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FenceFurniture 03-27-2013 11:14 AM

Photographing your Woodwork pieces – doing it properly
I ran this thread on my home forum a few months ago, and I’ve been waiting for it to mature before posting here. There will be quite a number of lengthy posts, because photography is a pretty big subject, almost as big as woodwork itself. Rather than put up one enormously long post I thought it better to split them up for reader friendliness, and I will put them up one or two at a time, so it’ll be easier to digest.

My aim is to concentrate on some of the fundamentals of photography, regardless of capturing medium.

There are all sorts of competency levels between Pro work and Phone camera pics. Different people may get different things from this thread. Some won't learn anything new because they're doing good work already. Certainly the thread can't be all things to all people. I am mainly aiming at people who have some middle level equipment who might perhaps want to pick up a few ideas. Much of what I've written about is to do with what happens beyond the camera, that can have a big impact on what goes into the camera (as an image).

In the interest of establishing my credentials, I spent 15 years as a pro-photog during the 80s and 90s. This was in the film era, and I never used a Digital camera as part of that career. Indeed, it was the advent of Digital that contributed in large part to my exiting the industry. I specialised in Engineering and Industrial work, and my gear was tailored for that. I never had a studio – it was always in my car. When Digital cameras started becoming available my work started drying up as these engineer types could now take pics themselves and have them on their computer in minutes, and they thought they were real pros.

Of course, they knew zip about lighting and composition (or any other fundamental aspect), but as they had taken the pics they thought they were adequate/stunning. Had I turned in work of that poor quality for them they would not have paid the bill.

My only equipment now is a miserable little Canon Pro1 (and the name is the end of the Pro standard in this particular POS, which frustrates me no end). This is the main reason why I won’t comment (much) about Digital Photography – I simply haven’t had enough experience with it, and others will have already covered much of the info anyway. Furthermore, current cameras and software are ever-evolving at a furious pace.

Apart from the above, and in the light of having been out of the industry for over a decade, I am quite happy for others to have their own input to this thread. There are very many serious amateurs out there who can teach the pros a thing or two, particularly when it comes to very specialised subjects such as pens etc.

Don’t make the mistake that those engineers made in the 90s – just because you buy a very expensive camera with all the features, it doesn’t turn you into a good photographer – you have to do that, by using your brain. I would be just as poor at planing with a Ron Brese or Phillip Marcou plane as I am with an old Stanley. Just like woodwork, good tools/cameras will help, but they will be limited by you, and your knowledge/experience.

I am writing this from a perspective of trying to get the best picture possible, and this is not always necessary. Photographs should be fit for purpose. If I’m photographing some tool to sell, or to report a problem that I’m having, then I often don’t go to too much trouble (especially with lighting), as there’s not much point, and this can be seen in many of the pics that I have put into the home forum. I understand that many won’t have a camera that can deliver some features (such as manual focus/exposure), and to be frank, therein lies half the battle. You should control the camera, not the other way around.

Rightio then, on to some specifics.



FenceFurniture 03-27-2013 11:15 AM

Use it to call through an order for a camera that doesn't make phone calls.


FenceFurniture 03-27-2013 11:17 AM

“I take stacks of pictures, and hope that one will be ok”
Pure nonsense! Digital cameras are compounding the folly of this attitude big time. It’s the same as saying “I do my planing blindfold, and hope that something will be flat”. When I was a pro, people used to sometimes ask me if I just took heaps of photos and picked the best ones from the ones that “turned out”. It was my pet hate, and an insult to the skills of a professional.

Many people do this, but it leaves too much to chance, and I'm trying to discourage this practice by being pro-active. It's far more productive to work towards improving the pic before it is taken, and then carry what's been learnt through to the next time a photo session is undertaken.

You have to work towards getting the result that you want. This requires thought, and time. If you take stacks of pics without any consideration, then you will get stacks of lousy pics. Maybe there’ll be one in there that is regarded as acceptable, but only by comparison to the rest of the rubbish.

Use a tripod so that you can frame the picture (as a constant) and make adjustments to the composition (et al). Go back to the viewfinder, check it, change, check it, change. Fine adjustments are often better done whilst looking through the viewfinder, because the perspective will be totally different to the naked eye, as will light reflections.

I rarely take more than one picture of something, unless I want to compare a couple of compositions at my leisure, or if I need to show a couple of different aspects.

Anyone who persists with this attitude will never get any good pics, and will remain frustrated. Sometimes you will have to spend as much as 30 minutes or more getting things right (I’ve spent half a day on many many pics). Better to do that, and be able to get your point across, then to do it quickly and tell us nothing. If you don’t rush your woodwork then don’t rush the pic. If you think about your woodwork then think about the pic.

This same philosophy also applies to “Burst” or “Drive” mode – you are surrendering control to the camera. Henri Cartier-Bresson would be appalled at ”Burst” mode. With people, animals and other such things there is a precise moment to take the photograph – not a tenth of a second before or after. Motor Drives were designed for Sports photographers where the action is fast and furious, and very unpredictable, and that’s pretty much where they belong.

My camera has an insanely annoying delay between depressing the button and firing, so the “precise moment” is never able to be taken. When it comes time to replace it I probably won’t be able to sell it (it’s ten years old) and I am going to take great delight in pounding the POS with a lump hammer.

As I see it, taking a whole bunch of pics and then selecting the "best" is leaving things open to chance. Not knowing what caused the picture to be the "best" just sustains the problem (otherwise the lesson would have been absorbed before, therefore no need to chance it again next time).

When doing a product shot, a pro will take one picture only (unless there's a reason to take more for different applications). In the film days this was not because of the cost of film, but because of the time and effort they take to construct the shot. Time is far more costly than film (even 5x4" film). Now that film is virtually free (digital) their practices haven't changed - still just one product shot. The time they take to produce the shot means that it is self-defeating to take different pics - they've "nailed" the pic so there is no need, and the cost of time precludes it anyway. Ipso facto, one goes with the other.

If people are happy with what they are getting from their current techniques, then there is nothing much for them to gain from this thread (and that's not a criticism). This thread is for those who are looking for some tips on how to improve their photography, or perhaps the answers to why certain things happen. Once they have taught themselves a few things then it will speed up the whole photography process, with a better result and they can get on with the woodwork!

Originally Posted by a reader:
My method has been to take 10000 images. One or two usually end up reasonable :)

My response:
Tsk, tsk, tsk - think of the time you'll save in uploading to your computer and editing! Work the composition up until it's the way you want it, three exposures and you're done. By continuing with your current practice you won’t learn why the one or two end up reasonable.


FenceFurniture 03-28-2013 03:53 AM

Edit your work before publication
It is pointless to put up ten pictures when one will do. In fact it’s worse than pointless, it’s counter-productive, and people can tune out to the whole series. I was looking at a post yesterday where there were at least eight pics of the same thing from slightly different viewpoints. Some were out of focus (“soft”), some were poor exposure, and I just couldn’t be fagged going through the whole sequence to find out if one was any good.

You must consider your photographs from the viewer’s point of view. Select the pics that tell the story quickly and efficiently. A writer will not publish the same paragraph in 6 different draught versions. Would you read them all if they did?

FenceFurniture 03-28-2013 04:09 AM

The main purpose of a tripod is of course to avoid camera shake on longer exposures (say 1/15 second and longer depending on how steady your hands are). This, in turn, will allow you to use a much lower ASA/ISO rating for the exposure which eliminates the "noise" or grain that occurs from using very high ISO ratings. A rating of 50 or 100 is generally the best to use. The higher the rating the more the noise (just like grain in film).

However, there is a much more subtle, but equally important function for a tripod - consistency of framing. Having the camera mounted and fixed in position allows you to compose the picture and then makes adjustments to the composition (removing something unnecessary, slight movements of the subject to catch different light etc). The idea is that you can then return to the viewfinder to check what you have just changed compositionally, and the framing will remain constant. This allows you to build up the composition and lighting, working towards the desired result without the need to shoot lots of pics hoping that one will "turn out". No guesswork - just working up the pic until it's ready to be shot.

The heavier your camera is the more robust the tripod will need to be in order to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible. Care must be exercised when extending the neck of the tripod up, as camera shake can still come into play. A cable release or self-timer will allow you to eliminate camera shake as well. If the tripod neck is fully extended up then you may want to use a cable release (if your camera accepts one) as well as self-timer.

Tripods usually come with the classic 3-Way Head, with three different levers to individually control the different movements of the head. Personally, I much prefer a Ball & Socket head as they are much quicker to operate and don't have the various levers sticking out. The down side of a B&S head is that when the lock is released then all of the movements can change at the same time (and if you don't support the camera then it will quickly flop over!). A bit of practice is required to get used to this, but IMO a better way to go.

FenceFurniture 03-28-2013 04:11 AM

I almost never shoot in Auto, especially these days with a Digital camera where I have immediate check on the pic I’ve just taken. This is particularly useful when you are taking a couple of different compositions under the same lighting conditions. The second composition can easily lead to the light meter being fooled because you may have more/less dark/light areas in the field of view. Your camera’s light meter is calibrated to 50% Grey.

On auto, if you point your camera at a totally white subject you will get a completely different exposure combination to a totally black subject, but the two results will be a very similar shade of 50% Grey (it’s actually 50% of Black). This is where shooting on Auto is completely useless and you have to approximate the correct exposure by using Exposure Compensation, if your camera has it. This is very much trial and error. Auto shooting does have it’s place, but not in product photography, which is essentially what woodworkers do. Some would say that it’s useful in situations where the light is changing a bit – say when there are clouds around. That’s kinda true, but I would counter that by saying you should be waiting for the right moment when the composition of the clouds and any other variable elements are where you want them anyway.

All of those different modes (P, Av, Tv etc) are still automatic, and they will put a bias (or Priority) to suit that mode - Av will let you set the aperture you want and select a shutter to speed to match, and so on. Any exposure is a simple combination of shutter speed (how long the sensor or film is exposed for) and aperture (how big the hole is that the light passes through). So, for any given exposure there are many combinations that will give the same result. If you choose a fast shutter speed then the aperture will have to be bigger than when using a long shutter speed.

To put that out as an analogy, think about running a bead of glue down a board, and we want a fixed and constant amount of glue (say 1cc per inch, for arguments sake). If we have a very small hole in the nozzle then we will have to run the glue line very slowly (the hole in the nozzle represents the aperture in the camera lens, and the speed of application represents the shutter speed). If we make a bigger hole in the nozzle then we can run the glue line much faster to get the same glue bead quantity. The volume of the glue bead (thick or thin) represents the "total exposure", of which there are many different ways of arriving at.

FenceFurniture 03-29-2013 09:36 AM

So, to bring this relative to the different auto-exposure modes, let's look at two of them "Aperture Priority" (Av) and "Shutter Prority" (Tv). We know that the correct exposure for any given scene is a combination of how big the hole is verses how long it is open for. In Av you are telling the camera that your main concern (or "Priority") is the Aperture and it can select whatever shutter speed is required to give the correct exposure. In other words, you can set a wide aperture because you only want to focus on the eyes (this is the Depth Of Field again, in this case shallow), and the camera will select the right shutter speed which will be faster in this case. Or you can set a narrow aperture because you want a deeper DOF, and the camera will set a longer shutter speed.

In Shutter Priority, it is exactly the opposite, and this mode is used mainly for when you want to freeze the action.

I regard these two modes as semi-auto, because at least I still have some control. "Program" mode will set everything for you, and it will usually go for the middle ground (i.e. a shutter speed that is not too slow, not too fast, with an aperture that is not too wide, not too narrow).

In the vast majority of cases, for photos of woodwork you would use Av (and the "v" stands for "value") because you are wanting to control how much is in focus (DOF), and this will usually
be a narrow aperture, or higher number.

FenceFurniture 03-29-2013 09:44 AM

For those not in the know, “bracketing” is taking additional exposures slightly either side of the original (in either a third of half stop increments and decrements).

Some cameras have an auto-bracketing function where they will take 3 exposures that are bracketed, and for other cameras you just take three pics. As far as I am concerned these three pics only amount to one pic, as the others are discarded (deleted forever) once I have reviewed them on the computer.

With my camera it is critical that I bracket the exposure because the in-camera display is a little brighter than it should be (i.e. the pic has to look a little over exposed to be correct).

Bracketed exposures are also good for combining in layers (in Photoshop or similar) where the dynamic range of the pic is too big for the sensor to handle. That is to say that if the mid-tones are exposed correctly then you'll probably find that the highlights and shadows are not correct. By layering them up, if either the shadows or highlights are necessary then you can fool around with layering to get a better result.

There are other ways of fooling around with the various levels, but they require a pretty good understanding and execution of Photoshop, and quite frankly don't give as good a result.

I'll relate this back to transparency and negative film. With trannies you have to be bang-on, and bracketing is essential. Almost always there will only be one frame that is the best. With neg film, because there is a second generation (the print) it is much more forgiving, and mistakes can be corrected, particularly with "dodging and burning" in the print stage.

However, we are talking exclusively digital photography here. Regardless of how good you are with Photoshop, there is still nothing as good as a well exposed original that requires no fooling around. Remembering what I said before about for every gain there is always a loss, the same is true of a manipulated image. Introduction of "noise" seems to be the most common thing in manipulated images. Noise is the digital equivalent of film grain.

FenceFurniture 03-29-2013 09:54 AM

Too often the autofocus can be fooled by subjects that have no contrast in the focus zone that you want. Furthermore if Depth of Field is limited then the focus point is critical, and may not be within the zone of the camera’s autofocus point. To repeat – you should be on control, especially with product photography.

A fairly simple rule of thumb is that the Depth of Field will extends towards the camera by a third, and away from the camera by two thirds (from the primary focal point). That is to say that if your focal length/aperture combination gives you 30cm of sharp focus then you should manually focus on the 10cm point.

As for as manual focus or exposure control, the camera booklet (I was nearly going to say camera manual :)) will tell you if it has these features or not. If you have a dial where you can select different types of Exposure methods (like Tv, Av, P etc - that's how they are usually labelled) and there is an "M" then that will be the manual exposure setting.

There may be another way to overide the autofocus (depending upon your camera). It can be a little tricky sometimes, but it might just work. On many cameras, if you depress the shutter button halfway down it will start taking readings, focusing etc. If you point the centre of the lens at the spot you want to focus on, half depress the button, and hold it there, recompose the pic to what you want and then complete the depression of the button, and it could very well hold that focus point (and indeed the exposure for the previous area). The full blown DSLRs all do this, and even my little POS does it. I suspect that quite a few of the Point & Shoots will probably do it too.

With my camera, I can point at the part I want to focus on, half depress the button to set it, and then press the Manual Focus button (but without altering the focus). Then, when I recompose and take the picture it won't re-focus where it wants too.

FenceFurniture 03-30-2013 11:11 PM

Waddya want? Convenience or quality? It’s that simple. If you want both, then buy both (which is what I did).

If you are going to have zooms then don’t try to get a one size fits all from wide to Tele. The lens designs are wildly different from wide to Tele, and it is just not possible to design a lens that will do both properly. Get a wide zoom that goes up to only Standard Focal length of 50mm, or at most up to 70mm. Then get a Tele zoom that goes from 70mm up to around 200mm. Above all, have a Prime Macro lens because these are specifically designed for close focus work. I had three Macro lenses (50, 100, 200), and used them all. When I restricted myself to one it was the 100mm.

Zoom lenses that try to be everything will have many inherent flaws such as barrel distortion at the wide end, and chromatic and spherical aberrations at the tele end. It’s a bit like trying to buy one plane that does everything – can’t do anything well.

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