Dark and dreary days have arrived and waiting for sunlight to take photos cuts into my productivity. I often work late at night or at least late into the evening and that doesn’t work when the good light is gone by noon. I thought about ordering cheap photo lights but they come on huge stands and I really don’t want to trip on and store big stands. So I’m trying this instead.
I always take pictures in the windows but they face the wrong way (East) and once the sun goes up over the house it has to be a really bright day to get decent photos. I haven’t tried this at night yet, but the two CFL clamp lights seem to complement whatever natural light I can get fairly well.
I started with “soft white” bulbs. This is NOT what you want. Soft white is yellow. Next I tried a “daylight” bulb. Better, but not white enough. Finally I found THESE. They are $9 a piece, but worth it. They are 100 watt equivalent. The key is the color temperature – 5500k. That’s what you want! So I ended up spending $10 per clamp light and $9 per bulb, so total less than $40! Now I just need a better spot to clamp them to than the blinds :)
I still need to make sure they work at night. I may need to add one more bulb.
I took some test shots with my 35mm prime lens. In this same spot with natural light I’m lucky if I can take the camera above F/4 or F/ 4.5 and get a decent shutter speed. I tested it all the way up to F11. (If that sounds like a foreign language to you, I will try to explain.) I took these around 3:00 on a dark, rainy day, so I’m pretty happy with these! (Yes, three hours ago this is where the blog post was supposed to end with the photos way down at the bottom. Sorry! Scroll for the pics if you want to skip all this!)
I’m not going to explain the why because I don’t completely understand it myself. I’m just going to explain what the settings do. If you want to know why, google this stuff and you will find an endless supply of photography websites.
All of this applies to indoor product photos. Also, remember I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER. I have an $80 3 year old Canon point and shoot and a baby DSLR – a Nikon 3100 with an amazing lens my very cool photography-knowing brother got for me. Everything I talk about here CAN BE DONE on my $80 point and shoot, so you do not need a fancy camera to play around. See if you like photography first (I do!) before spending $$!
This section can also be called, “What I’ve learned after a year with my Nikon.”
ISO (100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc. )
Think about waaaaay back when you would buy different film speeds for 35mm cameras. If you’re my age (30) or older you’ll remember this. 400 or 800 were for taking pictures inside, 100 or 200 for outside. Well now you can adjust that for each photo you take on a digital camera. It’s basically simulating the film speeds.
A higher ISO allows you to take better photos in lower light, however the tradeoff of a high ISO is a grainy photo. So you want to use the lowest ISO you can in any particular lighting situation. If you are taking a snapshot of your friends at a restaurant, you can crank the ISO up to 800 or 1600 because it’s just a fun picture and you want to make sure you get the shot. For product photos, you don’t want to take it above 400 if you can help it, 800 at the most. This is why we need LIGHT. The ISO is usually controlled within the function or info section of your camera (there isn’t a button for it on either of my cameras).
EV – Exposure compensation
Mine is usually set to +0.3 on both cameras. It gets me a brighter, WHITER (less gray) picture. I would fiddle with yours until you find a sweet spot. The control looks like a little +/- button.
Macro (Flower Button) Setting
Macro setting is only available on point and shoots, but it’s really great for close up detail shots. Try using it and see how you can see every detail, even the fibers in the fabric.
I usually set my white balance to cloudy or auto. I haven’t figured out how to tweak “preset manual” to my liking yet. Play with the WB settings until your whites come out white, or at least gray and not yellow or blue.
Aperture (or F-stop or F/number)
THIS is the setting you want to play with for those artsy, blurry background shots. It’s confusing to understand by reading, so just go get your camera and play. 90% of the time, I shoot photos on the Aperture Priority setting. (You should have an A or Av on the setting dial of your camera.)
Use a LOW number (F/1.8-F/3.5) for those artsy shots. My point and shoot goes down to F/2.6. My “kit” lens (the lens that came with my camera) goes down to F/3.5, but depending on the zoom may only go down to F/5. My super-duper-awesome prime lens (prime=no zoom) goes down to F/1.8. 1.8 gets me a tiny fraction of the photo in focus and the rest blurry. This is a fun setting, but not generally desirable for tutorials and such. I stick to around 3.5 for “artsy” shots. The LOWER the number the bigger the blurry background you are going to get. That is why making sure your focus point is right where you want it (usually center on point and shoots, movable with the arrow keys on DSLRs) is important because that is the ONLY part of your photo that is going to be in focus when using a low F number. You can usually turn down the aperture in low light to get a better shot. But what if you don’t want your background to be blurry? Answer: MORE LIGHT!
Use a HIGH number to get more of the subject in focus. Why not just leave it on a high F number all the time so the whole subject is in focus? Because the higher the F number, the SLOWER the shutter speed. And low shutter speed = blurry photos. But, the more light you can get on your subject, the faster that shutter speed will be and the higher the F number you can use. In practical terms, what this means is that if you want MOST of your photo to be in focus and not that blurry artsy style background, you need to turn your aperture UP to a decent value – usually indoors I try to get it between 4.5-5.6. (You can go all the way to anywhere from 8 to 22, depending on the camera. Go outside on a sunny day and try the highest setting!)
For a widely in-focus shot, you want the highest F number you can get with the lowest tolerable shutter speed.
When you turn your aperture UP, your shutter speed gets longer.
Bottom line – if your shutter speed is longer, there is more of a chance that you will move the camera (or your subject will move, if it’s a dog or a person!) and the focus area of your shot won’t be sharp. You want the shortest shutter speed possible for the aperture you want to use. Using a tripod helps but this still applies even if you are using a tripod.
Without photo lights, even on a nice sunny day if I try to use anything over 4.5-5 in the house my shutter speed goes way down. I try to keep it below (under? shorter than?) 1/80. Short enough so you can’t move your hand and blur the shot. It will vary by camera.
These are not photoshopped, only cropped. All are with my 50mm prime lens, ISO 200 and +0.3EV (exposure compensation). Keep in mind that I’m pretty good at holding the camera really still and I took more than one of each so I could pick the best one. I would say the sweet spot with the lights is the F/5, 1/100 second shutter speed shot. If I add another light (or turn up the ISO to 400, or have more sunlight) I could probably go with F/5.6 or F/6.3. That’s pretty good!
The fourth photo, Photoshopped:
Experiment! Take the camera off auto, but don’t go fully manual. Start with that A/Av/Aperture Priority setting.
Put your camera on “burst” mode so that you take two or three of the same shot – typically the second shot will be the clearest.
Take lots of pics from different angles. I will sometimes take the same shot anywhere from 6-20 times. Yes, that’s excessive.
Did you know that Flickr! will display all of these settings? Click at the top where it says “This photo was taken using a Nikon D3100″ The camera name is a link that takes you to a page displaying EXIF data, which is more information about a photo than you ever wanted to know. Find a friend who has a similar camera to you (point and shoot vs. DSLR) and look at how they took each photo and copy their settings for the same effect. You’ll soon figure out what you like and what works for your camera!
Sorry that was so long! Any questions?