Friday, April 20, 2007

Anatomy of a Photo: A Lens for eBay

[This is the first of my Anatomy of a Photo series. This one is pretty basic but I hope to get more advanced with time. Personally, I love to see what goes into a photo, especially if it is non-obvious. I always feel like I can learn something new to help me.]

Let's suppose you are looking at a $200 lens on eBay (or Craiglist). You like the description, even though it is a bit short, but then you scroll down to the pictures... they look like someone took them with a cell-phone camera and a case of the shakes. Would you buy from that seller? Probably not.

Good pictures increase an eBay sale price more than anything else. If someone is supposed to be a photographer selling their old equipment, I expect to see pretty good pictures. If I don't, I get really suspicious and adjust my bids according to the increased risk.

The simple fact is that taking good product pictures is quite easy.

For instance, take the image above -- it is near catalog quality, right? Well, I took it using a few flashes, an old box, some printer paper, and some tape. And you could do it too. You don't even need flashes, a desk lamp or two will work fine. All you have to do is create a simple light box, for which the basic process has been spread around the internet far and wide:

Strobist's DIY $10 Macro Photo Studio
Fresh Fodder
Strobist's Advanced Gizmo Studio
Digital Photography School

In all honesty, I don't have a lot to add to their descriptions. They all approximate light tents (available online for $50 or more) for a few bucks. But I wanted to share my setup which worked really well for my recent eBay auction selling the Tamron 19-35mm f/3.5-4.5 above.

The basic set-up is based on the box I made for my watch:

I took a small box (maybe 9" x 12" x 9"?), placed it on its side, and cut the top and right side out. Then I covered the inside with photocopy/printer paper, and used a single sheet of paper to produce a seemless white background. The result is shown in the picture at right. In order to keep the bottom of the box from blocking the shot, I trimmed the flap a bit and hung it over the edge of the table.

Lighting required both of my available flashes. I could have easily used the same desk lamp I used for my watch but continuous lighting usually requires a tripod. The flashes allowed me to hand-hold the camera and rapidly snap pictures from different angles. The image above (click to make larger) shows the set-up with a Sunpak 383 lying on the table and a Nikon SB-20 in the light stand.

I tried lighting from the top and right but it just didn't look right -- too much light on the top of the subject and not enough on the left side. So I decided to light from both sides of the subject except I was too lazy to cut a hole in the box on the right side. Also, since the box is shallow and a bit too small for the lens, I wanted to move the light forward a bit. So, I used the SB-20 to light up the left side of the box by putting it on a stand to the right of the box entrance and projecting its light on the far wall/box flap.

The projected light spilled onto the object a bit, so I used a random piece of paper and some tape on the curved front of the SB-20 to control the spill. The picture above shows the pattern created, essentially providing a soft, large light to the left of the subject.

I didn't try this, but you could probably light with a single flash by using a piece of paper on the right side as both a diffuser and spill control. In other words, the flash would be aligned to hit both the left wall and the right diffuser (angled like the SB-20 in the picture, but farther).

Finally, after taking the pictures at the lowest ISO and largest aperture possible, I cleaned them up on the computer by dodging (lightening) the background highlights in Paint Shop Pro XI, crop, resize, sharpen, and done. An easy way to get 20 good pictures in 30 minutes or less.

And the result is much, Much, MUCH better than the typical 'living room carpet' eBay picture. The technique also has a huge margin for error, meaning almost any way you set it up, you'll get some pretty good pictures.

Better picture = more money, and I like money (so I can buy more camera equipment!).

[Read Part II for more information, including a more advanced lighting scheme and post processing details.]

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