Photographing your Collection
Whether it's pretty and you want to show people, or it's valuable and you need to prove it, there are some good reasons to photograph your collection. Here are some tips to doing it easily and professionally.
There are two good reasons to photograph your collection -aesthetics and documentation. This is to say we might take pretty pictures because your collection is –well—pretty –or at least interesting.. Or we might take pictures to prove something. Think artists and lawyers These ARE different ends. Some things in common and some things considerably different. Consider the photographs they take to advertise the latest model car. They are always from a sexy angle showing as much of the car as possible. But the guys that designed and built that car did so with side, front, and top views. Easier to measure things that way. Let’s begin with the button-down lawyerly side of things first.
PHOTOGRAPHS as DOCUMENTS:
If you are making documentary photographs, the first thing to keep in mind is to do it straight- on from front, side, top, etc. Add as many other sides or views object's size and value seem to justify. If it opens-up in some way, open it and shoot it again. Up to you, but digital photos on a CD are cheap enough that your patience should be a better guide then the cost of film and prints. Imagine yourself explaining to your insurer why it costs $$$$ and shoot accordingly
Here is another other suggestion for the documentation side of the coin –put a ruler in the picture and put it close to your collectable and position it perpendicular to your camera angle. Or make a little scale with paper and black marker. Or a yard-stick. Depends on the size of your object. You can do the documentation this way and remove the ruler for the pretty picture leaving everything else set up.
PHOTOGAPHS as PRETTY PICTURES:
Terrific photography is made out of a lot of stuff like technique, composition, and vision. Can’t help you with composition or vision, but I can offer a few points on technique and -as far as it goes- technique is for documentation as well as aesthetic.
Much of my work is big pieces of furniture so I just shoot them in the shop. I often put a 4' x 8' piece of the same white cardboard I use for packing and shipping behind the piece and then I'll tidy it up in PhotoShop. But for smaller pieces -particularly if I have several to do- I haul them into my 'studio.' This is nothing more then the far end of my desk in a south-facing room. But there are some interesting things to note.
1. For starters, notice the lovely seamless background? It is nothing more then a simple cheap vinyl roll-up window shade from the home-improvement store. Cost me all of $7. When I'm done it rolls up out of the way and that end of my desk can go back to catching miscellaneous clutter.
2. Tripod. Essential. More on this anon.
3. Notice also the authentic photographer's light. Came from the flea-market for $5 or $10 but has a plain-old 150 watt light bulb from the grocery store.
4. Perhaps the single handiest thing about it all is that it all sits right next to my computer and I load, PhotoShop, LABEL, and file the pictures as soon as I take them. Useful enough for me when I take 5 or 10 pictures at a time, but if you are documenting a life-time of collecting -let's say just a few hundred- items, this degree of convenience is going to go a long way to support accuracy, completeness, and ultimately, your SANITY.
Yep –you need one. Life is much easier and the pix come out better. End of discussion. Well, not quite. If you are taking real REAL close-up pix, (see below for Macro Lenses), you might find it easier to take the elevator part out of the leg bracket thing and put it back in from the bottom. (I have an old tripod where this is easily done, but my new one, the up-&-down-attached-to-the-camera-bit is stuck in there permanently.) It’s a little funny looking, but it makes for a easy-to-use get-up. You are sort of working between the tripod legs and you can shoot straight down without leaning over things or having anything getting in the way.
I suppose there are still folks that use film and they probably have good reason for doing this. Ain’t me. I also suppose that these folks know exactly what they are doing so I’ll address myself mostly to digital cameras. Wonderful little things –digital cameras. Mine is a few years old now –middle of the line at the time and I have no doubt it’s now hopelessly outdated compared to the latest and greatest, but –and pay attention here- a so-so camera well used is going to give you better results then an expensive camera used poorly. But I do have one suggestion to soup-up your little digital –especially if you are photographing small items. You can make yourself a fast and cheap…..
These are sometimes called ‘close-up lenses’. Most digitals –or the not-so-expensive ones anyway- have universal focus and don’t focus well close up. Actually, they don’t focus at all and this is part of their appeal –one less thing to do before you to point and shoot. But what about shooting –for example- a wee piece of jewelry? From 5 or 10 feet away it’s going to look like a spot. Here is what you do. Schlep off to the Dollar Store and buy a couple of pair of reading glasses. Let’s say a #1.25 and #1.75 or 2. Also get yourself some of that yellow sticky stuff they sell in the office supply store. I think it might be called Handy-Tack. What you are going to do is pop one of the eyeglass lens out of the glasses and use the sticky stuff to stick it on over the camera lens.
Now you need to calibrate it -unless your digital focuses through-the-lens and your eyes are younger then mine. Easier then it sounds. Put your camera with its macro lens on the tripod and set it up a foot or two higher then the dining-room-table. Lay out a tape measure on the table from just under the lens to the other end of the table and take a picture. Now don’t move the tape and go off to the computer and find out where on the tape measure the picture is in focus. You are not done quite yet. Your camera is working at a diagonal. You can either simply measure from your camera lens to place where the tape measure is in focus. Or if you remember the Pythagorean Theorem –have at it and make your old math teacher proud.
Do the same for the other lens –the one with the higher number will let you get in even closer. I keep the lenses and the sticky stuff in sandwich bags WITH the focal length WRITTEN ON THE BAG. Seems that an old memory is as fallible as old eyesight. If you have a lot of pictures to take you might consider trying a little string to the front of you camera and snipping the end at the focal length. Then you simply hold the string in one hand and move the tripod in or out with the other hand. MUCH easier then squinting at / through your camera every time.
This will be short. F’ged-abou’did. Flashes are meant to light up rooms. Use a flash to light up your best brass belt-buckle and you will have a picture of glare. There is nothing a flash can do that a little preparation and set-up can not do better. Flashes are fine for working in the field –sports and weddings and such, but we are working in the studio –a home-made studio, but a studio none-the-less. This brings up the last -and biggest- bit of equipment,….
This is a dang big ol' can’o-worms. No need to pull out the gold-card though. Perhaps the most important piece of equipment you need might be nothing more then a large north-facing window. (But mine faces south and seems to work pretty well.) Add a table or desk top, & some butcher paper and you are in business. Or trick things up with a cheap vinyl roll-up type window shade nailed up on the wall above the table-top and you can set up or tear down your studio in seconds. Make it wider then the stuff you want to shoot and long enough to pull down behind the stuff and drape it over the table-top. Makes for what is called a seemless background But get it one size bigger then you think you will need it though –trust me on this.
Here is where we get out from under the flash. It may well be that the big old window will do the trick. Or go outside and do it there. But do it on the north side of the building. Direct sun won’t get it. Or do it on an overcast day. There are photographers that love the soft even light from a cloudy day. Much to be said for simple light-bulbs –old fashioned incandescent or high-efficiency-florescent –makes no never-mind. But use all the same kind. Your software can correct the overall color but it’s considerably more difficult to correct bluish light (fluorescent) on one side and yellowish (incandescent) on the other. More on software later.
A pair of ‘em $5.00 clamp-on reflector type from the hardware store work great. Pull up a couple of tall kitchen chairs, clamp the lights to the top, position then to either side of your set-up and you are in business. Whole books have been written on how to position your lights for dramatic effects. Back-light to make her hair glow, front light to make her stand out against a black background, light from below to make her look exotic or spookey. High to the right, low from the left. Who knows Do what looks good to your eye. There is one place where you might want to take a little extra effort. Shiny sparkly things appreciate a…..
This pix shows a sun-lit shot on a desktop. Notice the color is distorted and the color of the jewels is all but non-existent. The one on the right was done in a tent and more detail shows up.
Depends on the size of your collection, but let’s assume you are taking pix of jewelry. What you need is a frame to go over the top, both sides, & back and holding some sort of diffusing material. You use the two reflectors from above. As to the diffusing material, one photographer I read suggested a pillow case. Tracing paper or market paper would be nice, but you might find that wax paper diffuses the light enough for your purposes. If it seems to allow a little too much glare, consider two (or more) layers.
As far as a frame goes, little square cross-sectioned sticks all neatly mitered at the corners would be very nice indeed. A right pain in the ass to make even if you are a skilled wood-worker, but very nice.
Or make a frame out of unbent clothes hangers and duct-tape. Then use scotch-tape to cover it with a layer or two of wax paper. This process might come out pretty crooked and uneven, but it's easy to do and you have a minimum of framework in the way of your light.
Or make a fancy folding / unfolding thing out of thin translucent plastic.
Or find a good sized cardboard box, cut out the middle of each side and have at it with spray adhesive and thin white fabric or marker paper or whatever.
If you are taking pictures of real small things -like jewelry- It may be that you can make a flattish cone out of a large piece of marker paper or tracing paper. Cut a hole in the front to take your pictures through, and you are in business.
A dozen ways to get’er done. You are simply looking to get large translucent surfaces on a few sides of the thing you want to photograph. Your digital camera will sort out the exposure for you if you give it just a little help with the lights and tent.
Another can of worms, this. I have to admit that my own studio technique –fair to partly to begin with- has gotten a little sloppy ever since I got the good software (PhotoShop) and took a class on how to use the stuff. It seems my camera and scanner both came with some photo-retouch software that I never bothered to open and now the CD’s are long gone so I can’t comment too well on what you might have to do to tweak your pix. I might also mention that almost all of my work is to go online, and may not be the best way to go if you do the print thing. None-the-less, here is what I typically do when I’ve got pictures off / out of the camera and into my ‘puter.
First thing is to do Image, Adjustments, Brightness and Contrast. Sometimes I also bend the color a little one way or the other. Pay particular attention to the Shadows / Mid-tones / Highlights buttons as you adjust your colors. Next I crop and resize. Because I do it for my web-site. most of my pix are 300 pixels wide & I let the height go wherever it needs to go. Or I do them 300 high and let the width follow along proportionally. Sometimes –for the money shot at the top of the page for example, I go 500 wide and do thumbnails 100 or 150 wide. Sometimes I select specific parts of the picture to fuss up a little, but the selecting function is way beyond the scope of our needs. If you do a lot of rectangular things like I do –tables and drawer-cases etc, you might want to fiddle around with the Edit, Transform, Skew function to straighten up the sides of things. Once the pix is sized I do my sharpening. Rarely do I sharpen more the once and truth-to-tell, I’m not smart enough to do the Unsharp Mask thing, but I’ve heard really good PhotoShoppers insist it’s the only way to go. Here again, I think this might be more important for prints then it is for prints internet uses.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS:
Take notes as you go along. This is particularly important if you are doing it all to have a legal record of what’s in your collection.
If your collection has a lot of smallish items, for example a jewelry collection, you might consider photographing it one drawer at a time –most particularly if I made the drawers for you. You will however, need a bigger tent.
If your collection is real valuable, consider hiring a pro –this has the added advantage of having a witness who can provide another layer of third-party documentation –perhaps even a dated & notarized statement as to what he or she photographed,
Stephen Dow has written on the subject in more detail then I have –from the perspective of a photographer rather then a collector. You might want to have a look at http://www.creativepro.com/article/digital-photography-how-to-building-a-light-tent?page=0%2C0 And while on the subject of other people's work, I also have to give him credit for the the before and after pictures above.
 Or if not lawyers, your insurance company. I address the issue of security for collections –including insurance- in my How-To article on Protecting Your Collection from the Bad Guys. Basically, it might be easier to collect from your insurer if you have pictures or whatever it was that was lost, stolen, damaged, or otherwise gone. This is not to say they will not try to wiggle out of their obligation –but it will certainly help the claims process.
 Typically an angle close to the eye-height of the expected buyer. Look closely at the advertisement for a pick-up and one for a pretty little convertible, notice the vantage point, and ask yourself who they are trying to sell it to.