This article describes the methods used for the basic setup for jewelry photography and other product photography.
Using a Copy Stand
A vertical copy stand is sometimes used for shooting prints, drawings, jewelry and other fairly flat objects. A copy stand is designed so that one has vertical movement of the camera while it faces down. There are usually fixed lights at 45 degree angles to the shooting surface. The vertical column that the camera is mounted on keeps the plane of the film parallel to the shooting surface which gives good results for very flat objects like prints, drawings and documents. A small bubble level to place on the back of the camera is useful to ensure that your film plane is in the same plane as the flat art being copied. If using a copy stand for low – relief and three – dimensional work remember that diffuse light is important in object photography and consider using diffusion screens over your lights.
While a copy stand can be useful, the drop shadow system we’re building is more flexible as it allows us to take photographs of both flat things and three – dimensional objects. However, if you have a lot of work or objects that are really flat, perhaps a copy stand would be a good way to go.
Horizontal copy sets are used for flat art that can hang on a wall. This basically consists of hanging the flat art on a wall and positioning camera and lights carefully to provide very even lighting with the camera exactly centered, level and its back parallel to the flat artwork. Often one lays out tape on the wall and floor to define a central axis line for the camera and artwork. The camera is also centered vertically on the artwork (it’s as close to the middle of the artwork as possible). Collins suggests painting the surrounding wall gray or black to help reduce glare in the image. Very even lighting with the pool of uniform light about 20% larger than the artwork is beneficial (Collins, pp 139, 140). Be aware of glare, surface texture, edges and brightness as you check your image before taking the shot. A level can be useful for both camera and artwork.
A Professional’s Drop Shadow Box
To produce a drop shadow effect, a professional photographer might use a very long wooden framework like a long rectangular crate frame, perhaps 8 to 12 feet long, and they would place the object at the front of this construction. Inside this, they might have a long piece of seamless paper that rises very gently from the front of this long rectangular space all the way to the back. The top would be covered by a diffusion Mylar® or its equivalent. It produces a wonderful drop shadow effect, but if you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of room in your studio, so such a construction is out of the question. Our compromise photo – booth system is designed to operate in a much smaller space.
Another version professionals use on a table top is to have a seamless paper background, often white or light gray, and they obtain the drop shadow effect by having the lights directed onto the object at the front of the shooting surface, leaving the upper rear portions of the seamless paper in darkness while the camera light meter reading is correctly set for the well – lit object at the front (see figure 8). Professionals also use ‘gobos,’ that is, black cardboard shapes cut and held by stands in such a way as to block and subtract light falling behind the object, thus enhancing the drop shadow effect.
A method which I like is to use a piece of seamless shooting surface paper which actually darkens smoothly from white or a light gray at the front to a dark, almost black at the top. This does a pretty good job of producing a drop shadow effect behind an object placed at the front of the shooting surface. Such paper shooting surfaces can be bought commercially or, as I do, made by using a very light, fine spatter of gray or black spray paint to progressively darken one end of the sheet of paper.
A large overhead diffuser (a soft box) is a very important lighting option for many objects, (ceramics is an example) and with appropriate use of fill cards (white reflectors to lighten areas too dark on the object) it can be an excellent solution for documentary studio photography.
Choose Neutral Backgrounds
The point of most documentary studio photography is to emphasize the object. Therefore leave out velvets, props, rocks, old boots, burlap, scenery and so on. Some professionals overdo an image, insisting it be a great ‘photograph.’ We, however, want to concentrate on the object and so in general stick to white or neutral gray backgrounds. Colored backgrounds can lead to poor images and I recommend that you stay simple for a bit before experimenting with colors, textures, scenery or reflective shooting surfaces next to your work.
The Drop Shadow Box
At this point I’d like to discuss how we can go about building a drop shadow box. The point of having one is to be able to control the light falling onto the object by a combination of a moveable roof and flaps and to have the upper rear of the shooting surface actually in shadow rather than relying on light metering to produce the drop shadow effect.
For a start, it’s good to do this in a basement (this is where I have mine), simply because you have rafters (actually floor joists) in a basement, and you can clamp lights to them above the shooting area and hang things off them and this makes life a lot easier. However, let’s say you didn’t have a basement beam above available to clamp lights onto. Then you have to build a central beam above the shooting area, which projects forwards from over the shooting surface and drop shadow box. This overhead beam is supported by a vertical one at the rear of the drop shadow box.
To reiterate: the main parts of a drop shadow box are a vertical beam at the rear of the box and a horizontal beam projecting forwards from the top of the vertical beam (onto which lights get clamped). There is a table or surface on which the object is placed. Above this shooting surface there is a flat square of stiff material which can move up and down and tilt back and forth: a roof. From three sides of this roof hang opaque cloth – like flaps. At the sides of the booth are two photofloods on light stands. Above is a third, stronger light source. All these things control the light falling onto the object from the front and the sides.
How to make the drop shadow box. We begin by taking a strut of wood for the back vertical beam, say a beam that is an inch to an inch and a half square, and we attach it, if possible, to a wall. This is at the rear of the shooting surface. We will be using this vertical beam to clamp the rear of the roof to at different heights.
If we’re not in a basement, we will also have at the very top of the vertical beam another beam, a plank of wood that extends outward over the shooting surface high enough not to get in our way as we work, and this allows us to clamp lights onto it above the shooting surface and at varying distances from the object by moving the clamp – on lights back and forth along the beam.
To make the roof we take a piece of stiff material – I like Coroplast®, which is the material that real estate people use for their signs, but you can use Foam – Core® or stiff cardboard or something like that as well. I would make mine about three feet square. This is designed so that if you create two slits into the Coroplast® at the back so as to fit onto the vertical beam, you get a small flap, and the Coroplast® can now be clamped onto the vertical beam with one of those spring clamps that you get in hardware stores that have orange plastic on the handle. The square roof sheet can now move up and down the beam very smoothly, be fixed in place, and because it’s on a flap at the back it works like a hinge and the front end can pivot up and down as well.
We can now take some fishing line or string and attach it to the front of our square roof, run this fishing line or string over the horizontal beam above and back down again. The string is clamped with a hemostat (a hemostat is what they use in operations to quickly clamp blood vessels with. When they use them they’re only good for one use, so if you know anyone who works in a hospital or in an operating room, they can usually get you hemostats fairly easily). Shops like Radio Shack also stock them. The advantage of using the hemostat is that it’s a quick clamping device, so that in an instant, I can pull on the cord, raise the front of the roof sheet up or let it down to allow more or less light in, and reclamp the cord rapidly in order to keep the roof sheet in place. We now have a roof, which can move easily up and down, which can pivot up and down from the back allowing the front or the back to tilt. This allows light to fall in and past the roof onto the shooting surface beneath it. I like to have the inside of the roof white as a reflector above the object on the shooting surface.
We now take black plastic garbage bags or black cloth and cut them with scissors to create three flaps that hang off the back and the two sides of the roof sheet. These are probably attached with duct tape or gaffer tape – the photographer’s friend (duct tape is a poor imitation of the photo professional’s gaffer tape). Each flap is independent and separate from the others: there’s one hanging from the back, and there’s one on each side of the roof sheet. Because they’re a flexible fabric – like material, they can be lifted up, tucked over out of the way to let light in from the sides, or they can hang down. Most of the time all three of them hang down in place. What we are beginning to construct is ways of letting light in or keeping it out from under the roof sheet. Our construction now: the whole roof can move up and down to let more or less light in, the roof can be tilted up or down at the front easily for the same reason and the sides can be lifted up or down, again to control the light.
Now, we need some sort of a base that we’re going to be placing objects on. You can use a small table (one can sometimes use a cardboard box) and this sits underneath the roof. This ‘table’ is similar in size to the roof but comes out a little in front of it.
I suggest a shelf just below the level of the shooting surface at the front. This shelf is a place, among other things, for mirrors to be positioned. The shelf should not be wider than about 3″ (7.5 cm) because then it can interfere with camera positioning for very close – up shots of pieces on the shooting surface.
The height of the shooting surface is interesting, because I like to make it at kneeling height, that is, when I am kneeling the camera viewfinder is at a comfortable height for me to look through at the object on the shooting surface. I put a foam hiking pad on the floor, and when I kneel on it that gives me a good height to work at. The reason for this is that there are times when you wish to have a very high vertical view of an object, and if your drop shadow system is any higher than kneeling height you can’t extend the tripod high enough to get the shot you need, whereas if you start at kneeling height, you have a lot more leeway in your angles and how far off the surface you can come to take pictures, thus the fairly low height from the floor. Because your kneeling height will be different than mine I won’t give an exact measurement for this.
I might suggests extenders of some kind at each side of the shooting surface. These extenders come out diagonally on each side of you as you take the photograph. Ones like these are part of my own photo – booth and are inclined upwards slightly so that the mirrors can sit on them in ranked heights so as to better modulate the light that is happening inside the box.
The Shooting Surface
At this point, we now need a shooting surface. I like to use charcoal gray paper which can be purchased at most art supply stores. This is relatively inexpensive and it’s a nice neutral tone. This is attached at the far interior side of the roof with duct tape, and it falls down towards the front in a smooth, even swoop. I often take black spray paint, and I will spray paint the far end of that charcoal gray paper from a distance so the paint lands in light speckles and it physically, actually gets darker towards the top inside the box. One can buy seamless paper at a photo shop fairly inexpensively in various widths and all kinds of colors. I suggest sticking with gray until you have some experience. It is simplest, easiest and works well. Our object will sit near the front of it on the shooting surface formed by the paper.
Other Types of Shooting Surfaces
Once you have some experience you may wish to consider other materials for your backdrop. Many photographers use plain white paper, and they modulate what you see by observing very carefully what’s happening with the light, metering and setting the exposure for a strong lighting level on the object and thus controlling it, so that you might at the first glance at a slide of an object on white think you were actually seeing it on a light gray surface.
We can get Color – Aid® paper which is an extremely expensive clay – coated paper that comes in five hundred different colors and full tonal bleeds across a sheet – from dark to light in a single shade of color. They are clay – coated – that is if you breathe on them wrongly they scratch and you’ve just lost thirty dollars – but they’re really nice papers for a shooting surface.
Some professionals will use linoleum, because linoleum can easily be repainted rapidly to produce different colors. Again, for our compromise box, we don’t want to have to do any work; we just want to walk in and put items in and take a picture. Again, I like charcoal gray paper, and that’s what I recommend. You can experiment with different shooting surfaces: tile, plastic surfaces of different kinds such as black Plexiglas (Perspex). This can be particularly good because of its black reflections. Formica – type kitchen counter materials can also be used.
When I started out I took photographs on black velvet (ooh – dust shows up) inside a light tent on a vertical copy stand which does make the colors of the object stand out in a very dramatic, lovely manner. However some photographers and magazine editors hate shots on black velvet because they feel the object is floating in space and has no connection to the earth. Basically I think it is now seen as a little old – fashioned and the drop shadow effect we are trying for in this book has superseded black velvet as a ‘standard’ shot type for reproduction. Because it is now a rare type of background this means that there is a place for black velvet and you might want to try it sometime and see what you think. Meltzer really likes it and uses black flocked background paper from photo stores. He does not recommend it for dark colored objects, instead for lighter objects and bright colors. To get the proper light reading lean the camera forwards to take the reading with the object filling the viewfinder or use a gray card (Meltzer, p 54 – 55).
Sometimes I will have to photograph a person’s torso and head wearing a necklace or a hat. I will buy old movie projection screens at the flea market, spray paint them with a light gray speckle and use them as a background surface for this. They cost about $5.00 and if they break the tripod portion can still serve as a light stand.