Friday, 28 October 2011

Can you take decent product shots with a low end camera?

There was a thread started in the Etsy forums recently in respect of the limitations of low end point and shoot cameras and their suitability, or lack of it, for taking product shots for selling. A lengthy discussion ensued and as is usually the case, every possible interpretation and perspective on this issue was aired.

From the opening post by WillowontheWater:
"Sure, you CAN get some great shots off of a low end camera, but how long does it take? Not only to get the shot, but then to edit it? I have said it before and I'll say it again... the proper tool makes all the difference."
I added my own thoughts to the subject too. Whilst the opening post had some indisputable truths, I felt that it was in no way the whole story. Getting decent product photographs is a combination of equipment - both camera, lighting and staging - but perhaps the most significant factor is technique. Understanding your camera, some of the basic principles of photography and how to get the best from what you have, would actually solve the vast majority of photography problems posted about in the forums.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view, they look rather dark here on the page.

A polymer clay faux dichroic glass pendant taken with a very basic point and shoot camera with minimal setting options.

I don't think that I've personally seen a thread where the photography problem could only be overcome by buying a new camera - that the camera was the only factor letting the user down. In almost every case, the problems can be overcome - or at the very least, improved upon - with an adjustment in camera setting or a modification of technique - such as focusing in the right place or using a support for the camera to remove camera shake. Most users experiencing difficulty would probably be better served spending money on additional lighting, daylight bulbs or a small tripod - and not necessarily on camera equipment.

Most of the problems posted are about 4 main issues; blurred images (due to either camera shake or inappropriate focus), the wrong part of the subject being in focus (usually due to using the camera closer to the subject than it can focus), incorrect white balance (whites looking blue or orange etc.) or exposure problems - and those are almost always about items on white backgrounds looking too dark and coming out with grubby backgrounds. It doesnt matter how much light you throw on your subject, if you underexpose for the scene, the images will always look too dark.

The advice posted is often to shift the levels in photo editing software retrospectively, when in reality, all the crafter needs is to do is to add some positive exposure compensation to ensure that the white background looks white in the resulting images.

Using a little positive exposure compensation in shots that are predominantly light can ensure that your white backgrounds stay that way - in this case I used two thirds of a stop of positive exposure compensation (+0.67 EC).

Much more detail on overcoming this sort of photography problem is covered in my small item photography tutorial and doesn't need to be repeated in detail here at this time - and I have a list of all my photography articles and blogs on this page here on the blog.

It's an oft-posted mantra that the crafters don't have 'enough' light to get bright photographs - in reality, it's possible to take perfectly good photographs in very little light indeed - what does matter, is how you expose for the light that you do have and how you manage your technique when the light levels fall.

If your lighting level is low, you may encounter problems associated with slow shutter speeds for example, resulting in camera shake from your hands moving whilst the shutter is open to take the shot - that can be overcome by either changing camera exposure settings to ensure a faster shutter speed, where that's practical and possible to do so (it wasn't in my little experiment shots here due to camera limitations), or by using a support for the camera, like a tripod or bean bag.

The opening post in the forum thread in question linked to a blog with some example photographs taken with a basic model second hand Canon point and shoot camera - which actually had a higher spec than the examples I've posted here. Considering that the poster is an experienced and very capable professional photographer, I think the photographs were taken by just pointing and shooting and very little regard for correct technique for the subject in hand, perhaps just to make the point that you can't just 'point and shoot' them. The photographs were pretty appalling (the point the poster was making) - but I didn't think they needed to be.

It was my contention, as already stated, that technique is by far the most powerful tool in your arsenal - I've often said that a little know-how and understanding can make a massive difference. All of the photographs posted here were taken with a Fujifilm A850 camera that my husband uses as his own walkaround camera. He has no interest in fiddling with settings, so I've pre-set this model with some settings to suit his personal uses for the camera and he just switches it on and squirts away at the scenery and gets some annoyingly good results too.

The camera is very basic - it cost us under £60 GBP 4+ years ago. It has 3 modes, one for photographing babies that doesn't use flash and offers soft skin tones (I'd like to try that for this task, it might actually work quite well), fully Automatic and what they call a 'Manual' mode - which in reality is the same as auto, but the camera relinquishes decisions about some settings to the user. I chose the latter and put some objects in my usual lighting setting - a daylight fluorescent ring light with a diffuser over my subject - I couldn't adjust exposure other than by using exposure compensation and I couldn't even turn off the flash, which seemingly came on when the shutter speed went too low - so I found I could prevent this from happening by being careful with the exposures I secured.

I used macro mode, which allows the camera to focus closer to the subject than for general photography and I used Auto white balance for most of the frames, as I was using a daylight tube and it seemed to work reasonably well - some looked a little cold, so I swapped to the fine/cloudy pre-set, but once on the computer, these actually weren't as realistic for colour, so I adjusted them to match the earlier AWB shots.

I found focusing more tricky than with my usual, slightly more featured product photography camera and I can see now that some aren't optimally focused, so some more time with the camera would learn the quirks of its focusing - as it tended to shoot with a wide open aperture and this led to a shallower depth of field than I usually try to achieve, which in turn gives a greater margin of error for sharpness - so as I can't control aperture, I'd need to be more mindful of that in future and focus more carefully.

Far from spending a lot of time on these, they had exactly the same workflow as I usually perform on my product shots - in fact somewhat less, as these are sharpened in the camera and have higher contrast than I normally use, so I reduced/omitted these stages in my post processing. I started typing my post here less than 30 minutes after picking up the camera, so that was the time I spent taking the shots, dusting some of my props, booting the computer I download images onto, transferring them over the network to my working computer (which acts as my back up method too), choosing frames, post processing and saving the finished images.

The exposures/tonality are largely as they came out of the camera, I cropped for framing, tweaked white balance a little as the auto WB did fluctuate a bit between frames (I wouldn't normally choose it for that very reason), did very modest levels adjustment - as I would with any shots - cloned out any fluff or dust and reduced in size and locally sharpened. If you want to see the exposure information, the EXIF data should be intact in the images, but you'll probably have to click through the image to the gallery overlay, then select the link for 'Show original' in the bottom left hand corner.

I was curious to try and see just how workable a very basic 'low-end' camera could be in practice and whilst I can see there are clearly some shortfalls in these photographs and they certainly don't look that pretty at full resolution, the results are actually better than I was expecting and having checked them on the computer, if I were to repeat the exercise now with what I've already learned, I would expect the next series would be somewhat better with appropriate tweaks in my own technique appropriate to this camera.

The clocks go back this weekend - sale to cheer us up

I realised as I showered this morning and was listening to the dawn chorus outside the bathroom window - that the clocks go back this weekend and next week I'll maybe miss my birdsong, but it will start to go dark before teatime. Which is quite a depressing thought, as the days approach their shortest and the temperatures plummet.

So we perhaps all need some cheering up - and it's that inevitable time when we have to consider the approaching festivities and I'm determined not to be as last minute and manic as I have been the last couple of years.

So, I decided to hold an impromptu sale - over the weekend and for the rest of the week - and have knocked 15% off everything in the shop. This might help you to treat yourself to something cheering, or make a start on your Chr . . . no, can't say it yet . . . let's just say . . . pre-festive purchases.

Please click on any of the photographs for a better view.

Some one of a kind entirely hand crafted beaded bead earrings just added to the shop, with faceted fire polished crystal, Swarovski Elements crystals, black and silver seed bead netting and Sterling silver metalwork. More colours to be added shortly.

If you prefer to buy through Etsy, I've activated discount coupon code WINTERSALE which if you enter where requested during checkout will give you the same 15% off there too.

Some autumn colour photographs:

We managed to get two of our very favourite walks done in the English Lake District last weekend, possibly our last trip there this year and although the weather was pretty poor, the foliage colours were still spectacular. Walking was a little squelchy underfoot after torrential rain overnight created mud and brought a lot of wet leaves down, but I'd still rather be there in the rain than most other places in sunshine.

I love doing shots that I call 'macro landscapes' - the camera that I'm currently using as my walkaround camera, the Fujifilm HS20EXR has a tilt screen which allows me to shoot low and a super macro wide angle mode, which allows me to get very close, but include a lot of the scene too.

If only I'd moved a smidge to the right, I might have caught nice reflections in the puddles!

Coming next:

After a forum discussion about how point and shoot cameras are wholly unsuitable for product photography - a point that was illustrated with some extreme, very poorly managed shots, I aim to take some product shots with the oldest and least-featured cameras in the house and see if I can make a better job of it - I am of the view that technique is a perhaps the most important factor.

I also have an idea of taking some photographs with very little light (candlelight maybe?) to illustrate how it's not how much light you have, but managing what you do have properly that matters.

Friday, 21 October 2011

I didn't expect that today

Life has a way of occasionally presenting you with a variety of unexpected experiences - some very welcome, others not so much.

Often it's those innocuous ordinary days that can turn up something quite different. Perhaps it's their very ordinary-ness that makes the unexpected turn out all the more delightful.

Thus it was last Friday. We were away in the English Lake District in our favourite spot for a long weekend and because we'd decided to go away at the very last minute, we hadn't really planned it very well. So we needed to spend our first morning doing some food shopping and headed off to an out of town shopping area with several adjacent supermarkets. One of the things on our list that we'd been unsuccessful with in the supermarket was bird food - there is a small bird table outside the caravan and we enjoy seeing the visiting birds, so we headed across the car park to a couple of more likely stores for supplies for our feathered neighbours.
Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

Elmo, a fabulously striking Bengali Owl

One of the stores was a large pet superstore and outside the main entrance was a chap with 4 owls on perches, talking to the public and collecting money and raising awareness for his owl rescue sanctuary; Wise Owl World based in Barrow in Furness. He does this on a regular basis to educate people about owls and give them a wonderful hands-on experience of these gorgeous raptors. All of the birds are rescues and have a variety of problems or injuries that would prevent them returning to the wild.

They looked well cared for and in good health and obviously experienced at this meeting the public set up and when put back onto their perches were chilled enough to start to fall asleep - he clearly circulated the birds that were handled so that they all got some peace between times.

The largest owl was Elmo, a Bengali Owl.

He gave me a leather gauntlet so that I could hold one and he handed me Sky, a gorgeous 12 year old barn owl. I didn't hear the full story that he'd been telling someone else, but she's obviously been rescued from the jaws of a large dog and was missing a portion of one wing. He described how he'd been called in when someone had found her and she was clearly badly hurt and he said that "we looked at each other quietly for a while and then I gently talked to her and told her how I was going to make her better and we gradually made friends." The way he interacts with them, they clearly are all friends and they certainly trust him. The Tawny owl Cuddles even allowed him to part her feathers to show me inside her ear - I was totally unfamiliar with the structure of an owl ear before last Friday.

Cuddles - a Tawny Owl - who kindly let me look inside his ear.

I was surprised at how light Sky was, I'd held my arm slightly upwards as he placed her, expecting it to drop to level under her weight - but she was deceptively light. I stroked her gently and was very surprised to find that the bulk of the roundness of her head was predominantly fluffy feathers - her skull underneath the plumage is quite small, the fullness of her head largely consists of the downy soft feathers she uses to dampen any sound in flight and to help direct even the tiniest sound into her super-sensitive ears.

Sky, a 12 year old Barn Owl - deceptively light and incredibly fluffy

There were 4 owls with him, ranging in size, from the tiny 8" tall Tropical Screech Owl (who don't actually screech apparently, but he did chatter at things that annoyed him - like passing dogs and crows) called Olly, Sky the barn owl, Cuddles a Tawny Owl and the largest Bengali Owl called Elmo. I asked if I could take a few photographs and he said yes, which was such a joy to have the opportunity of getting so close. Unfortunately, they were outside the main entrance of a modern-built out of town superstore, which was plastered with signs, posters and a burglar alarm - so the background was somewhat unnatural and distracting, so I've largely framed in very tight on their faces.

The beautiful Barn Owl that I got to hold called Sky.

Cuddles was clearly distracted by something above him, he periodically looked skywards and turned his head around, as though being vigilant about some perceived threat from above - I asked if it was the car park crows that concerned him, but apparently, the burglar alarm box above them on the wall periodically emitted a high pitched sound that we humans couldn't hear, but clearly Cuddles, with his super-efficient hearing (Tawny's have the best hearing of our domestic owls, hence the ear-demo) could hear it and wasn't sure what to make of it or quite where it was coming from.

Olly, a tiny Tropical Screech Owl - just as he was starting to be irritated by the nearby crows.

It was the tiny wee Olly that was troubled by the crows - at one point they noisily passed, gathering in a small murder on a roof-line nearby, squabbling noisily amongst themselves. Olly first narrowed one eye and looked in their direction with a disapproving eye, then as they continued making more fuss, his demeanour changed somewhat and he apparently took on what the chap referred to as his "angry face". And by golly jingo was it one angry face. He drew his cheeks in and raised various feathers to take on his most fearsome "don't mess with me" expression.

Olly wearing his 'angry face' - which despite his diminutive size, was quite intimidating.

I learned several things that morning - what an owl's ear looks like, how light and fluffy a barn owl is, that you can tell a daylight owl from a nocturnal one from their eye colour; coloured eyes like Elmo's are daylight owls, Cuddles' dark eyes prove that he's nocturnal. And I now know what a truly pissed off owl looks like!

What a truly fabulous and special privilege it was to meet them and to learn more about these fabulous and efficient creatures in such close proximity.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Autumn scenes and a heatwave

As those in the UK will already know, we've had a glorious Indian summer period this week, with record breaking temperatures and wall to wall sunshine lasting several days. A fabulous and much-appreciated treat.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger, better quality, view.

I just love to see sunshine filtering through trees - which can be quite a challenge to do justice to photographically - your eyes are much more efficient at taking in the subtle nuances of the lighting on the scene than the camera can manage in a single shot.

We didn't want to waste the opportunity yesterday of the last fabulous day forecast in this run, so we dealt with our errands in the morning and packed the picnic basket and set off to get some much needed fresh air and to stretch our legs.
I don't know much about them, but I do love taking photographs of wild fungi - maybe because they grow in my very favourite environment, so are synonymous to me with being in places I love.

I think this particular photograph was my favourite of the day - I like taking low level macro shots and especially with a slightly wide field of view to give a hint of the wider scene for context.

It was rather incongruous to be walking through very autumnal woodland, with dry golden leaves underfoot and some trees already almost bare, yet for it to be sweltering hot and us to be glad of the shade under the trees and the gentle breeze. We often get a lovely period at this time of year, which is why we're usually away on holiday at this time, but it was incredibly hot for the first day of October.

We chuckled when we remembered doing the same walk in August in fastened up coats, scarves and gloves when the brisk wind was too bitter to eat outside and we retreated inside the car for lunch.

This tiny emerging fly agaric mushroom was about 6 feet away from the clump I photographed and posted recently - no doubt part of the same colony, which grow on the roots of trees and these are the above-ground fruiting bodies.

I can't resist little scenes like this where a natural detail is highlighted in a shaft of sunlight, emphasised by areas of shadow behind.

I took this frame, then as I turned the camera to take a more vertical shot from the centre, the sun vanished behind the trees and was gone for the day.

I don't have much else to report this week, I've been dealing with things that are beyond the remit of my blog and not very interesting, but I'll try to add something more worthy and interesting next week - I really should address some of the many tutorial or technical subjects I have as 'works in progress'.

In closing I'll add a couple more photographs from the first of the nice days earlier in the week before it got quite so hot, but I managed to get a nice walk in during the day - after all, I can work when it's dark and it's a shame to miss out on such nice - and rare - opportunities. This is one of the lovely advantages of being self-employed, you can at least manage your time in this manner.

I've taken this standing in the local park and looking towards a field that usually has several horses in it, but they were out being ridden at the time. One of them at the fence would have finished this off nicely. I took this particular series of shots using an in-camera film simulation (Astia) which tends to give a rather yellow tone to images, thinking that it might work well with the colours on this particular day.

I posted a similar frame of this scene last week, but the light was rather better on this occasion and I made a better job of metering the scene and it has some additional warmth from the film simulation used too.


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