Mein kleines Mondlicht,

Some time ago, I had a conversation over the IRC with a friend of mine during which she told me about an expo-like event she’d be attending to sell some of her crafts. My enthusiasm quickly turned to horror when she mentioned how she was using a point-and-shoot camera to generate a portfolio or catalogue to shew potential clients. I was aghast because she has previously crafted stuff for me and I know firsthand that her craftsmanship is far from shoddy.

Given the fact that she has no access to the specialised tools required for high-calibre product shots and that Texas is too far away from Regina and thus I cannot offer on-site photography or help, I decided to tell You a bit anent using free and cheap materials to make decent photographs that present products in a good light, in the hopes that she’ll read these words (and her husband, who happens to be the ‘camera boy’ 🙂 ), and will make a better impression on potential buyers with photos that don’t sux.

However, before getting into the heart of the matter, I must provide some cautionary advice:

  • I’m focusing herein on Lighting alone. Whilst I might touch a bit on Composition and/or Exposure when they affect or are affected by Lighting, I won’t go deep into them.
  • It is not my intention here to ’empower’ people –namely, to deceive them into thinking they are or can easily be photo masters, or that they have no need of specialised equipment. Nay, I am simply striving to help out a bit those artisans who truly cannot afford to hire a professional, but still need to present their hard- and lovingly-wrought crafts in a manner that will increase their chances to entice potential customers and better their lot. Verily, no matter how elaborated, practical or pretty a man’s window light studio might be, he’ll remain at the mercy of the weather and the changing –flighty, even– nature of natural light (pun intended), both in terms of intensity, colour and quality. After all, most professionals do not use window light for product photography but strobe lighting for good reasons –such as the ability to have full control over the light’s quantity and quality in order to always obtain consistent and predictable results, and to save time and meet deadlines, among others.
  • Lastly, this is a rather lengthy epistle, but it really needs to be due to all the theory that cannot be ignored if good results are wanted.

At length, what I offer here is a quick-and-clean alternative to the quick-and-dirty snapshot approach.

 

Some preliminaries: On Light and Its Properties

When making photographs we are rendering three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional. In order to counter this ‘flattening’, we must reintroduce visual clues that give the viewer a sense of depth and inform him of the textural qualities of the subject.

 

Plate 2. Flat image: the frontal lighting rendered the subject as a cardboard cut out, without any form or shape. The horrid reflection of the flash on the shiny surface of the bottle doesn't help either.

Plate 2. Flat subject: frontal lighting (on-camera flash) renders the subject as a paper cut out –no form or shape. The horrid reflection of the flash on the bottle’s shiny surface doesn’t help either.

Plate 3. Sculpted subject: optimal placement of the light sources renders the subject beautifully, bringing out its attractive form and shape.

Plate 3. Sculpted subject: conversely, optimal (off the camera’s axis) placement of the light sources, and the right modifiers render the subject beautifully, bringing out its attractive form and shape. Prost!

 

Light is a universe in itself: a universe vast and complex –and even mysterious and unfathomable– in its scope. Yet, in photography, there are only (mainly**) four characteristics of light that are relevant:

  1. Quality
  2. Intensity
  3. Direction
  4. Colour

Quality (hard vs. soft). This is the characteristic that deals with the appearance of shadows and highlights. Needless to say, its importance and impact on an image are paramount. Quality is often mistakenly called ‘contrast’ by some authors***, because the difference in quality has a direct effect on the difference and ratio between the lightest and the brightest parts of an image: i.e. the contrast. To avoid confusing You, when referring to light’s quality I’ll use the terms ‘hard light’ and ‘soft light’, based on how defined the resulting shadows are.

Plate X. Hard light: well-defined shadow edges.

Plate 4. Hard light: well-defined shadow edges, and crisp-looking subject due to high contrast.

Hard light is produced by light sources that are small in relation to the subject, or placed far away from it. Hard light gives a large dynamic range (the difference in Exposure Values (EVs) betwixt the darkest and the brightest point in an image), which is evidenced by hard-edged and deep (closed) shadows and bright highlights.

Thus, the sun is a hard light (or a point-source light): at ~150 million kilometres away its rays are, for all intents and purposes, practically parallel and all coming from the same direction. (You can even occlude the solar disc with your thumb at arms length! Now try that with a medium softbox at the same distance… :-p )

Soft light: fuzzy shadow edges.

Plate 5. Soft light: fuzzy shadow edges, and muted-looking subject due to low contrast.

Soft light (a.k.a. diffuse light) is, well, naturally soft and produces soft-edged shadows (which in some cases might even disappear). Soft light comes from large sources (large with respect to the subject) and strikes the subject from numerous angles (it ‘wraps’ around it), thus filling in shadows and allowing the viewer to perceive more detail in shadowed areas, as well as lowering the contrast. The light can be so highly diffused that the subject may be made to look flat (no depth visual clues due to extremely low contrast).

 

Intensity. To a photographer this is the most important characteristic of a light source, for the intensity of the light falling on a scene is the primary aspect that determines the exposure. Normally, a brighter light is better… but not always.

Now, some people refer to Intensity as ‘brightness’ since it’s the most common word to describe the amount of light we see, however, using this latter term is incorrect, for Brightness is really perceived luminance, therefore it is subjective and not precisely measurable. A more proper word for Intensity would be Illuminance –the luminous power from a light source falling on a surface, per unit area, measured in lux.

Technical issues aside, the Intensity sets an image’s tone.

The interplay of highlights, midtones and shadows is what makes or breaks a photograph.

It is so because:

  • Shadow areas provide the richness to an image; thus, they are crucial in creating the feeling of richness and power in the photo.
  • The midtones carry the image’s information and critical detail.
  • The highlights endow the image with life and energy.****

 

Direction. The direction of the light and the way it interacts with the subject determines how shadows and highlights appear in the photograph.

Shadows are critical in product photography, because they create depth and texture. Light coming from the same axis as the camera will flatten the image as it fills all the shadows –the chief reason why photos taken with the on-camera flash look so dreadful: all the depth visual clues are gone! (See Plate 2.)

 

Plate 5. Having the light fall across the subject reveals its texture.

Plate 6. When the light falls across the subject its texture is brought out.

Plate 6. Conversely (and in some cases adversely), lighting a subject from the same axis as the camera makes it look textureless –and washed out.

Plate 7. Conversely (and sometimes adversely), when the light comes from the same axis as the camera the subject will look textureless –even washed out.

 

Colour. Although we might see light as ‘white’ –because the brain quickly adjusts it to a ‘neutral’ value–, it most certainly has some colour bias, which becomes evident when two or more different light sources are present in the same scene. You must pay attention to differences between various ‘white’ light sources in order to obtain accurate renditions of the true colours of the subjects being photographed.

The colour of the light is classified using the physicists’ colour temperature scale, which measures light in terms of Kelvins (abbreviated to K).

In photography there are several standard colour temperatures: Daylight (5500K), Tungsten (3200K), Fluorescent (4000K), Cloudy (6000K), and Shade (9000K). There’s also Flash, which is designed to be the same as daylight –5500K (I’m writing about the good quality flash units here –junky flashes, such as the cheap units coming out of China vary a lot, are unreliable in more ways than one, and simply can’t be trusted).

*Photo Tip for You: the Daylight setting on your camera will be the closest to the actual colours in the scene.

 

That crucial (and pesky) WB

Stemming from the fourth characteristic of light, the White Balance (or WB in our acronym-riddled world) is the means to compensate for colour casts caused by the colour of the light in the scene in order to accurately render the colours in such scene. White balance is of the greatest importance in product and still life work because of the need for precise reproduction of the subjects’ colours (I don’t think my friend would care for people returning a pillow case because the neat lavender in the photo they saw online turns out to be white in the actual product, yikes!)

If we are following the best photographic practice of shooting in RAW, White Balance can be adjusted in post-processing. Those poor souls shooting JPEGs must carefully set the appropriate WB value in their cameras at the moment of shooting; the set value will be branded into the file and won’t be able to be modified later in post-processing without loss of quality –when You consider that the JPEG files You get straight out of the camera already have had lots of their original information thrown out, I strongly advise against further adjusting them in post-processing. All the more reasons to shoot in RAW.

 

Hands On: Quick n’ Clean Product Shots

Alright, with some of the basic imaging framework laid out we can dive right into the core of producing good-looking product images using free and cheap implements.

The freebie in this case is the light pouring into our studio from a window.

A window through which the sun does not shine.

Yea, in spite of most people’s love of the sun –especially in our white north latitudes–, when it comes to product photography the daystar is not Your friend. It’s an adversary that will give You the harshest light with the inkiest shadows and washed out tones You can get on Earth. And the closer You are to the Equator, the worse it’ll be.

So, do Yourself a favour and shut the curtains of the south windows –and any windows through which the sun is shining.

Just to shew You the unsuitability of direct sunlight for product photography, here are two images:

 

Plate 8. Window light is even and gentle on Troutee. The shadows are soft-edged and with plenty of detail.

Plate 9. Here, the harsh sunlight poached Troutee. The shadows are hard-edged, unpleasant and distracting, and so closed that little detail is seen in them.

 

Thus, set your table next to a north-facing window, or any window through which only indirect sunlight is pouring. This soft and even light is the illumination You need for winsome shots.

 

Plate 10. Optimal placement of the table for window light product photography.

Plate 11. Table top setup with neutral grey background and tripod (sans camera) in place.

 

Now, the setup might look a bit crude, what with the hole on the paper and all (I wasn’t being too fancy for the purpose of this demonstration, after all I never use window light for professional work and so I was reusing a discarded piece of background paper), but this helps to underscore one tenet of product and table top photography: the only things that matter are the ones inside the frame and those having an effect on them, the camera and the viewer couldn’t care less about what else is around because they will never see it.

 

Some pointers:

For catalog-like displays, a neutral grey background would probably work best, because:

  • Setting the right exposure is a cinch for those without an incident light hand-held meter: just aim the camera at the expanse of grey and adjust the shutter speed until the exposure level indicator is centred.
  • It’s less reflective than white and thus, less likely to mess up the exposure.
  • It’s the ideal hue and value for setting an accurate White Balance –even in camera for those who stubbornly insist on shooting JPEGs instead of RAWs–, and thus achieve those true-to-life colours that are paramount in product images.
  • Darker backgrounds make the subjects stand out more than light backgrounds.

Set the aperture in stone and adjust exposure with the shutter speed. You need to use a small aperture to get the whole subject(s) in focus, especially if You’re shooting from an angle, such as I was ‘doing’ on Plate 11. Depending on the lens, I’d use f/8 and smaller (although smaller than f/16 would probably be too much and You’d get softening in the photo due to diffraction). The longer the focal length, the smaller the aperture You need to use. For the crafts my friend makes, I’d recommend a focal length of ~50mm and f/8 or f/11. A longer lens would require You to be standing on a stepladder and would be mighty uncomfortable.

Plate 12. Late November, cloudy day exposure values. At the target aperture, the shutter speed is too slow to hand-hold the camera.

Use a tripod. This is essential because You would be working at small apertures, and window light will never be strong enough to allow You to use fast shutter speeds at the same time.

If You look at Plate 12 on the right, You’ll see that on that late November cloudy day in our northern latitudes the shutter speed required was 0.3 sec, which is too slow to hand-hold the camera and not get motion blur.

You could probably boost the ISO, but I wouldn’t recommend it, for You’d get more noise. In spite of all the hype made by camera makers nowadays about their cameras’ unprecedented and amazing ‘high ISO capabilities’, the best quality is still obtained at the base ISO values  (100-200).

Shooting on a clear-sky day isn’t much of an improvement: the shutter speed would be around 1/8 sec –still too slow for hand-holding.

Don’t mix light sources (unless they’re all the same colour). Yea, don’t fall for the temptation to ‘add just a wee bit more light’ to the side of the frame opposite the window by using a desk lamp or a workshop light: You’ll mess up the White Balance.

 

Plate X. Mixing artificial with window light introduces colour mismatches: a no-no in product photography.

Plate 13. Mixing artificial with window light introduces colour mismatches: a no-no in product photography.

 

Plate X. Adjusting the WB for the window light's value turns those areas of the frame litten by artificial light too orange.

Plate 14. Adjusting the WB for the window light’s value makes the areas litten by artificial light too orange. (The red circle is the area set to neutral with the WB dropper.)

 

Plate X. And adjusting the WB for the lamp-litten areas turns other parts of the image too blue. The situation is a lose-lose.

Plate 15. And adjusting the WB for the lamp-litten areas turns other parts of the image too blue.

 

You’ve probably noticed in some of the photos herein that the light falls off pretty quickly across a table placed next to a window (i.e. is not completely even across the frame). In order to have an even illumination You’d need to move the table away from the window, but this would drop your shutter speeds even further –beyond fractions of a second into full seconds.

Instead of artificial lights, use reflectors to fill in shadows.

Foamcore is your friend: not only are these boards cheap, but white foamcore won’t change the colour of the light nor muck up the White Balance when You use them as reflectors. Simply placing a white board on the opposite side of the window, just outside the camera frame, will even out the exposure and fill in shadows.

 

Plate X. Subject illuminated by window light alone.

Plate 16. Subject illuminated by window light alone.

 

Plate 17. Placing a reflector on the opposite side solves the problems of exposure unevenness and closed shadows.

 

More to come. Do stay tuned 🙂 ….

 

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**Some authors list up to seven qualities of light, but other than the Dynamic Range of the photographic medium, the others (such as contrast, or how the shadows are developed) are subsets of the four I have listed.

***