Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Basic Product Photography - Part 6

When you look at your image on the screen of your monitor you are looking at an image that is the result of the settings and profile of your particular monitor, your graphics card, and your operating system's color profile. What you see may not be what I see. What may look like a yellow tone on your monitor may come across with an orange tone on mine. What is light on one monitor may be darker on another. This is just a fact of computers.

You can adjust all of this using software and a set diagram of colors to match from print to monitor, but if my monitor is not adjusted the same way, I am still going to see something different than you are seeing. So the basic rule of thumb - make it look good on your monitor with your preferred image editing software - as we spoke about in the last article - and hopefully what I see will be close to what you see. You can't worry too much about this - if at all.

When you look at your image, you need to decide first, does it have anything in the image that you do not want to have in your finished photo of your product. Is the product where you want it - do you need to center it? Are there dust spots that were on your background or ground fabric? Let's correct for this first.

Go to your cropping tool and set it on freehand or freestyle. This will allow you to crop without restriction to any particular size. When the cropping box comes on the screen you can move it around and make it bigger or smaller. Usually the part of the photo that will be taken out is darkened while you do this so that you can see exactly what you are going to get. If it is not check the crop settings because you should be able to have it do this. Got what you want. Crop it with a click of the check mark or whatever your software has to click on.

Now look at the photo again. Is there dust on the cloth? The clone tool will take this out. But be careful and do not over do this. This tool works by clicking on a good part of background close to the dust spot - a place that is exactly like the background under the dust. Then by clicking on the dust spot you will replace it with the background sample. Use a small brush point cursor and always remember that your sample selection will move each time you move to a new spot to replace. There will be an X on the screen that will show the sample spot. Make sure that is always what you want it to be or just select a new sample as you did the first time.

So now you have an image that is clear of stray marks. The next thing to look at is the image itself. Is it too dark? Too light? Do the colors of the product in the photo match the colors of the actual product? PS Elements, Corel Paintshop Photo Pro, and Picassa have autocorrect tools. These are generally found in the menus under Image. Open that tool and you will see a screen with slider bars and a sample of your image. There is another tool called quick fix that will do everything in one step without any input from you. Try that first if you like. If you do not like the result, then click on UNDO in the edit menu to get back to where you were before that correction. In the more extensive tool you will see a box that says PREVIEW. Click a check mark into Preview. Your corrections will now appear on the full image on your screen. No permanent changes will take effect yet. If there is an auto box, click on that. It will set the image to how the software thinks it should look. This is the same as clicking on the quickfix tool. Now go to the sliders - there may be one for color, brightness, contrast, highlights. shadows, focus/sharpness and if you open advanced features on this tool you may even have a slider for white balance. Move each of these sliders around until you get the image that you want. You should not need to do to much correction if your camera is doing its job. When you see what you like then click the finish or done button and your changes will be saved to your image. Now what you see on the screen is what you are going to get. If you hate what you see go to the Edit menu on top and click UNDO and start again with this last step.

The final thing to do is get your image to the size that you need it. This actually may all you need to do if your image came out of the camera exactly as you want - which is should. Go to the Image menu and look for Resize or Resize Print. You do not want "Resize Canvas". You will now see a box open where you can put in settings to resize your photo. Remember this - always make smaller - never make bigger. Unless you are very experienced with your image software you will get a poor image if you try to enlarge it. If you are shooting with your camera set at a high res/high pixels you are going to be working with a large image, so you will not need to even think about enlarging the image. Make sure that the box that says Constrain Proportions is checked - otherwise your resize may distort your image. Sites such as Etsy have a maximum number of pixels for a photo that you may upload and have displayed. The Etsy maximum is 1000 pixels in width. I always use that and let the software determine the length. Put 1000 into the top width box. A number will appear in the length box automatically. Make sure that the box next to these shows Pixels. You do not want anything else in that box - especially not inches! Click on resize or done at the bottom of the box and your image is sized for the website. If I have an image that is long and thin, then I will put the 1000 in the length box instead and resize that way. This will work too.

Look at your image. Your result could be that when uploaded to your shop the image will go beyond the thumbnail image box but it will look perfect when viewed on the item page. If this bothers you then when you crop, you must crop as close to square as you can. This is not always possible to get what you want into your image. It is a trade off as to the thumbnail view exactly matching the full item listing view - or re-shoot from a further distance to be able to crop square.

When you have completed all of these steps save your image using the SAVE AS command and not SAVE. You want to keep your original, at least until you upload your image to your shop, just incase you want to come back and recrop.

There you have it! All of these articles and all of this time, but you have a great product image in your shop, on your website, or in your print catalog!

Future articles will cover other suggestions for taking good product photos. Keep watching for an article just about the different types of tripods.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Basic Product Photography - Part 5

If you have been reading through this series of articles you now have taken your product photos and they are in your camera ready to transfer to your computer. I am not going to go into getting them from your camera to your computer because I am sure that is something you already know how to do. But once they are in your computer - now what?

If you have followed the suggestions in this series your photo files when viewed on the screen should be ready to use with just the adjustment of size, but it is possible that for whatever reason the lighting was off, the focus was not exactly what you wanted, the colors are not exact or the image white areas have a yellow tone. These are all relatively easy to fix if you have the right photo image software on your computer. Sometimes you are going to look at a photo that is way off - the best thing to do is save yourself a lot of time and effort and just delete it. If it was crucial to what you want to present in your series of photos of one product, just set up the shot in your easy to reassemble studio and shoot it again. In fact, if at all possible leave the studio space set up until you look at the photos on your computer - then it will be very easy to go back and re-shoot.

There are many software packages. If you are going to spend money on image software, do not spend it on a very inexpensive program. You are going to be far better off with a free program that you can download from the Internet than a $29.99 bargain box image software package off the shelf. I am going to give you suggestions for both free software and software packages that are for sale.

I am going to start with the king of all image software and that is Adobe Photoshop. You have all heard the name. There are many magazines dedicated solely to its use. Photoshop is a great program - but it's price is as large as its reputation and you can spend upwards of $700 for Adobe Photoshop. The current version is CS4, but be warned there are problems with CS4 that have yet to be corrected in the several months that it is out. If you have an older graphics card - meaning even a few of years old, the software crashes. Not so good, especially when you plunk down 700 bucks and don't know this until you install it and try to run it. The older version - CS3 is much more stable and has just about every feature of CS4. If you would like to try Photoshop you can download a free 30 day trial copy. It will stop working in 3o days after you install it but you will see how it works, if it has a problem with your graphics card, and if you like it. You are getting a trial of CS4. If you want to find CS3 you are going to have to do some searching.

Photoshop is a complex and somewhat complicated program for anything but the basics. If you are not ready to commit to learning the package then this is not for you. There are many books that will step you through how to use it. There are many on-line tutorials that will do the same. But there is a learning curve involved here and there is little click and go and you have what you want.

At the completely opposite end of the price range is a free program available for download that is a Photoshop-clone. It is called Gimp and it is easy to find for download for any computer system from PC to Mac to Linux. Gimp is called open source software which means it is developed for any operating system, continually re-developed to add more function, and it is offered for free. Gimp is very similar in operation to Photoshop with a few exceptions. It also has a bit of a learning curve but there are many tutorials available on the web to give you a basic understanding of what you will need to do to correct your image photos. The one thing that I have found about Gimp that I do not like is that cropping an image to a specific size is not straight forward as it is on all other image software that I have tried. On most image programs to crop you simple put in the size of the photo that you want the image reduced to and you get a box on your screen to move around your image and crop. The part of the image is now that size . On Gimp you have to determine the proportion of the size that you want - for example, if you want an 8 x 10 final image you need to enter 4:5 into the controls - you then get your crpping area to move around. I am not sure why they did this as it is much easier just to put in the size. This is not much of an issue with product images because you are going to crop (if you want to) freehand - which means to no set size and just adust the bars on the sides of the image to crop out any area you do not want. Gimp is free. Download it and try it. You have nothing to lose but a little time and a lot to gain. The current version is Gimp 2.6

If you like the features of Adobe Photoshop but wish that they were easier to use then you want to purchase Adobe Photoshop Elements. The most recent version is Elements 7. This is has all of the most useful features of Adobe Photoshop but it can do with with a few simple clicks. It sells for less than $75 and can often be found on sale at many retailers for less. You may still want to get a book about PS Elements 7 as it will teach you all the ins and outs of its features - and with a little effort you will be a pro. With Elements you are also getting a photo organizer and tools to do craft photo projects. Don't let the projects section make you think that this is a simplistic program. Photoshop Elements 7 (or any version) is a powerful image editing software program that encorporates ease of use.

There is a free software package similar to PS Elements, but in my opinion, not as good and, again in my opinion, does not give the quality of results that you can get with Elements - at least with as little effort. This software is called Picassa and is free. Again, try it. It will do basic things. When I first tried it I though that I was getting great results and then looked later at the photos and found some of the autocorrections to be overdone.

My final photo software suggestion is Corel Paintshop Photo. The current version is X2. I like version X1 much better. I find the older version to be much more stable and the controls easier to use for fast, one click, slide a little and click corrections. This is my software of choice for fast corrections on a product image. It is quick and easy and does what I need it to do. When it comes to more professional images - those that I create to sell, I do not use this software as it makes a bigger job of real fine tuning that it needs to. But as I say, for product photos it is fine. This package sells for under $100.00.

The basics of photo correction are all basically the same on each of the packages. If you know how to use one you pretty much can find a similar tool and control on the other - and it will generally work the same way.

This article has come far and I hate to say this but we will continue with how to use this software for your product images next week.

To be continued...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Basic Product Photography - Part 4

We have come on a long journey of helpful ways to take photos of your art or craft works to sell on internet sites or in catalogs. All of that has lead to this article in which I will tell you about a way to eliminate all of the complications that result from what I presented in Part 3 to create your home studio. Remember that I spoke about indirect and diffused lighting and creating neutral backgrounds that involved creating boards to hang them on. I am going to be the first to say that is a real pain. You want an easier solution than that and a way to work your lighting so that you can achieve the soft, no shadow light that you want. Why did I go through all of that then in Part 3 - because not everyone wants to make this small investment. And that investment is in a light tent.

A light tent is an enclosed cube with translucent walls that allow light to pass through on four to five sides. Many web sites have instructions to make one and what can be made will work - but rarely are you making something that will be easy to store and that folds conveniently away. I have found an inexpensive light tent that is just like the more expensive tents sold in camera stores. I wish that I had found this before I purchased mine which I bought in a camera shop for about $75.00. This one is half the price. I is found at a company called Harbor Freight. Harbor Freight is a tool retail company that sells imported tools as well as gadgets. They have a web site, a print catalog, and retail stores around the US. I first saw the light tent in person at one of their stores. Here is a link to the tent on their web site. They call it a photo tent (same thing) and it sells for $28.99. This is a great price and makes going through the time and effort of collecting the parts and making one not worth the effort. I have no stock in Harbor Freight and I get no commissions. I just think that this is an ideal way to get an essential part of a home product studio for very little money.

As I said, I do not have this inexpensive light tent. I paid twice the amount for the same thing. Here is a photo of my home product photo studio. My studio is set up in my basement. And this part of the basement is a small room that also contains the furnace, the heating oil tank, and the washer/dryer. You can see how nicely this fits into a limited space and the best part is it all can be folded up and put away. Commercial light tents like mine and the one that is sold by Harbor Freight fold flat. Now, there is a trick to folding them that takes a bit of practice, but once you get it and realize that the frame is flexible enough to twist as it is needed to be twisted to automatically fold down, it becomes easy. The tent is sitting on a square board that is just the size of the tent and that board sits on a folding "Workmate" work table made by Black and Decker. The Workmate is there in the basement to use to work on projects so it was an ideal choice spot for my studio set up. It could just as easily be a folding card table. In the photo you can see the light arrangement that I use and you now can see the lights that I spoke about in Part 3 - around $6 each at Home Depot stores, Walmart, etc. I like the third light above to add extra light and knock away any shadows that I can't get rid of with the two side lights. The advantage of a basement is that you can put a nail in beam above and do no harm so the top light hangs down from a strip of wood with a hole drilled into it at the top and the lamp clips at the bottom. The two side lights are clipped to old folding music stands. This makes them easy to move and direct to where I want the light inside the tent. As you can see the lights are outside the tent and shine through the walls. This diffuses the light. The lamps are pointed to give the best light on the object being photographed. With this set up there is no need for a flash. You cannot see in the photo that in front of the tent and table is an overhead flourescent shop light. I will often put this light out so that it casts no shadows inside the tent. I have also kept that light on and compensated for it with the tent lights. You are standing in front of the opening so it is unlikely that any light will come from the front, but if it is a concern this particular tent included a front that velcros on with a split in the middle for the camera. On the Harbor Frieght tent you will see in their photo that the front is a small circular opening which also cuts the forward light. In one small easy to set up space you have everything that you need to set up, take down, and set up again your product photo studio.

Now what about the background? Again, I recommend the flannel that I spoke about in Part 3 and in the same nuetral colors. The tent that I purchase also included backgrounds - velvet look panels in red, blue, and black. These each have velcro on the back at the corners and attach to velcro that came inside the tent. Because they have the velvet look they do collect dust particles that need to be removed before shooting your photos. A bit of velcro sewn on to fabric panels that you make easily allow you to attach the panel inside the tent. And the panels cover the back and the floor of the tent - taking care of the all that will be seen under and behind the item you are photographing. The Harbor Freight tent does not include panels but does include "hook and loop" fasteners (velcro) inside to hang your backdrops.

Here is a view inside my tent. You can see the black panel that is included. On top of that I have draped light grey flannel over a small cardboard box. This was for the set up of photos of the lucet that I sell on Etsy. I lean the item on the fabric and against the side of the box so that it stands. I do not use a tripod as my camera has excellent image stabilization so I can handhold the camera while taking perfect macro photographs. I stand in front of the tent and shoot away. If you are going to use a tripod as I recommended in Part 1 then you would set that tripod up in front of the tent. We are going to talk more about tripods in a later article.

Simple, easy, and certainly portable - the light tent weighs next to nothing and folds flat to about a square foot or less.

Next we will talk about what to do with the images once they are in the camera.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Basic Product Photography - Part 3

In our last article we talked about shooting your product photos outdoors. In this article we are going to move your photo "studio" indoors. There is more to shooting inside than putting your item down on the kitchen table and taking out your camera. Believe me, I have tried it when I have been in a hurry and there are always problems.

When shooting indoors there are three things that must be taken into consideration - lighting, shadows, and background. If you control these three things you will easily take good product photos.

While you do not have to dedicate a space for your photos full time (who has room for that?) you are going to want to determine a space that you will always come back to when you need to take photos. Look around your house - or apartment - and find a space that you can take over for the times when you need to take photographs of your craft or art work. This space needs a table or counter that is already there all of the time or a place to put a small folding table. The height of the table needs to be comfortable for you to work on so a low to the floor, living room, coffee table is not ideal. Your kitchen table will work. The table on which you create your craft will work (as long as you don't keep your tools out all of the time - you don't want to need to completely clean up and put everything away every time you need to take a photo. If you do and you are like me, you will never take any photos.) Find your space and use that space every time.

Now to start controlling each of the three variables mentioned above. First let's talk about lighting. If you see a picture of a professional photographers studio you will see that several lights are used to light the subject. Look closely at those lights and they usually are facing away from the subject and there are reflective umbrellas in front of them which bounces the light toward what or who they are taking the photo of. They do this to get indirect light focused on the subject. Another method (more used years ago than now) was to put translucent covers on the front of the lights. Indirect light or diffused light provides a soft light that will not create a glare on what you are photographing. Generally, these photographers are not using a camera flash pointed at the subject because the flash will cause a glare as well. So you want to create a situation where you can get good light on your item that is not pointed directly at it and not use your camera flash. Digital cameras can adjust to take photos with very little light. Two problems can result from that - one is that it will set the speed that your shutter opens and closes too low - so the very slightest movement will cause blur - and the second is that the camera will change the ISO setting to one that is so high that small blotch spots will result on your image called "grain". When cameras more commonly used film, the film would be sold to work at a certain ISO setting. You would set your camera to what the ISO setting was on the film box. Then as now, the higher the setting and the lower the light, the more likely you would get grain on your photos. Technology on digital cameras has pushed the level way up from what film settings will result in, but as you approach 1000 ISO and beyond you are going to have to deal with grain. Some image software has corrections for grain, but none really work as well as taking your photo correctly to start. For product photos leave your ISO setting on "AUTO" and let the camera handle it. As long as you are providing the right light this will not be an issue. Your tripod and a steady hand pushing the shutter button will stop the blur from a low shutter speed. But again, sufficient light makes this problem go away.

So what are you going to do about light. Your room lights may cause you a problem. Ceiling lights too close to your shooting space can cause an overhead glare. Try to offset your photo space out from under overhead lights. You are going to need lights to take your photos. No, you don't have to spend a lot of money. The cheapest way to deal with this is to purchase clip on utility lights at a home or discount store. These lights sell for about $6.00 each and use regular household light bulbs. The lamp has a metal clip on the bottom and a large, round, metal hood around the bulb. I use incandescent light bulbs but you could use the new twist shape fluorescent bulbs that everyone thinks are so wonderful right now. Let me caution you right here - those bulbs are EXTREMELY dangerous if they break. Read the package. You are supposed to deal with the broken bulb and the room as if a hazardous substance spilled. I am not going to get into this now, but use incandescent light bulbs in your photo lights. You are going to be moving them around and there is too much risk that something is going to fall and break and you do not want to be dealing with that so called "green" bulb if it breaks. You are going to want at least two lights. As you read further you will see why you might want three.

You are going to need to be able to clip these lamps to your table in front of the spot that you are going to place your item - one on each side. By directing the two lights you can eliminate one of the the other variables above - shadows. Two lights with their beams or light crossing each other will eliminate shadows. When two don't do it, a third light from above added into the mix usually will. Set your item down - on its photo display (just like we talked about in the last article) and start moving your lights so that there are no shadows and no glare - and, obviously, so that the lamps are in no way in the picture. Now, I talked about indirect or diffused light - we'll get back to that.

Let's move, for a moment, to the last variable - background. Look behind your item and what do you see. Whatever it is, it is going to be in your picture in some way - even if it is blurred out. Look down at your table under your item and what do you see? That too is going to be in the image. You can also get glare coming up from the table top. Let's do something about that first. A neutral solid color piece of fabric makes a nice "table" cloth to go under your item. Some colors work better than others. Avoid white because you are going to struggle more in correcting the white balance of the cloth in the picture than of the item. Light blue is good. Light grey is good. Light tan is good. If your item is very light in color you might even want to use black. I like to use flannel. It gives a softer look to the cloth when photographed - and it is inexpensive in fabric stores. It will also absorb light rather than reflect the light - which is something that you want when you are looking to avoid light where you don't want it or that you cannot control. As to what is behind your picture... A cloth backdrop works well here too. Again, the same solid colors in a cotton flannel are recommended. Do not use a pattern. Remember, you want to focus attention on the item - not what is behind it or around it. A pattern - even a subtle one will bring the eye away from the item. Attach the cloth to a board that will stand at 90 degrees to the table - and won't fall over. You can purchase corrugated plastic in many craft and hobby stores in poster size sheets. It is easy to cut with a razor knife and you can attach your fabric to it. Cut it down to a managable size but large enough to fill the background of your photo in the space that you are working in. Use the remaining plastic board to create a stand - much like the ones that you find on the back of table picture frames.

You now have your space set up. You know how to but it up and take it down - and more importantly you can put it up exactly the same way the next time that you need it. Set your item in place and start moving your lights so that you have no shadows either on the background or on the table. Now I am going to repeat what I wrote in the second article - At this point you are ready to shoot and all you need to do is swap your items in and out of this position on your table to take your photos. Set up your tripod in front of the object (or get into a comfortable position with your Optically Image Stabilized camera with no need for a tripod), set your camera to Macro mode, set your white balance to sunlight, and check the distance that you are from your object. If you are within the macro range specified for your camera then you are ready. If not, then move your tripod or yourself to where you need to be. You might even want to use a ruler or tape measure to make sure you are where you must be. Check each photo on the screen of the camera as you shoot each shot - look closely and you will see if you are ok or you need to make an adjustment. Always take several shots of each set up object. It costs you nothing and it is all disposable and you are only limited by the size of the memory card in your camera.

All of this will work, but this set up has its pitfalls. There is a much simpler way to accomplish all of this. For just a small expense you can get yourself a light tent. And that will be discussed in the next article - when we also get back to all those things that I said I would get back to.

To be continued...