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Articles Tagged: photo gear

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

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.

Blood Moon

Last night was the first blood moon of the year. I had to get up and see it but realized that I had forgotten all my Nikon gear at the studio. This was shot with a friend’s Leica V-Lux 4, a small, affordable camera (same as Panasonic FZ-200) with a lens that is the equivalent of 25-600mm, f2.8 all the way!

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I also forgot my tripod so instead was able to nestle the camera in a beanbag in the back yard and use the self timer to eliminate vibration. (Daylight photos are a recreation from the next day)

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I love forklifts

After my Nikon gear, my next favorite piece of photographic equipment just may be a fork lift. They are just so handy and fun. I wish I had one at the studio.

I volunteer my services at North Dallas Shared Ministries, a well run and very effective organization that offers a broad range of services to Dallas’ poor. Last week they handed out hundreds of free school uniforms.

One of the other volunteers gave me a lift so I could shoot down on the line. That thing strapped around my waist is the Think Tank belt system for my gear. I’ve been using it and loving it for over a year. In this case it was particularly helpful because I didn’t have a loose bag to deal with.

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Thank you Tanner Electronics

Tanner Electronics, just north of Dallas, is one of a dying breed of real electronics parts stores. Don’t judge them by their website. They’re too busy stocking cool stuff and helping customers with their projects. They’ve been in business for decades and actually carry parts that you can use. My wife didn’t understand why I hated going into Radio Shack until I took her to Tanner’s a few days ago. Now she understands.

This is a bag of goodies for the film scanner project; SPST N/O momentary switches, header strips, jumpers and a small speaker. What every Arduino-based project needs.

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Always carry backup gear on an assignment

I frequently remind my students that the minute they want to start making money from their photography they have to have backup equipment. It isn’t allowable to show up for a job, no matter how small or how much you’re getting paid, and have to leave because of an equipment problem. Well, I was shooting some headshots  for a frequent client of mine last week. The location was near my house and I figured I’d be in and out in about an hour. Half way through the first setup my camera inexplicably slid off my shoulder (I use an UP strap which never, never slips) and my 24-120 took the brunt of the fall. It’s off at Nikon having a $375 rejuvenating spa treatment. When I went back this week I had backups of everything and of course nothing went wrong.

There really is not supposed to be that big ugly gap between the focus and zoom rings!

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What does this have to do with photography?

I bought an air compressor last week. It was to replace a small nitrogen cylinder that I had purchased a month earlier. What does this have to do with pictures? Kind of a long story that I’ll start here and finish in later posts.

I shot 35mm color transparencies for most of my magazine assignments, stock shoots and personal trips overseas. In my case that means that I now have six 4-drawer file cabinets and about 10 bankers boxes full of sheeted up slides. It totals around 225,000 slides. Most of it should be discarded but getting to the keepers in a long editing process. Once I have the few thousand images that I’d like to keep they need to be scanned so I can get them into Lightroom and start using them. I have a pair of 35mm Nikon scanners but the scan times are very long so I decided to build a rapid scanner using a DSLR and hacked Kodak Ektagraphic projector.

Part of the design is to have high pressure clean, dry air dust off each slide in the projector gate and then keep low pressure air flowing across the film while the exposure is being made. I wanted to use compressed nitrogen but my usage was higher than planned and frequent trips to the welding supply shop for refills was going to be a lot of trouble. Enter the air compressor. If you’ve every owned one you know that most of them vibrate loudly enough to wake the dead in the next room. I shopped hard and found this one. It’s really pretty quiet and I’ll likely build a ventilated enclosure to quiet it down even more.

 

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Arca Swiss p0 head modified with Really Right Stuff clamp

I’ve been using an Arca Swiss Z1 ball head on my larger Gitzo tripod for about a year and love it. I added the Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp for panoramas along with a plate and various accessories. The system is great but kind of heavy so I started looking for a lightweight option for traveling.

I had recommended the Arca Swiss p0 (p-zero) head  to a tutoring client based on reviews and specs. This is an ingenious inverted ball design that means you don’t have to have a separate rotator for panos. Because it’s the ball that mounts to the tripod, when you level the ball head the top plate is automatically parallel to the ground and allows perfect panos without an additional panning rotator.  I also suggested that he put a Really Right Stuff clamp on the head.

It turns out there are two product numbers of the p0 head. The 801213 includes the new Arca Swiss Slidefix QS Quick Release which is not compatible with RRS. The 801211 is $70 cheaper and does not include the Quick Release clamp. My client had bought the one with the clamp so the first order of business was to remove the Arca Swiss clamp. This was not easy. The clamp is mounted with a 6mm screw, but the hex allen socket is pretty small and a metric size that I didn’t have. I took a trip to Crouch Sales, a specialty store here in the Dallas photo district that specializes in “bolts, nuts, anchors and more”. This is one of those great places that serves industrial clients, has deep inventory and the guys at the counter know what they’re doing. The salesman finally found a tool that fit but we couldn’t get the screw to break loose. It took clamping the allen wrench into some vice grips and twisting the wrench until it felt like it was going to snap before the screw loosened. Once the Arca Swiss QR plate was off it was easy to replace it with the RRS B2-40 quick release plate. If you do this modification yourself make sure to order the version with the 6mm metric screw. The model number is B2-40-LR-M6.

The system worked so well for my client that I decided to try one myself. First I called Precision Camera Works, the U.S. Arca Swiss repair center, to ask them about the difficulty of getting that M6 screw out of there. The technician I spoke to said that Arca really doesn’t want that QR plate coming off and soon would probably use an even stronger thread lock that would make it almost impossible to remove. He confirmed that the 801211 was the same head, just without the QR plate but with a small double threaded bolt that is 6mm on one end and 1/4-20 on the other. That’s the one I ordered from B&H. The next call was to the always helpful people at Really Right Stuff to confirm what I was about to do and make sure I was ordering the right parts.

When the head arrived I was happy to discover that a standard 7/16 socket wrench perfectly fits around the double headed bolt, grabs on the built in nut and makes it easy to remove. (SEE UPDATED INFORMATION BELOW FOR CORRECT SOCKET SIZE) The whole process took about 5 minutes. The head is much improved with the RRS clamp and now compatible with my other pano components.

 

UPDATE: A client had some trouble getting the screw out of the Arca Swiss plate and her experience might help others with the same problem:

I thought you would like to know that I was finally able to get the tripod head conversion complete. I bought a different socket wrench and then it came out easily. I thought I would give you the details, in case you are recommending the same setup to others. I was originally using a 7/16 socket with 12 sides on a 1/2 inch drive. It was not able to grab hold of the bolt. So a friend of mine tried a 7/16 socket with 6 sides, but the walls of the socket were too thick to fit in the space on the Arca swiss head. So I bought a 7/16 socket with 6 sides with a 1/4 inch drive and it worked perfectly. We did notice that there was some lock tight on the bolt. It was the gray lock tight which my friend described as “light use”. Anyway, I’m all set now, and anxious to start taking panoramas!
Linda
UPDATE DECEMBER 15, 2013
I needed to convert another one of the p0 heads and finally bought exactly the right tool. It’s an 11mm thin walled socket. Easy to find at a good hardware store. I’d recommend you take your Arca Swiss head with you to make sure it will fit between the bolt head and the recessed shoulder on the head.


UPDATE JANUARY 25, 2014
I got this email from Allan today:
I got a p0 and have problem removing the double threaded bolt. Do you need to have the pano locked when removing as I noticed it just rotates when not locked and I use a socket wrench.? I even tried the 6 sided socket wrench but the bolt wouldn’t come out. Thanks

My answer:
Allan, I did the conversion again a few weeks ago and had a heck of a time getting the bolt off. Then I remembered how impact wrenches make short work of getting lug nuts off of a wheel. So I locked the pan on the p0, put the socket wrench in place and than firmly struck the end of the wrench repeatedly with another wrench. After about 10 taps the bolt loosened and I was able to get it out. Let me know how yours turned out.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Dear Peter,
Your post on the Arca Swiss P0 with the RRS clamp was excellent. I own a P0 and think it’s wonderful but, like yourself, was unhappy about the clamp options. At any rate, I wanted to give you some updated information that you may find useful. I removed the double threaded bolt with an 11mm thin-walled hex socket. It fit perfectly. In addition, you can use the M6 bolt – as you mentioned – but it needs to be 20mm or less. I tried the 25mm and it hits the ball.
My regards,
Justin.

UPDATE MARCH 25. 2015
I saw your post but I am not sure I follow on why you are removing the screw and then using an M6. What is wrong with what it comes with and using, for example, the B2-LR-II?  It has a 3/8” thread which would screw on to it just fine? I am looking for this p0 myself and want to ensure I get the right setup! Kaitlyn

My answer:
Hi Kaitlyn. I first tried a B2-LR-II on the p0 but found it too big for that head. It hangs over quite a bit and gets in the way of handling. The blog post is for the smaller BR-LR which I found to be a perfect fit for the p0 and which doesn’t have a threaded center hole. Also, I liked the idea of using a couple of drops of Blue Loctite on the M6 screw. I do have the larger B2-LR-II on an Arca Z1 head on my larger tripod and it’s a perfect fit there. I hope that helps.

UPDATE MAY 27, 2015

Today I heard from Didier in France about his experience with modifying the Arca Swiss heads. He includes a new way to tackle this problem along with a link to a similar article from a French website.
About Your very interesting article ”Arca Swiss p0 head modified with Really Right Stuff clamp” on your Blog. I made this transformation of the Arca-Swiss head p0, there has several years and I just do the same thing on an Arca-Swiss d4 head. Since 2012, the screw of the clamp is mounted with, I think, epoxy glue. To remove this screw without risking to tear the threads of the hole, I locally heated the head of the screw with a ”Pyropen Weller” equipped with a nozzle ”hot air”. This will soften the adhesive and can easily unscrew the screw, without forcing.

Regarding the head Arca-Swiss p0, I noticed that the black synthetic washer between the head and the clamp degrade stability. I highly recommend to remove it (just attached by a double side adhesive film). Note that the Arca-Swiss heads sold with a clamp do not have this washer.

The same subject on a French forum:
http://www.chassimages.com/forum/index.php/topic,127261.0.html

Sincerely,
Recto38 (from France)