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How I Take My Pictures
Note: This article was written when I was using a point-and-shoot camera that had a small sensor, poor low-light capabilities, and poor color accuracy. Because of the poor low-light capabilities, I had no choice but to use natural daylight from the window (since I couldn't afford expensive studio lamps). In August, 2014, I bought a much better camera that has good low-light capabilities, and I switched to photographing my beads under two daylight-balanced desk lamps. I used to think that the quality of the camera didn't matter much, but now I think the opposite. If you have an ordinary point-and-shoot camera with a small sensor, these instructions are still pretty good. However, please keep in mind that the information in this article is somewhat dated.
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I am frequently asked how I take my pictures. I have gotten a lot of praise for them, although I believe they could be better. A professional photographer wouldn't be impressed. I learned how to take pictures through trial and error. I bought a digital camera about thirteen years ago and just figured it out on my own. Most serious photographers use their camera's manual settings, and I don't do that. Although I am intelligent and I've read articles on how to use manual settings, I have never grasped the concepts of Fstops and such, so I use the camera's automatic settings with some minor adjustments.
I take all my pictures on a dinner plate. A hard, smooth background is better than cloth, I feel, if for no other reason than it doesn't trap dirt which can show up in your pictures. All you have to do is to wipe the plate off before photographing an item, and that gives you a clean surface. A smooth surface will, of course, reflect light, but that shouldn't be a problem if you have your lighting set up properly.
Your background should be white or light gray; it should not be beige or any color. If you use a white background, it will show up as gray in photos anyway. You want a neutral background for one simple reason: when fixing up your photographs, you can use the plate as a neutral reference in your photo-editing program. Many photos come out with a slight color cast, usually yellow, yellow-green or blue. In your photo-editing program, you can use the white background to tell the program "this is white" when removing the color cast.
I take almost all my pictures in natural daylight in front of a double-window that faces north (so that I get the daylight but not direct sunlight). In my old location, I sometimes used a light tent, but I found the results mostly unsatisfactory. I'll describe both procedures in this article.
Natural daylight will give you the most natural-looking pictures. I put my plate on an ironing board (because the ironing board is high) in front of a double-window, and I take the pictures in ambient daylight. Ambient daylight is the light that comes through the window which is not direct sunlight. Let's say that the sun is shining across part of the table you are working on, and let's say that there is a shadow across the table (from the window frame, for example). When taking pictures, you would position your jewelry near the window but in the shadow. That way, you will get the maximum amount of ambient daylight from the window, but you'll avoid the harshness of direct sunlight. Better yet: If you have windows that face north, take your pictures at those windows so that you don't have to avoid the direct sunlight. In direct sunlight, the beads will come out too bright and the shadows will be too dark. You should position your jewelry about a foot inside the window.
It is important to take your pictures on a bright day. All cameras take better pictures in bright light than they do in low light. You can also take your jewelry outside and take the pictures on a porch or in the shadow of your house.
Photographing your jewelry next to a window means that there will be a light reflection on each bead, the light reflection being the sky through the window; but people are accustomed to seeing reflections on their jewelry, so the reflections will look natural.
A few years ago I purchased a light tent (actually, a light "cube"). Here is the set-up that I got (the picture is from the supplier's site):
The results from the light tent have turned out to be mixed, depending on the shape of the beads. Round beads look the worst, since each bead ends up with two bright spots on it:
However, beads with unusual or complex shapes can come out looking very good:
At the window, round beads come out with one large reflection on each bead, but it looks more natural to me:
Now, it's possible that I was making a mistake when I used the light tent. I would push the lights right up to the sides of the tent, and that may have exaggerated the bright spots that appeared on the beads. If I ever use the light tent again, I will put the lights farther away to minimize the spots. Also, getting the high-powered lights may not have been necessary. Regular household bulbs are not suitable since they are too yellow. The lights must be neutral white (5000 to 5500 kelvins).
Using the cube can be a headache because you are working within its confined space. If you are photographing jewelry, you may want to keep the opening facing forward. If you are photographing beads, you'll want to photograph them from above, so the opening will have to point up. Arranging the items on a plate inside the tent is difficult. Since I photograph beads, I point the opening upwards. However, to make things easier for myself, I cut away the cloth opposite the opening. That way, I can arrange the beads on the plate and then put the cube over them.
If you decide to get a light cube, I suggest one about 12" square. If you intend to photograph from the front, larger is okay. But if you are photographing from above, 12" is the largest you should get. I got a 14" cube, and it is so deep that I have to put the plate on a stand inside the cube.
I think I've made it clear that natural daylight results in better pictures than the light tent. So why did I buy a tent? For one reason only: So I could photograph beads at night and on overcast days. In New York, where I lived until recently, bright days didn't come that often. However, circumstances in Rhode Island have made it easier for me to take photos at the window, so I've abandoned the light tent altogether.
NOTE: Since writing this article, I abandoned both the light tend and natural light. I am now photographing beads using two bare lamps with daylight-balanced light bulbs in them. Like the light tent, the bulbs leave bright spots on the beads, but the spots are small, and the overall appearance of the beads is better. I also upgraded to a "system" camera with a large sensor, and I am using it on the Aperture Priority setting. You must experiment with your camera to find the setting that makes your photos look best.
Lamp shades. A possible alternative to a light tent may be a lamp shade. Lamp shades naturally diffuse light, since that's what they are made to do. In fact, I suspect that they may diffuse light better than a light tent because they are usually made with two layers of material. If you decide to try a lampshade, be sure to get one which is pure white, since a cream-colored shade would put a yellow cast in all your pictures. It should be 10" to 12" high and be a little wider at the bottom than the top. You would have to cut out the supporting metal wires at the top. I am planning to try one myself as soon as I find one that is the right size.
You do not need a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) to take photos, although a DSLR will certainly take better photos than a point-and-shoot (PAS) camera (but not significantly so for web photography). PAS cameras have sensors the size of your pinkie nail (the sensor is the chip that actually captures the image). Let's suppose for a moment that you have a camera with a 10 megapixel (MP) sensor. Look at your pinkie nail and imagine it divided up into 10,000,000 squares pretty small, huh? Each square (or "pixel", short for "picture element") captures one dot of light in your photo. Because PAS sensors are so tiny, they bleed electricity from one pixel to the next, and that results in noise or grain in your photo. To combat that, your camera has a noise-reduction program which smoothes out the noise. However, the noise-reduction program introduces its own kinds of distortions.
The benefit of DSLRs is that their sensors are larger (about the size of an average thumb from the middle joint to the tip). As a result, DSLRs require less light to take good photos. They have less grain in their photos, and they require more gentle noise-reduction programs, so the noise-reduction programs introduce fewer distortions into the image. However, if you do your photography in bright conditions, a PAS camera will be adequate for web photography for one simple reason: All your pictures will be reduced for the web, and in the process of reducing the photos, many of the imperfections of PAS images disappear.
I used to think that any name-brand camera with 2 megapixels or more would be good enough, but I have changed my mind about that. You can't count on getting good pictures from a camera just because it has a famous brand-name. Before buying a camera, you can check out these sites for camera reviews:
The camera you get should have these features:
6 to 8 megapixels; you can go higher, but it isn't necessary
Canon probably makes the best PAS cameras, and their A-line cameras are especially good (the A-line cameras are mid-sized and have lots of features and are cheap). However, since Canon upgraded the internal processor in their cameras from Digic II to Digic III, the images from their cameras have gotten worse, in my opinion. I use a Canon Powershot A620 camera, which has 7 MP and a Digic II processor (it is no longer being made). Recommending Canon cameras has gotten harder for me recently because I am angry at them for the way they market their printers (that's another story), but their PAS cameras are still some of the best.
Even though my camera has lots of manual settings, I don't use most of them. I simply set my camera on Program Mode, Macro Mode, Flash off, and Exposure Compensation set to +2/3 or +1. Let me explain these settings:
Program mode is a mostly automatic mode, but it allows you to set individual parameters such as white balance, exposure compensation, aperture (the size of the opening of the camera's "eye") and shutter speed (how quickly the "eye" opens and closes). In other words, in Program mode the camera decides what settings to use unless you override them. For this reason, Program mode is more flexible than Automatic mode, which usually doesn't allow you to change individual settings (depending on the camera). Not all cameras have a Program mode, though many of them do. Some cameras have a Program mode but call it something else.
Macro is the setting that allows you to take close-up pictures. Each camera has a macro range, such as 3" to 18". If you hold your camera further away from the jewelry than the maximum range, then you do not need to use the Macro setting. I take most of my pictures within one foot, so I always have Macro turned on. Note: Some people advise using the zoom feature when using the Macro mode. Whether or not you should use zoom while in Macro mode depends on your camera; you should consult your camera's manual. I discuss this further below.
Exposure compensation brightens or darkens your pictures by a set amount, which you determine. Thus, if your pictures consistently come out too dark (which they may, for reasons explained in the next paragraph), then you should increase the exposure compensation to brighten your pictures. Play around with it until you get the brightness you want (the setting I used in New York was +1, but in Rhode Island I am using +2/3). Lightening your pictures later in a photo-editing program will not be as effective as getting them right at the time that you take the pictures.
Why cameras often produce dark photos: Cameras on automatic settings (such as Program or Automatic mode) will darken a picture if most of the elements in the picture are bright. That's because the camera is trying to find a balance between light and dark. Thus, if you photograph your jewelry on a white background, the white background will take up 95% of the picture, so the camera will darken the image to get an overall balance (thus causing the background to look gray and the jewelry to look dark). You'll then need exposure compensation to counteract the camera's tendency to darken your images.
One way to avoid the camera's tendency to darken pictures is to use a light-gray background, such as gray construction paper. The camera won't darken the overall picture because it is already a little dark. The jewelry, then, will look brighter because it hasn't been darkened. However, my experimentations with a gray background weren't satisfactory when photographing translucent beads. I found that the gray showed through the beads and made them look sparkly but dark. I didn't experiment with opaque beads, but they should look fine on a gray background.
White Balance is the feature that adjusts for the type of light you are using (e.g., daylight, sunlight, incandescent light, fluorescent light, tungsten light, etc.). The Canon cameras I use have a custom white balance feature which I used for a long time. When using that feature, I would point the camera at the white plate and push a button, thereby telling the camera "this is white". (You can also set custom white balance on a light gray background.) However, I recently discovered that the Auto white balance feature works fairly accurately, so I have started using that. In Auto mode, the camera determines the white balance setting for you. You should experiment with the white balance settings of your camera to see which setting is best.
Picture size or "Resolution". Chances are, you won't have to fool with this feature, but I still need to mention it. Every digital camera has more than one picture size, sometimes called Resolution. My Canon camera uses designations such as Large, Medium, Small. You can count the resolution either in dimensions (e.g., 1600 pixels by 1200 pixels) or total pixels (e.g., 2 megapixels). Generally speaking, you should take your photos at the maximum resolution, since you will be shrinking them later in your photo-editing program anyway. Tip: Most cameras give you two ways to set the resolution: (1) a Resolution or Picture Size setting, and (2) Digital Zoom. You should never use Digital Zoom.
Compression. If your camera takes pictures in the JPG format, you should set the camera for the least-possible compression. That will give you the clearest pictures. My camera has settings of Superfine, Fine and Normal, but your camera may use other terms, such as Best, Average and Worst, or High Quality, Medium Quality and Low Quality. You can compress your pictures later in your photo-editing program to make them load faster in people's web browsers.
What do I mean by "compression"? The JPG picture format is unique in that you can compress it to decrease the file size of the photo. However, the more you compress a picture, the blurrier it becomes. Compressing a JPG picture just a little bit will reduce the file size significantly, yet retain most of the picture quality. You don't want to use completely uncompressed JPG images because they will load slowly in people's browsers.
Zoom. Some people think that you have to use the zoom feature with the Macro mode, but you don't. However, if you can't get the camera close enough to your subject for a good shot (if, for example, the light cube gets in the way), you can always engage the zoom. Many cameras allow you to use the Macro mode with or without the zoom. Consult your camera's manual for more information.
Camera flash. Opaque beads can be photographed using the camera flash. Unfortunately, the camera flash puts a point of light (the flash reflection) in the middle of each bead. You can't use camera flash on beads that are clear or translucent, as that will cause them to light up like light bulbs. But on opaque beads, the camera flash often gives a sharper image than daylight does. In fact, I sometimes use camera flash instead of daylight on semi-precious beads with complex color patterns. The point of light in the middle of each bead, however, doesn't look professional.
More About Lighting and Camera Setup
Soft boxes. There are huge lights that you can buy called "soft boxes" that cast a diffused light and which are often used for jewelry. You position two or three soft boxes at different angles to your subject. However, soft boxes put big reflections on the beads. In my opinion, using diffused daylight from a window does approximately the same thing as a soft box, except that the light from the window looks more natural.
Reflectors. You can also use a spotlight with a reflecting sheet which diffuses the light, making it appear that the light is coming from more than one side. I don't know much about reflectors.
Cloud Domes. There is a product on the market called the Cloud Dome. It is a plastic dome with an opening at the top which you stick the camera in. It diffuses light to remove light reflections and dark shadows. However, it is absurdly expensive the last time I checked, a small Cloud Dome cost $200. That's a lot of money for a piece of plastic! Before you buy a Cloud Dome, I suggest you try a light tent or a a lampshade.
Frosted plastic boxes. I read on the internet that you can use a frosted plastic box to diffuse light. I tried using a frosted plastic box in conjunction with daylight and I didn't get good results. I still got the reflection from the window on the beads, but the reflection was blurry and soft and didn't look right. I discovered that it was best to have a crisp reflection on the beads.
Backgrounds. Cloth and construction paper should work well as backgrounds. I don't have any experience with them, so I can't say much.
Tripods. I have never used a tripod. If you are using enough light, the shutter of your camera should open and close quickly, thus keeping blur to a minimum. For this reason, I don't think a tripod is necessary. However, if you are getting a lot of blurry pictures, you should try one. Cheap tripods sometimes flex a little, so they don't keep the camera still, so you may have to spend more to get a very rigid one (I've never bought one, so I don't know this for sure).
Using a tripod means that your camera is always in the same position relative to your subject (the jewelry). This is good if you want all your photos taken to a uniform scale. However, it also means that you can't move your camera around to get the best shot.
Composing Your Jewelry Items.
How you lay out your jewelry in the picture is very important. If you are selling a necklace and you stretch it out full-length, then your picture will have to be very large for the buyer to see the details. It is best to curl the necklace up once or twice so that it occupies a smaller area. This allows you to take a close-up of the necklace that shows the details of the individual components. Allowing your customers to see the details is the important thing. If all your customers can see is that there is a blue bead followed by a silver bead followed by a green bead, they won't be interested. Every customer wants to see the details.
If you feel that folding the necklace up on itself doesn't show the way it will look when worn, then take two pictures: one with the necklace unfolded and one that is a close-up of a portion of the necklace showing the details.
Taking the Actual Pictures
With your camera set to Fine, Superfine or Best Quality (i.e., minimum compression), Program or Auto mode, Macro on, White Balance set to automatic, daylight, cloudy or custom (depending on which works best for you), and Exposure Compensation increased to +2/3, +1 or +1-1/3 (if necessary), start shooting. Take 10 pictures of every item, varying the position and angle of the camera slightly. You want so many pictures because some may come out blurry. It is important to keep the camera as still as possible when shooting. Many people don't realize that when they press the shutter release, they also move the camera. If you can program a delay into your camera, that may help. That way, you won't be moving when the picture is actually taken.
Miscellaneous camera tips: (1) You will probably need to buy a larger memory card than the one the camera came with. (2) If your camera doesn't have an easy method for transferring pictures to the computer (such as a USB cable or a docking station), get yourself a USB card-reader to download the pictures to your computer quickly. The card-reader will have to be able to read the kind of card that your camera uses. (3) You will save money in the long run if you get a power adapter for your camera. This way, you won't run through large numbers of batteries. Saving on batteries is good for the environment.
Using Your Photo-Editing Program
Once your pictures are downloaded to the computer, you'll need to make many adjustments to them. The purpose of the adjustments is to make the pictures look good, not to make the items look better than they are.
Compression. But first we need to talk about JPG compression some more. Just to remind you, compression reduces the size of the image file, not its dimensions. Heavily compressed pictures load faster in people's browsers, but lightly compressed pictures look much better. The more you compress a picture, the blurrier it becomes.
If you followed my instructions above, you used the least compression when taking your pictures. After fixing up the photo in your photo-editing program, you will again have an opportunity to compress the picture.
JPGs can be compressed anywhere form 1% (best image quality) to 99% (loads the fastest), but in practice no one compresses their photos more than 80% or 90%. To complicate matters, the scale used by one photo-editing program (such as Photoshop) will be different from another editing program (such as Paint Shop Pro). You need to become familiar with the scale that your program uses. Photoshop even uses two scales, one for saving photos and another for "saving to the web". It can get very complicated.
Select the best picture. Retrieve all the pictures of each jewelry item into your picture-editing program and select the one that looks the sharpest. Some digital cameras make everything look soft, but the pictures shouldn't be blurry. Blurry and soft are not the same thing. Discard the blurry pictures.
Crop the picture. The first thing you want to do is to crop the excess from around the edges. The edges of the picture should come fairly close to the jewelry.
Remove digital noise or "grain" (if necessary). If your picture looks noisy, with a lot of grainy specks, then remove the noise with the noise-removal tool. However, this isn't terribly important since much of the noise will disappear when you reduce the size of the picture later on.
Adjust the color balance (if necessary). If your picture is too yellow ("warm"), adding a little blue will correct that. If your picture is too blue ("cold"), removing a little blue will correct that. Some picture-editing programs have a Color Balance feature which you can use, but in others you will have to find the tool that allows you to adjust individual colors.
Adjust brightness and add contrast. If your picture came out a little dark or a little too light, you'll need to adjust it. Different programs have different lighten/darken features. In Paint Shop Pro, you have many options, too many to list here. The two that I use the most are the Gamma Correction and Contrast features, or the Lighten Shadows feature. In Photoshop Elements, you can use the Lighten/Darken feature or the Lighten Shadows feature (that usually works best for dark pictures). After lightening a picture, you will probably want to add some contrast to keep it from looking washed out (this is especially true in Paint Shop Pro).
Getting your picture just right can be quite difficult. Even now, four years after starting my business, I still find certain picture problematic, and I can spend a lot of time on one picture getting it right. Most pictures, however, can be adjusted quickly. You'll need to experiment with all the features of your program.
Adjust the color saturation (if necessary). Brightening and adding contrast to a picture can have the effect of exaggerating the colors, making them brighter and richer than they actually are. Also, some cameras produce pictures with overly bright or exaggerated colors. To fix that, you must decrease the Color Saturation. Not every photo-editing program has this feature. Here are some pictures from my FAQ page which show you what I'm talking about:
You may say to yourself, "The picture in the middle looks the best. Why not use that?" I agree that the picture in the middle looks best, but it doesn't match the actual beads. The picture on the right matches the actual beads, so that's the one that should be used. If the colors in your pictures are not accurate, then your customer may be disappointed when she receives the item.
Re-size the picture. Now re-size the picture to the size you want for your web page. Don't make it too small, as you want the customer to get a good look. I personally don't make any picture narrower than 450 pixels, and some are as wide as 750 pixels. It all depends on the composition of the picture. Please note that picture-editing programs have different re-sizing algorithms available. In Paint Shop Pro, use Smart Size. In Photoshop Elements, use whatever the default is.
Sharpen the picture. Once you have re-sized the picture, you will want to use your editor's Sharpen tool to make it look crisp. Even if your picture was sharp before you re-sized it, you will need to sharpen it after re-sizing it because re-sizing introduces softness. Sometimes, if the picture looked particularly soft to begin with, you may want to sharpen the picture both before and after re-sizing.
Now you are done. Use the Text tool to put any message on the picture that you want, and then save the picture as described above (as a master with maximum image quality, and then as an uploadable version with a moderate amount of compression).
There is a psychology to using high-quality close-up pictures: it makes the buyer think that the item you are selling is special. That's why I photograph all my beads closely and carefully. A strand may cost only $4, but a large, clear close-up makes it seem like it's a valuable item. I used to put several bead styles in one picture, but I don't do that any more. Each style now gets its own large photo.
In addition to using small photographs, other mistakes I have seen sellers make include using dark photographs, photographs without enough contrast, and over-compressed (blurry) photographs. There is one online beadseller which shows just a few beads for each style. The pictures must have been photographed under unusual lighting conditions because they look like paintings, not photographs, and you can't figure out exactly what you are looking at. They apparently do a big business, though I can't figure out why.
Don't put frames or bevels or anything like that around your photos. It looks amateurish.
Don't photograph your jewelry on black. Photographing bright items on black is a common practice, but it looks too stark to me. A light, neutral color is best. Neutral is the key word here. If you use pink, let it be a grayish or beige pink. Of course, using white means that you can set your Custom White Balance against the background (as described above). Gray is very somber, in my opinion, but it has the advantage of making the jewelry components look lighter (as described above). Light beige or bone-color are great backgrounds, but you can't set your Custom White Balance against them.
On your web site, use muted colors and conservative page backgrounds. A bright, complex background will compete with the jewelry for your customers' attention. (I am talking here about the background image that you use on your page, not the background behind the jewelry in the photo. This page has a beige background with thin horizontal stripes.)
Set your monitor's resolution to 800 x 600 pixels. 1024 x 768 or higher will make it hard to see the details of your photos (unless the monitor is 19" or larger). A photo that looks good at 1024 x 768 may not look as good at 800 x 600, and may look awful at 640 x 480. The blurriness that comes from excessive JPG compression tends to become invisible on monitors at high resolution (you want to see the compression when you are working on your photos). 800 x 600 is the resolution that most people use these days, I think. Along the same lines, make sure your monitor image is not over-bright or over-dark. Set it so that the picture is bright but the colors are saturated and not washed out.
Three-dimensional scanners are the "new kid on the block". Instead of photographing your item, you scan it. To me, the pictures that scanners produce are a little strange-looking. The item rests on the glass and the light moves across it, resulting in shadows that are diffuse and unnatural-looking. Scanned photos don't seem to have much contrast, so I recommend adding contrast to them in your photo-editing program. Many scanned photos also appear grayish, so you may want to lighten them. After you reduce them to a size suitable for a web page, you should sharpen them, just as you would sharpen a regular photograph. As always, make sure that when you save them, you don't over-compress them. Over-compressed photos look terrible whether they come from a camera or a scanner. Never compress more than 10%.
To read an excellent article on scanning jewelry by another author,
click on this link:
Posting Auction Pictures
Even the best picture can be ruined when you post it in an auction. If you use the auction service's picture-hosting feature (meaning that the picture is uploaded to their server and displayed from there), the auction service will invariably compress the picture and sometimes shrink its dimensions. eBay compresses and shrinks pictures, whereas Yahoo just compresses them (remember, compression makes a picture blurry). In order to prevent that, you have to host the picture on your own web site and then refer to it in the auction (so that it loads from your own web site). eBay gives you an easy way to do this, whereas Yahoo forces you to insert an HTML command in the text of your auction. You may not think that you have a web site, but you probably do. Most ISPs (internet service providers) give you a small amount of web space on their servers. You can use that space to host your auction pictures. If you need more help on this subject, please send me an email.