Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Photographing Your Work Tutorial

Merry Christmas! I just posted four gorgeous new beauties on eBay! Check them out!

Notice something different? Yep, I've been experimenting with photography recently. My friend, Cindy Drozda inspired me to try some new things! (BTW, check out her brand new Etsy shop!)

So, while I'm here and writing, I figured I'd compose a short tutorial on photographing your work -- it's an essential skill, especially if you sell (or want to sell) online, and also gives you a record of your work. Too often, I've seen photos that are poorly lit, have distracting backgrounds, or simply don't show the piece to full advantage. While I trust a professional photographer to do promotional work, being able to take good photographs gives me a lot of flexibility.

Step 1: Begin with a Light Tent & Lights
The biggest problem that we photographic amateurs face is direct light, which creates hard shadows, glare, and too much shine. A light tent, made from light-diffusing material, is the easiest way to overcome this difficulty. The fabric on the tent panels breaks up the light rays, sending them off into all different directions, which has the effect of softening the beam.

You should use several lights -- I use the overhead fluorescent (on the ceiling in my photo room), a second overhead light (the "white-light" type that are sold for illuminating detail work), and two tiny directional lights that can be easily moved around the item.

You can buy ready-made tents, or make your own. Check out photography supply stores to buy materials.

Step 2: The Background
Choose a background that lets your item shine! In your light tent, spread fabric or use paper as a backdrop: something without wild patterns: plain, nothing distracting. IRON fabric if you use it! (There's nothing that looks worse than crinkled fabric, and it says "sloppy" to a potential judge or buyer). Recently, I've discovered that using a medium color background reduces contrast, allows the grain of the wood to show much more beautifully, and colors appear more substantial as well.

Large pieces of paper (11x11), in a wide variety of colors, can be found at craft supply or stationary stores; places that sell scrapbooking materials. Choose a median color and something that will represent your "brand." Color/background consistency helps your clients identify you and your product.

Step 3: The Camera
Digital pictures are very valuable media these days -- if you don't have a digital camera, BUY ONE! They come in all shapes and sizes and every price range. I recommend something at least one or two steps above the cheapest... but even those can work magic with experimentation. (A cell phone camera won't work -- the images are too poor quality to use online).

Step 4: Setting it all up
Most of my work (fiber arts tools & small spindles) must lie on the table to be photographed, which means I take pictures from above. Use a tripod if you possibly can -- it will help the sharpness of the image. I set up my lights to illuminate every part of my piece, watching for hard shadows, correcting them when possible.

Crochet hooks, being round, have the most curious tendency to roll around on the paper. I stick them down with "adhesive putty" purchased at an office supply store. (It's removable, non-staining, and works perfectly for sticking small pieces like crochet hooks and pens, allowing you to photograph the side you want). (When you go out to buy it, tell the clerk that it's normally used for sticking posters to walls). Best of all, it's almost infinitely reusable -- I've had the package in the photo for over 2 1/2 years!

Make sure you take at least one photograph of the "best" side of your piece. Often, a side that shows contrasting color, or has "exciting" grain changes will be the best candidate for the "power shot." (A "power shot" is the photo you use for the first picture in the online listing, as well as the "thumbnail." Multicolor often gets a better click rate than the more subtle side of a piece).

Remember -- the general public sees things slightly differently than woodturners do. While turners thrill to the undulations of crotch curliness, the public often doesn't know to look for this type of figuring, and a sapwood/heartwood contrast is much more eye-catching, especially on a casual-look basis. By all means, show the subtleties... just use the most "clickable" pictures up front.

Camera Settings:
Setting up the camera, I use Vivid, (so that the colors appear true-to-life), the Macro/Close-Up setting (represented by the flower in the flowerpot), and adjust the White Balance to match the background. You *will* have to experiment with your settings -- your lighting and camera settings will never be the same as another person's. I advise taking several pictures in a session and comparing them. For example, to find the best White Balance, I set up the studio, and take 1 picture at every other level: 0 clicks, 2 clicks, 4, and 6 clicks. (On my camera: 0, 2/3, 1 1/3, 2) This way, they can be easily labelled on the computer.

Taking pictures at intervals also lets me do half the work... when I observe the resultant photos, I can estimate what the best setting would be, and if I need to take an in-between picture. Repeat this process for each color of background that you choose -- the settings will be different.

The Computer Bit:
Hopefully, your pictures will have turned out well enough to require no editing at all, except for maybe cropping out a bit of the background. (Choose an attractive margin around your piece -- it helps the work stand out.) If necessary, "sharpen" the image slightly in Photoshop (or other capable graphics editing program), but note that it won't make too much difference in a very blurry photograph -- much better to re-take the picture.

I don't do any color alteration, add special effects, or do anything to impinge the original character of the photograph. This is important! If you "retouch" your photos and your clients notice the discrepancy in the piece when they receive it, you'll likely get a return... and a VERY unhappy customer. Don't try to be a Photoshop wizard -- flaunt the features of your work -- show every crack and cranny, knots, finish, etc. Your clients will buy your work for what it is, not what it could be. Be honest and build trust with your clientele, and they will reward you with customer loyalty.

LABEL your photographs. How many pictures of nameless bowls are floating around the internet? What if a buyer sees one and wants to buy it -- who can even tell who the maker is? Keep your original photographs intact, but for pictures that you post online, I highly recommend labeling them with your name or web site address, somewhere in the corner of the photograph. Give your work the credit they deserve, and let potential buyers know where to find you.

Most of all, have fun, and experiment to your heart's delight! Play with the settings on your camera, adjust the color of the lights and their position. Find what works best for you. (And after some time, you'll get googly-eyed from staring at the computer screen -- ask a friend or spouse what they think about your pictures -- they'll come up with some good suggestions.)

And before I let you go... the resultant pictures: White background was my "old" standard, and the tan is the after new experimentation. The difference in the appearance of the wood grain and color is just staggering!


  1. Great tutorial. Thanks for sharing those tips.

  2. Our moderator posted your tutorial on the etsyknitters team daily digest.
    Thanks to you both! This is very helpful and informative.


  3. Great tutorial, just the encouragement I need to get my pictures in tip-top shape!