Photographing Your Projects

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Part of the satisfaction of working wood is showing off your projects. And 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 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 had for about $450–the price of a decent 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

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.

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.


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 is 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


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.


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 inches from a 50mm lens at f4 is 1.89 inches, while at f11 it’s 5.38 inches. Opening the aperture one f-stop admits twice as much light.


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 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).


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.)



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.)


Case Study: Shooting a table

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.


Use the camera’s histogram to ensure proper exposure, adjusting lighting and aperture until the peak of the histogram is located center-right.

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 generous depth of 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 2/3 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


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.

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 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 undesireable shadows or distracting elements.


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. And 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.

John Blackford

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