Fine Tuning

Fine Tuning

Utilizing the telephoto setting, the proportions of the object appear more natural than in either the 50 mm or wide-angle shots.

Photos and text by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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Last month I wrote that when buying a new camera at a big box store, make sure to get some instruction on basic use before leaving. Following up on that, once you get home, take some time and use the camera a bit to get a feel for its handling. Today every camera is different. There are variations between brands and models, even between updates. Many of these variations are cosmetic or small tweaks, but some can affect the way you photograph crafts. There is no simple way to use a particular camera just as there is no one-size-fits-all way to photograph crafts. To get the most out of your camera you need to do a little fine tuning.

Above from left: At the 'normal' setting in a zoom's mid-range, most of the bulging of the wide-angle shot is gone. • At aperture F8, the depth of field is very large and most of the object is sharp.

In the course of several columns I've described basic camera controls and what they do. The next step is to work with each of these controls to see how they affect your photography. For this you will need one of your crafts objects, something representative of your work, your camera, a pad and pencil, and a laptop or large tablet. If you have a tripod, use it too.

The reason for the laptop or tablet is simple. In my photo workshops I have seen students struggle as they try to match the images on their camera or phone LCD screens to their work. But those tiny screens are simply not designed for accuracy and are terrible for evaluating exposure, sharpness or color. A large screen is needed so that after taking photos at various settings, results can be accurately checked.

To begin, set up your object the way you normally do. With the object in place, turn your camera on, set it to AUTO (no flash) or if using P (program), set the White Balance to Auto and the ISO to 400.

Framing and Focal Length

Normally when turning on a fixed lens with a compact, bridge (superzoom) camera or iPhone, the lens goes to a wide-angle default position. This gives some people the idea that this is the focal length they are supposed to use, but it is not. When turning on an interchangeable lens on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the lens should be set to its wide-angle position by hand.

Frame the object more or less in the center of the screen, focus and take your first picture. On the paper write, ''Frame #1 Wide Angle.'' Now zoom or turn the lens to a position in the middle of its zoom range. On most cameras this is the equivalent of a 50mm ''normal'' lens on a 35mm camera. You will need to move back from the object to frame it as it was in the wide-angle shot. Take a photo and note this as ''Frame #2 Normal.'' When using a bridge-style camera, while zooming the lens watch the scale at the bottom of the camera screen and stop when the marker reaches 2X or 3X.

For the third image, zoom the lens to its telephoto setting, which on most standard zoom lenses would be about a 90-100mm lens on a 35mm camera; with a bridge advance to 4X or 5X. Move back as needed and take a photo, noting it as ''Frame # 3 Tele.

Above from left: Due to a lot of white background in the original frame, the auto-exposure system underexposed the picture. • Using the exposure compensation control, +2 stops of exposure produced the correct exposure with a true white background. • Using a wide-angle setting, the center of objects appear to bulge out.

Upload these images to your PC and review them. The lens focal length affects perspective, or how the object's shape is recorded. For most crafts photography the normal or tele position should give you the most natural look. Review the photos and choose the focal length setting that looks the best to you. Note it on the paper and use it later when photographing again.

You may discover a problem common to many zoom lenses. Whether interchangeable or not, these lenses do not focus close at their normal or telephoto settings. Rather than shooting close-ups with the wide angle seeing its bug-eyed distortion, consider shooting as close as possible at the normal or telephoto settings, and then cropping the image down to create close-ups.

Exposure and Compensation

This is the special bugaboo of crafts photographers. Camera exposure systems produce relatively accurate exposures under normal conditions, but when faced with the unusual situation called crafts photography they are easily led astray. I demonstrated this a few months ago with the example of a terribly underexposed photo of a white leather bracelet on a white background.

Fine tuning exposures starts with finding the camera's exposure compensation control. On some cameras it is a button labeled (+/-) and on others it is found in the menu pages. When clicking on that, a scale appears on the screen. Navigate the scale with the toggle control. If your photos have been consistently washed out, shoot a series of photos at settings of -1, -2, and -3, noting the frames accordingly. On the other hand, if the photos are gray or dark, shoot a series at the +1, +2 and +3 settings. Upload and review these images to determine how much compensation, if any, gives the best picture. WiFi and Small Compact Cameras

A small, inexpensive pocket compact camera does has an advantage over studio gear. It allows shooting images sized for the web that can be uploaded immediately to a website or a sales platform with the camera's WiFi.

Depth of Field

Depth of field is how much of the photo is in sharp focus. It gets larger as the lens aperture gets smaller, for example, from F/3.5 to F/8. Depth of field is deeper with wide-angle lenses than with longer focal lengths and is very shallow in close-ups. Due to craft objects needing to be completely sharp, this next test will help determine which aperture gives your work sufficient overall sharpness.

Depth of Field

The shallow depth of field here is due to using a telephoto lens at its most open aperture, F/4.

Set the exposure mode dial to A, or aperture, and use the focal length and exposure compensation you've found that's worked the best so far. With the toggle or the wheel on the camera body, set the aperture to its maximum setting, typically F/2.8 or F/3.5. Take a shot and note this as ''Aperture F/2.8 (or 3.5).'' Now change the aperture to F/5.6 for a shot and then F/11 for a third; note each.

Upload the images and look carefully at the overall sharpness. As the aperture gets smaller you should be able to see the sharpness increase. Look carefully at areas in the back of the piece. In general at F/5.6 (or F/8) most objects will appear totally sharp. But once again, note which setting looks best to you.
Set the exposure mode dial to A, or aperture, and use the focal length and exposure compensation you've found that's worked the best so far. With the toggle or the wheel on the camera body, set the aperture to its maximum setting, typically F/2.8 or F/3.5. Take a shot and note this as ''Aperture F/2.8 (or 3.5).'' Now change the aperture to F/5.6 for a shot and then F/11 for a third; note each.

Upload the images and look carefully at the overall sharpness. As the aperture gets smaller you should be able to see the sharpness increase. Look carefully at areas in the back of the piece. In general at F/5.6 (or F/8) most objects will appear totally sharp. But once again, note which setting looks best to you.

Color Check

Most photographers are not overly concerned about color as long as the sky is blue; the grass is green and skin colors are not too reptilian. But color accurate photos are critical for professional artists. Is it professional for a jeweler to have photos of silver jewelry that looks yellow? Color accuracy sells products and gets you into shows; it must be of primary concern.

For the color check you need not reshoot anything. Go back over the images you've just taken on Auto White Balance and compare the images on the screen to the original object. Look for subtle differences, particularly in the greens and magentas, and for color casts in the white and gray areas. If the differences are small don't worry about them.

If the differences are noticeable, reshoot the object using some of the other white balance settings like daylight, shadow, overcast, etc. and make notes and compare these shots to the original work. If one of the settings looks better than the others it's the one to use for your photography.

Image Size

As sensors get larger, so do the image files they generate. These big files are great for large display prints but not very good for the web where very small image files are needed. If you shoot most of your images for the web, consider shooting small files to begin with. Go into the camera menu and find the page titled ''Image Size or Picture Size.'' The page will list the different image files sizes you can use. An interesting experiment is to shoot test frames at several different picture sizes. When looking at them on the computer, not much difference can be seen unless they are enlarged to 100 or 200%.

Using the settings you have found that work well will make your crafts photography easier and quicker. Those settings will allow you to get the most out of your camera, and with a modern digital camera that's quite a lot.


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