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Taking photos of your work
for your current and future customers

Why bother

You may choose to publish your work on a web site, post them on social media, or create a fancy printed catalog, but in any case, you will need pictures, not just text, to describe your craft. If you build a very special piece (expensive), I have seen craftsmen create a photo album of the process (it helps justify the cost, as well as making the customer very happy to have such a special piece). More recently, I have seen books, apparently published (for example, see MixBooks for hardcover and paperback custom books) that can be created showing the key steps and the craftsmen involved.

Camera requirements

I divide cameras into several categories for this discussion:

Unfortunately I have heard too many smart people say "My iPhone" (or my Windows phone or my Samsung Galaxy or my LG or...) has more pixels than my Canon SLR, so obviously produces better pictures. Yes, more pixels mean more detail can be captured. But if you don't have a good lens, you will only capture a lot of fuzzy details. I don't hesitate to grab a quick picture with my 5 megapixel iPhone, but too many times I have had to get out a better camera to capture a "good" picture. My first digital camera (only 2 megapixels) took far better pictures than any smart phone camera I have seen. Why? It had a remarkably good lens.

In my youth (back in the days of film that needed chemical processing) I had a professional grade Nikon camera - top of the line with multiple lenses. The pictures I now take with my Nikon pocket camera compete favorably with the pro camera. The lens may not be as good as the pro lenses, but is very good, and far better than the tiny plastic lens on a smart phone. The pocket camera is smarter than I am, and automatically adjusts for things I never took time to consider with the pro camera, correcting for lighting (without auxiliary lenses) and even compensating for vibration. A professional photographer viewed one of my travelogues, and couldn't believe I was using a pocket camera instead of my professional grade Nikon. How fancy is the lens on my pocket camera? I am not sure, but I believe it has 8 elements (pieces of glass) in 5 groups (5 different paths that the several lenses take to focus and zoom). It fits in a pocket, but expands in use, far more than any smart phone camera expands.

Could you take advantage of a full function amateur or professional camera? Certainly. But I am pretty happy with the pictueres my pocket camera produces.

How many pixels do you need?

If your pictures will appear in a large poster, capture as many pixels as possible.

If your pictures will appear in print - a magazine or catalog - a rule of thumb I have heard from multiple editors is that they like a picture that is at least 1 MB after JPEG compression. When I take an 8 megapixel image off my camera it takes 1.7 to 2 megabytes, so to keep an editor happy, I would probably start with at least 5 megapixels. Back in the early days, the rule was to allow 1,200 pixels per inch, so by that standard, the 5 megapixel image would only be a couple inches square, which may be a realistic size in a catalog or magazine article.

If your picture will be on a web site, then more is worse, not better. A typical high quality monitor displays about 75-100 pixels per inch, so an image 600 pixels wide (my target on most web pages) will be displayed 6-8 inches wide. Most often a 600 pixel wide image will be about 450 pixels high, so only about 270,000 pixels are displayed. If you send a larger image, the web page performance will be painfully slow, and extra processing will be required at the user's computer to throw away the rest.

My pocket camera captures 16 million pixels. I never need that detail, so I have it set to only save 8 million pixels. Most of my pictures are destined for the web, so even with only 8 million pixels, I am still going to throw away 97% of them. Note that Hi-Def TV only uses ¾ million pixels.

Compression

Many cameras will allow you to take the data off the camera exactly as the picture was taken, in a proprietary format (different for each type camera) often called "RAW." Don't bother.

JPEG - Joint Photographic Experts Group - has developed a compression technique, and an associated file format. There are many variations of JPEG (I have a 600 page book that describes the techniques and options in painful mathematical detail, and that book doesn't even get into the file format). This has become the world standard for continuous tone digital pictures (not for pure black and white, like fax documents).

JPEG Lossless is a format that preserves all the original data, within the standard JPEG file format. It eliminates the need for RAW format, since all the original data is present, and can be used directly by practically any program. The only place I have seen Lossless JPEG in actual use is in some medical images, where any loss of image quality might become the subject of lawsuits if a diagnosis is missed.

JPEG has a compression variant for "black and white" pictures. It preserves the gray scale of the picture, unlike the pure black, pure white of fax compression, but does not preserve any color tones.

The human eye is far more sensitive to variations in red than it is to blue - therefore JPEG has variations in compression that retain more detail from the red component in the picture than in the blue (or green) component. This is widely used in color TV. I have not been able to distinguish any loss in quality when that more aggressive compression is in use for still pictures - my experiments suggest that it works very well.

Regular color JPEG supports different quality levels - think of it as how many digits are stored for each internal value. In the middle of the scale is a level that experts call "indistinguishable." An image compressed and decompressed at that level is indistinguishable from the original, unprocessed image, even on close inspection. Yes, regular JPEG is a lossy compression - some of the information is normally lost. But typically so little is lost that the loss is not significant.

In one compression routine that I use, the quality can be set from 2 (highest quality, largest file) to 255 (very small file). I did an experiment: Starting with an city street scene that came off the camera in very high quality JPEG at 1,861,742 bytes, I immediately saved it using a quality setting of 50, giving a file size of 882,577 bytes. As I flipped back and forth between the two images, I could not see the difference. When I zoomed in on Venetian blinds in a window a block away, I think I could see a difference, but I was not sure. I saved the same file with a quality setting of 100, giving a file size of 567,103 bytes. Zooming in I could distinguish a slight loss of quality in things like that Venetian blind a block away, but no perceptible loss in casual viewing. Then I cropped the picture slightly, and reduced the largest side to 600 pixels, as I would for the web. The overall picture had the same impact as the original, but compared side by side, the quality was slightly less. But the file size is now 47,295 bytes, so a web page with that picture will load 40 times as fast as if I had used the original image.

Lighting

First challenge is to get even lighting. A cloudy day outdoors is excellent. Fluorescent lights indoors tend to have a blue tint; they lack the red component in the light, so are a second choice. Incandescent lights are very good, but tend to be slightly red (called warm) - a problem easily corrected (sometimes automatically in newer cameras). The government endorsed CFL lights are just florescent lights. The new LED lights are designed to have a pretty good light color.

An on-camera flash tends to be uneven on larger pieces, and have reflections, but a bounce flash (from the camera to the ceiling and back) tends to be very good. Sometimes a handkerchief over the on-camera flash will soften the flash enough to make the picture good, and the modern cameras measure the light that actually hits the item in the picture, not the amount of light it tried to provide, so you do not have to compensate for the handkerchief over the flash.

Whatever light you have, most modern digital cameras will automatically adjust the color if necessary (be sure the "white balance" option is turned on). If you want to help the camera get it right, put a white piece of paper at the edge of the picture where it will later be cropped out - the camera will recognize that as white (magic), and will adjust the overall picture to make that appear white, thus correcting the color introduced by the lighting in the overall picture.

Beware of glare and reflections. A shiny surface may reflect the light source into the camera, spoiling the picture - the easiest solution is to rearrange the lighting, camera, and/or workpiece. Probably the hardest pictures I have taken is of furniture with a mirror. You don't want a portrait of the photographer, so you may need to specifically "pose" the reflection - make the reflection part of your layout. One time I went outside so the reflection could be the leaves of a nearby tree. Another time I found an arrangement where the reflection was of a blank wall across the room.

Background

It is fairly inexpensive to buy a wide plain roll of paper to use as a background - Google "Photo Background Paper" or "Seamless Paper Rolls," or check your local photo shop. The rolls are fairly wide, and come in multiple colors and shades. Sometimes the paper is described as a percent of the light reflected. White copy paper reflects about 90% of the light that hits it. Premium "Bright White" paper may reflect as much as 97%. Solid flat black reflects practically zero. A neutral gray may reflect 30%, and may be a good background if you don't want a specific color. A roll can be stored and reused, with only minor loss where the part on the floor gets dirty or torn.

Professional photographers often try to "float" the item they are photographing. This means rolling the paper down the wall and across the floor (or table), with no seam. With no footprints on the paper, and even lighting, this creates a very attractive picture.

I have a different approach photographing furniture that I find convenient. There is a spot in my living room, near the entry hall, that normally doesn't have any furniture, but (as the entry) it is wide enough to place a piece and get back enough for a picture. The floor is plain oak (generic), and the wall a neutral tan. Sometime I put a small rug in front of the furniture. A picture is on the wall in that area, but can easily be removed if it is distracting. Someday someone will analyze the wood floor and recognize that many of the pictures on my web site are in exactly the same place.

Photo Editing

The gold standard for photo editing software is Adobe Photoshop, which sells for as much as $1,500. It is so impressive that it has become a verb - to photoshop a picture means to edit it, with whatever software. The latest version of Photoshop appears to be a monthly license for $20 per month, still pretty expensive for my casual use. For mere mortals, consider Adobe Photoshop Elements for about $80, recommended by some friends. For many years I have used JASC Paint Shop Pro, which now appears to have become part of Corel, available for about $40. There are also numerous programs on the web, some free, some of which are pretty good.

What can you do with a photo editor? This list is just some of the features, in the order that I commonly use them.

  1. Resizing the photo - changing the number of pixels, and thus the stored, transmitted, and displayed size of the picture
  2. Adjusting the lighting/contrast
  3. Removing red eyes (from camera flash)
  4. Combine multiple pictures in a single picture or printed page
  5. Adjusting perspective - for example, if you point the camera up to take a picture of a tall building the top will appear narrow. You can stretch the width of the top so the picture appears more normal, and can make other shape corrections
  6. Removing a distraction - taking out the outlet next to a piece of furniture or a distracting sign in your vacation picture
  7. Retouching - taking a pimple off a face or even a badge off a shirt
  8. Shape cutting - creating an outline of an object, and replacing the background around the object (or overlaying the object on top of another picture)
  9. Fill light - lighten an area of a picture while preserving the brightness or the rest of the picture, as if there had been a spotlight on that area
  10. Arrows and text to highlight features of the picture

Of course, this is only a partial list of what you can do with a good program (and a lot of practice using whatever program you have chosen).