I have a spare half-hour to post so I'll go ahead and get this up, finally. The images have been ready for quite a while, but I just haven't pulled the trigger on writing the text up.
Of course, it has been a long time since I wrote an Anatomy of a Photo post. Sadly, I have no set-up shots, didn't make a note of settings, and took the shots a month ago. I'll do my best though!
Word has gotten out around the lab that I dabble in photography, so a number of guys have asked me to take shots of various robots and robot related apparatuses. So far, I've done at least four different shoots, not including my own robot. I have to admit, I enjoy product/technical photography -- it is fun to have a subject that doesn't wiggle, complain, need breaks, and looks cool!
While I don't consider myself a professional product photographer, I feel like I am doing a pretty good job on these shots. In fact, one of my dissertation readers commented: "Your object photos are amazing - did you hire a photographer?" Too bad it is so hard to make money in product photography in this economy!
Anyway, in this case, a guy from the lab asked if I could shoot his haptic device. I liked the way the shoot turned out (the image at the top was used in one of his presentations) so I asked him if he minded if I posted about it here. He didn't, so here we go...
The primary goal was to get some shots that he could use for papers and presentations, highlight the use of his haptic device, and get a few detail shots. Actually, he didn't tell me those needs outright, but whenever I do research/product shots, I always try to get a cool 'overall' view, a cool 'in use' view, and then 'detail' views based on specific contributions.
In particular, I always ask: "What is the most novel thing about this robot?" In this case, his cable transmission was notable, so I made sure to get a shot of it. Actually, the transmission shot was my favorite of the shoot -- see it at the end of this post. And, as always, click to see any of the photos larger.
The shoot itself occurred in a nearby conference room and was rather painless. The conference room has large brown tables that tend to look nice with a black background, so I set the robot on a table and set up some lights. Before engaging flash though, I shot a few with available light (window) for safety. Overall, I found the available light shots unremarkable so I didn't post any here.
At the start, I was undecided if I wanted a light or dark background. Often, in research papers or on the web, a white or gray background flows better (and doesn't kill printer ink). So I shot the device on a large piece of white seamless to start, as above.
The only lighting in this case is a Sunpak 383 into an umbrella at camera left. I had a large piece of foam core as fill on the other side, if I remember correctly.
After shooting a few frames and chimping, I decided the white background was not letting the device 'pop' like it should. I usually don't like white with silvery products because there is not a lot of separation between the silver and the white. So I removed the seamless and shot on the bare table:
While I liked this a little better in terms of contrast, the edges of the motors were getting lost in the background. So I decided to use a hard light from behind the object to highlight edges (again, this is the cross-lighting trick I always tend to go back to). That necessitated a swap from the umbrella to a large white wall at camera right (moving the table to get the right angle). I also added an SB-20 in deep camera left, slightly below the level of the table, to get a backlight without too much specular on the table.
Overall, I like this shot a lot better. Note how the back light evens out the table and provides a nice outline on the edges of the motors. The table itself was brought up quite a bit by the change in lighting. In particular, the key is now farther away but much larger, resulting in less drop-off.
Once I got the shot locked in, I took a series of shots in this position, moving the robot to get the specular highlights where I wanted them. In these cases, I don't mind if small portions blow out, but I want to avoid a large area (like a pulley face) completely blowing out. I also brought in a hand model when it was too hard for me to hold the device and shoot at the right angle. I could have used a tripod, but it is always easier with an extra hand! The end result was the image that opened the post.
One thing I've been trying to work on lately is more variation in my shots, especially for product-style photography like this. I'll do a full shoot, then realize during processing that almost all of my shots are from the same point of view. Only after the fact will I think of other unique angles or lighting setups.
So after I got a number of safe (but quality) shots, I started to experiment a little bit. The first change was to rotate the device the opposite way, using the same setup:
With the pulleys facing the key light I also took the opportunity to get some detail shots, like the shot below:
I should also mention, in terms of detail shots, you can often get away with some aggressive cropping of overall shots for web display or within a paper or thesis. It is still nice to break out the macro lens to do a few on purpose in high-res, but if you forget, you can often derive them from your main shots.
I tried a few other views and angles, but the shot above really is my favorite from the whole shoot. No specific reason, I just like the close, technical feel of it. Overall I felt the haptic device was very photogenic, primarily because the red base really provides some pop against a dark background. A little bit of color can go a long way, even for a research paper!