the papercraft lab

Photographing Your Crafty Projects with "just" a Point & Shoot Camera, Part I


I originally wrote a four-part series of posts on tips for photographing handmade jewelry and other small items at the long-dead 1000Markets site (RIP). I've revised that series here to make it more general and include my experience photographing my Project Life layouts in 2012 with my trusty Canon S90 point and shoot camera.

Most people will tell you that the most important element of selling online is GREAT photos of your work.  It's obvious, right?  Because people can't see your item in person, pick it up, play with it, try it on or test it out, they need to rely on your photos and description to give them the full story and make them comfortable with parting with their hard-earned cash to buy it.

One of the first necklaces I made (and photographed), 2008.  Too dark and a weird background color, right?

One of the first necklaces I made (and photographed), 2008.  Too dark and a weird background color, right?

I started selling my handmade jewelry online in 2008 and photography was my biggest struggle.  I had never taken pictures of objects before, only snapshots of people, places and dogs on an occasional basis.  (Unlike the crazy life documentation thing I do now!!)

Good product photography is another skill to cultivate *and* an art. The best product photographs I've seen are works of art in themselves. Rome wasn't built in a day, so I aimed to just improve my photography enough so that it looked true to my work.  

Easier said than done.  My first photos were similar to the necklace shot above. Most of them were either washed out (thanks to the flash) or too dark or blurry. I didn't have a fancy camera, just my 3 year old tiny Canon S20 point and shoot, which I upgraded to the S90 in 2009. I didn't have the budget for a DSLR and honestly didn't have the inclination to learn how to use one.

For a while I really thought I'd never get decent photos of my projects.  But since I am a book learner, I read everything I got my hands on - online forums with other crafty folks, blog posts by folks who had "discovered the secret" to taking non-glare Project Life photos, and picking the brains of my Facebook friends who are *really* into photography.

The first MAJOR improvement to my jewelry photos was fixing my issues with lighting.  This translated well to my photos of scrapbook pages, cards and mini-albums.  Any good "object" photo needs to be well-lit.

1.  NEVER use the flash.  It is too harsh and washes out the colors on your items.  On shiny jewelry pieces and Project Life page protectors it often gives you a weird glare or a giant bright spot right in the middle.  Turn off that flash!   Now obviously, without flash, your photos are going to be darker, and maybe they are coming out way *too* dark.

This is where great lighting comes in.  Some people swear by only natural light and photograph during the day by a bright sunny window, or take their items outside for pictures.  Unfortunately, I live in the cold, grey Northwestern US which gets about 20 days of sunshine a year. In the winter it starts getting dark at 4pm. I can't rely on Mother Nature here to provide me with adequate photo conditions.

So I did a few things. 

2.  Try a homemade lightbox.  I found instructions online to make a cheap lightbox out of a cardboard box and white tissue paper. For jewelry I didn't need a very big one, so this was an easy project and the small cube I made even stores easily. You just need an Exacto knife, some clear tape, tissue and a small box.  Google it and be amazed.  For larger layouts (like 12x12) you'll need a bigger box, obviously.

The lightbox helps with your lighting because the white interior reflects the light and spreads it around.  I'm sure real photographers have a technical term for that so this is their cue to chime in.  The box will lighten up your photos just because it's white inside.  It's also a way to get that "all white" background, if you so desire.

3.  Get more light. But like I said, I can't just rely on my trusty cheapy lightbox and the ever-elusive sun, so I bought some cheap halogen desk lamps from Home Depot. Three of them, which I place on the sides and over the top of the lightbox.  I like the halogen because the light seems "whiter" than standard bulbs but you could use regular lamps with daylight bulbs or fancy lamps like an Ott-lite. My primary consideration was to find cheap, bright lamps with an adjustable head.

I take pictures in my craft room, with my small desk lamps on, as well as the overhead recessed lights.  Now I can take pictures in the dead of night and they don't look like my jewelry is lurking in a shadowy corner, like a ninja ready to attack.  

4. Experiment.  Right now I don't actually have a lightbox large enough for my 12x12 layouts, so I make do with daylight coming in from the windows in my craft room. I am lucky to have three huge windows in my space, so even on dreary days there's a fair bit of light coming in. I set up my spread on a large piece of white foamcore board on a table RIGHT up against the window. I've found that if it's too early in the morning, it's not bright enough and the photos look blue.  If it's too late in the day, there are too many shadows on my page (or it's not bright enough).  If I'm getting good results, I photograph several projects at once since I know "good light" might not be available the next time I want to do a photo session with my projects.

Here are some photos I have taken with my trusty S90 point and shoot.  Way better, right?

In my next post, I'll discuss camera settings which are available in most decent point and shoot cameras.  Heck, even the cheap one I bought for my daughter's upcoming birthday has the ability to adjust settings for better photos!  Stay tuned. 

Read Part 2 of the article here.

What change in your lighting helped you the most?

See related posts at The Papercraft Lab