A free and quick way of doing product photos

TL/DR; use daylight, a white surface as reflector, and a sheet of cardboard for a background.

This is a rant. But it is also a tutorial. A rantorial if you wish.

Let me say upfront that if you are serious about product photography, this is not for you. Spend a little more money (say 50 euro) and a little more time (say five minutes) to get product photos that are 200% better. For instance read Strobist’s How To: DIY $10 Macro Photo Studio. (You have a 50% chance that four years from now that link won’t work–if so, just Google something like ‘product photography cheap’ without the quotes, and hundreds of articles and videos will pop up that explain more or less the same thing.)

On with the rant portion of this posting. The other day I was looking for a photo of a 3D printed object that I could use on my other blog, but almost all I found were lousy pics of geeks holding up ill defined objects in their badly lit workshops. OK, so I am bad at ranting: curses! How could they?! Don’t they understand a blogger’s plight?

What I am trying to say is that with an investment of two minutes, it is possible to get better product shots (what photos of things are generally called when the goal is to show off said things). Here is how.

1. Use daylight. This produces a nice, natural light.

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2. Use a reflector opposite the natural light source. In my example I used a pack of IKEA napkins opposite the window.

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The result is that the object will be more evenly lit.

Real photographers call these things ‘light modifiers’, but then again real photographers will use white umbrellas and pay 30 bucks for them. I find that IKEA napkins aren’t just a lot cheaper, they can also be used as napkins after their career in photography.

3. Use a background.

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I used a roll of wrapping paper here, but in the past I have also used a wool vest and a piece of white cloth I had lying around.

4. Crop.

In this case you want the subject to have the viewer’s sole attention, so crop the picture until you just have a foreground and a background.

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5. Forget (almost) everything I just said.

None of this means anything. In general you want your photos to tell a story. The 3D printer geeks holding up their creations in their night-time workshops weren’t just showing the object they had made, they were also telling something about how that object got into being. A mug with bookcases as a backdrop? That can actually be a lot more interesting than a mug against a plain background.

However, you need to work that story and consequently work that photo. Rearrange the books so that the background looks interesting. Make sure the foreground doesn’t blend into the background. Make sure the objects in the photo belong together. Make sure the background isn’t more attention grabbing than the foreground. Still use light modifiers. Et cetera.

So the real rantorial is that if you cannot be bothered to put some time into making a photo, why bother making the photo at all? If you’re doing a lot of product shots, do it right and get yourself a little studio. You don’t even have to follow the link to Strobist and put all that DIY into it; just order one for fifty bucks off the internet. I know that Conrad sells ready made product studios, for example. The background in my photo looks a bit crinkly because wrapping paper is thin and crinkles easily.

My technique is only useful for when you are in the middle of nowhere, you need to send photos over your satellite phone and need to get the best shots you can with almost no tools at your disposal.

Still, my rantorial at least shows which techniques can make a product photo look better, so I hope it was useful in that respect.

The LinkedIn endorsement system

LinkedIn has introduced an endorsement system which lets you ‘endorse’ the skills of your connections.

A few quick notes about this:

  • I haven’t checked whether these are skills you entered yourself; that seems to be the case though.
  • I have endorsed wide, easy skills, such as mastering your native tongue.
  • I have endorsed specialized skills that I have witnessed myself, or that are somehow at the core of that connection’s abilities.
  • I have not endorsed skills that sound like a core skill, but that to my knowledge aren’t; for example, if I know a project manager, I am not going to endorse them as change manager, even if I have seen them manage changes after the delivery of a project. Similarly, I have not endorsed interaction designers as user experience experts.
  • In other words, don’t be shy to add the simple stuff to your profile.
  • Also add skills that you know your connections know you possess.
  • So far I have been honest and have only endorsed skills that I knew people possessed.
    I expect some people will just endorse all the skills of their friends or connections.
  • With this system Recommendations are probably going to be more rather than less important, considering my previous note.

On photography how-tos

Photography, simply the technical side of it, is still a bit of a struggle to me.

There are too many settings to keep track of. For instance, aperture (the size of the lens opening), shutter speed and sensor sensitivity determine exposure; exposure, sensor resolution, lens resolution, focus, camera movement and subject movement determine sharpness; and so on.

By the time I have figured out what I need, my subject will have left. Even in landscape photography you often don’t have much time because the sun keeps moving (and clouds before it).

Then there is the fact that for a lot of types of photography you should expect to only get a couple of ‘keepers’, photos good enough to publish as a ratio of all the pictures you took.

That one took a while to wrap my brain around, too. It’s one of the blessings of the digital era that we can take as many photos as we want, that we are no longer bound by the physical limitations of film, which takes up space. I mean, I get the immediate, rational, in-your-face idea behind it, but when I have a camera in my hand I still feel that every shutter button press should count, and feel a sense of failure when it doesn’t.

Modern sports photography (spray and pray) is a clear example of this type, however I have also found that when photographing bees and bumblebees that setting my expectation of the amount of keepers low (1 in 20) helps to ward off frustration.

(Number of keepers refers to successful exposures, not to good pictures. That number is much, much lower. Well, it is in my case.)

But to me the most important discovery was that if you can categorise the sort of photography you are going to do (street, sports, nature, cars, bugs, what have you), there are often dozens of tutorials on the web that will tell you how to approach the subject. What settings you need to get which photo. I guess a good photographer would find it easy to work these out by herself, but I find it easier to ask the internet for help and try and get on with taking (hopefully) interesting pictures myself.

  • Derby photography, freezing the subject:
    • Expect 2 in 5 keepers.
    • 1/250 or faster (you’ll still get motion blur).
    • With modern camera technology you’re going to use F2.8 or ‘faster’ apertures, and high ISOs.
    • If shooting with a DSLR (and for this type of photography you should), set to continuous shooting and subject tracking (AI-Servo on Canon cameras).
    • ‘Freezing’ the subject doesn’t work well for high octane sports such as derby. You’ll get a lot of in-between-the-action shots. Consider ditching photography altogether and switching to video.
  • Motion (that stripey effect):
    • Expect 1 in 10 keepers (practice helps)?
    • Set shutter speed to 1/60 or 1/125, and track the subject with your camera.
  • Photographing bridges:
  • Rain:

And so on.

Not every tutorial is of the same quality, but approach like you would any web page. If it looks the page is there more to generate eyeballs for advertisements than to enlighten you, move to the next search engine hit.

Settings, at least those for exposure, can also be gleaned from a photo’s EXIF data. Flickr has a menu to show you these, although many photographers blank them before uploading. Still, you only need EXIF data of a couple of good photos to be on your way.

26 + 2 links

John Scalzi writes: “I put each letter of the alphabet into my web browser and posted the link it autocompleted to”.

He then proceeds to write small blurbs for each entry.

The following are mine.

  • ad.nl/ad/nl/1001/Sportwereld/: the newspaper’s sports section.
  • buienradar.nl: a satellite image that shows where in the Netherlands it currently doesn’t rain. Handy for a people that ride their bikes most of the time.
  • cloggie.org/wissewords2/: Martin Wisse’s blog about comics, politics and other stuff.
  • dpreview.com: pixel peeping at its finest for camera nerds.
  • earlydutchbooksonline.nl: one of the many book digitization projects of the national library of the Netherlands.
  • facebook.com: Mark Zuckerberg’s people store.
  • gutenberg.org.
  • huizenzoeken.nl: guess what: I am in the market for a house.
  • (This showed only test servers for a customer, and I doubt they wish to see the names of their new websites show up early, so I am not showing them to you.)
  • joelonsoftware.com: computer programmer who used to blog knowledgeably about the more general aspects of programming. He has stopped blogging since, well, almost. I visited his site recently to look something up, as it is still a magnificent resource, even if you are not a programmer. If you are into that sort of thing, his former employee Jeff Atwood still does something similar.
  • knmi.nl/waarschuwingen_en_verwachtingen/: more weather forecasts.
  • localhost: this is where I develop websites for customers. It’s the webserver on my PC.
  • marktplaats.nl: the Dutch eBay (and actually eBay-owned these days). The description is not entirely correct, as it is more of a classified ads site than a bidding site.
  • www.nu.nl/tvgids/: the TV guide. More important than ever now that there is so little worth watching.
  • oh-la-la.nl: the business site of my friend and co-blogger Natasha.
  • pgdp.net: a book factory for Project Gutenberg.
  • www.engadget.com/search/?q=dutch&sort=date: stories that might be interesting for my other blog, 24oranges.nl.
  • rifters.com/crawl/: the witty blog of writer Peter Watts.
  • stevehuffphoto.com: a photography blog. I guess you could call this a guilty pleasure, as it is yet another site for so-called ‘pixel peepers’, people who think the technical quality of a camera is more important than the quality of the photos you take with those cameras.
  • tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/: this blog.
  • drupal.org: another work-related site. This was actually the second site autocompleted, but I already showed buienradar.nl.
  • volkskrant.nl: a newspaper.
  • whatever.scalzi.com: the blog of writer John Scalzi.
  • xkcd.com: an online comic strip.
  • youtube.com: the greatest video archive of our time, although it has lost a good deal of its value since the copyright maffia found out about it.
  • z24.nl: a financial news blog that I follow in the hope of finding stories for 24 Oranges there.
  • 24oranges.nl: my other blog, non-mainstream Dutch news in English.
  • 9292ov.nl: public transport planner.

A couple of inevitable notes:

  • Some of these links I barely visit. I suspect they popped up because I visited them recently, meaning that Chrome may include freshness in its algorithm for determining what to show in the auto-complete.
  • The links above can easily be subdivided into:
    • Day-to-day off-line life (B, H, K, M, N, 9).
    • Day-to-day online life (A, F, V, Y).
    • Photography (D, S).
    • Project Gutenberg (E, G, P).
    • Work (L, S, U).
    • Blogging (Q, T, Z, 2).
    • Other (C, J, O, R, W).
  • People who know Steve Huff’s blog may claim that his site is emphatically not about pixel peeping, and I want to have this argument out in the open now. Steve Huff’s blog shows a lot of photography, but always as a function of the camera they were taken with. It also prints a lot of camera and lens reviews where photos are secondary. Steve Huff may not use fancy test charts and widgets, but the implication of almost every posting on his blog is that you need camera X to get a photo quality Y. His blog may not be suited very much to actual pixel peeping, but it is aimed squarely at pixel peeper sensibilities. This in contrast to real photography blogs, where they almost never mention what camera was used.
  • As with John Scalzi, you don’t get to see the sites I visit in private browsing mode.

King Cruise September

During the summer months pretty cars and fast food are brought together once a month on a parking lot just outside of Amsterdam under the name King Cruise.

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See also: King Cruise August.

Left, right and middle coalitions of the Netherlands of the past 35 years

A tactic that the political right has employed since Adolf Hitler is that of Der Grosse Lüge, the Big Lie.

The idea is that you say something so preposterously untrue that people would refuse to believe you made it up. (Interestingly the first uses were self-referential, in that the Nazis falsely accused others of employing something as evil as the big lie technique.)

A modern big lie is this: the political left is responsible for all the woes of Dutch society.

This is preposterously untrue, I’ve always thought, because the political left never has had any power in Dutch politics. Governments would always be in the political middle, where the left had to water down its politics to the point that you could no longer recognise them as such, or on the right. You cannot be blamed for doing something wrong if you have not done that thing in the first place.

Although I have never had any desire to attempt to explain the lie is a lie (one of the reasons the technique works so well is that denials actually reinforce the lie, e.g. “when have you stopped beating your wife?”), my base assumption that the left never has had any political power at the national level in the Netherlands has always been nagging me.

Thing is, for a lefty I am pretty far to the left, to the point where I’ve stopped recognising moderately left wing policies as left wing policies. I might not be the best person, in other words, to just guess that we’ve never had any left leaning national governments.

left-right-netherlands-1977-2012Which is why I decided to do some research, the results of which you will find in the graph to the right (click for a larger version). Let me summarise the graph:

  • In the past 35 years, the Netherlands has had 13 different governments.
  • Of those government, 3 were left wing, 7 were right wing, and 3 were middle governments.
  • I counted by first determining per constituent party whether they were on the left or right on social issues, and on economic issues; and then added those numbers for each constituent party.
  • As I say in the notes, this leads to certain skewdnessess, because not every party is equally powerful within a coalition, and parties could be counted as left wing (for instance) but still differ immensely among themselves.
  • An example of the latter case are the Christelijke Unie (Christian Union) and the Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party), who will approach issues such as abortion, gender equality and so from completely different angles.
  • Predominantly left wing coalitions governed on average for 37 months, middle coalitions for 34 months and right wing coalitions for 30 months—I don’t think studying just one country is going to yield enough data to be statistically relevant though.

My hypothesis: the left has never been in power on a national level in the Netherlands. My conclusion: falsified. Is this enough to blame the left for all of society’s ills? Well, I wasn’t going to tackle that Big Fat Lie, remember?

If Hemingway wrote JavaScript

Angus Croll wrote a couple of Javascript programs that calculate a fibonacci series, each program in the style of a famous literary author. Cool stuff.

One of my favourite blogs is back

Spoiler alert! There will be a bad word in this posting, and it will appear right after this sentence.

Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest is back. This is one of my favourite blogs on the web, because of the bloody-mindedness of its sole blogger, Freewheeler.

The blog is about the quality and quantity of cycling provisions in a London neighbourhood, i.e. abysmal and almost extinct. Cycling is to the English what atheism is to the Americans, something that you are allowed to hate without a shred of reservation. Where most English bloggers are of the accommodationist, Stockhom Syndromish type, always willing to see reason in the most blinkered argument, Freewheeler takes no prisoners.

His intelligent but no holds barred writing makes him a joy to read, even if it is about a subject that is about as dry as watching paint, and it has also provided other British bicycle bloggers to occupy a less accommodationist stance without coming across as nutters.

Freewheeler stopped posting almost exactly a year ago, and has resumed 352 days later. Since he goes only by a pseudonym, and allows no comments on his blog (that would only dilute the message I guess), his readers were left pretty much in the dark about what his reasons were for quitting, and if he would ever return. That has, I feel, weakened his brand. Other bicycle bloggers have been moving in on his franchise.

Still, there is only one original, and that is Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest.

Classic American cars

My posting frequency has dropped here, and especially the frequency with which I post photos in the Lightsmithing category.

This has a lot to do with the evil behemoth called Facebook. Although Facebook is not for the long form, it does bring in a lot more comments, and it especially brings in something called ‘likes’, the ability for somebody to click on a button to signal ‘I like this’. And likes are today’s cocaine.

Still, I don’t know how many of my readers read my Facebook page, and maybe you came in here through a search and followed my trail of photos and would like to see how I am developing, so to speak, so here are a bunch of pretty American cars I shot yesterday at the King Cruise event in Muiden.

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Handy tool for dieting

A couple of months ago I started dieting with the help of the Fat Secret Calorie Counter, and for me this tool has proved to be very valuable.

Basically it lets you keep track of three things: the number of calories you take in, the number of calories you burn, and your weight.

Intake is measured by choosing from a huge database of ingredients. It really helps that I am single and mostly eat ready-made meals, because calculating the ingredients for home-cooked food and then trying to work out the size of the portions would have been a real downer, I feel.

The list of activities with which you burn calories is much smaller, usually I try and find an equivalent activity from the internet. Luckily the different things I do in a week is quite limited, so I am able to guess calorie usage fairly well.

Calorie counting may not be your thing but a calorie counter can still be a useful just to get a feel for the amount of calories you ingest every day. The rule of thumb is that if something tastes good, it is probably bad for you (at least in the quantities that stores and restaurants serve). Counting calories really brings that fact home.

For me, the Fat Secret Calorie Counter does more than that, it also provides a sort of external motivation. When I dieted before, I tended to get cranky after a week or six—this time around I have managed to keep it up for months in a row, and I have already lost about 11 kilos of the 16 or so I am planning to shed.