Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why are my pictures dark?

One thing a lot of people complain about is that when they are trying to take pictures, they wind up with dark images and they aren't sure why. This happens a lot with product photography.

Many people figure that if their images are dark, they can always use photoshop to try to fix the light level later or create a fake white background. There are a couple of reason why this isn't the best way to solve the problem.

1. If your image is dark, it is underexposed. When a digital image is underexposed, the picture becomes full of "noise", that is the grainy, colorful particles that ruin the clarity and color of your image. Not what you want.

2. If your subject is underexposed and you create a white background around it using the paint tool, your subject will really look bad because the light on it doesn't match the brightness of the background.

One of the reasons many people wind up with dark images is they don't understand how a light meter functions on their camera. Basically, a camera captures light. When you point your camera at a subject there can be light with all different varying degrees of brightness. Your camera, set on Auto mode, will try to let in enough light to match the amount of light that would be reflected off of something that was nuetral gray.

What does that mean? It means that no matter what you are taking a picture of, no matter what color it is, the camera wants to expose the picture with an "average" amount of light reaching the sensor. Not too bright, not too dark. Gray. Not gray the color, think intensity of light.

Have you ever taken a photo in the wintertime on a bright, sunny day of snow? What color was the snow when you opened the photo on the computer? Probably gray. Why didn't the camera show the snow as white like your eyes saw it? Because to the camera, there was too much light. There wasn't an average amount of light, there was a lot of light, so it automatically underexposed the shot to get gray.

At the same time, if you point your camera at something all dark or black, you will not get black in the final image, you will get gray. The camera will automatically OVERexpose to compensate.

A lot of times I see people talk about using a light box to photograph products such as jewelry and in theory this is a good idea. But, without knowledge of how to properly expose a photo, the lightbox in itself won't help. If the person shoots their product against a very bright background, like a white cloth, the camera is STILL going to underexpose the shot.

To get the best results, you need to compensate for what your camera will try to do automatically. You do this by setting your camera to M mode, Manual, and controlling your shutter speed and aperture to allow exactly the amount of light that you want.

Tomorrow's entry, I will talk about how to use manual mode with a typical point and shoot camera that makes it easy for you to take better pictures under any lighting conditions.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

New Background

Wow it's been awhile. It's amazing how easy it is to neglect your blog when you're trying to run...let's see...three businesses on last count.

I bought a new background for product photography this past week and did some shots with it already. I've shot on white plexi before for white background product photography but for some products the bit of reflection just doesn't fit. So my new surface is 4x8 feet and non-reflective.

Here are some shots I did for LauraOh!Designs for her Etsy shop:

The beautiful pink and white bag was probably the toughest to expose well since there was a lot of white on white but I think it turned out fine.

If you like these bags and want to buy one or take a look at the store on Etsy, you can find everything here:

If you like this type of photography and sell on Etsy, Ebay, etc and want your photos professionally done, I will be talking about that in my next blog, as I offer these services at deeply discounted rates compared to what I would charge large companies for a much more involved shoot. If you're already interested, message me and we can discuss your project.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Featured, Ferrari and Photography musings.

I got a very nice convo in Etsy recently from another photographer who was kind enough to feature me on her blog. Her name is Robin Lynne and her blog is "Etsy of the Week" where she features different Etsy sellers. This was really nice of her and if you want to check it out, follow this link:

Here also is a link to her site on Etsy where you can purchase her photography:

Onto something completely unrelated to photography. Ferrari and Formula 1. Hooray for Kimi Raikkonen to easily win the Malaysian Grand Prix. Both Ferraris were absolutely dominating and with Massa going off the track again, it won't help to quel the rumors of Alonso joining Ferrari eventually. Massa is off to a horrific start this year and even though the season is just starting, as we saw last year, every single point counts.

Today was Easter and it reminded me something about my photography. That is, I'm not taking enough snapshots. That sounds odd coming from someone who spends time carefully composing photos, but I've noticed that as I'm spending more and more time with my photography, taking nature photos, taking product photos for companies, etc, there is one subject I've been neglecting.

My family.

I don't see some of my family as often as I'd like to and there are some who are getting pretty old. As I was looking around today I realized that I haven't taken any photos of some members of my family for years. Neither has anyone else.

It's nice to take the group portraits at family gatherings and posed pics, but I've always preferred the more spontaneous shots. I'm sure everyone has that box of old family photos somewhere, with lots of faces you maybe don't even recognize anymore. It's fun to look at past generations and see how at one point, they were really just like you.

I'm in my mid thirties now and I remember my aunts and uncles when I was a kid, the family parties and the fun we had. To me, they seemed so old and responsible. Now, when I look at the family photos, I see that they were my age. Laughing around the table, dancing, drinking wine, enjoying great food and enjoying life and each other's company.

Looking over these pictures, and there are a lot, I wonder how I could be so lazy. Granted, my family is more scattered than it used to be, but there are tons of memories I could be capturing and I'm not. They had it much rougher than me. They had to shoot film, drop it off, pick it up, make albums, etc. All I have to do is snap the pics and archive them.

Maybe I think time, and my family, will always be around.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Diversidee - MIA

I love birds. I've had a soft spot for them my whole life. My mom used to take care of orphaned and injured birds when I was a kid, and still runs the Raccoon Ridge Bird Observatory in New Jersey.
Though they're pretty difficult to photograph, they're one of the subjects I enjoy the most. Each species has a different personality and little odd habits. One of my favorites, even if they are probably the most common is the chickadee. Brave little guys that are always first to arrive when I put out new seed and the ones I can get the closest to.

One day when I was looking out the window, one bird in particular caught my eye. He didn't look right. For a minute I thought it was some species of bird I'd never seen before and maybe it was in my area by mistake. It was shaped like a chickadee but the colors were wrong.

When I got a closer look, I realized it was in fact a chickadee, odd as he was. Where chickadees have black feathers down past their eyes, his were white. Instead of having black legs and feet like a normal chickadee, his were pink. He was different but adorable.

I named him Diversidee, a play on the chickadee name. He came around pretty regularly for well over a year. He was so easy to spot with his funny face.
I wondered how he did with the ladies. I wondered if he'd be shunned for being different or if his little oddity might show up in future generations of Diversidees.

But, towards the end of this winter and now closing in on spring, little Diversidee has disappeared. I know birds don't live particularly long but if he doesn't show up again soon I'm going to be pretty sad about it. He was special and I don't know if I'll ever see another chickadee like him. I'm glad I had the opportunity to photograph him at least. I hope to get the chance to do so again.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Product photography on the fly

When I'm shooting products for people inside a studio environment it's a relatively simple process. Most want their stuff shot on white or black plexiglass, or we work together beforehand to come up with a nice indoor setting that fits their product. Figuring out arrangements, colors and style is more complex than actually getting the lighting right.

Sometimes though, it's fun not to have a plan or finished idea and do some product photography "on the fly" and just see how things turn out. Recently, I did some product shots for Woodspritecottage who sells handmade bags on Etsy.

Since many of the bags have a country theme I wanted a rustic or cottage look to the backgrounds so we thought to head to the antiques market nearby. The one problem is most store owners don't want any photos shot inside their shop so we either had to sneak a couple shots or find something outdoors.

One setting I couldn't pass up as we walked through one of the stores was a chair by a window, and it seemed perfect for one of the bags:

For an Etsy shot, a lot of people would say this is dark and the entire product can't be seen clearly. We had plenty of time to take more shots of this bag later outside where there was plenty of light and opportunity to show the entire bag, but this shot was just meant for mood and beauty.

The wicker chair, yellowed walls and window light to me set the perfect country mood for this bag and so far, this photo has received more views on her Etsy shop than any other by far.

White backgrounds are great and often are the best choice for some products, but think about what you're trying to sell and think if there is a way to show off the beauty of your product in a natural setting too, besides just plain white or black. You might have an opportunity to not only show off your products features but also help to set a mood for the buyer.

For a lot of the other bags, we ran into a challenge in terms of location and had to take what we could get. We found two nice spots that gave us some decent light and gave us some backgrounds that would fit the products nicely. One was a country style porch with some wicker furniture, and the others were the outside walls of buildings with fading green and blue paint that gave the impression of age. Here are some pics:

The challenge of finding the right type of background, the right colors, enough space, etc made this a really fun shoot, especially since nothing was planned.
If you do your own product photography, get out there and experiment with different locations and backgrounds, and if you're at a loss for ideas, grab your camera, your products and take a drive. You might get some nice ideas that will really show off what you have to sell.
These bags and others can be found here:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

All about Exposure

Today I'm going to give a basic overview on how a camera controls exposure, that is, how much light is let into the camera. This can get a bit complicated but I'm going to try to explain everything in a simple way that will give you the basic knowledge you need to improve your photos and let you move away from "auto" mode with confidence.

There are three basic elements that control exposure.

1. Aperture
2. Shutter Speed
3. ISO

I'll discuss each one separately first, then in the end talk about how all three work together. I see a lot of people on sites like Etsy and Ebay who do their own product photography that have trouble with exposure - mostly with dark, underexposed photos so I think this is going to help those people a lot.


Out of the three things that control exposure, Aperture is probably the most confusing to most people. But if you learn what it is and how to use it, you will be able to have more control over how your photos look, and you'll be able to take much more professional looking pictures.

Put simply, Aperture is the size of the opening in a lens when you take a picture. Well, what does that mean? This is one of the ways your camera (or you) determines how much light reaches the sensor. If the hole only opens up a little bit, less light enters the camera. If the hole opens up wider, more light enters.

Aperture is measured in F-stops. These numbers, such as F/2.8, F/5.6, F/22, etc simply denote the size of the hole that opens when you press the shutter and take a picture. Each time you change the aperture by one F-stop, you are either doubling or halving the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

So here is where it can be a bit confusing. If you look at these two F-stop numbers, which would you think lets in more light: F/2.8 or F/16? Actually, the smaller number is a bigger hole and let's in more light. Here is one of my shoddy charts to help you get an idea. Keep in mind this is not an exact diagram, it's just meant to help you visualize

As you can see, as you go from F22 to F2.8 the hole in the lens opens more and more to let in more and more light. This is one of those things that you just have to remember. "The smaller the number, the more light" F2.8 gives you more light than F4, which gives more light than F5.6, etc.

Aperture not only helps control the amount of light, it also controls what we call depth of field. That is how much of your photo is or is not in focus. But we'll save that for it's own discussion. For now, let's just focus on exposure.


The shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open to allow light into the camera. This is a much more simple concept than Aperture. Shutter speed is measure in seconds, then in fractions of seconds. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light enters the camera. Changing the shutter by 1 setting doubles or halves the amount of light entering the camera.

So, for example, a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second lets in half the light of a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.

Faster shutter speeds are required when you want to freeze action, such as sports, flying birds, etc, or even when you are handholding your camera for product photography. If your shutter speed is too slow, it is impossible for you to hold the camera still enough for a clear picture.

This is one of the things that often goes wrong for amateur photographers. If your pics are often blurry, chances are your shutter speed is too slow without you knowing it, and you are getting movement. The shutter opens, you move and create blur, then it finally closes. If you are hand-holding your camera and it's not on a tripod, you need to use faster shutter speeds to freeze the shot even if you're a bit shaky.


ISO is simply your camera's sensitivity to light. ISO used to be controlled by the film you bought, as different films were more or less sensitive to light. Remember buying ISO 200 or ISO 400 film? Well now it's all programmable on the camera, and ISO can be changed from shot to shot.

Easier to understand than aperture, ISO is pretty straightforward with the numbering.

ISO is measured in numbers which differ a bit with each camera. Some cameras give you more ISO options than others, but basically you only have to know that as the number increases, the camera is more sensitive to the light. Going from less sensitive to highly sensitive would look like this:

100,200, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1320, 1600, 3200

Most cameras will start at either 100 or 200 and might go to 800, especially point and shoot models. When there is a ton of light, such as outdoors in the sun at the beach, you don't need to have a very sensitive sensor. So ISO 100 or 200 still gives you good shutter speeds. If you're in a really dark room and your ISO is set to 100, chances are your camera would need a LONG shutter speed to have enough light to expose the picture correctly. That is why without a flash, most people's photos in a dark room are totally blurry.


So now you know you have three elements to work with that control how light or dark your pictures are going to appear. Don't be concerned with the exact numbers as all cameras will be a bit different if you're talking about a dslr or point and shoot. Just remember the concept for each element and you'll be fine.

So how do we use ISO, aperture and shutter together? Well the first thing to understand and remember is that they are all dependent on one another. If you change one, it effects the other. For now, let's leave the ISO out of it because you won't change that as often as the other two.

Remember that each time you change either the shutter speed or the aperture by 1 unit, the light entering the camera either doubles or is cut in half. So let's take a hypothetical example:

Suppose you set your camera on Auto and take a picture, and the photo looks perfect at F8 and 1/250th of a second. If you changed the aperture from F8 to F5.6 (the next aperture setting), what would happen? Well, twice as much light enters the camera, and the photo would be overexposed. So to compensate and make the photo look perfect again, we increase the shutter speed to 1/500, cutting the light in half. Now you're back to good exposure.

To wrap this up and keep it as simple as possible:

If your photos are too dark : Use a bigger aperture (F2.8, F4 instead of F16 or F22), Reduce your shutter speed, or increase the ISO number.

if your photos are too bright: Use a smaller aperture ( F16, F22 instead of F4, F2.8), Increase your shutter speed, or decrease the ISO number.

I know that was a handful and maybe you have more questions now than when you first read this. Over the next week or so I"m going to talk about each element in detail - shutter speed, aperture and ISO so you will have it all mastered soon.

I"ll also get into a lot more detail about product photography tips, using different colored backgrounds and how that can throw off your camera's metering system, tips on lighting, etc.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Understanding White Balance

Another caffeine fueled, sleepless night is upon me so time to blog again. Especially now that this blog is read by tens of people.

Before I get to the white balance thing, I just wanted to take the time to thank two wonderful people who featured me in their blogs today. The first is Kelly Malouf who creates her own clothes, bead jewelry, accessories and home decor. Her blog is: and of course that's also her website where you can view all her products.

The second blog was done by Jennifer from Jlcstudio She's an Etsy artist and has some fantastic jewelry so please check her out at Great stuff and a really nice person. I'm thankful to both for including me.

Now, the other day when I posted my first blog ever, someone wrote and asked about white balance. Since then on the forums of Etsy I've noticed a lot of people aren't too sure what it is or how to use it. So I thought tonight I'd reprint my response so nobody has to dig for it, and also add a few things.

So....white balance

White balance is basically a way for your camera to figure out the "color temperature" of the light in the scene you are shooting so that your camera records the true colors in the scene.We can look at a white object in the sun, the shade or anything in between and our brains are able to always see it as white.

With cameras, unless they know what type of light is available, they might read it wrong.You've seen shots or maybe taken some, where the entire color of the photo seems to move in one red/orange, too blue or too green. This is because the camera was probably set to the wrong white balance, and the camera thought the subject was lit with one type of light, when in reality it was another.

You will typically see your white balance settings listed as little pictures - the sun, a light bulb, a fluorescent, a flash symbol, Auto, cloudy, shade and perhaps custom.

The spectrum of light is measured in Kelvins. Though you're never going to need this information, I'll give it to you anyway.

1000-2000 K Candlelight
2500-3500 K Tungsten Bulb
3000-4000 K Sunrise/Sunset
4000-5000 K Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 K Electronic Flash
5000-6500 K Daylight with Clear Sky (sun overhead)
6500-8000 K Moderately Overcast Sky
9000-10000 K Shade or Heavily Overcast Sky

You don't have to memorize this chart, it just shows you that different types of light have a different color cast. Depending on what the conditions are, you need to change your camera's white balance so that color is recorded correctly.In the days of film cameras, you might have seen multi-colored filters at the camera store to attach to lenses. This was how white balance was handled then.

If it was "cool" light, which would normally produce a blue color, a red or orange "warming" filter was used.Now with digital cameras, this is all done automatically. It's not perfect and you can get situations where it's a little tricky.You will most likely get good results with your camera set to "auto" white balance. It generally does a good job and if you use Photoshop or another editing software you can make minor adjustments.

If you shoot RAW files on a dslr you can completely change the white balance even after you've already taken the photo.I will usually leave the white balance on Auto, or if it's bright and sunny I'll switch to "daylight". Indoors with household bulbs, switching to incandescent really does work well especially at night when bulbs are truly the only source of light.

The trickiest situations are always shade and overcast skies. Even on a cloudy day, sometimes you switch the white balance to "cloudy" thinking you've done the right thing, and the camera compensates too much and the photo looks orange. Same thing for shade. In these two situations it's always best to take a test photo and change the white balance if needed. Most of the consumer point and shoot cameras have a live view LCD screen on the back. You can change the white balance and look at the viewfinder to see what effect each setting has on color.

Because light is a mix of red, green and blue, the ratios vary a lot and so finding the perfect setting on your cam can be tricky sometimes. Sometimes on a sunny day, the "sunlight" setting produces a shot that's too cool and blue. Sometimes on a cloudy day, the cloudy setting renders everything too warm and orange.

I hope that helps people understand what it is and why its important. If it doesn't I can understand that too because it's 3am and my eyelids are starting to sink lower than the US dollar. If you still have questions, feel free to message me here, convo me over at Etsy or email me from my website

In my next blog I'm planning to talk about how to control depth of field. But if there are other topics you think are more important, feel free to let me know.