I then purchased a decent quality tripod (about $80.00) that was rated for a camera quite a bit heavier than the one I have, and it has worked perfectly. In addition I purchased a tripod that has an articulated center post, which is handy for setting up those odd shots.


  Perhaps the best thing I bought was a polarizing filter for the lens. I’am still amazed at how this filter works (see example here). The surfaces of furniture are quite reflective, and the ability of the polarizing filter to eliminate or reduce these reflections is impressive. Still, a well placed reflection can highlight the highly polished nature of a piece, or accentuate a shaped surface, so eliminating them isn't always desirable. This reflection cutting comes at a cost though, of slowing down the shutter speed (the filter is like a pair of sunglasses for your lens), making a solid tripod a necessity and requiring the use of the timer, a cable or a remote to release the shutter. Don’t try to boost the ISO number to eliminate the need for a tripod, this just introduces noise. Always shoot at the lowest ISO setting on your camera.
  As noted above, I saw the biggest improvement in my finished photos, when I started using that wrinkled sheet as a drop cloth for painting and acquired a roll of background paper. This paper comes in every color of the rainbow, in several widths, and is very inexpensive. I purchased the paper in a neutral light gray. Paper isn't’t the only choice, there is also muslin and canvas and probably others. I like the look of a light, neutral background that puts the focus on the piece of furniture, but I see others who go a different route and achieve interesting effects.


 Lighting, is everything, and for to too long, when taking construction photos, I didn't give it the attention it deserves. I suffer from mild color blindness. I relied on the custom white balance feature in the camera to insure proper results, this worked well in most situations, but I found under fluorescent lights, the results were at best variable. I assume this is from the cyclic nature of fluorescent lights; at different points in their phase, the color changes. Also, the color of the light from windows changes frequently. All of these variables combined to limit the effectiveness of the preset white balance. In most situations, the addition of a gray card helped immensely as did an Expo Disk, but neither of these really overcame the phase shift under fluorescent lighting. A session with a professional photographer, resulted in him recommending daylight balanced incandescent lamps, and turning off all other lights. These worked well, but were very hot and had an extremely short life of only 3 hours. I then purchased daylight balanced fluorescent lamps, these give off almost no heat, and are rated at a 8000-10,000 hour life. The color issues were finally solved with different gray card, it appears that not all gray cards are created equal. By shooting a white balance setting at the gray card, while it is having the same light fall on it as the subject of the photo, I now get an accurate color. Still, I have been including a small corner of a gray card in each shot so it can be used to color correct the photo and then cropped out. In an ongoing attempt to improve my photos, I just purchased a master AC slave strobe, and holder. This is a poor mans version of the strobe sets used by professionals. So far the results with it are encouraging; I get a more "magazine" like look to the photos, at minimal cost


 Where I still have issues, is on the effective use of light. It seems among professional photographers, an evenly lit subject is to be avoided. Look at almost any photo in a woodworking magazine, and you will see light that comes in from behind and to the side, but rarely from the front. I lack artistic abilities, so to me this type of lighting looks overly dark with its harsh shadows and high contrast. I will admit, for carving this type of lighting is very appealing, because it highlights the texture of the carving. I, on the other hand thought it was desirable to have the photo lit, just as it would look as you would see it when working at the bench, i.e. evenly and brightly lit. I'm still struggling with this aspect of photography, partly because of my lack of appreciation for the artistic impetus behind the positioning of the lights and because the location of my bench makes positioning lights behind and to the side quite difficult.


 For lighting finished pieces, I use several different light sources. When I worked with the film camera I had to use film and lamps rated for a certain color temperature, so I had to turn off all other lights, but with digital, most continuous light sources will work. I still use the light stands, with tungsten photo floods that I purchased to use with film, but if I were buying lights now, I'd just get some inexpensive halogen work lights. Both types of lights are more like little space heaters, making photos taken in the summer an ordeal. I also bought a couple of small heat lamp reflectors to hold tungsten bulbs for auxiliary lighting. These lights are so hot that they should only be pointed up, so the heat can escape; even with this precaution one of my reflectors is severely distorted from heat. I also never leave them unattended and I’am careful what I point them at (sounds more like a gun than a light). The fluorescent lights described above lack, the wattage necessary for taking the finished photos

  To diffuse the main lights, I usually bounce them off the ceiling; aiming them so they evenly light the backdrop (my ceiling is low, so it works well for this). This doesn't’t always work, particularly with large low slung pieces. To light such pieces, I have a couple of small umbrellas. These umbrellas come with removable covers so the light can be shot through them (better diffusing the light) or bounced off them (concentrating the light). Every time I use them I’m taken back to picture day in elementary school.  I also use white foam board to bounce light off of.  Professional photographers use strobes, but ones with sufficient output for lighting furniture are expensive and most units are pretty bulky.

  Now let’s look at a typical set up for photographing a finished piece. The background paper is taped to the wall and rolled out with a gentle curve between the wall and floor. A heat lamp base above and behind the subject, with a 500 watt photo flood is aimed at an umbrella with the cover removed to cast some diffused light on the background paper.You want this light to fall gently on the background paper , otherwise it will accentuated every wrinkle in the paper. The two light stands, also fitted with 500 watt floods are positioned flanking the camera, aimed primarily at the ceiling.. For this photo, I hand held a piece of foam board, behind the light to the left of the camera, aiming it to get just a bit of light hitting the edge of the top, bringing out its molded edge; failing to do this would have the edge indistinct and the wide overhang of the top would have had it casting a shadow on the apron.. A small halogen is placed to shine on an umbrella with the cover on, to put some extra light on the background paper under the table (watch this light so it doesn't cause a glare on the subject piece). Try to get the light to fall a little more heavily on one side of the piece, to give some depth. Do not allow any of these lights to shine directly on the lens, because this would create flare. Also, you should use the lens hood, because any significant amount of light falling on the lens will reduce the contrast of the photo. I wear sunglasses while setting up the lights, because the lights are very bright and are aimed right at your face. The camera height should be set fairly close to the center of the furniture’s height. Deviating substantially from this, will distort the piece, giving it a trapezoid shape (key stoning). Also, using a longish (approximately 50-85mm) focal length lens will have the piece of furniture appear less distorted. Unfortunately my shop is so small I lack the space to use such lenses for anything but the smallest piece, so I use a 28mm manual focus lens, which has very little distortions. Various "tools" in Photoshop can correct perspective distortion, but should be used sparingly.

photo set up

Click on image to enlarge and to see more information about the placements of the lights


I set the camera to the aperture priority mode, with what tests have shown to be a good starting point,  f 8 (with a 1.3 to 1.6 shutter speed). Then rotate the polarizing filter until you get the best effect, and take a shot. I quickly evaluate the photo and the histogram. I look for focus, blown out or under exposed areas, flare on the lens and composition. Learning to read the histogram has helped me evaluate the exposure. If things look good I’ll take a few more using the timer or remote to eliminate all shake and view them on the computer.What looks acceptable on the camera LCD, doesn’t always measure up when viewed on the computer.( my camera can be configured to take photos directly to the hard drive of a computer, and when I had a laptop, this was a great feature). If your floor is bouncy, don’t move around while triggering the shutter. Be aware that taking your eye away from the view finder after metering the shot, will affect the exposure, because of light entering the view finder ( the shot will end up darker). In practice this has only a slight effect on the exposure, in a studio situation because it is fairly dark inside.If for some reason you take photos outside in bright light, you should cover the view finder, or have your eye remain in front of the view finder, while setting the exposure and tripping the shutter.if the photo doesn’t look right, make gross adjustments with the shutter speed and fine tune with the cameras exposure value controls to adjust the exposure. For the most part furniture is quite dark, making exposure critical if the details in the dark areas are to be maintained and not generate a lot of noise.  It’s probably best to over expose the photo a tad, just watch for areas that get blown out (polished hardware, is prone to this). This over exposure also keeps the background from looking muddy. When everything looks good, I shoot the “real” shots. Early on I took just a few photos and in only a couple of “poses”, but now I take quite few and from every direction, since I never know what I might want to show in the future.


 photo set up

Click on image to enlarge and to see more information on the placement of the lights

The set up for the construction photos differs somewhat from those of the finished piece. I used to use a combination of ambient light and on and off camera flashes. These flashes were fairly expensive and as noted before, the ambient light contributed to all sorts of color issues. A much more economical set up is the daylight balanced lamps and the AC Slave Strobe. I still find a use for an off camera flash, but this can be one of the lesser priced third party units. This set up not only has economy going for it, but it is actually easier; before when relying on predominately flash lighting, it was not possible to see the way the light would appear in the photo. Now, with the daylight balanced lamps supplying the key light, and the flashes just the fill light, it is much easier to visualize the way the subject will be lit. The only difficulty is metering, since the gray card will be of little use, nor will the meter built into the camera; so some test shots will be in order, to get the exposure correct( my next investment is going to be a flash/light meter). Where, in the photographing the finished pieces, it takes a surprising amount of light to properly expose the photo, the opposite is true in taking construction photos; it is all too easy to have blown out highlights. This is because most of the items in construction photos are lighter in tone , such as flesh, and raw wood, which is typically lighter than when finished, or because of highly reflective tools, which do not respond to the polarizing filter ( the polarizing filter still is used, because it can eliminate reflections of light colored woods, resulting in better overall exposure). Also, the subject area is usually much smaller than when photographing the finished piece.

I installed two ceiling pull chain fixtures with dual screw bases to accept the smaller fluorescent lamps, to provide general illumination for those times when I shoot the photos the way I prefer them to be lit, or I can install just the larger lamp for a key light. I'm very careful to not have these lights show as reflections on polished surfaces. You will often see the reflections of strobes and umbrellas in magazine shots and I find these distracting. If I do see a reflection, I just hang a thin piece of fabric in front of them, softening the light, but this comes at the cost of reducing the light and calling for a slower shutter speed.

Another area where my photos have needed improvement, is in the composition. Before, I didn't get close enough, and left too many distracting elements in the edges of the photos. Moving in closer, required a smaller aperture to have everything in focus. This smaller aperture in turn, required a very steady pose so your hand and tools remained sharp. Of course taking photos yourself with you in the shot will require some way to remotely trip the shutter. One camera I had, used a handy wireless remote, while on others I used the built in timer, but now I have a cable release which allows me to be up to 12' from the camera and trip the shutter.This cable release allows for using the timer, so you have time to press the release, set it down and pick up the tool and assume your pose.

As with the photos of the finished pieces, a test shot is taken and viewed on the LCD screen and the histogram is consulted. Even minor changes in the placements of the lights can have a dramatic effect on the appearance of the photo, so I end up taking several shots and shifting the lighting to get the everything correct.

  With the photos captured, it is now time the edit them. You can make slight adjustments to the exposure with a photo editing program, but once an area is clipped or grossly underexposed it can’t be brought back; of course the histogram will reveal this. I shoot my photos with the RAW setting, which gives you greater latitude with the exposure and results in the best possible finished photo, even if it does add to the work flow. Photo editing is a little like sanding ball and claw feet; it can really help, but don’t use it as a crutch to overcome poor technique. After I make the adjustments to the RAW photo, I save it as a JPEG. Then I open it in Photoshop to fix any smudges on the backdrop and eliminate any spots from dirt on the sensor.  I learned a $300 lesson on the importance of keeping dust off the sensor, so be very careful when you change lenses, but dust on the sensor is just a fact of digital life.. I bought a book on using Photoshop and learned the careful use of the "levels" tool can help bring out details in both the shadows and highlights in a photo, for improved results. On the photo of the Pembroke table I used a layer mask to “protect” the table as I used the blur tool to defocus the backdrop just a bit. I also used a layer mask, to selectively darken the top and the leaf with the burn tool. Here is where the polarizing filter pays off, because there is enough detail left in these areas to bring out.

As with woodworking, there is always something new to learn in photography, once the basics are mastered though, you'll be rewarded with excellent photos.


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