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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Ten Commandments Of Studio Product Photography

Start with the basics to ensure still-life photos are as close to perfect as possible

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Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
I teach a product photography class, and I'm consistently surprised when fairly advanced students still get confused on some basic do's and don'ts of camera settings for working in the studio, particularly with subjects that aren't moving. So I drafted this list of ten commandments to help these young photographers maximize their chances of tabletop photography success. Here are those ten suggestions, along with an explanation of why each one is important.

1. Always use a tripod. Seriously, this is not up for debate. The subject isn't moving, so put your camera on a tripod, and keep it there. You'll thank me for the sharpness and consistency, and for the ability to really fine-tune the composition as you work.

2. Never use autofocus. This one is sure to make waves, but it's true: If your camera's locked down on a tripod and your subject isn't moving, autofocus isn't going to do you any good. Okay, fine, you can use it to focus the first time if you insist, but then you've got to turn it off. Because making the camera refocus before every click of the shutter is a recipe for missed focus waiting to happen.

3. Always use manual exposure modes—especially when working with studio strobes. For young photographers unsure of their footing when working with strobes, it can be easy to forget that a camera's auto exposure modes (aperture priority, shutter priority and programmed auto) are reading the ambient, not the strobe. So the first way to take control of exposure is to switch to manual.

4. Always use the lowest ISO available (ISO 100 is a great place to start). Sure, you can debate that maybe you'd be better off with the lowest native ISO (maybe that's 160 on your particular camera), but that's really a "next level" discussion. I'm suggesting the lowest ISO (often 100) as a starting point to remind new photographers that it provides the highest quality and lowest noise, and that there's no reason to leave your camera on ISO 1600 just because that's where you tend to shoot outside in low light.

5. When working with strobes, always use the fastest shutter speed at which the camera will sync. When in doubt, use 1/125th. No more, no less. If you want to eliminate any ambient exposure (say, from overhead lights in the studio) the surefire way to do that is to work at or just below your camera's sync speed—which is frequently 1/250th of a second. Many cameras, though, actually sync slower than that, so to be on the safe side you can set the shutter speed to 1/125th and move on. And remember, changing that shutter speed won't affect the strobe exposure, only the ambient.

6. When working with strobes, adjust the exposure in camera only by adjusting aperture or ISO, never by adjusting the shutter speed. Even if you're not yet comfortable with this concept, trust me that it's true: shutter speed does not affect strobe exposure. Sure enough, the shutter speed will impact the ambient exposure, but not the strobe. So when you want to adjust the strobe exposure from in camera, your only modifiers are the aperture and the ISO.

7. Use a macro lens to focus close. Failing that, use a telephoto lens. Never, ever use a lens shorter than 50mm. Remember, I'm speaking specifically to an audience of tabletop photographers. Getting close with a wide-angle lens is a recipe for distortion. So yes, you can probably get by with your telephoto zoom lens—if you can get back far enough to focus—but macro will be much better. The ideal lenses for still-life tabletop photographs are macro lenses from normal (50 or 60mm) to something a bit more telephoto (like my own tabletop preference, a 100mm macro).

8. When in doubt, start at ƒ/11. Adjust as needed. When you don't have a particular reason to choose a wide-open or a stopped-down aperture (usually because you want a very shallow or a very deep depth of field) you've got to choose an aperture to start, so why not choose a really sharp one? Generally speaking, a few stops from wide open you'll find the sharpest apertures—that's generally in the neighborhood of ƒ/8, ƒ/11 or ƒ/16. With close-up photography, you'll likely want a bit more depth of field, which is why I suggest erring on the side of ƒ/11 or ƒ/16.

9. Manually white balance. Turn off extraneous lights. You're in the studio, and you've created the light yourself. That means it's probably tungsten, strobe, or something you can accurately dial in manually—either by a tungsten, strobe or daylight preset, or with a custom white balance or the Kelvin selector. Auto white balance can occasionally be fooled, and it's likely not to remain the same from shot to shot. Since you know exactly what kind of light you're using, dialing it in precisely should be no problem.

10. Get closer. I can't help but offer a compositional suggestion that's useful in almost any situation with almost any subject—but especially if you're trying to make an interesting product or tabletop still life. Get closer than you think you need to be. Or at the very least, shoot what seems to be correct and then get closer to try more. I'm guessing you'll find, as I so often do, that getting closer usually improves photographs.

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