Random Bits of Projects

April 7, 2010

Photography of small items: Use glass to eliminate shadows and basic camera/light/photo editing settings

Ever need to get a picture of a small object, such as jewelry, and not have those pesky shadows under it? Or need to eliminate as much background as you can? I found a few methods that helped without having to buy expensive equipment. Its not anything that has not been discovered but I hope to help those who are in the same position I was in a few weeks ago at the time of this posting and stay on budget. I am not an expert. But I luck out here and there as you can see in this picture to the left.

Recently, I opened an online shop for my handmade jewelry and other items. Right now, at the time of this posting, there is not much listed because I have had to learn how to take decent pictures of small objects that are crisp and clear for a potential buyer to look over an item (and the time spent learning this has kept me from making any advanced jewelry-ack!). Not so easy unless you can go out and buy everything needed for the best possible set up. I have to do it on a very tight budget. So over the next few weeks I will post a series of articles on some tricks I have learned or of sites I have found useful.

In this article I would like to talk about using glass under your object.

Materials:

  • Camera (preferably with at least some sort of macro setting)
  • Glass (from a picture frame in this case-keep it cheap!)
  • Background (poster board, felt, scrap booking paper, etc.)
  • At least two movable bright light sources (if shooting indoors)
  • Tiny plastic cups or some method to make “legs” to hold up the glass (huh?…see below)
  • Photo editing program (optional but really very useful)

This post has four sections.

  • using glass to eliminate shadows (main topic)
  • basic camera functions that are nice to have (point and shoot type)
  • Minimum photo editing features that will let you take less than ideal pictures
  • links

Note: I will be adding more pictures as I can. If I wait to post this until I get everything together, who knows when this would get out. I hope it helps more than confuses!

Glass (or acrylic)

I wanted to use something already around the house when trying this trick. If it did not work, I was not out anything more. So for glass, I took the glass out of a picture frame. If you do not have one you want to dismantle, you can get one at a Dollar Tree or Dollar Store or some variation of a store that sells cheap items…well…cheap. The only problem with this method is that some glass in pictures frames do have a slight grayish tint. But if you are liking this method, you can upgrade to optically clear glass later. Make sure the glass is clean.

Placement of glass:

Now you need some way to suspend the glass off of the table. Here again, I am using what I had around the house. Now that I like this method, I will improve on it later. I am sure you will see many better ways to do this. My solutions was grabbing 4 tiny plastic cups and placing one upside down under each corner of the glass (laid horizontal or flat). If the glass you are using is too small, it will be hard to keep the cups out of the picture so keep this in mind when choosing your sheet of glass.

This suspension of the glass will help cause shadows to be displaced from your object that you want to shoot. If your object is just laying on the surface of the table, shadows will be right next to it. The higher you place your object, the more you can rid yourself of the shadows. The cups do not get my objects quite high enough with my set up, but in some cases the displaced shadow looks interesting (left) and in others I can just edit it out with a photo editing program. More on that later. I will mostly be talking about taking pictures with the glass flat this way though I do want it higher up to around 5 inches. You can also prop the glass vertically to hang objects from the top edge. This makes the item look like it is floating.

Also, some objects have a nice reflection off of the glass in some lighting. A nice touch for an alternate way to show things. But you can get rid of this with your lighting placed right.

Background below the object:

Under the glass and directly on the table you will want to place your background. Your object will be suspended above this background but the background will show as if the object is resting on it. I tend to use plain white poster board so I can get rid of the background entirely and put focus on the object. Black is also good, depending on the object. If you want a back ground to compliment the object, a good source is scrap booking paper, cloth, or other flat items, with or without a patter. I have found stiff felt works well too (if you can keep the cat hair off). The picture here shows felt, dark, and no glass. Shadows were taken up by felt and good light placement.

Background behind the object:

If you are not going to shoot straight down at the object but at an angle, you will want your background to continue on past the glass set up and curve  up behind it. So essentially you have an “L” shape where the item sits on the horizontal part of the L and the rest of the background is behind the object. Try not to have the background directly behind but away to prevent shadows. Avoid creasing the background at the bend of the “L” as that my show up in your photo.

Optional but good: If you have white material (poster board for instance) that you are not using, form walls around where you are shooting (but out of the picture) to reflect light back into the photo area (sort of a light box). I will post links on building light boxes soon. But at the least, having white around the area is good.

Oh yeah, the thing I often forget to do is wear white if you shoot something shiny. Otherwise your pictures will have items reflecting…you.  You can set up a screen to shoot through but it is hard to get some angles or close up shots with that.

Light:

Flash is generally bad for smaller items.

Can you start taking pictures? Pretty much yes. Place your object on the glass and try it. But you will probably find you need more light. At the very least, have two lamps you can move around. No shade. Shop lights that can clip on to a stand or other objects are wonderful and inexpensive. I have one and will get more. In the mean time, I took a cheap lamp from another room and removed the shade. The best bulbs are daylight simulating bulbs, especially if you cannot set for the type of lighting you are using on your camera (see below). Otherwise go for very bright if you can.

Here you need to experiment a bit. Arrange the lights around the object and watch how the shadows fall. You may cancel them out or push the shadows away from where you are shooting. Or at least have them so they do not distract or hide your object. I have read about all kinds of ways to set the light but it comes down to experimenting for your particular needs. It is a pain. I need more than the two lights but I get by, mostly due to photo editing.  You also need to be careful not to wash out the object (hot spots). I am still learning how to take pictures of shiny items and will probably have to build a better photo box or photo tent.

Useful camera settings for point and shoot cameras.

Macro Setting:

***Note: I am talking about Point and Shoot digital cameras, not the high end and expensive professional cameras where you interchange lenses and have to take classes to figure the things out.

For up close shots (like jewelry) a “Macro” setting on your camera is very nice. If you are buying a camera for this, look for a macro that lets you get very close without blurring. Some let you get closer than others. You do not have to spend a lot on a camera for a macro setting. The button for macro is usually represented by a flower.

Other Camera Settings:

All of this is intimidating at first but after playing around with the above and the features listed below, you will find what you like and it will become much faster and easier to do all of this.

Whether it is close up or not, other settings will also make your life easier. You might have a manual setting that lets you set all of these ahead of time. If you are going to buy a camera, look for that. Many cameras will have at least a few of these. Likely the compact point and shoot you have have a few.

  • White Balance: Allows you to choose the lighting you have. Often listed are fluorescent, daylight, cloudy, night shot, tungsten, halogen and so on. You can flip through these to see what looks best. This is a wonderful setting.
  • Exposure Compensation: This looks like a +/- button. This allows more or less light in so you can go from very washed out to very dark. This handy button can help wash out the background or compensate for less than ideal lighting. This you need to play with a bit to get a feel for what setting to have under different circumstances (see why I am getting little else done?)
  • Metering: This allows you to choose “spot”, “center weighted”, and “evaluative” settings. Spot and Center weighted are the two you will likely use most. These may be under other names but I have seen these names show up a lot when I was looking at low cost to mid range cameras. The camera focuses on your object a little different with these settings.

Do not have these settings or you do but the pictures are not perfect? See below…

Photo Editor:

Get a photo editor for your digital ppictures. You do not need Photoshop for most of what you need, though it is nice. There are free photo editors you can download that will work fine. Take many, many pictures and then edit the ones you like. Below are the main features I use. Keep in mind, if you are doing this to sell online, edit the picture to best represent the actual item you are selling. Do not improve the item into something it is not.

Different programs may have different names for each function so I will give a brief description (but not a tutorial at this time). Save the original picture as back up at least until you are done. Immediately rename the picture you are working on so you do not accidentally save over the original.

Eraser: This will allow you to erase items out of the picture that should not be there (like my upside down cups).

Crop: Crop the picture so the items is the main focus and you do not have wasted space around it. This also allows you to get rid of things you do not want that is near the edges of the picture.

Brightness/Contrast: You can brighten the image and adjust the contrast. I am sometimes able to brighten images with white backgrounds enough to eliminate shadows. Be careful not to wash out the item with this setting.

Clone (stamp): Allows you to copy a spot on the picture and cover another area with it. This can allow you to cover something you do not want in the picture by making it look like the surrounding area. Very handy but takes some getting used to. You do not want it to be obvious you did this. Again, only do these things to tidy the picture, not alter the item for sale into other than it is.

Color Settings: Too much red in the picture or blue? This setting allows you to adjust for this type of thing. NICE!

These are the main ones I use. Of course you can get more complex. Often I may only use the brightnesscontrast, crop, and color settings. But this allows you to take less than ideal pictures and still get something wonderful out of it. Therefore you can cheat a little on your set up for taking pictures. This means saving money for me. 🙂

Play around. Much time will be “wasted” but it will be worth it.

Links (these will open in a new window):

Below are some links you may find useful for adding to what I said or expanding beyond. Feel free to suggest more as long as they are not spam type.

My shop (shameless plug): Dizzy Whiskers Handmade Jewelry and Gifts http://www.etsy.com/shop/DizzyWhiskers

Camera use:

http://www.alzodigital.com/photo_guide/tent_application_guide_white_background.htm (this one is for use with photo tents but it has good advice that can still be used without one)

Photobox- make your own. (get strong lights-even if your order one):

Whether you filter your light (through tissue, a sheet, or whatever) or just put up white paper without any filter, the curved backdrop you see in most of these is  a must to make the item look like it is floating in its own space. A professional look for the cost of cloth or a poster board. Right now I just have the curved backdrop and white paper propped up along the sides. I need the filtration for shiny objects and will be making one of the below or some version soon. I have tried most of these but I did not have room to store it so I dismantled them.

Below are the links listed in no order of preference.

  • This one uses PVC and a sheet. Works well. http://www.pbase.com/wlhuber/light_box_light_tent If you want to try this before building it, drape a white sheet over a small table or chair and set up under it. If you like it, then a permanent frame is handy.

Using glass, etc.:

Expensive set up but explains. http://blog.oldrelics.com/2008/12/24/taking-clear-no-shadow-photos.aspx

Several useful tips here. The author uses and expensive light box and under glass. If you can afford it, go for it. Otherwise use these tips for your home made box. Also, this author uses an expensive camera. You do not need it. Its best, but you do not need it. http://www.beadphotography.com/

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6 Comments »

  1. Great article and links. Picked up lots of tips to use with my new light tent now the weather is too bad to take photos outside. Thanks 🙂

    Comment by Chameleonite — November 17, 2010 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

    • Glad it helps!

      Comment by virtuallyamy — November 17, 2010 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent Article
    I am interested in any tips you have with regards to the technique of photographing small pieces of paper, like receipts, with my iPhone. Any ideas on where I should look for tips? I will try apple but will not be holding my breath, although I may be pleasantly surprised. I was hoping for a clip or holder for the receipt that is attached to the phone and keeps the receipt still and at a reasonable distance and then press the button to shoot. Job done, throw the receipt away. No line up, no moving. Really clever if was a holder/protector at the same time.

    I am an accountant and trying to encourage my clients to take photos of receipts. However after trying to take the photos in the field i decided the process was cumbersome and embarrassing and so you either end up taking bad pictures because you rush or otherwise, the alternative is collecting and taking with you for another go later, which is never optimal.

    Thanks In Advance

    Rob Wall

    Comment by Robert Wall — April 22, 2014 @ 8:12 am | Reply

    • Sorry this is late. I get so much spam that I rarely check in these days.

      There is a scanner application or two out there that I have seen students use to copy notes from others. I do not use it myself but from what I have seen the results are better than a picture. Sorry that I cannot suggest specific applications.

      Comment by virtuallyamy — September 8, 2014 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  3. I know you wrote this several years ago but I just found it and I have to tell you that you are a star! Went to Lowe’s and bought a piece of Plexiglas. Took my first picture with it just now of my tiny Polly Pocket dolls. Wish I could show you the before and after…AMAZING, INCREDIBLE..difference between night and day and exactly the look I have been trying for for years! Thank you EVER so much 🙂

    Cheers
    Barbara

    Comment by Barbara — July 14, 2014 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

    • Thanks! I am glad it was helpful. 🙂 Wow, it has been some years. Fell off of writing much for this blog, unfortunately.

      Comment by virtuallyamy — September 8, 2014 @ 3:40 pm | Reply


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