Take Advantage of One-Light Crafts Photography

Take Advantage of One-Light Crafts Photography
by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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I am an advocate of simplicity. Photography is always about solving problems, and for me, the simplest solutions are always the best. While most basic "studio" lighting set-ups for crafts photography require a pair of matched lights, there are times when just one light is better than two.

Camera on a Tripod To illustrate this concept and show just how simple it is, I made a small studio in the corner of my living room (see photo at left). I used one of the new multiple LED arrays I wrote about earlier this year as my light source. This light has an astonishing 160 LEDs--10 rows of 16 LEDs--and puts out about 1280 lumens--about as much as a 100-watt tungsten lamp. However, unlike tungsten lights, the LEDs are daylight balanced so you don't have to darken your studio to use them. Lightweight and portable, the array is powered by rechargeable AA batteries, and when turned on, produce hardly any heat. My LED light came with a "diffuser," which I slipped into the front of the light to soften a little. An alternative to an LED array would be a coiled fluorescent lamp (CFL), although it would require softening, perhaps using it in a soft box or shooting through translucent material.

Nonetheless, at the small distances between light, camera, and object in this set-up, I would urge you not to use hot lights--tungsten or quartz. They generate too much heat and can be dangerous.

The background for my quickie set-up is a black-to-white graduated background that is 21 inches wide by 15 inches tall and that I bought from Amazon. I put my camera on a tripod because I always put my camera on a tripod. Despite wonderful image stabilizing (IS) systems in digital cameras, I still use
a tripod because it solves two problems, the first being framing. No matter how hard I try hand-holding a camera, it is hard to frame two shots exactly the same way. For crafts photography, the tripod means that once I frame a subject, I can make adjustments to the camera settings, the lighting, or the object, without having to reframe the image.

Another reason for using a tripod is that while shooting craftwork, I use apertures settings of F/8 or F/11. Although digital cameras produce very good images at their widest apertures (usually F/2.8 or F/3.5), I want to make sure that I have the maximum sharpness and depth of field--area of sharpness--that is possible. Also, camera lenses work best stopped down three stops or more. Therefore, I shoot in the camera's aperture preferred (A) exposure mode, and set the aperture to one of its smaller settings manually.

One-light photography works very well for a variety of subjects and particularly with objects like vases and bowls. Other objects can be photographed with a single light, with the exception being squat or "fat" objects. Anything that has a wide middle dimension much larger than its bottom is going to be a problem, as the middle will cast a shadow on everything below it.

Glass Bottle, Light 18-Inches above Glass Bottle, Light directly above

This set-up works for objects big and small. As you can see in the photo of my set-up, I am working with small objects. The ceramic bowl is perhaps 6 inches in diameter and the glass bottle about 5 inches tall. However with a larger background and a larger work space, I could easily shoot larger subjects--things like tall vases with a maximum dimension of 12 inches. For much bigger objects, I would have to use a much larger light. On the other hand, lowering this light, I could easily work with smaller objects like bracelets or small wooden boxes.

The position of the light is perhaps the single most critical element when shooting with one light. I shot the two photos of the glass bottle, changing only the position of the light. In the first image, the light is about 18 inches over and in front of the bottle (above left) and in the second, it is as close to directly over the bottle as I could get it (above right). As you can see, the differences are startling. When front-lit, the lighting seems to push the bottle into the background; when top-lit, the bottle is in a circle of light, making it far more dramatic. Notice, too, the light around the rim of the bottle spout. It helps pop the bottle out of the background.

You can see this same effect in the photo of the little ceramic bowl. When the light is directly over the bowl, there is a narrow shadow around the foot. As I mentioned earlier, if the middle of the bowl had been very wide, the shadow would have been wider, too, and the sides of the bowl would have been too dark.

Placing objects in the white part of the graduated background allows me to take advantage of the light bounced off the white surface and upward. This light helps illuminate the lower parts of the object.

One thing to remember when shooting with a single light source is to experiment with the height of the light. Watch what happens as you raise and lower the light source, perhaps 6 inches up or down at a time. What you are looking for is to get smooth uniform lighting across the whole piece, while at the same time keeping that nice bright rim light.
Ceramic bowl

The photo of the ceramic bowl illustrates the importance of a rim light. Not only does it separate the bowl from the background, but can you see the way the rim light keeps the front edge of the bowl from merging with the bowl's inside and getting lost?

For me, one-light photography with an LED lamp that costs under $50 is a remarkable bonus of the digital age. It is something that was hardly possible in the days of film. If you can take advantage of a one-light set-up with your work, give it a try; it can give your crafts photography a more professional look.

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