Photographing Your Projects

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This article is from Issue 58 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Show your work at its best.

By John Blackford and Paul Anthony

Part of the satisfaction of working wood is showing off your projects. In this Internet age of social media, that often means photographing your work and posting it on Facebook, Google Plus, Flickr, or your own photo blog. If you’re an aspiring professional, good photos can also serve as exhibit entries or strong portfolio material to help sell your work. So if you count a camera among your tools, why not put it to its best use?

If you’ve felt that your photos don’t measure up to the quality of your woodworking, or if you have even avoided the attempt entirely, take heart. Good photos result from suitable lighting and composition more than costly gear.

Armed with your camera, some relatively inexpensive lighting equipment, and the tips and techniques you’ll find here, you can produce photos that do your projects proud.

The investment? Well, aside from your camera, a basic selection of decent gear can be aquired for about $450–the price of a respectable shop machine. You can get started for less, as we’ll discuss, but you have to invest a few bucks to get good shots. A rudimentary starter setup includes an adequate tripod ($30-$50), a roll of seamless background paper ($25-$45), and a pair of 300-watt second strobe lights with reflectors and stands ($350).


The Necessary Gear

Camera and tripod 

You can use any camera to shoot your work, ranging from a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) to an inexpensive compact camera. For serious photographers, a DSLR, like the one shown in Photo A, will produce excellent images due to its fairly large sensor and large selection of good quality interchangable lenses. That said, many smaller cameras, including inexpensive compact models, can take very nice shots in spite of their smaller sensors and lenses. Whatever camera you use, it should include manual settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and should have a threaded fitting on the bottom for tripod mounting.

Use a camera tripod for steady shooting. For flexibility, mount a portable flash unit on a light stand rather than on the camera body.

Most flash units are best used off-camera. Soften their light with a reflector (foreground), or shoot through a diffuser (rear).

This $350 kit by Impact, with its two 300 watt-second monolights, stands, and umbrella reflectors, is an economical strobe starter kit.

Reflector floodlight kits, with their porcelain sockets and wood handles, can withstand the heat from 500-watt incandescent bulbs.
CFL bulbs, with a minimum lumen rating of 2250, are fairly bright and cool enough to use in standard clamp light fixtures.

Lights, reflectors, and diffusers

Studio shooting is all about producing and controlling light, so don’t stint here if you can afford it. Your basic choices are strobes (flash) or “hot” (constant) lights. Strobes are more expensive but offer much more control. The enormous selection of strobe lighting includes everything from portable camera-mountable flash units (Photo B) to power packs that feed multiple flash heads, to self-contained “monolights” whose power pack and flash head are combined in one unit (Photo C).

Hot lighting–using bulbs as strong as 500 watts–is less expensive, but the heat can be uncomfortable and even dangerous if placed too closely to reflectors or diffusion material. If you use hot lights, mount them in appropriate fixtures (Photo D). Although most compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs don’t provide nearly as much light, those with at least a 150-watt equivalency will work for some smaller projects and are cool enough to use in standard clamp light fixtures (Photo E). You’ll also need a couple of sturdy stands to position your lights (Photo C).


Basic Lighting Setups

One light

The most basic setup consists of a single light (here, a soft box) aimed at the project. This has limited practical use, though you can produce dramatic effects.

One light and a reflector board

A simple but effective setup consists of a single light aided by a reflector on the other side of the project to fill in the shadows.

Two lights

One of the best setups uses two lights. Adjusting their position and intensity allows greater lighting flexibility.

Two lights and a reflector board

Two lights plus a reflector can handle many challenging arrangements with the reflector illuminating areas the two main lights fail to reach.

For best results, place a light on each side of the camera, aiming each toward the project at about 90° to the other light. Initially, set one strobe twice as bright as the other. (If using hot lights, use a 250-watt bulb in one light and a 500-watt bulb in the other.) This will create enough shadow to give the project some depth while avoiding flat, uninteresting lighting.

You can move the lights around and adjust brightness to emphasize important details such as joinery in the work–or add a third light (or reflectors) to illuminate either the background or areas that are too dark. Other options include combining a single light with secondary illumination bounced off a white board, a reflector, or a wall.

Another reason to use reflectors or diffusers is to avoid the harsh, unattractive shadows produced by a very small light source such as the bulb itself. By bouncing the light off of a reflective umbrella (See photo, page 32), shooting through a white translucent umbrella, or using a “soft box,” you effectively increase the size of the light source and soften shadows in the process. A soft box holds the lamp within dark fabric lined with reflective material and faced with diffusion fabric. (See photos above.)

Note that the size of a light is relative to its distance from the subject. Just as moving a light forward boosts illumination, it also increases the effective size of the light. Use this to your advantage. For example, to alleviate harsh shadows, try moving the lights closer–even a small light can cast soft shadows when close in.


Photo Essentials

At an aperture of f4, the depth of field is shallow, so part of the image (the rear, here) is out of focus, which you may or may not want.  

At f11, the entire image is in focus, though the scene receives three times less light (three f-stops), requiring a boost in the lighting.

Aperture: depth-of-field and light control

The size of the lens opening (the aperture) affects both depth-of-field (DOF) and light control. Smaller apertures (higher numbers) produce greater DOF–the range of  “acceptable focus.” For example, the DOF of a project 36" from a 50mm lens at f4 is 1.89", while at f11 it’s 5.38".

Opening the aperture one f-stop admits twice as much light.

Doubling the distance from project to lamp results in one-fourth as much light reaching the subject. Quadrupling the distance results in 1⁄16 as much light reaching the subject–because light intensity falls as the square of the distance.

Light size and falloff

Light size affects the type of shadow. A small light produces sharp shadows and an abrupt transition from light to dark. (See the photo below left). A larger light produces soft shadows and a smoother transition (below right).

As shown in the diagram at right, light falls off rapidly–equal to the square of its distance; therefore, doubling the distance yields only a quarter of the light (two f-stops).

The project is lit by a single small light source (here, a portable flash unit), resulting in a sharp shadow. 
The same project lit by a larger light source results in a more pleasing, softer-edged shadow.

White balance

Accurately capturing in photos the warm, inviting colors of the woods you use in your projects can be a challenge. When shooting JPEG images, setting your camera's white balance for whatever light you’re using (such as flash or incandescent) should work well enough. When shooting RAW format (which captures all available photo data), any desired color adjustments must be made during computer processing afterward. That's because the camera's white balance settings are bypassed in RAW format.

(See “Light Right,” Issue #57.)

The color emitted by this daylight-balanced strobe is similar to sunlight at noon on a clear day.
The warm orange cast of incandescent light may flatter wood or may require color adjustments. 

CFL bulbs often present an odd mix of hues that makes finessing the white balance challenging. 

Exposure

Exposure refers to the amount of light the camera records. A properly exposed photo–which will yield similar tones to the subject–results from capturing the correct amount of light. You can adjust exposure by changing the intensity of your lights, their distance from the project, the sensitivity (ISO) of your camera, or the size of the aperture. With hot lights, you can also vary the shutter speed (which is fixed when shooting with strobes).

Underexposure. The photo is underexposed, with the histogram peaks shifted too far toward the left edge, indicating information lost in shadow.
Proper Exposure. This image is properly exposed, with the histogram peaks right of center but not crossing the right edge. All visual data has been recorded.

Overexposure. The photo is overexposed, with the histogram peak shifted well to the right and partially cut off by the right edge, indicating clipping and lost data.


Case Study: Shooting a Table

Check the focus by zooming in on your camera’s LCD screen to scrutinize details, as well as the near and far edges. If blurry, use smaller f-stops such as f11 or f16.

Successful photography depends on following an organized approach–even though you may end up varying the plan as you proceed. Follow these general guidelines to produce a nicely composed, well-exposed photo, such as the one of this small table.

1 Pull your seamless paper down onto your staging to create a very gradual roll-off at its rear edge. Place your project near the center and well away from the paper wall. Then position the piece and camera in tandem for best composition. In the case of a rectilinear piece like this table, angle it to indicate its depth, and raise the camera enough to show the table top without featuring it.

2 Position the main light to illuminate the broadest forward surface of the project, and locate a fill light to control the shadows cast by the main light.

3 Adjust the main light to illuminate the main surfaces without washing out detail. If necessary, reposition it to create shadow definition, such as that on the bead at the bottom of this table's aprons. Adjust the fill light to between half and three-quarters of the main's intensity.

4 Take a test shot with the camera set at f8 and ISO 100 to yield a generous depth of  field and fine grain. The histogram inset in Photo A indicates proper exposure. But we can do better. (The widest, tallest section of the histogram represents the most prominent visual data.) If the image is too dark, open the camera aperture one stop (from f8 to f5.6) to double the amount of light recorded. If the image is too light, close the aperture one stop to f11. As you change the aperture, the peak portion of the histogram will shift left or right.

Adjust exposure to shift the bulk of the histogram about two-thirds to the right without any clipping against the edges. When using strobes, shutter speed changes won't help; just leave the shutter set to the synchronization speed shown in your camera manual.

5 Initially focus about one-third of the way into the depth of your project. Placing the center point of your autofocus system on that spot will generally produce the best overall sharpness. After taking a shot, zoom in on the spot using the LCD panel to confirm focus, and adjust if necessary. Check the front and back edges of the table for sharpness (see the photo at far left, opposite), and reduce the aperture (to a higher number) if you need greater depth of field.

6 Take another test shot, and tweak the light balance, focus, and composition as needed. If shadows crawl up the vertical part of the background, do one of the following: Raise the lights, move the project closer to the camera, or use a third fill light to wash out the shadow.

7 If the project itself still has undesirably dim areas, position an additional reflector however necessary to bounce light into those spaces.

8 At this point, you should be pretty close to home. Take one final test shot and double-check it for focus, composition, 

proper exposure, and any odd shadows or highlights that may need correction. (To really scrutinize the picture, temporarily slip the memory card into a computer for viewing on a larger screen.) Photo B shows the completed photograph of our example. The table is attractively positioned, in focus, accurately exposed, and well lit with nice contrast and no undesirable shadows or distracting elements. 

Use the camera’s histogram to ensure proper exposure, adjusting lighting and aperture until the peak of the histogram is located center-right.
Final adjustments shift the histogram peak to the right, yielding a clear, well-lit photo suitable for posting to the Web, submitting as a show entry, or printing for your portfolio.

Whenever you shoot projects, get in the habit of looking for small, unique elements that deserve their own close-ups.

Detail Shots

No matter how precise your photography, there are always important details that are either obscured or too small to render properly in an overall shot.

For example, the dovetail joint on the extended drawer in the photo at right is an important feature that’s hidden in the main table photos on the opposite page. Sometimes details that are evident in the main photo simply don’t get their due  without their own picture to draw attention to themselves.

In a detail shot, you can use selective focus with a shallow depth-of-field to direct attention where you want it and to give the photo a distinctive look. In the case of this drawer, we focused on the joint and set the camera to a fairly wide aperture of f4, which yields soft focus toward the rear of the table, drawing attention to the joint itself. Creating sharp focus throughout would simply be a matter of throwing more light on the subject and closing down the aperture to f11 or f16.


About Our Authors

John Blackford writes about photography, technology, and how-to-do-it projects. He’s the former editor of several computer magazines and exhibits his photography at venues in the Northeast.

Senior editor Paul Anthony has had over a thousand photos published in various magazines and books. He also shoots for woodworking portfolios and advertisements.


Sources

You can purchase photographic gear at hundreds of retail outlets, as well as online sources. The latter includes Adorama, B&H, and Calumet Photographic, all of which offer workshops, online training, used equipment purchase or rental, and printing services. KEH, another online resource, specializes in buying and selling used equipment.

For links to these and other sources, go to woodcraftmagazine.com, and click on Online Extras.

1 Comment

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  • JM from San Jacinto
    Thank you Woodcraft for the wonderful tutorial on this very important, often passed over part of our work. We make incredible effort to create something beautiful, yet we'll spend very little time thinking about how we can display our work in digital media. Great article.

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