In the previous post, we looked at options for improving your website's photography for those on a limited budget and those who would rather hire a professional. In this follow-up post, we're going to go over a third option, which is to invest in your own equipment and learn to take great photos yourself.
This is often the best option for companies which have an ever evolving product line or maintain a gallery of new work performed. In these cases, it can be a more cost-effective option versus hiring a professional for each shoot.
There are literally hundreds of different brands and models of cameras and lenses, so which should you choose? Here are some things to consider when selecting photography equipment.
Choose a camera that offers interchangeable lens. Cameras with built-in lenses typically have very small sensors (the hardware component which digitally captures an image) and apertures (the opening in the lens that allows light to reach the sensor) which are limited based on zoom level. The aperture (f-stop) setting, is critical for creating shots with blurry backgrounds, which we’ll discuss momentarily.
For the most flexibility in post-processing, choose a camera which saves images in RAW format. The image files are much larger, but memory is very inexpensive now and RAW files allow settings like white balance and compression to be adjusted later without sacrificing image quality.
In order to make the most from your photos, you need full control of your equipment. Be sure the camera you select provides a manual mode where settings like ISO, aperture and shutter speed can be individually controlled.
Choose the right lens for the job. For extreme close-ups, you’ll need a macro lens. For great product or food photos, use a 50mm with the lowest aperture setting you can afford. For those stunning product or food photos, you’ll need f1.8 or less and f1.2 is totally awesome, if your budget allows. For portraits, use the 50mm or an 85mm. Zoom or kit lenses may cover the 50 and 85mm ranges, but often have apertures that don’t go below f2.8 or f4.0.
Great photos require great lighting and unless you’re shooting outdoors using natural light, you’ll need at least one flash. While a lot of cameras offer built-in flashes, these should be avoided as they typically produce images that are flat and overexposed with distracting shadows. If you need artificial light for your shoots, select a camera that has the ability to control external flashes.
Getting that perfect shot requires trial and error. Many adjustments to the camera settings, subject framing, camera location, flash location, etc. are typically required to get a photo just right. A good quality tripod is a photographer’s best friend. Be sure that you buy one capable of supporting your camera and the largest lens you think you’ll ever need.
Particularly for product shots, you need to be able to control the camera remotely as even the press of the shutter button can cause the camera to move, affecting critical focusing. Select a camera that provides the ability for remote shutter release.
Invest in the Adobe Lightroom photo processing software. To the best of my knowledge, there is no better software for post-processing still images. This software allows you to adjust and tweak all aspects of a photo. It provides the photographer with the ability to maintain catalogs of images preserving the original RAW files so that they can come back, fine-tune and re-export as needed.
Finally, select a good quality bag for your equipment. Photography equipment is sensitive to dust and moisture. When not in use, always keep the covers on your lenses and your equipment stored.
As we discussed in in the previous post, a key element of great website photography is consistency. All the photos on your website should have similar quality, coloring, contrast, cropping, etc. Much like color, typography and styling convey a brand, photos have this same effect.
If at all possible, use the same photographer, the same camera and the same post processing techniques and software for each photo within your site.
For portraits, keep head size consistent and allow spacing for larger hairstyles.
Most actors wouldn’t dare set foot on-camera without a stylist first tweaking their hair, makeup, etc. and the subjects of your photos need this same attention. For instance, if you are creating product shots, make sure your product is clean and dust-free. If you are shooting food, such as a cake, a steak or fruit, cut into it so you can see the inside.
If you are taking portraits or have both dark and light colored products, subjects should be placed on or in front of a neutral color or non-distracting pattern as a background. Alternatively, use a dark background for a light colored product and use a light background for a dark colored product.
You may recall movies or television shows where a would-be photographer or movie producer holds his thumbs and index fingers up to his face in an “L” shape and looks through them at a person or scene. This is a common technique used to help visualize how the subject may appear on a screen or in a photo. You can use this method to help you determine where to place your subject within its background and a good location for the camera.
One guideline of good composition is the rule of thirds. This is where you divide an image into 9 equal parts using evenly spaced vertical and horizontal lines. Most professional digital cameras provide this grid in the viewfinder or on-screen. The idea is that you position the most important elements along these lines or at their intersections. Using this rule will add balance and interest to your photos.
When shooting products or food you should position the camera so that it is angled toward the item versus aiming directly at it. This will produce a photo that is much more realistic and interesting instead of flat and boring.
Another thing to keep in mind is to review your composition for distractions. While good photos have features such as balancing elements, leading lines, symmetry, and patterns, be sure to use them with intention. Keep the focal point of the photo as the largest or brightest element. Watch your backgrounds for items that don’t add value to your shot and either remove them or reframe the photo.
As we’ve already learned, a picture tells a story, but a photographer should strive to tell the whole story. To illustrate this, let’s say you’d like to show your audience a photo of an employee building your product. A poor example of this would be a shot of the employee standing behind a piece of equipment so that you can’t see his hands or what he’s doing. The story would be complete by showing the employee with his hands on the product guiding it into the equipment. The purpose of a photo, or the story it tells, should be immediately and unmistakably obvious.
The optimum camera settings depend greatly on your subject and the environment within which you are shooting. The camera’s primary settings with which you should be concerned with are shutter speed, ISO (light sensitivity setting) and aperture. When taking photos of things in motion, you need a greater shutter speed. When you’re shooting in low light, the ISO needs to be raised. If you’d like to blur the background to enhance the focal point of your shot, the aperture should be lowered.
The details of these settings are beyond the scope of this post, but I strongly recommend taking a beginning photography course if you aren’t already familiar with them.
Lighting & Exposure
A photo is generated by light reflecting off a subject. This light must come from some source, whether that be the sun outdoors or entering through a window, or coming from an artificial source such as a flash. For best results, this light should be very soft and evenly distributed across your subject so that it is illuminated equally without hot spots or shadows.
When using the sun, it is considered best practice to shoot either in the early morning or late afternoon. When the sun is high in the sky, it typically produces undesirable long shadows on your subject.
If you are shooting indoors, you should almost always use one or more flashes. It is rare to have soft, even light from infrastructure lighting. To obtain even lighting from flashes, you will either need to bounce the light or use a diffuser, such as a softbox.
When shooting products, I typically use two flashes. One is the primary, more prominent light source (keylight) aimed at the front or top of the subject and the second is set to a lower output for fill light on the back of the subject. I usually position the two flashes at opposite 45-degree angles from the subject.
White balance is the setting that allows you to accurately represent the color of the photo. The premise is that when white is white, the other colors fall in line. Many cameras have presets for white balance such: sunlight, tungsten and fluorescent lighting.
Luckily, when shooting in RAW, white balance is largely a non-issue because you can adjust it in post processing without any sacrifice to image quality.
My best advice for Adobe Lightroom is to not be afraid to try. When working in Lightroom, you are essentially creating additional metadata for a photo. The source image is never modified. Lightroom tracks your changes to its many sliders and options and applies those settings when images are exported. Slide the sliders all the way + or - and see how your photo is affected by each setting. You don’t have to worry about your changes being permanent as you can always undo or revert a photo to its original.
When I’m editing my photos, I usually always start by thinning the herd. Adobe Lightroom allows you to compare, flag and rate images, then filter your list. I usually make two or three passes over each set of shots for a subject. Set the rejected flag for the ones that are obviously non-keepers, i.e. eyes closed, out of focus, over/underexposed, etc. and keep narrowing them down until I’ve selected the best ones.
Once I have the photos I’ve selected for final processing, I apply a profile for the lens I’m using. This helps with optical distortions inherent to almost all lenses and is most apparent in wide-angle lenses. This is when straight lines appear warped near the edges of the frame. The profiles add manufacturer recommended adjustments to your photos, helping you get the most from your shots.
The next thing I typically do is fine-tune the cropping and rotation of the image. Lightroom provides the grid needed to position your subjects or focal points so your photos adhere to the rule of thirds. This is your second chance to look for distractions or unnecessary elements in your photos. Avoid cutting things off in the middle with the frame. For example, let’s say you have a photo that shows part of a door at the very edge of the frame. This creates tension in your photo and draws the eye away from your subject. Crop the image so that you don’t see the doorframe, even if this pulls your subject off the grid somewhat.
At this point, you should have the basic mechanics of the photo in good shape. What remains is primarily coloring, contrast and sharpness. I normally start at the top of the slider toolbar and go down. Tweak the temp and tint by hand or use the dropper to select a true white area so that white balance is accurate. Then move to exposure. Slide the slider up and down and see how it affects your photo. Use the highlights slider to reduce hot spots and the shadows slider to bring out poorly lit areas. Keep going down through each slider adjusting as needed to improve your photo.
Depending on the number of photos you’re dealing with, don’t be afraid to take a break every so often. Photo processing requires a lot thought and your body will become fatigued after a while. Much like sampling perfume or cologne, you should clear your mental palate so that you can review your photos with a fresh eye and possibly spot a needed improvement that you previously missed.
Once you think you’ve done your best with your photos, export them and review them in preview or an image viewer. Have a coworker or friend review them for a second opinion and re-edit them as needed. If you’ve got multiple good shots of the same subject ask for input from others on which are the best and make your final selections.
Adding your photos to your website
One of the nicest Drupal features introduced in version 7 is image styles. Using the GD library and contributed modules like ImageMagick, you have the ability to upload an image once and apply different effects, cropping, and resizing dynamically, as needed.
I typically export my images with the “Resize to Fit” setting checked and a “Long Edge” set to 1280 pixels. I export the images as JPEG with the quality at 100%. This normally gives me images around 1MB in size. I upload these as file entities in Drupal and then use image styles to resize them as needed. The GD or ImageMagick settings control image compression and I usually leave this at the default of 75.
Displaying your photos
Finally, how you display your photos is largely related to your site’s design, but one thing is for sure, bigger is better. Consider using a full-width slideshow or hero image so that your photos are big and bold. Provide a zoom option or open larger versions of your photos in a lightbox so your viewers can see small details.
If you have multiple photos of your products showing different angles, select an overall photo as your primary and then order the remaining photos as if you are circling around the product as you view them. Show products in and out of their packaging or in use in real-life. Make it easy for your viewer to visualize how your product would work for them. Tell the story with your photos.
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