A chronicle of the meanderings, false starts (which in retrospect, while sort of embarrassing turned out to be highly instructive), epiphanies, selective apathy (still evolving), wild mood swings, opinions (subject to frequent change), and life lessons of an inveterate dabbler (and her latest dabblings).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Photography Secrets

A few people have asked me now how I take my photos. Because sometimes they turn out really good. I never really know when that's going to happen but it's pretty invigorating when it does. Not as invigorating as getting a mango tree on Farm Town, but we all live on a continuum of invigoration and have to take it where we find it.

So. My photo taking is pretty low tech. First, my camera: I have an inexpensive but trusty and amazingly feature-packed Kodak EasyShare (digital, of course). I think they run about $150 these days. The important features on this camera: macro lens, white balance, and timer. There are all kinds of other features under the manual settings but I haven't gone there yet (not to mention for taking pictures of things other than jewelry! Like things that move.) You totally don't have to break the bank to get a camera that will do the job for you. I LOVE this little camera (thanks Mom!) I've even dropped it three times (don't do that), but no harm done. I generally have the white balance set on "daylight", even if I'm using artificial light.

I usually try to photograph using indirect natural daylight. In the summer, early afternoon seems best--too early in the AM, or too late in the PM and the light is distinctly blue-green. Too blue to even correct it in Photoshop. Inside, outside, doesn't seem to matter. In the car on my lunch hour (but not generally while driving) works good too. I don't usually use a light box if I'm using indirect light. Partly this is because I don't have a light box. The photo above was taken on my front porch yesterday around noon with a tripod only, with slightly overcast skies.

In Montana in the winter, photos are a challenge because the days are fairly short, and the light can be kind of blue when it's really overcast (um, most of the time). Weekends are the only time I can really photograph in the winter. Direct sunlight doesn't work really well, although I have been able to use that with a homemade diffuser box, i.e., a translucent storage tub. (I cut a hole in the bottom to poke my camera lens through and I upend it over whatever I'm photographing--it serves as both tripod and light diffuser. Of course that's just for straight-down pictures--you could turn it on its side for other angles, in which case you would need a regular tripod.) I have found, though, that the translucent tubs are TOO translucent--the grooves and such in the plastic act like a prism and can scatter weird light on your subject (sometimes cool, though). (I've read that some people use white Styrofoam coolers.) I block some of the light with a thin white cloth and this seems to do the trick. You could throw a cheap white sheet (with a hole in it for your camera lens) over the whole thing to even out the light too--I'm going to try this next. I have used my storage tub with artificial light too, with multiple lamps shining on the subject from different directions to prevent shadows--with cloth over it to diffuse the light. I don't like daylight bulbs. Regular bulbs work fine. I haven't taken any pictures with artificial light in a long time though. You just have to experiment. There are sites on the Internet too for making your own light box with paper. I'm just lazy so I like the tub. You could look in the Etsy forums--search for "homemade light box".

I have a mini tripod. I bought it refurbished on Amazon for $4.99 plus shipping. Just search Amazon for "mini tripod" and read the customer reviews. Five dollar tripod, works great. Telescopes to about 18" high. That's all I need. I use the timer on my camera so I'm not touching it at all when the shutter opens. That's important, you don't want any transferred motion to produce camera shake in your photo. I use the tripod for mostly angled pictures when I want to vary from the straight-on type picture, or for photographing hanging earrings.

I often use a wire plant stand as a tripod as well for straight-down pictures when I have indirect daylight. I mostly prefer this to the tub because it's less unwieldy. My camera lens fits just so between the bars.

I correct or enhance ALL of my photos with Adobe Photoshop. It was pretty hard trying to figure out how to use it--it's not intuitive AT ALL--but I learned the basics: color correction, exposure correction, brightness/contrast, color saturation, and now lately I've attempted to use the Unsharpen Mask, which perversely enough is for SHARPENING your photos (that's what I mean with the counter-intuitive thing--WTF? That's just mean)--but I'm not sure it's working. They don't look any different to me. Back to Photoshop help...Actually, you could probably produce the same effects with Picnik (an application available through Flickr) or Picasa, which is available for free download from the Internet. Just Google "Picasa". Those programs make WAY more sense than Photoshop, and they have the same basic features (esp. Picasa--I think Picasa has a sharpen feature). Picasa even has a cool "glow" feature. (Photoshop probably does too but I bet it's called "UNglow Mask".) You really should use a tool like one of these on ALL your photos--not as a form of false advertising, but to really make sure the photo does your item justice, and really draws the eye. If your experience is like mine, I'm sure you've found that photos rarely capture an item's luminosity or clarity--photo editing programs can really bring that out.

This is just trial and error. Different types of stones, pearls, metals, finishes, etc., look better on different kinds of backgrounds. I myself don't like a white background on everything, although some items just don't work on anything else. I like a little variety, but I think a shop should have a uniform FEEL to it. Some inexpensive backgrounds I have found really effective: ceramic and stone floor tiles from Home Depot, art papers, old weathered wood, painted or stained scrap wood, cardboard (yes really), my own cool clothing, rocks, driftwood. I don't use a lot of props--rocks, driftwood, and sometimes a cup or bowl for posing earrings. Here are some different things I've used as backgrounds that I think turned out nicely:

In order clockwise from top left: Faux slate ceramic tile; Weathered wood; Art paper; Plain white paper; Ceramic floor tile in a sandstone finish; A rock; A dark wood TV tray; Corrugated cardboard; Cheap backer board from unwanted photo frame, painted gray (see photo above); More faux stone ceramic tile; and (center) Mediterranean-style floor tile.

I've been trying to find cool linoleum squares too, but I just can't find any! How can Home Depot have so little linoleum? Have to visit a flooring specialty store sometime. I would like to try homemade paper sometime too. I have found though, that super texture-y backgrounds don't work well. I used sand once, but it scratched the silver.

I take, and retake and retake and retake my photos. Some days the natural light just isn't very good, or I just don't have the right background for an item and I have to scour the house and find something else. And some items are just plain hard to photograph. I've had better luck with pearls lately, but light aqua-colored stones are hard to do. They either look too pale, or they look fluorescent. Any light-colored stone is hard to photograph well, actually. A matte dark gray background seems to work pretty well for that, like the ones Lorelei Eurto typically uses (Lorelei, what IS that?)

OK, off to the Dollar Store to look for stuff. And maybe I'll find the energy to pimp another pair of earrings later...


  1. Keisten, this is great information. Thanks so much for taking the time to post it and in such great detail. I strugle with backgrounds and am still searching for the perfect one for me. I think somewhere in Lorelei's posts she might have her photo set up and background. She does photograph blues really really well.

  2. Thanks for the tips:) My favourite is the cooler...I'm sooo going to try this one out!!!

  3. Good information Miss Keirsten...I think we share similar philosophies and techniques! I am all about indirect natural light as much as possible. I used to use Photoshop Elements, but once I started using Picnik, I fell in deep like (won't say love, because I bought the premium application)!

  4. Cool post, Keirsten. Like you, I find that natural, diffused light is really the ONLY good light for photographing jewellery. I use an off-white sheet over a clothes horse (do you have clothes horses in America? Maybe you'd call it a portable washing line/frame) as a lighting tent, and photograph inside it. I layer the sheet by folding it, so that if I need less/more light I can flip down or pull up layers of sheet.
    I have a handful of backgrounds that most things work with, including light brown, handmade paper, which is plain-ish but has just enough texture and colour variation to be interesting and earthy. When a subject needs a white background, I use white wallpaper: again, plain, but slightly textured so that it's not boring.
    I really like your jewellery style by the way - delectable!

  5. Silverlight, very cool tips!! I don't know what a clothes horse is, but we do have clothes drying lines, they're usually huge. But I'm sure I could rig up a similar tent with something else! We all did it as children, right? That would be really handy. And I never thought of wallpaper!! Perfect! Have to check that out. Thanks for the compliments too!

  6. thanks for the tips, i have the worst time with my photo taking.

  7. I loved the idea about the tub with the hole in it and the background suggestions. Thanks so much for sharing your info - this is great!

  8. Your pictures do freaking rock. I'm too lazy to do all that. I want to hire someone to do it for me. How sad is that? Not to mention expensive. My bracelet is in your collage. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE that thing?? I plan outfits so I can wear it and my earrings :) I'm wearing the set in our Christmas card picture for this year!!

  9. Excellent info. and your pictures are wow!

    Thanks so much

  10. Awesome post! I am constantly shopping for props but have been soooooo lax in taking any jewelry photos whatsoever in what seems like ages.