Photographing your work – part 2
In part 1 I discussed some camera basics and tips for setting up your shoot. In this post I’ll look at how to address some common problems using camera settings and low-cost equipment.
Exposure is the thing your camera will get wrong most often. Modern cameras use many different methods to work out how bright or dark your scene is, but generally speaking your camera assumes that your scene is 60% dark. If you’re capturing a varied outdoor scene this is good, but if you’re trying to photograph a pale garment on a white background it’s bad. If you’re scene is predominantly light, the camera will try to darken it and it will be underexposed (you might have noticed this if you’ve snapping the recent snow scenes in the UK). If you’re picture is predominantly dark, i.e. you’re photographing a dark object against a black background, your camera will try to lighten the image and it will be overexposed.
Exposure compensation to the rescue! It seems a bit counter-intuative, but for a pale scene, you need to increase the amount of light going into the camera, so you set the exposure compensation to a positive (+) value. Conversely, for a dark scene, decrease the exposure by setting the exposure compensation to a negative value.
Flash vs tripod
Indoors, unless you live in a glasshouse you’ll probably need to a tripod or flash to prevent camera shake. Camera shake occurs when your camera compensates for low light by increasing exposure time beyond what you can hand-hold (1/60 s is considered the longest exposure you can hand-hold for a standard lens). If you use exposure compensation to increase your exposure, this may add to the problem.
A tripod is a sound investment even for a compact camera, giving you the freedom to use longer exposure times and make the most of flattering natural light from windows, rather than resorting to artificial lighting. £10-15 will buy you a tripod that’s fine for indoor use. If you don’t have a tripod, try holding your camera steady against an immovable object. Of course, if your subject is a person, they will need to keep still during a long exposure otherwise you’ll get motion blur.
As I’m sure you’ve discovered, flash is not great on compact cameras. This tiny light source gives pronounced, unflattering highlights, it over-exposes, it under-exposes and it obliterates all your detail. You will most likely get the best results by turning it off and using a tripod.
There are ways to make flash less nasty; portrait photographers soften flashlight by bouncing it off umbrellas, I use an external tilt-head flash and bounce the light off the (white) ceiling and the results are pretty good. If you’re lucky enough to have a hot-shoe on your camera, I recommend picking up a second-hand tilt-head flash (about £20) and trying this technique. A diffuser on an external flash can be used to soften the light when bouncing is not practical (though diffusers are not as effective). On a compact, you can improvise a diffuser by taping some tracing paper over your flash (be careful not to cover any sensors) – it’s worth a try!
To zoom or not to zoom
Modern compact cameras have a great zoom range, and zoom is an easy way to get the crop you want without moving a muscle. But, zoom affects your images in ways you might not have thought about. Zooming out gives you a wide-angle view; wide angle lenses enhance perspective and distort angles, particularly at the edges of the frame. This can be used to create a dramatic effect, but it is terribly unflattering for people as it elongates and distorts facial features. If, when you look through the viewfinder, your subject looks further away than in real life, you’re using a wide-angle and it will not flatter your subject.
Zooming in gives you a telephoto view. Telephoto is your friend, it will flatten perspective and flatter facial features. However, in a cramped indoor setting, you may find that you can’t get far enough back from your subject to fit everything in the frame. Don’t be tempted to use a wide-angle, find a bigger space!
If there’s one thing that really bothers me when looking at photos of other people’s projects it’s enlarging a close-up to see some lovely stitch detail only to find that it’s a blur. If your camera has a macro mode (normally denoted with a li’l flower ), use it! This will enable you to focus as close as 15-20 cm from the camera.
Close-ups exacerbate problems with insufficient lighting – camera shake is intensified and you will find that you need to resort to a tripod/support. Don’t even think about resorting to on-board flash! It will almost certainly obliterate your subject. Instead, find a nice diffused light source; outside or by a window. Side-lighting will help bring out stitch detail as long as it’s not too strong.
If your project is hat-sized or smaller you might want to think about constructing a DIY softbox. Something similar to this home-made softbox pictured on flickr would be easy to make using a couple of desk lamps and some white sheeting fabric, and would give you near-professional standard lighting for your close-ups. If you’re using tungsten lamps remember to adjust your white balance.
Wikipedia article on Focal Length – showing the effects of wide-angle distortion
I feel a third installment coming on… next time, post-processing! Or, if there’s anything else you think I should cover, let me know!