Friday, June 6, 2008

Candy Blog Photography

DotsFolks ask from time to time about how I do my photos. I’ve shot over 25,000 candy photos ... but have only about 2,500 to show for it. Here’s how my process works.

Now that you’ve seen my current photo studio, I thought I’d back up a bit and show you how I used to take photos before 2006, because you really don’t need all that if you’re on a budget and especially if you’re not doing the volume I do. 

WHAT I SHOOT WITH

My camera is the Sony DSC-V3. I bought it used on eBay for $375 in March 2006 and it included a 1 gb memory card (which I actually fill up in one photo session from time to time but more importantly it’s fantastic for my whale watching).

WHERE TO SHOOT

I had two spots I liked to take photos:

Chewy SweeTarts1. Early in the morning at my old office. The roof in the building across from mine was resurfaced with some sort of white reflective stuff back in 2004 and suddenly became an amazing bounce-board for my north-facing office windows. I never needed to turn on the lights during the day. I’d position a series of sheets of white office paper, tape it to the side of my laser printer and let it curve down. Then more white paper to cover the desktop and shoot. I’d use some other pieces of white cardstock to bounce light to fill as best I could.

I didn’t have a tripod, I’d just place the camera on a book or notebook (angled if I needed it), set the shot up and then turned on the timer (this left both hands free for holding the cardstock for bouncing the light).

DSC07008r2. The roof deck at my house. This was a little trickier because I spend more daylight hours at the office than at home, so it was usually on weekends that I’d set up my photo shoots. Of course it was outside ... and sometimes it was windy, or hot or overcast.

The light was much better up there, most the time I’d set up a piece of white posterboard, sticking one side to a cardboard box and letting it slope down onto the surface of the table. This was under a white patio umbrella, which provided a nice diffuse light and of course I’d use the other pieces of posterboard for bounce.

On these occasions I used a tripod, which gave me much more control and crisper shots.

DSC01565rThis is one of my first shots I ever took for the blog. I’d say I’ve evolved quite a bit, at least in clarity. But some things have remained the same.

While some folks call my old methods a little ghetto, I still take photos like that from time to time. Just some white office paper to grab a quick snap and when I’m traveling, sometimes I pick up some posterboard so I can take some product shots on the road.

The other option, of course is to get some studio lights. The photo of my studio looks kind of jumbled, and believe me, it’s pretty much chaos all the time.

SETTING UP THE SHOT

While the photos may show the candy isolated in the middle of nothingness, believe me, there’s lots nearby.

Photo SetupThis shot shows how most of my setups look. A little piece of the Tac ‘n Stik in a wad to prop up a package, and then the candy in front of it ... there’s no need to clear the decks of other items unless it’s something that has silver reflective wrapper. (I also use little dots of the sticky stuff when I have spherical candies to keep them from rolling around.)

Silver reflective packaging is a bugger to shoot, everything has to be masked around it or else it shows up as a reflection. I have a piece of white posterboard with a little hole the size of my lens for just such occasions. The bonus is that it also bounces a good deal of light, so it gives a crisper, more even exposure.

The trick here is to light the background and foreground at the same level.  This will give the best base for the high key white.

I also keep the objects quite close to the edge of the table, about 1/3 of the distance to the curve of the back (you can see that I didn’t do that in earlier shots, that’s part of what creates that shadowy background). A tripod is essential to product photos. It’s the best way to get clear and sharp photos, especially for longer exposures. Tripods are not expensive, so even if you can’t afford a shooting table like this, get a tripod.

Black Sesame CaramelsTake test shots. Then look at them on the camera - zoom in and really look at it. Nothing worse than getting through a shoot (after you’ve eaten the candy or torn the wrapper open) and finding out that you can see yourself in the mylar or a glare is obscuring the brand name. In this case, with the Morinaga Black Sesame Caramels, the package is upside down. In my desire to feature the Japanese on the side of the box instead of the English that’s on the other side, I turned the whole thing upside down instead of just turning it ... and it wasn’t until several months later when I actually did the review that I realized this. (Gah!)

I work from the outside to the inside. It’s common sense, but something I’ve messed up on before. I shoot the outside of the package (sometimes right after I buy it and don’t complete the rest of the process until I schedule the review), then open it, shoot the item with the wrapper, sometimes solo ... then and only then do I break it open or take a bite. Sometimes, if I have a bounty of individual items, I’ll do several versions to get the best “bite with caramel pull” or “cross section of panned nut.”

At the end of the session I usually have a dish of bitten candies.

The shooting surface is a matte plexiglass. I wipe it down with 409 quite often, either because it’s gotten sticky or because I plan on eating whatever I place on there later. When I was shooting on posterboard I would often throw a piece of white office paper down when I knew I was going to have something gooey.

POST PROCESSING THE SHOT

choicesAfter shooting, I have to pick from however many photos I’ve shot. Sometimes I’ll do a dozen on just one setup, playing with depth of field, angle, focus and exposure levels.

I always take pictures on the highest setting (the full 7.2 megabytes). Most of the time I use the plain old JPG setting, since these photos are for web. If I were doing something for print, I’d probably use TIFF or RAW - but then I’d run into storage issues. As it is I have about 60 gb of candy photos.

If your camera has something called bracketing in the settings, I recommend giving it a try. It bumps the exposure up one level and down one level, taking three shots pretty much at the same time. This is a good way to see what levels would be best for a particular shot without moving the settings.

For the most part I use the program mode (P) on my camera. I set the exposure bumped up to +1.7, even so, the background rarely turns out white. It’s gray.

Unretouched PhotoThis is what the photo looks like out of the camera (I cropped it, that’s all - in the above screengrab of my thumbnails you can see that there was a piece of bounceboard in the shot).

If I’ve done everything right then all the photo needs is a little adjustment in the Photoshop Image > Adjustments > Curves menu. I push the upper white a little brighter and usually pull down the midtones a little darker. That’s it.

BTW - you don’t even need the full Photoshop to do this. Photoshop Elements (which I got for free with my Wacom graphics tablet) works perfectly fine. Some other free image adjustment programs also do a great job - the best thing to do is take a great shot that needs only a few adjustments.

But sometimes I’m sloppy and a few more adjustments are necessary. I might clone out some crumbs and sometimes the corners are a little darker for very large field shots so I’ll whiten them with the eraser or paintbrush.

curves

Then things might need a little additional help, maybe a little burning/dodging for glared spots or things that are too dark in the shadows and lose their detail. Cross-sections might need a bit of dodging to enhance the difference between the caramel & nougat or at least bring up the contrast in that small area.

Using Curves to Whiten Background

RESIZING FOR THE WEB

For the most part I’ve moved to Flickr to host my photos and share them there (for a while I had them both on my own server and on Flickr). Flickr automatically resizes the photos to three useable sizes: 100 pixels, 240 pixels and 500 pixels. Flickr has a limited but good photo editing service called Picnik that will allow you to do some of the above adjustments right there. Picasa also offers some excellent hosting & editing services.

If you’re hosting your own photos it’s usually best to use your photo software to create the web version so that it will be sharp and small at the same time. Photoshop has a “save for web” feature that allows you to preview exactly what the photo will look like saved at various compression settings.

DEVELOPING A STYLE

The style of Candy Blog photos is supposed to be clinical.

My original idea with my photography was for it to be a true representation of both the candy and the package. Because the blog was supposed to do what I wanted the internet to provide for me - a breakdown of what that candy actually is. (I couldn’t find a site that did that, so I made one.) I like the photos on a blank white background, no background stuff to interfere. It isolates the subject and it really helped me to focus on just the candy itself, if only for that brief session when I photographed it.

Yes, many of them are quite tasty looking, but I’ve always done my best to show what the candy actually looks like. I’m not trying to sell you anything.

(There first dozen or so posts on Candy Blog actually don’t have the candy featured. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I realized that’s what people really wanted to know ... what’s inside that box.)

I set up my shots to be eye level with the candy for the most part, like the candy is as big as you are.

TIPS FOR SHOOTING GOOD PHOTOS

  • Get as close as you can but keep it clear. (If you need to back off to get clean focus, do that instead of a blurry close up.)
  • Keep the background uncluttered. It doesn’t have to be white, but other wrappers, a pile of clothes or your dog’s tail aren’t the subject and probably shouldn’t be in there.
  • Use lots of light.
  • Color correct. If your camera doesn’t have a manual white balance or something that allows you to select your light source, then correct it in post.
  • Take lots of shots. It’s digital, feel free to keep shooting until you think you got what you need.
  • Use a tripod. If you can’t, figure a way to brace yourself to keep the camera from moving.
  • Think about how you’re going to use the photo - with text beside it or all by itself. (This may help with the angle.)
  • TIPS TO MAKE YOUR PHOTOS EVEN BETTER

     

  • Look at a lot of photography. Pay attention to advertisements, other blogs, photo sharing sites, magazines. Notice angles, exposure, how they deal with background elements. Start trying to work those elements you think are successful into your own photo shoots.
  • Try some props. Not everything needs to be on a blank background. Pick up some cheap tiles, pretty ceramic dishes, wrapping paper or origami paper, glassware or even linoleum samples.
  • Shoot the whole object. It’s better to have more to work with in post processing. Closeups of elements are good in most cases, but be sure to get at least some shots of the whole.
  • Crop it. You might not shoot the perfect shot, but crop it to compose the shot so that the subject is clear.
  • More reading:

  • How the Candy Critic Reviews a Treat
  • Taking Professional Looking Photos Without a Professional
  • Correcting White Balance
  • Table Top Studio

  • Related Candies

    1. Chocolate Storage Solutions
    2. Candy Blog Photo Studio
    3. The Traveling with Candy Balancing Act
    4. Browse the Candy Blog Photo Archive

    POSTED BY Cybele AT 8:42 am Tracker Pixel for Entry     Behind the ScenesCandyFeatured NewsPhotography

    Comments
    1. I have no intention of being a photographer of your level, but man, that was fun to read.  It’s nice to know how to achieve the magic.

      Comment by Cat Skyfire on 6/06/08 at 11:01 am #
    2. The only question your photos occasionally leave me with is about the size of the candy. For some of the items I always wish you’d added a pea or goldfish or penny or ruler or something so that I had a context.

      This is especially true for candies that I’ve never seen other than on your incredible website and where I could imagine them being many different sizes.

      I suppose to stick with the candy them, you could surround them with candy corn or M&Ms;, or just have one in the shot somewhere.

      Other than that…beautiful photography.

      Comment by Russ on 6/07/08 at 2:54 pm #
    3. Hey I feel you, you are more facinated by candy, than me, but only by a little bit i love candy just like you I hope you expand your collection some more because i would love to hear about it

      Comment by Me on 6/09/08 at 10:24 am #
    4. Dear Cebele,
      Thank you very much!!!
      It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,till you forwarded me the link! (and related links).
      Very specific to what I was looking for.
      You are a great help.
      Best Regards,
      Shekar

      Comment by Shekar on 3/19/10 at 12:49 pm #

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