections it would cause.

I then put my camera on Apeture Priority mode and took some shots of the bug on a white piece of plastic at f/16 with a Shutter Speed of 1/2 second. I got 4 or 5 shots that are fairly crisp, but after reviewing them, I found that they were boring since they involved only the bug. I needed something else to add interest... I hunted through the house, and eventually got the idea to use my wooden mannequin as a prop.

My original intent was to use a vertical framing to get more of the mannequin in the shot, but since my tripod won't allow a vertical camera position, I shot it from further away thinking I could crop it later. My technique was to set my focus, catch the bug, put him on the mannequin's hand, then when it looked like he was in a good position, hit the remote shutter release as many times as possible (if any) before he moved; then go back, review the shots, reset the focus, and try again.

First, when I backed the camera up (I was using a Canon fixed 100m f/2.8 lens), I apparently lost light because I kept the camera on Aperture Priority with a setting of f/16 and it just kept blinking at me. I ignored the settings I used on my previous shots, switched to Manual mode and did whatever I could to get the shutter speed up fairly high (1/60 to 1/125) thinking I had to stop any of the bug's motion, and then I tried to get the aperture as small as possible (preferably between f/8 and f/16) to get a deeper depth of field to make it more likely that I could get a sharp shot. This included setting the exposure to be underexpose by 1 stop (because the scene was so light with the white background). But, no matter what I did, I could never get a sharp shot. Even with the flash turned on I couldn't get anything close to acceptable. In the end I kept blaming my focus -I felt that being so far away meant it was harder to see, therefore harder to focus; so, I moved the camera in closer and framed the shot as you can see above.

I took shot after shot using the same technique as before although at some point I learned something new: by puffing air at the bug (kindof like stuttering the first part of "but" over and over at it) -he'd stop crawling around to investigate the air for a second. That was super helpful -it meant a slower shutter speed could be used! But, I felt (at the time) that "slower" meant, like, 1/60 because I tried a few at 1/30 or slower before, but saw movement and blurring. :-\

I'm dumb...
I apparently hadn't paid attention the first few photos that were taken at 1/2 of a second or I wouldn't have been so focused on trying to keep the shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/125 while attempting these shots. -I find that when I get frustrated by both not getting the shot I want (and with the added complexity of a constantly moving subject), I loose track of the technical details and stop thinking about what I'm doing. Another lesson... but one I consider "under construction" -I need to work on calming down and going through my options more carefully.

With the puffing technique (and perhaps with the bug getting tired/frustrated) I was able to stand behind the camera and manually focus when the bug was still, then take my hands off the camera and press the remote shutter to take a photo. The shots were getting better, but upon zooming-in on the LCD, they were still not usable... So, I kept doing this over and over trying to get the aperture smaller while keeping the shutter speed up to freeze any motion. After many photos, I was in another rut, but the bug kept staying fairly still... -How about an even slower shutter speed and mirror lockup I asked myself? So, I turned it on. The bug, surprisingly enough, stayed still enough for me to take quite a few shots like this. Not that they were getting much better...

Eventually, I got the one you see above and I quit. I was tired, frustrated, and going back and forth between kicking myself for buying this lens when it's obviously my technique that needs work, and remembering how well some of my first shots had been when I bought this lens in the fall...

While reviewing my shots on the computer I noticed another glaring mistake. The white background, with the light-colored mannequin made for a dull photo... Sure, the bug stood out, but the photo just didn't "pop". I guess I was too frustrated to notice. So, this morning I took a little time in Gimp to try to make white turn into blue...

I'm just angry with myself over this one. It could have been so much better. The depth of field is the biggest technical problem -it's just not deep enough for the mannequin to be obvious enough -I find myself squinting and looking for more detail there... I mean, it didn't need to be (perhaps, shouldn't have been) in sharp focus, but more detail would have made this photo a bit better. The vertical framing with more of the mannequin included in the shot would help the composition too, I think, but the bug was so far away when I had it set up like that -I don't think I'd be able to see well enough to get it in focus. Of course, if I would have let the shutter speed get lower so I could use a smaller aperture, that'd probably help...

Grr... I want to be better at macro shots :-(