Product photography

Alfred's Camera Page

This page is no longer actively maintained. (Pardon?)

If you want to make a technical site about cameras, you can safely assume that 80% of your visitors are going to be active photographers with a lot of technical knowledge. You can also safely assume that the best way to lose them is to present them with crappy product pictures. Only pointless camera sites do that: they have few or no pictures of cameras, and the few that are available are unsharp, or small, or hued, or otherwise unattractive and faulty, and tell your readers in an apt language that you don't have a clue what you're talking about.

Good pictures will encourage the other 20% of your readership (the people who plan to sell a certain camera on eB*y) even more to do what they came to your site for, namely to steal your pictures to spice up their ad, but they're still a minority, so they don't count. Remember, there's also the possibility that they end up on a page about how to take good product pictures, in which case you've given the needy a fishing rod instead of a tuna sandwich.

Good pictures start with good material. In my case, I had the collection of cameras (good start), I had the high-end digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix 990, property of my father), and I had the white backing paper. What didn't I have? Why, the neutral light source! You can't take good pictures without a neutral light source, any photographer can tell you. Film and digital cameras are all tuned to some specific colour temperature, generally the sun's, and taking pictures in light of a different colour temperature results in cold or warm looking pictures. Don't ask me why, but especially digital pictures of chrome objects are prone to discolorment due to wrong white balancing.

Okay, a natural light source. This would be a source of light with the colour temperature near that of sunlight, because that's what digital cameras are optimized for. (Though many can adjust their white balance to bulb lighting, the results tend to look processed and less rich in tone.) Professional studio photographers have special daylight outfits, naturally, but they typically cost a fortune, even to rent, and I'm not in the business of spending fortunes. (Needing fortunes: yes.) So we need a workaround.

Fortunately we have one, at least those of us lucky enough to live in small countries near the North Sea: the almost continuously overcast skies. Leaving alone the damage they do to a people's psyche, overcast skies are the perfect source of muted, natural light. Provided the weather conditions are good, meaning there isn't a trace of storm or rain in the sky, because those will faintly hue the light with a slight green or blue, the overcast sky is more or less the world's biggest softbox. There is no better source of natural, scattered light than cloud-scattered sunlight itself. It's free, it's yours, so use it.

The way I actually take my pictures is by going into the back yard, spreading out a roll of white paper, just ordinary book backing stuff, on the garden table and weighing down the edges with the equipment I want to photograph. I put one camera in the center and take pictures of it out of hand. (I tried using a tripod, but it's too cumbersome most of the time, and you want to be able to vary angles and such quickly. They're unbeatable for plane projections, though.) Some tips are:

  • to set the camera to macro mode (obviously);
  • to avoid flashing, because doing so will cause eBay-tastic glimmers in shiny parts of the camera;
  • to take pictures at either zero or a large angle to surfaces, to give the picture more depth and avoid the photo looking crooked;
  • to overexpose by about .7 or 1 stop to bleach out the background to complete whiteness and to capture more detail in dark areas;
  • to relate unknown sizes to something familiar, like the good old size-comparison-with-matchbox;
  • to take as much unique pictures as possible, that is, to not repeat elements that are already on other pictures.

Straight from the camera, your pictures won't be ready for the web. Sometimes the colour balance is off, sometimes they're not framed right, sometimes they're too dark, sometimes you even want to retouche something. There's always something you can do to improve the result (nobody's perfect), and all of this is done in postprocessing. My postprocessing method, for an otherwise good picture, is to:

  • adjust the colour balance with the middle eyedropper tool in the histogram dialog of one of the better known photo editors;
  • set the white point to around 221; this bleaches out the background to pure white and removes whatever hue the previous operation might have left;
  • adjust the black point to around 10 to make the picture more snappy;
  • adjust the gamma to 1.1 or thereabouts for more latitude and detail in dark areas.

Then I crop and resize the pictures, export them to JPEG (1:30 compression) and drop them in the right directory. (Then the rest of the machine comes into play, namely the integration into HTML and uploading to my web space, but that's a different story.) That's it, done!

(To the right: the picture of the Zorki-10 as it came out of the camera, and after some minor tweaking in a photo suite. The differences are subtle, but the second picture is more natural looking, somewhat bolder and with a perfectly white backdrop.)

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