Fine-tuned photos can bring out your best

26_aj_hamlerIf you have a storefront, a showroom attached to your shop or you display your work at galleries, you’ve cleared the first hurdle in getting potential customers to see your work. But what about potential customers who aren’t close to your showroom or gallery? And of those who are, but want to see examples of work not on display, how do they see your work?

For that, you might have photos posted on your website or printed in your free brochure. That’s fine, but unless those photos are as professional as possible, they won’t help much. Worse, a bad photo might not simply fail to make the sale; it might send customers looking elsewhere. The key to great sales through those channels is simple: great photos.

The obvious answer is to have photos of your work shot professionally. While not as expensive as you might think, it’s still a significant outlay. Fortunately, today’s digital cameras have a host of automatic features that allow even amateur shooters to achieve professional-looking results if you keep a few things in mind.

Lights

You used to need special film and know a lot of settings to take photos in poor light. Digital cameras changed all that. Light is still a consideration, but shooting digitally is very forgiving.

Most digital cameras can be set to mimic film speeds in a variety of ISO settings. Essentially, the more light you have, the lower the “film” setting you can use. (And the lower the setting, the better the photos.) With great lighting, an ISO setting of 100 or 200 will return the clearest, sharpest images. Bumping up to 400 or higher will compensate for less light, but the photo will start to look grainy. If you leave your camera on automatic, it’ll select the best ISO setting speed for you. But if your results come out grainy, consider adding light to your shooting area. In short, the more light you can shine on your subject, the better.

Along with lighting, you need to consider what the pros call “white balance.” Simply put, any white object in a photo should be truly white; if your whites are true white, the other colors fall into place. However, the kind of light you use can throw white balance for a loop.

22_pro_shop_122_pro_shop_2For example, standard fluorescent lights can turn whites greenish (along with everything else in the photo). Regular incandescent bulbs make things yellow. Start mixing light sources and there’s no telling what it’ll do to your whites. Digital cameras can compensate for all this. Even the simplest cameras can automatically correct white balance, and most do a pretty good job. Better cameras let you set the balance. If your shooting space is lighted entirely with, say, standard fluorescents, you can set the camera for that and, bingo, no more green.

But you can give your camera a helping hand with careful light selection. The best lighting for shop photography is regular daylight, which shows very true color — useful in general, not just for photography. You can now get fluorescent lights that mimic daylight. (The labeling on the package will list them as daylight, along with a “temperature rating” of around 5,500K). With daylight bulbs, you just set the camera on the outdoor or sunlight setting and shoot away. The automatic white balance at that setting should give you the truest colors.

Here are things to remember about lighting:

• Minimize reflection: You might need to adjust the position of what you’re shooting to avoid having bright spots shining off glossy areas.

• Got windows?: Real sunlight is great, but you don’t want laser-like beams of light hitting anything in the photo. Either diffuse the light or move what you’re shooting elsewhere.

• Be careful of shadows, especially on dark wood: A plain white reflector — I use a 3’ x 3’ piece of foam board — held out of camera range will bounce some extra light onto dark areas.

• Avoid flash: Camera flashes concentrate a lot of light on a small spot, almost always resulting in “hot” areas getting too much light, with harsh shadows everywhere else.

Camera

Continuing with camera settings, you’ve probably noticed your camera has a lot of them. Don’t despair; you don’t have to memorize the manual to make the camera work. For a lot of typical shooting, you can leave the camera on the automatic setting and let it do all the work of adjusting the image to the conditions. As noted in the previous section, you can help by keeping your lighting bright and consistent. But on full automatic, any decent digital camera will take care of exposure, white balance, ISO setting, and the like and give good results unless shooting conditions are really horrible (lots of shadows, using flash, poor composition, etc).

A lot of higher-end digital cameras — especially those intended for pros — let you go the other route with fully manual shooting. There’s not nearly enough space here to give you a full discussion of manual camera techniques. However, just about any camera with full digital options will also allow you to mix it up a bit. You can manually select some things and let it take care of the rest. For example, both of my main cameras will allow me to permanently select the ISO setting, and I always keep it at 100 or 200 for the clearest images, but I’ll often let it handle things like shutter speed for the best exposure based on the lighting.

Other things to keep in mind:

• Many cameras correct for shaking: That’s great if you’re holding the camera in your hand, but if you’re using a tripod to shoot your work, turn that feature off. Anti-shake software is often confused by the rock-steadiness afforded by tripods and it returns images that aren’t as sharp as they should be.

• Pay attention to the dial: Most cameras have a dial that sets the shooting mode (things like full automatic, sports, etc.), located on top. Unfortunately, when holding and adjusting the camera, it’s easy to accidentally thumb that dial and reset the mode. Check the dial before every shot.

• Shoot the highest resolution possible: If you want print-quality images, you need high resolution. And if you want to crop in on a specific area of the photo you simply need more to work with.

• Have fresh batteries ready: If the camera dies in the middle of a setup, you’ll have to leave everything exactly where it is till you can recharge the batteries.

Action

OK, you’ve got your lights and have figured out your camera, but the most important part is how you take the photos. Composition is everything. Rather than a tutorial here — let’s face it, a good book or a night class would cover more than I can here — I’ll jump right to the recommendations.

No clutter: If you’re shooting a piece by itself, a neutral background that doesn’t take attention from the piece is best. Don’t crowd the photo with a lot of knickknacks. And unless you’re showing similar items — two variations on the same piece, say, or a comparison of piece styles — it’s best not to mix different pieces. Let each piece tell its own story in its own photo.

If you’re shooting in a home setting (common for furniture), keep distractions to a minimum. Clean the area and remove all extraneous pieces. Electric cords visible? Get rid of them. Ditto for crooked sofa pillows, uncentered rugs, children’s toys, beer cans, whatever — get rid of all clutter for the best shot.

Contrast the background: Shooting a walnut piece? Use a lighter background. Do just the opposite for maple. You don’t want your work blending in and disappearing with what’s behind it; you want it to stand out.

Review every photo: Digital cameras immediately let you see your shot, so check it out. Zoom in for a closer look if your camera has that feature, and check for clarity, reflections or anything odd or out of place. Never move on to a new setup until you’re absolutely sure you have the shot you want; you may not be able to repeat the setup.

Take more than you need: Back in the days when you were limited to 20 shots per roll of film you had to conserve. Now you don’t. Memory cards are getting cheaper, so fill them up. The more images you have to choose from, the better the chances of getting one that’s perfect.

Shoot multiple angles: Once you’ve taken a photo that’s perfect in every way, change it. Raise the camera or lower it on the tripod and shoot some more. Move the camera a couple inches left and right, and shoot some more. If you did your first setup from the left, repeat it from the right and shoot some more.

Look good in working shots: A photo of you polishing a dresser, or a tight shot of your hands cutting a dovetail, or a portrait posing with your best work can make great promotional material. But it doesn’t matter how great your piece looks if you look like a slob. I’m not talking suit and tie here, but ditch the sweaty T-shirt or wrinkled, dusty work shirt in favor of something clean. Jeans are fine, but not if they’re torn and have glue on them where you wiped your hands. Speaking of hands, if you’re taking that dovetail-cutting shot I mentioned, wash your hands first and clean your fingernails.

In short, take a look in a mirror before looking into the lens. Comb or brush your hair, tuck in your shirt and lose the three-day beard. Sure, you’re an artisan, but you’re also a professional and your work will look its best if you look like one.

A.J. Hamler is a freelance writer and former editor of Woodshop News. He writes a twice-weekly blog, “Over the Workbench,” at www.woodshopnews.com.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.