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Photography workshop - day 4

Discussion in 'Photography Workshop 2005 by Connie' started by connie, Jul 28, 2005.

  1. connie

    connie Alumni

    Today we’re going to talk abut common photography problems. I’m focusing on photographing black items and red items as these seem to give people the most problems. If you have a photography question that I don’t address, please post it. I’m here to help. Let me first say this: photographing black items is difficult for everyone. There is no easy solution. I personally avoid buying black items becuase I know that they just don’t show well online. Still, there are ways to get decent pictures of even the most difficult items.

    I’m going to start with a short explanation of how your camera reads light. Remember what I was saying that your camera isn’t nearly as sensitive as the human eye? Where here is where that comes into play. When you are looking at a black dress, your iris is constantly expanding and contracting in order for you to really see all the details. It happens so quickly and automatically, you don’t even realize what is going on. All you know is that you look at that dress and you can make out all the details, texture, etc. The light meter on your camera does not have that advantage. Because you are taking a still photo, you only have one exposure at a time. Your camera can’t give you different exposures for different areas.

    Your cameras light meter actually only sees the middle area of the grey range. It doesn’t take into account, very white whites or very black blacks. (It doesn’t see color at all but we’ll get into that later today.) What your camera does is look at an area in the center of the image - generally about the center half - and figures out how to make it into a middle grey. What this means is that if you are photographing a big white wedding dress, it will try to darken the image and if you are photographing black dress, it will try and lighten the image.

    The easiest way to get a correct exposure is to use a gray card. This is simply a piece of cardboard, generally about 8x10 or 11x14, that is printed at the exact medium grey that your camera is looking for. You can buy these at any camera store. Lots of camera books will include one that you can pull out and use. What you do is set that card right in the middle of your picture plane (the center of your picture) and let the camera take a reading off that. Lock the exposure, take the card away and take your picture. You should now have a correctly exposed photo. This works very well for white items. If you have a camera with automatic settings, you can also use the beach/snow button to get this same effect for white items.

    Black items have other issues to deal with. Often a “corrrect” exposure will leave you with a very dark item where you can’t make out any details. I’ll get into that next.

    There are different ways to deal with black. The first thing I would suggest is, when photographing black, if you are having trouble getting the black to show as really black and still getting the details, show several different exposures. Although I’m not totally happy with these photos for other reasons, you can see here what I do:
    I showed one picture with the true color and the rest were lightened to show details.

    I don’t reccommend shooting black items on a white background. What you get is a dark silhouette. If you even use a slightly tinted background it makes all the difference. Check out this picture:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/dresses/D830063B.jpg>
    What you see is that the black shows up fine against the beige backdrop. You can tell that it is a black item but you can still make out the folds in the skirt and the slightly shiney texture of the fabric. You’ll notice though that my white mannequin has totally washed out.

    I want to put another sample here for you. First is a good picture of black on white:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day2wallbg1.jpg>
    Again this is VFG member Denisebrain. You'll notice how the lighting in this pictures is very soft, a real key to getting good pictures of black items. It appears that she has lighting coming from both sides as well. The result is a professional looking picture.

    Next is a photo I shot:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/dresses/D810049F.jpg>
    I was forced to take this picture against the back wall of my studio and it just didn't work out. First, the background is just too white. The contrast between the black and the white is too extreme and you can't make out any details in either the highlights or the shadows. Also, the sunlight was shining right on the front of the dress, again flattening out any details. If I were to take this picture over again I'd make sure that I did it in front of a darker background and with my light to the side of the item.

    I generally don’t recommend photographing black items on a black background but sometimes it works out well. This hat for instance looks great. You can see the texture very nicely and you still know that it is a black item.
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/dresses/E622043F.jpg>

    Black is one instance where photographing outside can really work well. Nice bright sunlight really shows the details that sometimes get lost indoors. If you have a very shiny black item (satin or rayon/silk velvet) photographing outdoors to get the sunlight and then using a flash to catch the shine can work well.

    Check out this great example from VFG member Patentleathershoes (www.kitschnsinkvintage.com)

    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/blackoutdoorflash.jpg>
    This is a wonderful example of flash photography and natural light. If you've been reading the past few days you know that I'm not a big fan of pop-up flashes. They have their uses, especially if you're taking family photo, party pictures, etc. When you use them for taking pictures of clothing though, they are a real mark of an amateur. There are some exceptions though and this is one. When used in an outdoor situation, where the light is already bright, and you just need to highlight the details, they do the job.

    Personally I prefer the top two photos here. You really get the rich blue black of the hat fabric. If I were thinking about buying this hat though, I'd really appreciate the bottom picture as I can make out the details so well. This is another case where several pictures with different exposures really show the hat to its advantage. Certainly better that any one of those pictures alone.

    Coming up next - more about taking pictures of black items
  2. Coutureallure

    Coutureallure Alumni

    This is not red or black, but shiny. How do you deal with the lights bouncing off something like this vinyl raincoat? I also often have problems photographing rhinestones and pearls, especially if they are against black.

    <img src="http://members.sparedollar.com/jls502/728-003.jpg">
  3. connie

    connie Alumni

    Well if you've got shiney or sparkley things, you want to have some reflections. That just shows off the texture. Your raincoat example is actually a pretty good photo. The only thing I might critique is that there is a "hot" spot on the pocket. You'd have to move the light around a bit so that it doesn't shine directly on that area.

    I do A LOT of photography of shiney objects. The art (boxes) I make have lots of glass and mirrors in them. What I've found works best is to not have the light shining directly on the piece. Because I work with natural light from a big window, I often put a piece of black mat board between the box and the window so that the light doesn't fall directly on the piece.

    Sometimes, I do the opposite of using reflectors. With a reflector, you are taking a shiney or white object to bounce light onto the dark side of an object. What I'll do is, while I'm looking at the LCD display on my camera, I'll take a piece of black mat board and move it arount on the dark side of the object. I'll move it until most of the reflections are gone.

    Here are a couple of examples:
    <img src=http://www.connietoebe.com/photos/underwaterint.jpg>

    <img src=http://www.connietoebe.com/photos/underwaterext.jpg>

    This was a particularly difficult box to photograph. Not only did it have textured glass on the front but all the objects in the interior are printed on clear film which is also shiney. There are still some reflections but all in all, not too bad. Notice how soft, even dim the light appears. These were taken about a foot away from a window on a sunny day. I used both the techniques I mentioned above to get these photos.

  4. connie

    connie Alumni

    If you have to work indoors, I actually recommend a medium or medium dark backdrop. (I still have to get one myself!) You’ll want to play around with lighting one side of the item and using a reflector or second light on the other side. A single light source generally leaves the shadows just too dark. A reflector will give you just enough detail in the shadow that you can see what is going on. This is one of those times that having a second person to help out is really, really handy. I rarely have that second person and I think my own photos of black items suffer for it.

    Here is an example of a photo that could use a little help:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/dresses/E606040F2.jpg>
    Now I lightened this up a little (notice how my mannequin's arms glow) but it's not too bad. Still, if I had had a slightly lighter backdrop, it would have helped the skirt to stick out a bit. As it is, it blends into the background more than I would like.

    Here is a nice example from VFG member Pinky-A-GoGo:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4goodblack.jpg>
    She solved "my" problem with the dark backdrop by whiting out the background, postproduction.

    Here is another good example, this time another one from Contentmentfarmantiques:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4goodblack2.jpg>

    This one appears to have its original background but notice that isn't a pure, glaring white. It is still light enough though that there is nice diffentiation between the subject and the background. Also, the lighting is very soft. You can see shadows and highlights but none are too glaring or too dark.

    If you’re using a darker backdrop, one other thing that you can do is put one light and reflector on your item and a second light on the background. You’ll have to have the item at least 2-3 feet in front of the backdrop. The light on the dark backdrop will lighten it just enough so that the shadow areas of the item don’t blend into the background. This is a trick professionals use all the time. If you have the space to do it it will make for VERY nice photos.

    I don't have a good example of this but this Contentmentfarmantiques dress is pretty close:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4goodblack3.jpg>
    Notice how the backdrop, especially up by the shoulders and torso, seems to glow a bit.

    So just to reiterate, when your photographing dark clothing, you want to have both highlights - to show texture - and shadows - that are dark enough to show the color of the item but with some detail so it doesn't look like a dark blob. The best way to do this is to use soft, indirect lighting. In general a medium shade of backdrop is best. If the background is too light you often end up with a silhouette, too dark and you can't see where the dress ends and the backdrop begins.

    In order to make sure the exposure settings on your camera aren't fooled, use a grey card or (if you are good with f-stops and shutter speeds) set the exposure yourself.

    If you have any other questions about photographing black items just let me know. In the meantime, coming up next, photographing red.
  5. Thank you for presenting this info, Connie. I know that the actual fabric content plays a difference too as you have illustrated. Sometimes i am caught between "wanting to take a really good photo" and remembering that someone wants to see more than that because they are buying the item.

    i also have a dilemma of photographing sparkly, sequinced items and the sparkle ends up looking like whtie dots and something is wrong or its fuzzy. i will have to look to find some examples

  6. connie

    connie Alumni

    Now, onto photographing red items. If you’ve ever had to photograph a big solid red item, you know how difficult it can be. Details tend to get washed out and often the focus is off. There is an honest scientific reason for this. It has to do with lightwaves. All light is in the form of waves, going from the shortest , purple, to the longest, red. It is the length of the red lightwaves that causes the problems. The focal point of red lightwaves is actually in a slightly different spot than for the rest of the spectrum.

    VFG member TheVintagePeddlar (www.vintagepeddlar.com) graciously let me use her picture here:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4reddress.jpg>
    The lighting and color of this picture are right on, but notice how although the neck of the mannequin is in focus, the dress is slightly blurry. This is due to the longer lightwaves.

    A second thing to remember is that your light meter only sees only in shades of grey. When you point your camera at a red item, it actually sees a dark grey one. The details tend to get washed out because whereas we see a very bright, hot item, the camera sees something that is very dark. It tries to lighten the whole image, softening the contrast in the process. It tries to focus on that dark grey item but because the focal point of red is a bit off, you often end up with a slightly blurry item.

    VFG member Pinky-A-GoGo let me use this picture of a red dress:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/redodetail.jpg>
    This is a good example of a camera meter reading the red as dark grey/black and so lightening and flattening the contrast.

    Compare the last two photos with these next two. Although they are all of red items, these next two both have significant areas of different color allowing the camera to focus and set the exposure properly.

    First, a good picture by Pinky-A-GoGo:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4goodred1.jpg>

    And another example, this time by VFG member www.VintageGrace.com:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4goodred2.jpg>

    The first thing to do if you are having these problems is set the focus manually. If you are having trouble with the focus or you don’t have a manual focus on your camera, put a small card on the front of your item. A grey card is ideal but a post card will work fine, you just want something that is stiff and has sharp edges. You’ll want it RIGHT on the item you are photographing - you can tape or use a paper clip. Set your camera to the smallest f/stop that you can so that the depth of field is as large as possible. Then, focus on the sharp edges of the card. Take the card away and snap away.

    Here is a before and after I snapped for you this morning of a red satin 40's dressing gown. First is with my camera's autofocus:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4auto1.jpg>

    And next, I focused manually:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4manual1.jpg>

    The difference is even more pronounced in these closeups.
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4redauto2.jpg>

    Manual focus:
    <img src=http://www.cosmiccatvintage.com/web-data/Components/photoworkshop/day4manual2.jpg>

    Since the camera is reading red as a very dark grey (or even black if the item is dark enough) you’ll want to use some of the lighting and backdrop tricks that I recommend for black items. If you do these two things, you should end up with red clothes that are in sharp focus and where the details show.

    That's basically it for red and black clothes. If anyone has any question about anything I've talked about the past few days, ask away. I'll be popping on the computer all evening.

    Tomorrw I'm going to talk a little about how to use Photoshop. Because there is just so much Photoshop can do, I'm going to try and focus on answering your questions. I have a couple to start with but I'll rely on you to keep me busy:P

  7. What if you have an autofocus camera and can't alter it. Other than of course, focusing on a different part of the item to use as your point of focus?


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