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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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.







See also: King Cruise August.

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.








The state of the digital camera

I replaced my Canon Ixus 300 HS pocket camera by a Canon Powershot S100.

The Ixus tended to get terribly soft for subjects that were more than a metre away, and although I had discovered a work-around for this, the work-around involved switching continuously between Program mode and Apperture priority, which was driving me nuts.

It got to the point that I never brought a camera with me, because both the DSLR and the pocket camera were too much of a hassle, and that is A Bad Thing.

Anyway, the state of the camera 2012:

The first one is a photo of a bumblebee in a yellow flower (scaled down to fit on this page), the second is a 100% crop of that same photo. Nice, eh?

Playing with macro

Last week I talked a bit about my new and my old DSLR (the latter has found a new owner by now), and showed some demo photos. With the new lens you can zoom in really close on any subject, in fact you have to watch out not to hit the subject with your lens, that’s how close you can get.

Unfortunately the photo that I used as an illustration was a bit out of focus, so here’s a new one (of a ten cent coin this time).

Clicking the photo will again lead to a 100% crop saved at the 85% JPEG quality level.

As you can see, this time it’s nice and sharp. I filled the background with pure black in The GIMP by the way.

So that is what you pay the big bucks for, for image quality.


The next photo was taken with my point-and-shoot, which is not necesarily cheap, but which has pretty much the same macro as a 100 euro camera has.

As you can see what buying a lens five times as expensive as the kit lens has got me is the same macro capacities as those of a cheap point-and-shoot.

Any differences you see here have mostly got to do with differences in lighting. In fact, if I had to pick a winner, I’d have to pick the shot from the P ‘n’ S, as that one is sharper in the corners and zooms in 5% further than the DSLR.

Obviously, to the people who know about such things, the Sigma 17-70 is not a true macro lens. It’s maximum magnification is 1:2.3, which means that every centimetre on the light sensitive camera sensor represents 2.3 centimetres in real life. Still, it’s the first time I can get cheap-pocket-camera close with a DSLR.

A quick review of the Canon EOS 600D camera and the Sigma 17-70mm lens

(As compared to the Canon EOS 1000D and its 17-55mm kit lens.)

I have been getting into roller derby photography lately, and that means I could use all the light I can get. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted exactly, outlined in painstaking detail before.

In the end I decided to buy a Canon 600D and maybe a new lens too.

I was hoping the new camera would gain me about 3 stops, two through better noise handling and one through a a higher resolution. (The higher resolution does not, of course, gain me a stop. But it does allow me to scale down an image, which translates to sharpness, which means that the moving targets I am shooting require less ‘freezing’. At least, that is how I hope it will work. Preliminary tests are positive.)

A couple of tests down the road indicate that I am looking at two stops, which is already great in my book. 6400 ISO seems pretty much unusable, but everything below is just fine. At 6400 ISO pictures on the 600D look like somebody has been emptying buckets of red and green over the sensor.

The Sigma 17-70mm (full name: Sigma 17-70 mm f/2.8-4.0 DC Macro OS HSM) is everything like the reviews and tests promised. It does almost everything better than the Canon kit lens with two exceptions: it is slightly less sharp (I did not test this myself), and it is much heavier and bigger.

The first point is not very important. Just use the zoom to make up for the slight loss in detail.

The second point is important, because a camera that you take out of the bag to shoot with is better than a camera that you let sit in the bag because it is too unwieldy. Of course, every DSLR is too large when compared to your phone came, but even between the Canon EOS 1000D + kit lens and the Canon EOS 600D + Sigma 17-70mm I foresee myself using the latter much less.

Not that this is much of a problem, as I will have my other lens, the 50mm / 1.8, mounted on the camera for most of the time, and that is one of the lightest and smallest lenses around. If you want better pictures than the kit lens can provide you with, I recommend you get the 50mm / 1.8 as an additional lens rather than replacing your kit lens with the Sigma 17-70mm.

Other than that, I like the fact that the Sigma does macro (not proper macro, but way, way better than the other two lenses) and that colour fringing (purple, orange and green lines along tree branches in the winter) is at times non-existent. I do have one photo though where the branches consist entirely of colour fringes. What causes this I have yet to figure out.

Finally also note that this lens doesn’t strike me as very useful for video: the AF hunts a lot, zooming is extremely noisy, and the zoom rate does not seem to be exactly linear at the long end.

The thing I like the best about my two new purposes is the articulated screen of the camera (that means it folds out). My first digital camera (a pocket model) had one of these, and it works almost just as well on a DSLR to help me focus. This is probably because of the way I shoot. I am just not very good at getting sharp focus with either the AF or by hand using the viewfinder.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If I can get significantly better pictures during the next roller derby scrimmage or bout, I will be happy.

Note that you can get 100 % crops of the images shown here by clicking on them, saved as 85% JPEGs from the original JPEGs. In fact, I uploaded the crops and Wordpress / GDLib created the scaled down versions. The macro shot is slightly out of focus (motion blur perhaps?), the bird photo is as good as I could get. Exif data is available in the large images.


1. The Canon EOS 550D, 600D, 60D, and 7D all use the same sensor, resolution, image processor, basically anything that determines the basic image quality. The 60D has all cross-type AF points, but I did not read about many sports photographers that actually seem to use these. The 550D lacks an articulated screen, and I knew how much I liked those.

2. The Sigma lens is one stop faster than the Canon kit lens, so works slightly better indoors.

I probably won’t be a roller derby photographer


Sometimes you study a thing for a while, and instead of finding out more about the thing, you find out more about yourself—and sometimes both.

I have been looking at lenses and digital photo cameras over the weekend. Have been reading up on reviews, have been comparing prices. The thing is, I wasn’t too happy with the photos I took during the Amsterdam Derby Dames roller derby scrimmage and bout in respectively Rotterdam and Essen, and wanted to see what gear I need for derby photography.

The Flickr group Roller Derby is a treasure trove of experience which allowed to me collect some data on the sort of equipment derby photographers use:

  • prosumer cameras
  • 70-200 mm, F 2.8 lenses
  • often a second camera fitted with a wide anglish fast (1.8 max) lens for portraits and group photos

This would have meant an approximate 2000 euro investment in gear. Back when I was poor, I saw every purchase through the pinhole of what I could afford. And though I am not exactly rich, I can afford to spend a little now and again on nice things. For 2000 euro I am going to shop around though, find the lowest price, consider mail order purchases, perhaps look at second hand gear.

And it was while looking for second hand lenses that I had my epiphany. There is this Amsterdam and Eindhoven based company called Pixto-F that provides “services for photographers”, i.e. lets equipment. For a full-frame camera and their nicest 70-200mm lens, they charge 75 euro per day. A quick back-of-the-brain calculation taught me that I probably would not have a real need for this set up on more than four occasions per year anyway.

So why should I spend more on purchasing camera gear than I would in all probability ever spend on renting it? What if I lost interest in either derby or photography in a couple of years? And would I really pay 75 euro in rental fees per bout visited? That suddenly seemed excessive even if it was cheaper than outright purchasing. I just do not have that much passion for either photography or roller derby. Or, to put it in another way, I suddenly found out how much passion I have for either.


Whither photography and derby photography? I’ll probably try and become a better photographer through osmosis than through a burning desire to improve myself, and I’ll have to improve my roller derby photos through other means than better gear. (Position is everything, and the 70-200mm lens is particularly important when shooting down the long side of the track. The cheap 50mm/1.8 lens I have is perfectly serviceable for action shots in the corners, or for photography from the centre of the track, assuming you have the head referee’s permission to be there.)

Looking at all that camera porn has really wet my appetite for a new body though, especially considering that the Canon EOS 600D has more than adequate video features that my ‘old‘ Canon EOS 1000D lacks entirely.

Afterword: left out of this somewhat money centred monologue is an epiphany that came only minutes earlier, namely that my current gear is largely sufficient, and that improving my derby photos is mostly a function of ‘simply’ becoming a better photographer. And the price of improving myself is free, gratis, zilch, nada.

Things I need to work on:

  • Learning to work with the continuous auto-focus feature. (Go outside and photograph passing cars.)
  • Get a steadier hand.
  • Learn to focus on the centre (lots of failed derby photos because the subject is not in the middle).
  • Become confident, visit lots of bouts and scrimmages, so that the technical side becomes natural, and I start focussing (pardon the pun) on the action and the characters and all the interesting little details.

The world’s best derby photographer is currently Axle Adams (derby name, his real name is Jules Doyle), and what springs out from his photos is not technical perfection (though the man knows is his trade), but the fact that they are interesting.

If I do get better, then will be the time to consider investing in material things.

Idea: plenoptic assist for traditional DSLRs

This is cool: a company called Lytro is taking orders for its plenoptic (or ‘light field’) consumer photo camera, which it expects to ship in 2012.

A plenoptic camera swaps spatial (2D) information for distance information. See it as a grid of thousands of miniscule-resolution cameras all pointing straight ahead, with software combining the miniature photos back into a single exposure. (You used to have something similar in analog called a Lomo camera, but since that lacked the sophisticated software required to make something of the extra information it recorded, it was basically something only used for the cool effects.)

The extra information can be used to focus on a specific plane or object, to remove objects or visual artefacts, to create stereo images and many, many things more.

As they say, a grainy, shaky Youtube video with an idiot acting the straight man can say more than a thousand words:

(See also this for a demonstration of more applications.)

But because you’re swapping different types of information, you also lose a lot of information. I read somewhere for instance that the Lytro uses a 20 megapixel light sensitive chip to get to a 1 megapixel image. The result is that this type of camera will be mostly useful for photography where you cannot or will not control the setting. The Lytro will be used for snap shots, where otherwise you would use a regular (read: slow) pocket camera and miss the funny face your toddler pulls. Other uses of similar cameras would be surveillance (where beforehand you don’t know which details are important), or medical imaging where you want to separate planes of say tissues or cells.

All other types of photography have great use for the extra information plenoptic photography has to offer, but cannot afford to give up all that spatial information (i.e. resolution).

So I was thinking: what if you put both a regular sensor and a micro lens array with a dedicated sensor in the same camera? Now, you would not want them to occupy the same space, but as it happens the ‘camera’ (Latin for room) has plenty of space, and many professional cameras use a mirror to reflect the incoming light to a viewfinder. If you’re building a mirror camera using an electronic finder, you could put the micro lens array in front of the viewfinder’s light sensitive chip.

This method does of course also have its draw backs in the form of trade-offs. You could not use this for video for instance, or anything else involving most forms of motion. What my idea solves is mostly an engineering problem. It transforms a problem of unknown variables to one of mostly known variables, which means throwing a lot less cash at the designing the camera and allowing a manufacturer to be early to market.

What I have been up to, part 2

OK, so the previous WIHBUT wasn’t, and this one ain’t either. Just a grab bag of pictures I took over the summer.

Most of the ones you see here were taken during a walk to Amstelpark and back.

What I’ve been up to

Sky gazing:

Taking stock of things:


Having a beer:

Greeting summer: