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"To Shoot a Bottle" - Podcast #2

You don't need expensive lighting to get professional results in the studio, especially for product photography. With a little planning, you can use natural light from a window to capture compelling shots. This is a great technique for posting eBay for-sale items and article illustrations. Here's a quick tour of how to set up your existing light studio.

First, you need to find an area with a light source. A north window is ideal because the light is diffused and not too harsh. Then, set up your backdrop. White photographer's seamless backdrop paper works best, but you can use a roll of butcher's paper too. You want to create a "sweep." That means that you attach the paper to the wall (or any vertical surface), then have it curve as it bends toward your horizontal shooting platform. The gentle curve of the sweep eliminates any distracting edges in the background. The white background enables you to place your shot seamlessly on a white web page. Once your backdrop is set up, put your subject on the shooting platform.

Existing Light Bottle
Glass bottle shot with window light and butcher's paper for backdrop. ISO 100, 1/4 sec. @ f-8, +2 exposure compensation.

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Mount the camera on a tripod. Set the ISO at 100 to keep image noise to a minimum. Adjust your white balance to "cloudy" to compensate for the bluish light coming through the north window. Set exposure compensation to +2. You need to do this because your camera's light meter will be fooled by the bright white backdrop forcing it to underexpose the subject. By setting your exposure compensation to +2, you will have cleaner whites in the background and a properly exposed subject. If the shot turns out too bright, back off exposure compensation to +1 or +1.5.

Finally, set the self-timer and make sure the camera is focusing on the subject. The self-timer will prevent jarring the camera when you initiate the exposure. Check your shot in the LCD viewfinder; it should look pretty good. The only adjustment you should have to make is possibly adding some side-lighting with reflectors (foamcore or white cardboard works great), or exposure compensation for an image that's too bright or dark.

If you'd like to learn more, check out my Digital Photography Pocket Guide, 3rd Edition. For a crash course on product photography with studio lighting, see my article titled, Professional Product Shots Made Easy. And feel free to post your questions and comments here. See you next time!

If you haven't listened to it already, you can download the podcast here (23 minute show).

Compact cameras generally use "Auto Flash" as their default mode. And for most flash photography, auto gets the job done. But if you want to improve your photos, to the point where they rival professional images, spend a few minutes exploring the other flash modes on your camera.

Start by locating the "lightening bolt" icon on you camera -- that's the universal symbol for electronic flash. If you're lucky, it's a button control on the back of your camera, which means easy access. Some cameras bury the flash controls in the menu system. If that's the case for your digicam, you'll have to dig a little deeper to find it.

My favorite option is "flash on." This control makes the flash fire regardless of the ambient lighting conditions. I use it often for outdoor portraits. Why, because when working in nature, the light isn't always coming from a flattering angle, such as with this image:

No Flash Portrait

By enabling the "flash on" option, you can add a pleasing front light to the portrait, put a little sparkle in the eyes, and reduce skin imperfections. Look at the difference in this portrait.

Flash On Portrait

A variation of this technique is the "slow synchro" flash mode. Sometimes this option is located in the menu items as "Nighttime Flash," "Nighttime Portrait," or "Night Snapshot." I use this mode at evening parties or whenever I want to capture some background environment along with the main subject.

Slow synchro flash will immediately elevate your party shots above everyone else's who will have a dark background and a harshly lit subject. The main thing to keep in mind is to hold the camera very still during exposure, even for a second or two after the flash has fired. That will keep your background from becoming too blurry. Here's an example.


Nighttime Flash Mode

These simple techniques will dramatically improve your pictures. If you'd like to learn more, check out my Digital Photography Pocket Guide, 3rd Edition. And feel free to post your questions and comments here. See you next time!

If you haven't listened to it already, you can download the podcast here (26 minute show).