Over the past several years, I've helped my wife Lynn create books about collecting trivets, stands, and irons. I've taken thousands of photos for her and have developed some expertise on the subject. In this photo, I’m using my Nikon D90 DSLR and light tent to make trivet photos for her most recent book. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)
Do you need a lot of high end equipment and software to make nice photos of your collectibles? Not at all. The intent of this article is to give beginning photographers a few hints that should make their photos much better. If you really get into this (or need an excuse to buy more photo gear), then you can try the high end methods. But that’s an article for another day.
Now, please don't take this wrong, but many times collectors send Lynn photos for use in her books or on the web and these can sometimes take quite a bit of touch up to make them look good enough to use. Of course, these come from other collectors, not photographers. They're experts in collecting, not photography. Helping her with these photographs inspired me to write this article to explain the basics of how to make good collectible photos.
So, do you collect something? Would you like to show off your collection with the best possible photographs? Here are some Collectible Photography hints based on my experience as a published trivet photographer.
Choosing a Camera
Cell phones and web cams are not ideal cameras to use when making collectible photographs. Cell phones often don't have close up capabilities, and can have low resolution sensors. Most web cams have similar issues and are usually even lower resolution than cell phones. Using a cell phone or web cam can make your photos blurry and you may not be able to view them at a reasonable size.
Use a modern digital camera. If you don't have one, don't spend a fortune - many entry level point-and-shoot cameras from major manufacturers will have what you need to make a good collectible photo. Talk to your photographer friends or even the salesperson at the store. Let them know what you're going to use it for. Insist on a model that includes a macro (close-up) mode.
These are the two main things that contribute to a good photograph - sharpness and exposure.
Several things can make your photo blurry (unsharp): The resolution of your camera, focus issues, or motion blur are some examples.
Does your camera have enough megapixels? Like I said, most modern cameras do (6 MP or more). The more megapixels your camera has, the larger you can display or print your photo. Here is an example of a low resolution photo.
Your camera has picture quality settings. It allows you to change a setting and use fewer megapixels and / or higher compression when you take photos - in order to save space. If you want the best quality photo, you don't want to save space. Make sure you understand how to select the highest resolution and highest quality settings on your camera, and use them for collectible photography.
Here is the same image as a high resolution file. Much more detail is visible due to the greater resolution.
Is your photo in focus? Most digital cameras will indicate when they are in focus by beeping or briefly changing the color of the focus icon in the viewfinder. Is the right thing in focus? Make sure you have the focus icon on the point where you want it to be.
Here is an example of an out of focus photo (the camera was too close to the trivet):
If you're having problems with focus, are you too close? Cameras have a minimum focus distance. If you move your camera any closer, your photo won't be in focus. If your camera has a macro mode (usually indicated with a flower symbol), use it for close up shots.
And here is a second photo, but this time it’s in focus because I used the camera’s built in macro mode:
A blurry photo can also be caused by motion. If your hand isn't t steady, any shakes can transfer to your camera and blur your shot. To eliminate this, make sure image stabilization is turned on if your camera has it. You can also steady your camera with a tripod (you might want to look for something called a Gorilla Pod - it works well with small cameras) or rest it on something stable.
Motion blur looks a lot like a focus problem, but sometimes you can tell the difference because with motion blur the image will streak in one direction.
You can also use your camera's flash if it has one or increase the sensitivity of the sensor (look in your manual for how to change the ISO settings). This will reduce the amount of time that the shutter is open and therefore reduce the amount of motion blur in the photo. Note: Be careful not to increase the ISO too much, as this can lead to increased noise in your photo (speckles).
What can make your photo too dark or too bright?
Most modern cameras do a pretty good job of auto exposure. If your photos are too dark or too bright, first check to make sure you're using auto exposure mode.
If your photos are too dark, you may just not have enough light. Turn on more lights in the room, go outside, or use your flash. You can also increase your ISO as discussed above.
If your photos are too bright, your flash or the sunlight may be overpowering the sensor. Try turning the flash off or taking your photo indoors. Did you remember to reset your camera's ISO to normal after you changed it last? If the ISO setting is too high your photos could come out too bright. Finally, are you making photos of dark objects against a dark background? This can make a camera overexpose. Try switching to a white background and see if it works better.
Finally, you can adjust the brightness level of your photos a little bit on the computer. Get a program like Photoshop Elements and learn how to use the levels tool. As you can see, improper exposure can greatly affect the appearance of your collectibles and is a very important part of making good photos.
There are a few other things that can make your collectible photos better.
Sometimes the white balance of a photo can be off and this can create a color cast - making things look too blue or reddish. If this is happening to you, check that your camera is set on auto white balance. Using the flash can also help with this, since it may overpower the other light in the scene and provide a known white balance for your camera. You can also correct this to some degree in Photoshop. One helpful hint: If you use a white background for your photos (I usually use a piece of white felt), this can make it easier to correct the white balance in your software, since you’ll have a known reference to use. If you still have problems you'll need to control the lights you use or learn about custom white balance. Both of these are a bit beyond the scope of this article.
The white balance in this photo is way off, distorting the colors of the trivet:
And this is what it looks like when the color balance is correct. Quite a difference yes?
Shiny or metallic objects are often difficult to photograph too. Light tends to reflect straight back to the camera, making portions of the object way too bright. To help with this, use large, diffuse lighting and carefully position the collectible and the lights to reduce the reflections. An example of diffuse lighting would be from a window out of the direct sunlight, or the light tent I use, shown in the first photo. You also need to be careful about any objects reflected back in the surface of your collectible. Having you or your camera show up in the object could distract from the beauty of your collectible.
Composition is how the subject of your photograph is placed within the frame. The way you compose your photos can make a big difference in how they are viewed. Do you want to show off a single object in great detail? Or do you want to show it in context with similar collectibles or as it's displayed in your home? Think about this as you're getting ready to make your photos. Try to exclude everything from your photos except what you want to photograph. Simpler is often better.
OK. Now you've got some great, sharp, well exposed photos showing off your collectibles. You can share them with friends, post them on the Internet, use them in on-line auctions - and your things will look better than ever! And if you enjoy nature photography, you’re invited follow my ongoing Blog, Central Florida Photo Ops. Now go take some photos!
There are many places on the web where you can learn more. Here are several that I recommend:
Camera buying advice:
Photography Tips and advice: