Category: Photo tips

Photographing Artwork

It’s important for artists to get excellent and accurate photos of their finished pieces for their websites or portfolios. DCP board member and fine arts painter Jo Mattison shares her journey into photography as a means of documenting her paintings.

Photography has been an interest of mine since childhood. When I was very young, I had to have the latest camera on hand and lots of film. In high school, I was the unofficial photographer for the yearbook. Lots of my photos made the books my junior and senior years. Then I went to college and studied art, painting in particular, but not photography. Sigh.

Several years ago, as my inventory of paintings grew, I got really tired of having photographers come to my studio or me dragging my large paintings to them. But art has to be photographed! And it has to be done right in order for the pieces to look great on a website, a brochure or business cards. Also, pictures have to be the correct file sizes for the different shows you enter. And the color has to be right. The last thing you want is for someone to see one of your paintings online and then when they see it in person, it looks different to them. This happened to me once. I lost a sale. So far, it has not happened again.

Jo Mattison in her Dallas art studio

When I decided to take matters into my own hands and photograph my art myself, I went to Competitive Cameras in Dallas and bought the equipment they recommended. I got an entry level DSLR camera, a tripod and strobe lights. Then I worked with someone at Dallas Center for Photography to learn how to setup the strobe lights correctly distanced between each other and from the piece of art. You can place a pencil perpendicular to the surface of the painting to make sure the lighting falls equally onto the surface from both lights. Proper lighting is extremely important. I have heard some artists take their artwork outside and use natural light but that is very unreliable and the color can shift. Strobe lights are consistent; and once you have your setup tuned, your photos will come out the same every time.

Proper art photography starts with everything being square and level. Start by measuring the distance of the middle of the art to the floor. Place the center of the lights at the same height as the center of the art.

 

Place the center of the lens at that same height as the center of the art.

I ended up with a pair of Versalight 360 monolights by JTL which give me plenty of power and are easy to use. With your lights set up, put your DSLR on a tripod and get your camera settings right. If you don’t have a handheld flash meter (which I don’t), this sometimes takes trial and error. First, put your camera on manual mode and make sure your ISO is not on auto. I usually put my ISO on 100 or 200. The shutter speed should be set to 1/125 because any faster and you can end up with shadows of the actual shutter blades; slower and you end up mixing in the ambient light. I set my aperture at around f11 which gets rid of vignetting and is sharp edge to edge. As you approach the bigger f-stop settings of 16 and 22, you can start to get diffraction limiting which basically just makes the whole photo fuzzy. I take several shots and adjust the strobe power as needed. 

I make some large paintings that have a clear glossy coating on them. To avoid a glare on the photos from the gloss coat, I use a polarizing filter on my camera and a large plastic polarized sheet on the front of each of the strobe lights. I ordered 17”x 20” Rosco linear polarizing filter sheets from B&H Photo. It is very important to have the polarizers lined up the same on each light in terms of polarizing direction. The polarizer on your lens has to be lined up in the opposite orientation. It just takes a little trial and error, but it works like a charm and you end up with no glare or you can dial the filter on the camera a little to allow for a little bit of glare which can show depth to the surface of the painting. 

Detail of the polarizing sheets taped over the strobe soft boxes. Orient the polarization axis of the camera filter at right angles to the light polarizers.

It is important for your monitor to be properly calibrated, so when you’re editing in Lightroom or Photoshop you know that you’re seeing the right colors. A good color checker is Datacolor Spydercheckr. Then you need to calibrate the camera using the Xrite Passport system. It’s a small test card with multiple colors that are industry standard. By plugging the software into Lightroom you can be sure that all colors are represented properly, especially those challenging hues like blue/green and burgundy. You can get these tools on Amazon, B&H, or at your local camera store. There are lots of YouTube videos that show you how to use them.

Jo working in Lightroom to finalize her image.

When I get several shots that look good, I download them into Lightroom. I took classes on Lightroom so I could get the hang of it. And it’s so worth it! In Lightroom you can adjust the exposure, contrast, texture, hue, vibrance, tint, etc. Even though the Xrite Passport gives you the best color possible, there are often pigment colors on a canvas that just don’t translate properly to the more limited palette of a computer screen. You can make sure the colors in your art work are correct so that you don’t misrepresent the work on your website and social media. Also, you can make the file size of your picture whatever you need it to be for the situation. That is, small for quick downloading on certain sites, or larger for publication, etc. Lightroom is a must-have tool for showing your art accurately online or in print.

Since I bought the camera and lighting equipment to photograph my art, I have gotten the photography bug again! Now I also use my camera to have fun, and it has become my other art! I have taken several photography classes and workshops and even started learning Photoshop! There is a whole other world out there for artistic pursuit in photography. I am having a ton of fun learning and creating art that is different from painting. I enter contests occasionally and I don’t worry about selling my photographs. Ahhhhh!

Jo Mattison

Instagram: @jmattison

Website: www.jomattison.com

How to shoot the full moon

Anytime there is a full moon I encourage you to go out and shoot at sunset and beyond. At full moon the moonrise and sunset happen together so you’ll get the huge glowing orb of the moon just above the horizon while the foreground will still be lit by the dusk of the fading sun.

Use a tripod and a remote release if you have one. If you don’t have a remote, use the self timer to help the camera settle down before the exposure. Experiment with different White Balance settings on your cameras. If you’re shooting raw you can play with white balance later in software. On some cameras there will be a dedicated WB button. On many Nikons you get to the WB setting by pressing the “i” button twice on the back. That gets you into the “Info” display which lets you set a lot of the most important functions on your camera without having to dive into the menus, where you could be lost for hours. On many Canons the equivalent button is “Q” which stands for “Quickset”.

Look on the left side of your lens. Most of you will have a button that either says VR (Vibration Reduction on Nikon) or IS (Image Stabilization on Canon). Turn that to the OFF position when you’re on a tripod. It sounds weird, but leaving it on will actually cause your images to be blurred. The VR/IS system is trying to neutralize vibration in the camera and when it’s on a tripod and nice and stable, the vibration of the shutter itself will “wake up” the VR/IS system and cause image blur. **Remember to turn it back ON when you’re through shooting for the night.

For exposure mode, if you’re still new to DSLR cameras I would try the P or Program mode. It will work well when the moon is low on the horizon and there is still color in the sky. Don’t use the full Auto mode or the flash will keep popping up. When the moon gets a little higher and the foreground is darker then the auto modes won’t work very well any more. The metering system will be confused by all of the dark sky and you’ll get a blank white circle for the moon with no features. If you’re a little more advanced then try the M (Manual) exposure mode, adjusting aperture and shutter speed until the metering marker is in the middle. Try a shot, then adjust to get the look you want. This would be a good time to play with Spot Metering as well. Put the metering spot right on the moon and use that exposure.

Here’s a good discussion on the topic from one of my favorite photo websites: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/forums/thread24905.htm

Have fun. If you get something good we’d love to see it.

Here is a nice shot from Michelle Thoma who tried this out during another full moon.

michelle-thorma-full-moon-dallas-center-for-photography

The Mirror Tip from a Corporate Photographer

Steve Foxall is a well-known commercial and corporate photographer in Dallas. He shares studio space at DCP and we often see him packing and unpacking from location jobs. Recently he was loading up one of his bags and I noticed an interesting piece of gear and asked him about it:

Once I get my subjects on the set, I found that the most important thing is to be able to show them how they look and this is where the mirror comes into play. I actually have 3 different mirrors and they all cost 99 cents from the Dollar Store. One of them has a very fancy surround on it and it’s a good ice-breaker because it reminds me of the mirror that Amy Farah Fowler would use in The Big Bang Theory.  Another one has a red surround on it and the third one has a black surround with cracked glass.

I’ve kept the cracked one for the really stiff corporate clients who are going to say “Oh, the black one is actually cracked” and wonder why I’ve kept it!  It can also break the ice. The person will tell me that they are going to break the mirror and I’ve given them a broken mirror already.  It’s basically the most important thing because they can see the position of their hair and make little corrections to it. 

Photographing People

The question I get most often is “How do you handle shooting people? Should I ask permission or just take the picture?” This is a tough one and depends on so many things. In a public space like a street, square, festival or park I think it’s usually OK to shoot people without asking, up to the point where you are getting into their space or shooting something that might be embarrassing. This would depend a lot on local culture and norms. It might be much more acceptable in a European country, for example, than in a Middle Eastern country. Also be sensitive to the camera fatigue that many people must have when tourists and travelers find them interesting and shoot them all day long.

Sometimes you just have to be a little sneaky. One of the things I like about the newer mirrorless cameras is that many of them have a truly silent mode. The camera makes no noise at all which makes shooting unobtrusively so much easier. The flip screen on many cameras helps even more, allowing you to keep your eyes off the camera. I frequently line up the shot and then look in another direction, using my peripheral vision to wait for a good arrangement of elements before pushing the button.

The safest thing is to ask permission and then live with the answer. One thing I am against in almost all cases is paying money to shoot someone on the street unless they are a performer or you are on an organized trip and know that tipping is part of the deal. Paying people for pictures just perpetuates an unhealthy relationship between traveler and resident that dehumanizes both. Just my opinion.

Large public events are, of course, great places to photograph people. Not so much for the front-facing parades and shows, but for the behind the scenes chaos and moments that happen whenever that many people are in one place. The last photo below of a family unwinding after the official ceremonies was shot in Oslo during Norway’s National Day. There are so many cameras around those kind of events which gives the more serious photographer (you!) more freedom to shoot what looks interesting.

Tips for Entering Photo Contests from a Serial Submitter

Photo contests and juried competitions are a big part of the photographic community. Longtime DCP client Jill Jordan has navigated this scene and has had her work selected for several competitions. We asked her to share some tips on why it’s important to participate and how to hedge the odds in your favor:

There comes a time where a photographer asks, should I enter a contest? As an amateur photographer myself I get much pleasure out of making the best image I can given the lighting, situation, and setting. Dallas Center for Photography has made me a better photographer through workshops and teaching me to become my own worst critic. I get great enjoyment when I have created an image that is well composed with interesting subjects. Sometimes self-satisfaction is not enough. Posting my images to Instagram allows me to share more broadly. I get “likes” from various people whose motivation or understanding of photography is unknown. Contests can provide a sense of achievement when an image is selected by a known professional photographer with the added benefit of providing motivation to continue to improve skills. However, there are things to consider when entering a contest.

This image was the first one I got accepted into an exhibit. After spending a summer in the cool, isolating North Carolina mountains, I was eager to go shooting so I attended the Texas State Fair. I felt like I was melting in the heat and found I wasn’t alone. This poor steer handler was having trouble keeping the sweat out of his face. Clearly the steer wasn’t fazed.

The world of contests is seemingly endless these days. There are some local contests as well as international contests to enter. Using Google is a good place to find one. Nearly all contests charge a fee to submit anywhere from 1 to 5 images. The typical fee is currently is around $35. Contests will post the theme and a biography of the juror. Themes will vary from portraits to wildlife to landscape to street photography to black and white to… the list goes on. Often a small number of winners are selected along with a limited number of honorable mentions. Most, but not all, contests offer cash prizes. Selected images are then displayed in a physical exhibition for a period of 3-4 weeks.

Prior to entering a contest, I have found it helpful to do some research on the juror and their style. I will also review previous contest selections to see the types of images that have been selected. Things to look for are contests that favor more artistic photography versus documentary. Enter which best suits your craft and stick with the theme. Particular attention should be paid to the requirements for file naming and file size to assure your images will be accepted.

I’d noticed a large number of birds roosting in trees so I set out at sunrise to make my image. Suddenly they flew out together and I captured them in flight above the power lines. The clouds above added more layers and I received a second place award for it.

One of a juror’s responsibilities is to choose images that not only relate to the named theme but also complement each other while providing different styles. This is important when the images are displayed in a gallery to assure a cohesive experience for the viewers of the show. There are many fantastic images that don’t get selected because they just don’t fit in.

If your image is chosen, you will be notified by email. Each contest will have its own requirements for receiving the final print. Some will print your image for you for a cost. Some will frame your image in temporary frame for you while others will require you to send a framed image. All will have a short but sufficient time period to assure your print can arrive on time. Understanding these requirements and being prepared will ease the stress. Then comes the fun. You will be invited to the show opening at the gallery. If possible, I encourage you to attend. It is a great opportunity to tell the story behind your image to many interested people, and to meet the juror and other fellow photographers. Finally, of course, you will feel proud of work that undoubtedly was the result of your technical knowledge and creativity.

As part of a Sam Abell workshop assignment I had to find interesting images to make. I found this outside of a hair salon. The loving moment between the woman and her dog was the perfect gesture to capture. However this image was not accepted in a contest.

Should your image not be chosen, do not let it stop you from entering more. There can be hundreds or thousands of worthy entries. I’ve been fortunate to be chosen for some but not for others. When I’m not chosen, I just move on to the next contest. If you are thinking of entering a contest, I highly encourage you. If you’re not sure, I suggest giving it a try. Asking other photographers for help in choosing images can be helpful. Just give it a “shot” and you may be surprised to find yourself standing in front of your print in a gallery on opening night!

Jill Jordan

Instagram: @jilljordanimagery

You can also view her work in our Client Gallery here.

Slow Down

One of the best ways to get better travel photos and enhance your own trip is to give your photography time.

If you’re in a hurry you’ll miss out on the time-stretching experience of having your camera on a tripod, just waiting for the nice light. Or framing up a side street and waiting for something interesting to happen. This is what National Geographic photographer Sam Abell calls “compose and wait”. It’s something that takes practice but can make a big difference in the quality and energy of your photos.

I framed up the sign and stairs and waited for some people to come up out of the Metro. I didn’t expect what looks like a choreographed move from a boy band video!

The real gift is that even if you don’t get a good shot every time, you’ve stopped and noticed what’s happening in that foreign place, even if it’s just photographing a row of shopping carts in a Walmart parking lot in Reno.

Booksellers on the Left Bank in Paris. I was waiting for the other pedestrian traffic to clear to get a shot of this perfectly styled shopper. As I did, I noticed the other photographer off to my right with a D810 and a 70-200mm lens. Then I heard her giving directions to the woman in the red dress. It was a setup, which would explain the picture perfect outfit!

Digital Photos to Printed Photo Books

Past DCP staff member KC Frost shares with us her love of creating photo books:

I have been interested in cameras for as long as I can remember, probably because my dad always had his camera around his neck on most occasions while I was growing up. I remember dropping off the film with him at the local photo store and the anticipation of picking it up 24 hours later. Fast forward 20 years and I now have a digital camera of my own that accompanies me on my trips and on special occasions. I would call myself an amateur photographer who loves to capture memories.

When I am spending time with friends and want to share photos from a trip, it kills me to open my iPhone and search for the photos. Let’s be honest, it’s hard not to open the notification at the top of the screen while searching for the perfect photo that you think you remember taking sometime between January and May of 2013. Plus, it takes away time with loved ones! Besides, that little iPhone screen does not do justice to the large elephant who charged our safari vehicle on a recent trip to South Africa. I found myself overwhelmed with the 25,000 photos (and counting) available at my fingers tips, so I started making photo books that we keep on our coffee table and on our bookshelf.

Creating my first digital photo book for print reminded me of the mid-90s when scrap-booking was all the rage. Now the process is better because I like for things to be straight and pictures perfectly aligned which can be accomplished quickly on a computer.

A few tips for your photo book:

When I am on the plane home from a trip, I start going through the photos and picking my favorites. If a picture sparks a memory or brings a smile to my face, I put it in the ‘to be considered’ folder. After a few days of being home, I revisit the folder and start to be selective of the best photos that capture my storyline and what I want to remember.

Captions are your friend! While events are fresh in your mind, write captions that will jog your memory years down the road. In my first couple of photo books, I thought I would remember the details — the name of an island we were on and the name of the restaurant — but it was difficult without making notes soon after the experience. Looking back a few years later, I wish I had written down those details.

Somewhere in the Caribbean…. I wish I had captioned this.

Have fun with it! With so many pre-made formats available, you can drag and drop your photos and find the right combination to show off your adventure.

Let your personality show when you are in front of the camera. Those are the pictures that will spark the most memories when you look back on them.

You can use online services like Shutterfly, Snapfish or Blurb. Lightroom has a Blurb module built in which makes layout easy and lets you edit the photos once they are placed. Sometimes two photos that look good separately don’t look so good next to each other. Being able to click over to the Develop module and make adjustments is fast and easy. I personally love creating small series of photos. Maybe it’s of my husband and I trying to pull off the perfect jumping photo or a lion cub yawning in sequence. I also love having my strongest photos stand alone and make a statement. Lay-flat books are great for this exact reason!

The feeling of flipping through the pages of your finished book is rewarding and powerful. Call me old-fashioned but the element of having your photos being printed on the pages of a book bring the story to life which can’t be replicated the same way on a digital screen. Printing images is a part of digital photography that many people have abandoned and need to reconsider. The pages of a photo book make the experience real for family and friends to enjoy. Photo books also make the best gifts for family and friends. Take as little as 10-15 pictures from an experience you shared with someone and create a book to give as a gift. It is something that they will treasure for years to come.

Data Backup on the Road

Data on an SD or CF memory card is pretty safe. If you won’t be traveling long you could just take enough cards to handle the number of photos you’ll shoot and download them when you come back. Memory cards are cheap and don’t crash often, but they are pretty easy to lose. I’m not a fan of huge capacity cards for two reasons. If one does get corrupted you run the risk of losing all your photos. The more important reason is that if you’re shooting on a card that holds thousands of photos, you’re likely to make it through a whole week or trip before you fill one up. That means that your camera, which is the likeliest thing to get stolen that you’re carrying with you, has all your precious photo memories in it. If your camera is lost or stolen the pictures go with it. I prefer to have several cards of smaller capacity and leave the extra cards in the hotel room in plain sight. If they’re tucked away in your camera bag they are likely to be stolen along with everything else. A little paranoia can pay off when protecting digital files.

Get a good memory card holder or wallet. My favorite by far is the Pixel Pocket Rocket by Think Tank. It comes in two sizes, one for CF and one for SD cards. It folds over, holds your cards securely, holds business cards and has a fob with a clip. This is a great idea and one that gives me a lot of peace of mind. I clip that thing to a ring on my camera bag or loop in my jacket and don’t have to worry about accidentally dropping all my memory cards in a river or through a subway grate.

Favorite memory card holder: Pixel Pocket Rocket by Think | Favorite storage device: Samsung T5

If you want to backup your data while you’re traveling, there’s a temptation to just download them into your laptop, then reformat the card and shoot some more. Don’t do this! You have moved your data from a very secure, low theft device like a memory card to the spinning hard drive or SSD memory in your shiny, more-likely-to-be-stolen laptop. If you want to use your laptop, either keep the data on the cards as well or take an external hard drive with you to backup the files on. My favorite storage device is the Samsung T5. It’s available in .5, 1 and 2TB. They are much more expensive than external hard drives but they are tiny, lightweight, fast and completely not prone to physical crashes the way hard drives are. The laptop and hard drive shouldn’t be in the same bag at the same time to avoid a total loss in case of theft. Data backup maxim: Data should be stored in at least two places at all times, and one of those should be in another location.

The Tripod 20% Rule

I often get asked if it’s worth carrying a tripod while traveling. I’d say yes! The next question is, which one?

If you haven’t done any low light photography, then you’re missing some of the most satisfying experiences as a photographer. At the very least take a mini table top tripod with you. The best two I’ve found for DSLR and large compact cameras are both by Manfrotto. The model 709 costs about $50 and fits in a deep pocket. The step up from there is to buy a kit of the 209 legs but with the larger Manfrotto 492 Mini Ball Head. That combo is sold by B&H Camera online for about $85 and is something I never travel without. These little guys have gotten expensive over the last couple of years but B&H also carries less expensive ones made by Oben. The TT-50 is the smaller one and runs about $25. The TT-100 is the slightly larger one and runs $35. A small tripod is usable on any flat surface and good metal ones like the Manfrotto or Oben can also be pushed up against a wall or column to do vertical long exposures. If you shoot with a pocket camera you should absolutely have a tiny table top tripod with you. You can find them at camera stores and at Target and Walmart.

A tiny table top tripod from Target and the resulting shot. This allows you to drop the ISO and stay away from the high noise that compact cameras are notorious for.

If you want a larger tripod, remember to buy one that you’ll actually carry with you. There’s a whole world of tripods out there, but if you spend less than about $150 you’ll probably be replacing it sooner than later. We have found a good rule of thumb is that you should plan to spend about 20% of the cost of your camera and biggest lens on a tripod. It’s worth investing in one that you’ll keep for years. Try to find one that comes up to your standing height but is small enough to pack and light enough to carry around. Shorter people have an advantage here since the taller the tripod, the heavier and more expensive it tends to be.

Geeking out a bit with the gear plus the resulting shot. If you’re going to do night shooting Peter recommends a Petzl style headlamp with the red LED.

I’d recommend a good, light weight ball head instead of a traditional pan/tilt head. They are more compact, quicker to use and pack smaller. Also get a good quick release system. Trying to get a camera screwed off and on of a tripod will shave years off your sanity.

Remember whenever you’re shooting on a tripod turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization. If you don’t, the pictures will be blurry. On DSLRs this is usually a dedicated switch on the lens. On mirrorless cameras it is sometimes a menu setting.

Tripods are also really helpful for panoramas. Even though long exposures weren’t required for this photo, having a panorama head with an offset plate allowed the foreground in this photo to be properly stitched.

Moldy Cameras

(This is an update and repost of an earlier article)

I have a collection of toy and cheap cameras that I started about 30 years ago. My rule for the first couple of years was that I wouldn’t spend more than a dollar. Sometimes I would find 5 or 6 at a thrift store. Then my family started looking for them. I still get a bag of garage sale cameras every Christmas from my brother.  I now have probably 500-600 cameras stashed in cardboard boxes on some industrial shelves at the studio.

For a while there has been a tiny leak in one of the concrete studio walls and I was dutifully collecting the water in a bucket. When I went to the studio yesterday during a downpour I discovered water dripping from a new place, right under the shelf that holds my collection. Turns out a trickle of water had been going into one of the boxes for the last few months. Unwrapping the cameras was gross and sad. I had to throw away about a half dozen, including a nice small wooden view camera that had fallen apart. The biggest shock was this Argus C3, which was in its original box. The box was a black, sodden, smelly mess. I’m guessing that the combination of water, darkness and the leather case made a perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew.

(Update)
When this originally happened, I set up a softbox and took some forensic photos as a document of this beautiful catastrophe. Those documentary images of moldy evidence have turned into some of my favorite photos. This is a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly, that I’m often really not qualified to judge or edit my photos at the time I take them. Time has a way of revealing the depth and meaning of a photo.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have cancelled or rescheduled all in-person classes, events and gallery shows. We are now offering online classes here and will be adding more soon!