Many woodworkers have a desire to photograph their work or techniques, but don’t really know how to proceed. I faced this same problem some years ago. My early photos were a disaster; taken on a north facing porch with a sheet as a backdrop. I didn’t even try to photograph the construction methods, because I had no idea how to. My sole experience with picture taking indoors was limited to family photos at holidays, and the way they turned out didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The real turning point was when I decided to start selling my furniture; I knew my poorly lit and poorly composed photos weren’t going to cut it. I make no pretenses about my abilities; I'm not an expert but I take photos good enough for publishing, printing at a fairly large format and for use on the web. I'm constantly learning ways to make better photos, both with the addition of equipment and improved techniques.
I started with a mid level 35mm SLR film camera, and if I had known more it would have worked very well. I did overcome the necessity of shooting in natural light by purchasing two light stands with tungsten lights and the appropriate color balanced film. Digital was just becoming commonplace in the market, when I became interested in building a web site, so I went that route. It eased the interface between the camera and computer and allowed more latitude with the white balance. I bought my first digital camera in January 2001; it was a 1.1 mega pixel point and shoot, hardly a state of the art camera, but it really didn’t do too badly and at least I could instantly see how the photo looked, as opposed to film camera, where I had to wait until the photos were processed. You can still see some of photos taken with that camera on the furniture side of this site (they should be replaced, but just a few days before I did a major overhaul of the site, where I planned to remove them, a person expressed interest in clock, whose photo was going to the recycle bin; I guess a poor picture is better than no picture). This camera still did poorly when trying to take construction photos, and resulted in my first submission to the SAPFM being rejected due to the image quality. Next I went to a “prosumer” 3.3 mega pixel model. This and the addition of a proper background made a world of difference, I got excellent finished photos and the more controls afforded by this camera made construction photos possible. I still used the film camera because at this time many juried shows would not accept digital files (I bet many still won’t). Another turning point came when I had the chance to use a digital SLR (DSLR). I took one picture with it, and knew I’d have to have one, because by this time, photography had become not only part of woodworking, it had developed (pardon the pun) into a hobby. That was six years ago, and things have changed rapidly. My first DSLR cost $2000.00 for the body alone; a significant sum. Today a fully functioning DSLR better than that $2000.00 model of 2003 can be had for not much more than I paid for that first digital camera in 2001 ($450.00 and that’s including the lens).
Not surprisingly, photos start with a camera and lens. While preparing for this article I looked for cameras in the range of the prosumer version I had, and found only a few that have the features necessary for good results (see sidebar at right); it seems the lowering of the price on entry level DSLR’s has mostly crowded out the market for these types of cameras.
One major drawback to that second digital camera I bought was its lens, which at the extremes of its focal length showed considerable distortion. This distortion was not noticeable when taking people or nature photos, but the straight lines of furniture made it readily apparent. Distortion like this is to be expected of many lenses with a large zoom range, as they represent a compromise. Keep that in mind, when selecting a lens; look for a fixed focal length or one with a narrow zoom range. I’m told that many photography classes start students with a 50mm or so called normal lens. I look at a camera/lens combination like a table saw/blade combination; a cheap blade on a good saw doesn’t make any sense, and a poor lens on a good camera doesn’t either. In fact a case could be made that the reverse would make more sense.
A quick look at a lens catalog will show a huge range in the price of seemingly similar lenses. I’ve bought lenses both from the maker of my camera and quality third party makers. I recently upgraded to a 12.3 mega pixel camera, which showed some short comings in these third party lenses. In fairness, despite being looked down upon these third party lenses, aren't the only ones with shortcomings; I got stuck with a fairly expensive, but poorly performing lens by the manufacturer of my camera.
I first purchased a 24-70mm lens and until the switch to the high resolution camera it served me well; giving a decent wide angle setting despite the crop factor, and plenty of zoom for tight shots, yet the zoom range is limited so it is distortion free (or nearly so). The higher resolution of the new camera showed a decided lack of sharpness with the 24-70mm lens, which admittedly would not have shown up, on photos for the web or even ones printed at 8"x10".
Many photographers swear by fixed focal length lenses, and with good reason, as they are optimized for that focal length, giving tack sharpness from edge to edge. I recently became a convert myself, with the purchase of two manual focus lenses; a 55mm f 3.5 macro and a 28mm f 2.8. These two lenses were very inexpensive, yet their optical performance is outstanding; easily exceeding the resolving power of the 12.3 mega pixel sensor, which means they will remain useable as cameras continue offer more mega pixels.
The next consideration is the maximum aperture or f stop. This can range from about 1.4 (fast) to 5.6 (slow also considered the minimum for auto focus to work). For woodworking where the subjects are static and the light is controlled, an expensive, fast lenses isn't necessary. I don’t think I have ever used any of my lenses at their largest aperture, while taking furniture related photos. Smaller apertures increase the depth of field (DOF). The longer the focal length, the lower the depth of field at a given f stop. The depth of field on the 17mm fixed lens I have, is much greater than that on my 300mm fixed, when both have the same aperture setting . That correlation between focal length/ aperture setting is important to know, if you want to isolate a particular feature, that is have one area in focus and the background out of focus. I like the look of a photo where the entire piece of furniture is in focus. With a straight on shot, of say a highboy, even a moderate aperture will have the entire piece in adequate focus, but take a shot of a piece that has been placed at an angle and you’ll need a greater DOF. At one time, I used a very small aperture, thinking this would look great, but it didn’t. Photos taken with very small apertures tend to suffer from diffraction
Essential camera features
The following are essential features for cameras used in photographing finished furniture and construction techniques.
The ability to release the shutter with a timer, remote or cable release.
Other features that are useful but not essential are:
The ability to set a custom white balance.
Control over the color saturation and contrast.
The ability to sync the flash to slow shutter speeds.
© 2009 by Robert L. Millard
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