Fast and Furious Tabletop Photography

June 14, 2011

Two Light Setup

This is a little different take on my last post about Photographing Paintings.

Today I needed a quick tabletop shot of three sets of note cards I have for sale at my Etsy store, Source Light Images.

I wanted a single picture showing the card box and one of each note card.

This setup is about as simple as it gets.

1)    I arranged my cards and card box on a posing table covered with a black cloth, and dropped a roll of black seamless about three feet behind for a backdrop. Note: if you want a grayish background bring the seamless closer; to keep it black, move it back.

2)    Next I positioned my two lights, one each at 45-degrees to camera left and right. I am photographing reflective surfaces (glossy card stock and a plastic box cover) so the lights must be placed at a 30 to 45-degree angle to the camera. If you place the lights closer to the camera position you’ll create reflections.

3)    Once the lights were in position I held a gray card in front of my note cards. (Talk about putting your cards on the table…) I set the camera to manual at f/11 for aperture. I pointed the camera at the gray card and selected a shutter speed that zeroed the camera’s exposure level mark. This is the same mark you move for exposure compensation in any mode but manual. By positioning it at zero with the lens filled with gray card you are setting an accurate exposure.

Exposure Level Mark Zeroed

4)    Finally, I set a custom white balance using the gray card.

5)    All that was left to do was remove the gray card form the set and take the picture.

This is about as simple as tabletop photography can get, but hey, why make it any more complicated than you have to? Give it a try next time you need a quick product shot.

All the best,


WaterWorks Note Card Set


How To Photograph Paintings

June 13, 2011

Photographing Artwork For Reproduction

One of my most enjoyable tasks as a photographer is photographing oil and watercolor paintings for artists. It is a real treat to work with amazing art, and talented painters are a true source of inspiration.

Artists need photographs of their work for reproduction, show entries, and for promotional efforts both in print and online.

There are a few tricks to photographing artwork. You must light paintings evenly, correct color is an absolute necessity, and distortion is a big no-no.

Art Photography Set

Here is a quick look at my art photography set-up.

  • Artwork is hung on a 4×8 foot sheet of white peg board that is attached to a floor joist in my basement.
  • I use two Smith Victor light fixtures with 85W daylight fluorescent bulbs (300w tungsten equivalent) as my continuous light sources. The lights are aimed through 44-inch white umbrellas placed at approximately 45-degrees on either side of the camera. (See accompanying photo.)
  • With the lights in place I use a handheld incident-light meter to take multiple readings across the area the artwork will occupy on the board. Feathering the umbrellas left or right allows me to adjust the coverage of each light until the area is evenly lit. You can also use the spot meter on your camera to take multiple readings across the pegboard. The goal here is for the light to fall evenly across the artwork.
  • I usually shoot at ISO 100, f/8, and at a shutter speed in the 1-2 second range as confirmed by the meter. These long shutter speeds require a completely dark studio where the only light comes from my two fixtures.
  • Once exposure is set, it’s time to white balance the camera. This is a very important step! Artists rightfully insist on accurate color reproduction. I custom white balance my camera using a gray card, and I shoot in the Adobe RGB color space capturing 14-bit raw files. These settings reproduce extremely accurate colors right out of the camera—anything else produces color-matching nightmares. (See your camera’s manual for instructions on using custom white balance.)
  • On to the camera… I use a 50mm macro lens to guarantee edge-to-edge sharpness. I mount the camera on a sturdy tripod and level it using a bubble level in the hot shoe. A macro lens and a level camera are imperative to capturing distortion free images of artwork. (Camera hot-shoe bubble levels are available at most camera stores, and online at B&H.)
  • Finally, I attach a shutter release cable to the camera and use mirror lockup when releasing the shutter. This final step guarantees no loss of sharpness caused by a camera vibration created when I push the shutter release. As an alternative, you can use the camera’s self timer.

While this setup may sound somewhat complicated, I guarantee it’s much easier to capture distortion free, accurate color images in the camera, then to try to fix them later at the computer with software.

Studio Portrait Lighting… For Flowers!

June 2, 2011

The Calla Lily

People have enjoyed the calla lily for hundreds of years. Long, smooth, graceful… are all terms used to describe these beautiful plants.

My goal was to capture the elegance of these beautiful flowers in a unique image. I wanted to show the delicate shape of the buds with their fine linen-like texture.

I also set out to create a quiet, serene image to emphasize the plant’s stately quality.

I choose to bring two flowers into my studio and arrange them in a symmetrical presentation. The first challenge was to use lighting that would capture each bud’s delicate texture.

It can be difficult to capture detail in an all white flower bud. First, you must place your main light to the side of the subject to show its texture and form. Side lighting emphasizes texture and shows form; front lighting hides texture and flattens form.

Second, to capture fine detail in a light-colored subject you need soft, low contrast light. A large light source positioned close to your subject will produce the desired quality of light.

In this image I positioned a large 30 x 40 inch softbox to camera left just out of camera view. Notice how the light gently wraps around the flowers emphasizing the shape and texture of the buds. Also notice the long, smooth highlight down each stem.

This is classic portrait lighting; the same type of lighting setup I often use for people portraits. (If I had my druthers I would photograph only flowers. They never talk back, stay put, and don’t make a fuss. Unfortunately, they don’t pay nearly as well as people.)

The blue background adds a quiet, serene feel to the presentation—just what I was looking for. I started with a dark blue seamless paper lit with a second studio strobe fitted with a 20-degree grid.

The background light is another classic portrait technique. Lighting the background helps create a third dimension. A photograph is two-dimensional—length times width.  A background light creates a sense of depth by visually separating the subject form the background.

The 20-degree grid allowed me to direct light to a small area of the blue seamless paper. Without the grid the entire background would appear evenly lit with no falloff towards the edges.

In the final image shown here, I swapped the blue seamless paper for black. I then added a blue filter to the background light. This created a rich pool of blue light that frames the calla lilies and falls off to black on the edges. I love this effect and often use a colored filter on my background light against black seamless paper. (Red looks really cool!)

I think I have accomplished my goal. When displayed this image is certainly quiet and stately, and the shape and texture of these beautiful buds seems carved into the print.

And if sales are any measure of success, this image has done very well. Should you be interested, prints are available at Source Light Images.

Until next time,


A Simple Solution—Speedlite + CTO Filter

May 30, 2011

I photograph completed projects for builders, interior designers and fabricators. In my neck of the woods, especially in today’s economy, these folks are looking for good photography for their websites, but won’t pony-up the big bucks they were willing to spend just a few years back to get it.

It’s a reality; if I want this type of work—which I love to do—I need to figure out a workflow that allows me to remain profitable at fees these clients are willing to pay.

The solution—work fast, capture a good image in-camera to limit post processing, deliver it, bill it, and move on.

The work fast part means trying to limit supplemental lighting to a minimum for these interior shoots.

My job in this example was to photograph countertops and bathroom vanities for a cabinet and countertop fabricator.

Photographing bathrooms can be a real pain in the toilet seat. Think small rooms, limited access, highly reflective surfaces, and tungsten (orange color) lights.

The photo above left shows the bathroom lit by the existing tungsten light fixtures. I have my camera set to “Tungsten” white balance at an exposure that keeps the light fixtures from blowing out. Obviously the cabinetry—my subject—is too dark.

If I increase the exposure time the light fixtures will become distracting white blobs, and chances are the front of the cabinet will still look to dark.

The obvious solution is to add light. Here’s the challenge; I need to do it fast, and I only have a small doorway to work through.

My solution is a handheld speedlite attached to a wireless trigger. Handheld because it allows me to quickly and easily direct light exactly where I need it. (In this case the front of the vanity.)

Only one last problem to solve… Tungsten lights light the top of the vanity; my speedlite puts out daylight colored light. If I white balance my camera for tungsten the vanity top will look color correct, but everywhere the speedlite strikes will be blue.

The solution? By wrapping a CTO (color temperature orange) filter around my speedlite it is now tungsten balanced. I now have a tungsten light torch in my hand. I can direct color-corrected light exactly where it’s needed to light the cabinetry. It’s fast; it’s easy; my client is happy with the image and the price he paid for it. And most importantly, when I figure out what I am earning per hour I can still financially justify doing this type of work.

In practice the formula is simple: Expose and color balance for the existing room light. Then add filtered (color corrected) flash to supplement the existing light as needed.

Until next time,


Custom White Balance For Accurate Color

May 24, 2011

An interior designer has hired you to photograph rooms full of custom furnishings and cabinetry. Accurate color is imperative. After all, the designer knows the exact color of every fabric and finish.

To complicate the task even further, interior shoots are almost always a mixture of light sources—this shoot is no exception.

When you mix tungsten lights with a stream of daylight plus add a splash of flash, it’s almost impossible for the Auto White Balance setting on your camera to capture accurate colors. (See “Auto White Balance” photo top left.)

And unless your camera has some magic setting missing in my Canon, there is no white balance setting for “Mixed Light Sources.”

Your camera, however, does offer a solution. It’s called Custom White Balance, and it is easy to use. (See “Custom White Balance” photo top right.)

For my Canon dSLR I simply need to give it a reference. To do this I photograph a white object or 18 % gray card in the same light illuminating the subject.

For this shoot I used a Photovision Calibration Target for my reference shot. I simply filled the frame with the target and took a correctly exposed picture. (See “Reference Photo” below.) From there it’s a few simple steps to complete the Custom White Balance setup. (See your camera manual for exact instructions.)

After setting the Custom White Balance I always take a test shot with the target in the photograph. If the target’s colors look accurate, I’m good to shoot away. Plus, should I see the need to fine-tune the color, the test shot is used to click white balance in post-production. (See “Target After CWB” photo below.)

In my experience if you want accurate color right out of the camera—Custom White Balance—is the quickest way to get there.



Flash Modifier

May 14, 2011

The Mustard Curator

The National Mustard Museum recently held “A Night Of Mustard Royalty” where the winners of the 2011 World-Wide Mustard Competition were crowned.

None other than the Mustard Curator himself asked me if I could document the gala event of mustard-making history.

The event was held at the world’s only Mustard Museum. Having visited the museum in the past I knew I was in for a photographic challenge.

First: lots of yellow walls, second: glass everywhere, third: a relatively dark environment lit primarily with tungsten display lights.

I knew I was going to use my trusty Metz speedlight mounted on a flash bracket. The height of the bracket would help hide any shadows created by the flash.

The final addition to this simple event photography setup was a new flash modifier. I used a Rogue Flash Bender attached to the speedlight.

The Flash Bender is 5″ wide and 9″ tall. A flexible rod built into the Bender allowed me to direct my flash output at any angle I needed.

This allowed me to put the light where I needed it — on my subjects, and directed away from glass display cases that would have bounced a reflection right back at my camera.

I set my camera on manual at f/4, 1/125th second, ISO 400 with the flash on ETTL.

The rest was easy — sample great food made with grand champion mustard, a little fine wine, and take some pictures.

You can see a gallery of the results by visiting here.

The Third Dimension

March 22, 2011


In my fine art photography I want to move beyond capturing images that appear flat or two-dimensional. I strive to create photographs that have that elusive third dimension of depth.


Recently I have been experimenting using only a single light source for my studio work. A single light source allows for very directional light.


Unlike flat frontal lighting, directional light allows you to carve out the subject’s shape by creating areas of highlight and shadow. Directional light is key to creating depth in an image.


The alstro and tulip images are samples of photographs created with a single directional light source. I used a small soft box at camera left.


Of course selective focus and my choice of composition helped create a sense of depth in these two images. However, directional light is still the key. Imagine these two photographs taken with flat frontal lighting. All shadow would be eliminated… and the sense of depth would be gone.


Experiment for yourself. Move your light source away from the camera. Don’t be afraid to create some shadows. Strive to create depth with your lighting, and watch your images improve.

Click here to see more samples of my flower images.

Until next time,




To Fill Or Not To Fill? Flash that is…

March 7, 2011

Fill flash, by definition, is not the main light source in an image. In this image of Rocky and Casper, the main light source is the window light coming from camera right.

When the main light is directional–not coming from the camera position–it creates a shadow on the side of the subject opposite the light source.

The question then becomes, “Is the shadow too dark?” Which translates into the question posed by this post, “To fill or not to fill?”

I determine if I am going to use fill flash based on two criteria.

1) How important is the detail in the shadow side of the image?

2) What is the intended mood of the image?

If shadow detail is important in the image, then fill flash is a must. The level of fill you use will determine how much detail you bring out in the shadows.

This brings me to the second criteria; the mood of the image.

Using this image as an example, the more fill I use, the more detail we will see in the fur on the shadow side of both cats. As the fill approaches the strength of the window light, the lighting will become non-directional, shadowless, flat light. Flat light will not convey the peaceful mood of two cats taking a nap in the afternoon sunlight. I need to choose a level of fill that shows the detail I want while maintaining the mood of the image.

As photographers our job is to control light. We exert this control to create an image that fills its intended purpose.

Maybe its a fun photo of two cats napping in the sunshine. Here I can add fill light to create exactly the look I want. (Provided I don’t wake the cats while I adjust my flash output.)

As another example, for a window lit portrait of a sleeping baby I would use enough fill light to open up the shadows to create a soft, peaceful mood. Contrast this to a window lit character study of great grandpa where minimal fill light leaves deep shadows creating an entirely different mood.

To fill or not to fill?, and how mush to fill? These are questions you must answer for every image you create when the main light source is directional.

By answering these questions you take control of light. By answering these questions you become more than a picture taker, you become a photographer–an image maker.

Flash As An Outdoor Key Light

September 27, 2010

In the last post we discussed on-camera flash as fill light for outdoor portraits.

Now we are going to move the flash off-camera to a light stand and use it outdoors as a key (main) light.

Here’s the difference…

When the sun is the main (key) light source for our portrait, and our flash unit only adds light to lighten shadows and control contrast, that’s fill-flash.

As a key light the flash unit now becomes the main light source. The sun becomes a secondary light source. Usually this means setting up our portrait so the sun is to the side or behind our subject. The sun is now a hair light, accent, or background light used to add dimension to our portraits.

Why move the flash off-camera?

As the key light, I want the flash to be directional—not originating from the camera position. My goal is to mimic studio lighting, outdoors.

To move my flash off-camera I need a few extra pieces of equipment.

My outdoor flash setup includes a light stand, an umbrella stand adapter, a large white shoot-through umbrella, one speedlight, and either a cord or wireless trigger to fire the speedlight. (See photo.)

Stand and Umbrella Adapter With Speedlight

How about you come along with me as my virtual assistant on an outdoor portrait session?

Today we are going to photograph a couple to celebrate their engagement. We have chosen a small park that has lots of trees to lean on, benches to sit on, and even a pond to use as a backdrop.

It’s five in the afternoon; the sun is still relatively high in the cloudless sky making for very high contrast, harsh lighting.

What to do…?

We could hang out, tell jokes, and wait for that fabled golden light of sunset that we as photographers love. But that would mean knowing some jokes to tell, and then dealing with dime-sized mosquitoes that love to begin feasting on human flesh as the sun sets. Next idea…

We could position our couple with the sun light off to the side or behind them. That’s sounds like beautiful hair and accent light to me! Then I could have you, my trusty assistant, grab a big reflector and redirect some of that sunlight back into their faces. That will work, except, I usually work without an assistant (you’re virtual, remember?). So without a voice activated reflector holder, now what?

I’ve got it! I can still use the sun as my background-hair-accent light. But instead of a reflector-toting assistant, I’ll use my trusty light-stand-mounted flash unit to light my couple. This allows meet to shoot without an assistant, and I am not limited to posing my couple only in locations where I can redirect light with a reflector.

I like this idea; let’s set it up.

The first portrait has our couple peeking through the “V” of a tree trunk. The sun is behind them at camera left providing great hair light and accent light. Now to add my flash as a key light to light their faces…

I position my light stand at about 30 degrees camera right and raise the light stand so the flash is about 2-feet above the camera’s height.

I tilt the white shoot-through umbrella down aiming the center at my subjects’ faces. I have manually zoomed the flash to its widest angle to allow for maximum fill of the umbrella surface. I have also attached a wireless trigger to the flash with a transmitter mounted in my camera’s hot shoe. (You can trigger your flash with a PC cord as well.)

The flash is in manual mode. This allows me to keep my flash-to-ambient ratio consistent for each series of shots. With TTL flash a change in camera angle or zoom will alter the flash output. I don’t want my key light intensity to vary in a series of poses, and so manual flash is a must in my book.

So how do you determine the correct exposure?

Here’s one simple method to get a basic exposure. Put your camera in manual at a low ISO setting. Set the aperture at f/5.6, which should give us adequate depth of field for this shot. Take a few test shots varying your shutter speed until you get an exposure that records the sun’s highlights to your liking. (Be mindful of your camera’s maximum flash sync speed.)

Next, turn on your flash. Take a few more test shots varying the flash output until the key light looks right. (If you own a flash meter, use it to set your key light output.)

As you shoot you can adjust the brightness of the sun light with longer or shorter shutter speeds. You can adjust the look of your key light by changing the flash setting, or by moving your umbrella stand.

As you can see in Portrait One the sun is providing beautiful hair light, accent light, and background light. The key light is a single flash unit and shoot-through umbrella at camera right.

I used the same setup for  Portrait Three. For Portrait Two, I moved the key to camera left.

Flash As Key Light, Sun As Hair / Accent Light

Using flash outdoors as a key light allows for a lot of flexibility. To a great extent you can choose time and place for your portrait sessions, and light your images to your liking.

Give it a try!


Follow-Up: Outdoor Fill Flash

September 14, 2010

In the previous post, Speedlights: Not Just For Indoors Anymore,  I invited you to give outdoor fill flash a try. Here was the camera setup I suggested.

1) Attach your speed light to your camera’s hot shoe.

2) Set your flash to whatever version of TTL it uses.

3) If your flash has a High Speed Sync mode, use it.

4) Put your camera in Aperture Priority mode set to f/5.6.

5) Set your ISO at 100-200; not Auto ISO.

6) Take your camera and flash outside into the sunlight.

I took the following portraits about 30 minutes before sunset using this exact setup with two adjustments. I raised my ISO to 400 to get a shutter speed that would allow me to hand hold the camera, and I added a diffuser to the flash head. Here is what the unfortunate model had to look at.

Camera, Speedlight, Omni-Bounce Flash Diffuser

This first shot is lit by ambient light only. While it’s not bad, notice the deep shadows under the eyes, lack of shadow detail, and overall flat appearance. I think it’s time to turn on the flash.

Ambient Light Only

In the next image I turned the flash on in TTL mode. In this fully automatic mode I think the flash is a bit too strong.

As you will recall from the last post, if you want less flash, use minus Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC). I dialed in minus 1 FEC for the next exposure.

And for the last exposure let’s see what minus 2 FEC looks like.

Minus 2 FEC shows a subtle difference from minus 1 FEC, and it is my favorite exposure.

I like the lack of that obvious “flash” look that you see in the full automatic version. And I think adding fill flash makes for a much improved portrait as compared to the ambient light only version.

The true beauty here is the simplicity of it all. A simple camera setup combined with a single adjustment (FEC) gives you complete control of the final image.

Stay tuned. . . in a future post I will show you how to use your flash not as outdoor fill, but as a main light by taking the flash off-camera.