Ready for your close up?

Whilst helping out a friend with some close up photography recently it occurred to me that the key points might well benefit others, especially when doing shots of small products and items for on-line auction sales.

The subject matter were handmade items of silver jewellery, made by my friend, who wants to keep a photographic record of everything she makes and sells. The images are also to be used on her website. So we were doing close up pix in a light tent with a compact camera. Here are the simple tips I passed on.

  • Use a tripod. It can be a relatively small desk top one. A Joby Gorillapod is ideal. I’d taken along my SLR Zoom version which is overkill for a compact camera. Just make sure you get the model appropriate for your weight of camera.
  • Use a small mirror, close to the camera axis, to help bounce light into the tent to highlight specific parts of the subject. Small pieces of white card or paper will give a softer, less specular effect.
  • Find out if your camera has a macro (close up) setting and use it. It will allow you to focus more closely on the subject, which usually means a bigger, better image with more detail.
  • Don’t mix light sources. It can mess up the white balance. So stick to one light type, whether it be daylight, tungsten, halogen, LED etc. If you want even light in the tent from either side then use matching lights.
  • If your camera allows more than just pre-programmed or Scene modes then get to know how to use some of the other settings to achieve greater control.
  • White Balance – how the camera records white. Largely dependant upon the light source. Modern cameras make a good job of inferring this from the scene but setting it manually will give you greater consistency between shots and more accurate reproduction. White balance controls usually have pre-defined types of light source illustrated by enigmatic symbols (Cloudy, bright, indoors, flash etc) and the ability to read the level at the camera. This will give the most accurate reading but make sure the frame is filled with the white of the light tent, not the subject or a coloured background.
  • Exposure compensation – If the subject is relatively small in the frame and surrounded by a lot of bright light tent then the camera will usually get the exposure wrong. The important bit, in this case the silver jewellery, is going to be under exposed. In the final photo it will be dull, lifeless and lacking sparkle. This can be offset by using the exposure compensation feature. It could be a dial or menu setting, typically with a scale that runs from -3 to +3 with a couple of intermediary settings between each number. A change from 0 to +1 doubles the amount of light recorded, and a setting of -1 halves the amount of light. When there is a lot of white tent visible in the frame start with a +1 setting and check the results. Vary the compensation to get the most pleasing result. If you are using a predominantly dark background in the tent, black card or paper for example, then you will probably have to use a negative compensation value.

Above all experiment. Take control. Try moving the light sources, try different camera settings. Remember to load the test shots onto your computer and compare the end results on your computer screen. Don’t just rely on what you see on the little screen on the back of the camera.