Knock on Wood

Look closely at the image and you can see the "white" areas on the left side of the round area and on its right side, too. Those are reflections of the poster board.

Photographing wooden creations offers a unique set of difficulties--meet four challenges and their solutions.
by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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Woodworkers talk a lot about the "touch" of wood; that is, its nature, its textures, and particularly how it feels in the hand. For a photographer, the challenge is to convey the tactile sensation of the wood in a flat image. Lighting plays a critical role here in bringing out delicate tones, textures, and a sense of the wood grain.

Hands-On Lesson Plan
Eric Bourneil

Eric Bourneil is a craftsman who specializes in wood creations. His work, which was shot by Steve Meltzer, formed the basis for this month's column.

My friend Eric Bourneil is a woodworker whose shop isn't far from where I live. The other day, he asked some questions about photographing his turned wood objects. I decided that the best way to answer him was to give him a hands-on demonstration. So I went to his shop, with camera and lights, and spent a few hours going over some basics. Because these techniques work with other crafts objects--pottery, metal, possibly glass--I thought that these ideas were deserving of a photography column.

Throughout my session with Eric, I tried not only to teach him basics, but also to demonstrate that shooting crafts absolutely requires trial and error. Photography is writing with light, not writing with cameras. You simply have to play with the light and let it show you the way.

A Variety of Possibilities
Woodcrafts cover a wide range of objects, designs, and styles. From wood carvers to wood turners, traditional objects to sculpture pieces, there is such a wide range of woods that it is impossible to offer a simple recipe for photography. My friend Eric's work is a good example of the variety of wooden pieces. I made it very clear to Eric that while I could show him basics, he would have to experiment with every piece he photographed. Because Eric wanted photos for his website, I suggested that we put the pieces on a white background. This setting works well with most pieces; but as I will get to later, it does not suit all objects.

All of these photos I shot with Eric were taken with my camera zoom set at the 35mm equivalent of 100mm. This moderate telephoto setting pleasantly flattens perspective and gives me room for my lights to be between my camera and the work.

#1 Tall Tales: Shooting objects with height
Tall Wood Sculpture

When shooting a tall object with a single overhead light, it is important to place the light high over the work to reduce the exposure difference between the top of the piece and the bottom.

The shape of an object dictates how it has to be lit and how it has to be shot. The first piece Eric wanted shot was the tall object, a piece that is about 14 inches tall (35cm). I lit the work with a 160 diode LED light, on a very tall light stand, placed about four feet over the object. When shooting a tall object with a single overhead light, it is important to place the light high over the work to reduce the exposure difference between the top of the piece and the bottom. Had I placed my light only a foot or two above the piece, the exposure at the top would have been much brighter than the rest of the work. When placed high up, the exposure difference is small and the overall lighting looks smooth and even.

#2 Bowled Over: Dealing with bowls and curved edges
The next piece we photographed was the rough edged bowl. Now I rearranged my lighting. I placed one LED light to the right of the object (about four feet away) and a second light on the left side. The right light provided the main lighting for the piece; while the left light, set to half power, lightened the shadow areas. I used diffuser panels over both lights. I softened the lights with plastic diffuser panels to reduce the glare spots on the wood's surface. These spots on glossy, polished surfaces are reflections of the studio lights on pieces' surfaces. But glare isn't a bad guy and eliminating it completely can take the "shine" out of a polished surface. The trick is to control the glare.

For the shot of another of Eric's pieces--a vase-like construction--notice the hot spots. It took a lot of experimenting to get the reflections of the lights placed so that while you see them, they aren't distracting or obliterating any important surface detail.
Rough-Edged Wood Bowl

The right light provided the main lighting for the rough-edged bowl; while the left light, set to half power, lightened the shadow areas.


Two important issues to consider in photographing a bowl are depth of field and autofocus errors. The depth of field is the area of sharpness, from front to back, in the image and it varies with the lens aperture and focal length. Shooting objects like bowls, I want as much depth of field as possible. For that, I work with my camera's aperture preferred-exposure mode (A) and set it to F/11 or F/16.

The other issue is autofocus. Camera autofocus systems have no idea what they are seeing; they just "see" areas of high contrast and focus, accordingly. This works okay a lot of the time, but it can go wrong with bowls. The systems can't handle three-dimensional objects like bowls and often focus on the back rim of the bowl, throwing the front area out of focus. To get the entire bowl in focus, the camera needs to focus on the bowl's front rim. You can do this by either focusing manually or by setting the autofocus to "central area" focus and make sure the camera focuses correctly.

#3 Sculpted Sophistication: Figuring out wooden figures
Wood Temple Sculpture

You can see in the photo of this "temple" how dark the left side of the work is because of the dimness of that left light.

Eric's next brought out the delightful "temple." This piece called for another lighting approach from the soft lighting I had set up for the bowls. With soft lighting, the temple steps, lacking any shadowing, simply disappeared. To reveal texture--or in this case, the steps--requires a more specular (hard) light. I removed the diffusers from the lights and as the main light used the right LED placed about a foot higher on its stand than the temple. Then as I lowered the brightness of the LED on the left, Eric and I watched as the temple steps, which had disappeared in the soft light, suddenly took shape. You can see in the photo how dark the left side of the work is because of the dimness of that left light.

#4 Throwing a Curve: Conquering polished rounded sculptures
I was feeling good with the way the photos were turning out when Eric brought over a highly polished rounded sculptural piece. This was a real challenge. No matter where I placed the LED lights--with their diffusers in place--instead of a glare spot, I got a glare line along the piece's curved surface. It looked awful and I was about to tell Eric that I wasn't really set up to deal with a piece like this, when I got a crazy idea.

I moved the object toward the front of the white background and placed one of the LED lights behind it and to the left. Then I had Eric hold a large white poster board in front of the piece and to its right. The poster board acted as a reflector and diffused the light, making it very soft. Look closely at the image and you can see the "white" areas on the left side of the round area and on its right side, too. Those are reflections of the poster board. Notice too that the background is a bit gray on the left side of the picture. This happened because the object was far from the vertical part of the background, and my light stand was actually tipped over the background aimed at the piece. Consequently, that part of the background didn't get very much light reaching it and went a little gray.
Wood Temple Sculpture

It took a lot of experimenting to get the reflections of the lights placed so that while you see them, they aren't distracting or obliterating any important surface detail.



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