Friday, June 6, 2008
Candy Blog Photography
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:
1. 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).
2. 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.
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.
This 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.
Take 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
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.
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.
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.
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
TIPS TO MAKE YOUR PHOTOS EVEN BETTER
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.