Develop Your Photographic Diversity

When times are good and the economy is rolling along, it’s all too easy to become a niche photographer and specialize in work that you are most familiar and comfortable with. I know several local photographers that do only event photography like weddings and bar mitzvahs and others that do only high school senior portraits. Many landscape and nature photographers that I know wouldn’t think of shooting a wedding or sweet-sixteen party, let alone a corporate head-shot. When times are good . . .

Well, right now times aren’t so good and many photographers find themselves scratching to make a living, lowering prices and accepting client terms they would have laughed at several years ago. It doesn’t look like the economy is going to recover anytime soon and even if it does, the market for commercial photography may never be what it once was. Corporate and personal frugality may become the norm rather than the exception.

But some photographers are thriving despite their circumstances. These folks seem to understand that “specialization is for insects, not people” (Yes, you’ve heard me say this before). They know that there is incredible strength in photographic diversity.

It’s a lesson that every photographer should heed, myself included. Mix things up a little and photograph subjects that stretch your current skills. If you shoot predominately landscapes and nature, go out and shoot some portraits. Dig a little deeper and reach a little further. If you shoot wedding and events, get up early one morning and shoot the sunrise. Get out of your photographic comfort zone and take creative some risk.

I think Dewitt Jones sums it up nicely. “Celebrate What’s Right With the World”.

What have you got to lose?

Race Gun

Race Gun – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 35mm, f/9 for 1/400th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Simple Beauty

Simple Beauty – Austin, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual (M) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens hand-held. Lit with a Profoto strobe and shoot-through umbrella for fill flash. The exposure was taken at 102mm, f/7.1 for 1/200th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Wet

Wet – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender hand-held. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/7.1 for 1/200th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Product Shots

Here are a few simple product shots I’ve been working on for an article on custom firearms. This is a highly customized “1911” pistol built from an inexpensive Kimber firearm for competitive shooting. Building this “race gun” was almost as much fun as setting up the lighting and props for these product shots.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1911 semi-automatic pistol, this gun’s design dates back to the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. It was invented by one of the world’s most famous gunsmiths, John Moses Browning. The M1911 was introduced for the US military before World War I and has seen continuous use around the world for the past 100 years.

Kimber Competition 1911

Kimber Competition Gun - RightAngle

Kimber Competition Gun - Magwell

Kimber Competition Gun - Left Angle

Kimber Competition Gun - Rear

Kimber Competition Gun - Details

Kimber Competition 1911

Custom 1911 Build Product Shots – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. Lighting was provided by natural light through a 1-stop diffuser and with a single 580EX II with a soft-box for fill and highlight. Post capture processing was done n Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Click on the images above for larger versions.

Something Different

Here’s something I’ve been working on for the past few weeks while waiting for the weather to break and for autumn to actually begin here in Texas. A free copy of my latest book for the first person to identify all six objects in this product shot.

Race Gun

Race Gun – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. Lighting was provided by natural light through a 1-stop diffuser and with a single 580EX II with a soft-box for fill and highlight. Post capture processing was done n Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Product Photography Post Capture Magic

If you remember a few months ago I wrote a short tutorial called One Light Product Photography which described the setup I generally use when photographing small products such as firearms. After publishing that post in June I received a lot of email asking for a more detailed explanation of how I performed my post-capture “magic” to make these products look so clean and sharp. And while none of these techniques are magic, I thought I’d share a bit more detail about the tools I use in my digital darkroom.

Post-Capture Cleaning
Most small products are photographed up close using a medium zoom lens or with a macro lens. Making a product look “clean” at this resolution means eliminating all dust, dirt and microscopic debris from the product before your shoot, during your shoot and after your shoot. On the set, this means using a microfiber cloth and compressed air.

In the digital darkroom this means using the new Content Aware Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop CS5 just like you do to retouch a portrait. In fact, all of your portrait retouching techniques can be applied to the post-capture processing of product images including dodging, burning, cloning and blurring. But the most widely used tool today is the incredibly powerful content aware healing brush.

Before Healing Brush Magic After Healing Brush Magic

 

Take this image below for example. After processing normally in Lightroom 3 there was still a lot of dust, dirt and debris clinging to this all black firearm. Click on the “After” photo below to see a larger version where you can see in detail just how well the content aware spot healing brush really works in this situation.

Before “Cleaning” in CS5
Kimber Super Carry Pro Before Retouching

After “Cleaning in CS5”
Kimber Super Carry Pro After Retouching

Kimber Super Carry Pro Series 1911 Pistol – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. Lighting was provided by natural light through a 1-stop diffuser and with a single 580EX II with a soft-box for fill and highlight. Post capture processing was done n Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Post Capture Processing

  • My first step is to choose an image that is tack sharp and well exposed and to set the proper White Balance for the overall scene. A gray card is the best tool use for this.
  • My next step is to increase the images contrast using Lightroom’s Tone Curve settings and by adding significant sharpness using the Detail settings. The goal is to add definition to the handgun’s lines and highlights without creating digital noise in the background.
  • My next step is to export the image to Adobe Photoshop CS5 and to use the Content Aware Spot Healing Brush to clean up the surfaces of the objects, removing any white specks of dust, dirt or other debris.
  • The final step is to clone the background layer and sharpen it using the High-Pass Filter settings and then blend the layer into the background by selecting the Overlay mode. This adds an “edgy” quality to the images and brings out much of the texture and details in the firearm.

Conclusions
Every product shot requires significant post capture processing and photographing firearms is no exception. Luckily, between Adobe Lightroom 3’s develop module and Photoshop CS5’s content-aware retouching tools, this doesn’t have to take hours and hours.

Using a Gray Card for White Balance

Bill had a great question about my One Light Product Photography post yesterday so I thought I’d share my “not so secret” method for achieving correct white balance for all my product photography.

How many times have you been shooting where the colors look great on your camera’s LCD but seem a little off in Lightroom? You can spend hours tweaking the white balance and HSL sliders in Lightroom’s develop module trying to get your on-screen image to look like you remember it or you can buy a WhiBal gray card from the folks at Michael Tapes Design and solve this problem in just a few seconds.

Using a Gray Card

Fixing your white balance in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 using a WhiBal gray card is as simple as clicking the White Balance Selector tool (eye-dropper) in the “Basic” panel of the “Develop Module” and then clicking on the neutral gray area of the WhiBal gray card in your image. The Temp and Tint sliders in the Basic panel will adjust to make the selected color neutral, resulting in the correct white balance for these lighting conditions. The final step is to “sync” the white balance for all the other images taken in the same lighting conditions.

One Light Product Photography

In this business, few jobs take more imagination than product photography. Bringing an inanimate object to life through still photography takes skill, patience and a keen eye for detail. Making a customer’s product look both desirable and valuable is part science and part art and in its own way, is every bit as difficult as portrait photography. Especially if the product being photographed is not in and of itself “beautiful” or spectacular.

In the industries where I work, few products are “high tech”, shiny or sexy. Most are functional, utilitarian and quite honestly, lifeless. Most are made from forged or cast metal which is generally dark gray or black and soaks up light like a sponge or from machined metals which are bright and highly reflective which masks any detail when lit. What many think of as “industrial machinery” is often the the most difficult thing to photograph effectively.

So when the folks from The Truth About Guns (TTAG) asked me to photograph firearms for their online magazine I was both intrigued by the challenge and thankful for work that didn’t require miles and miles of driving with gasoline at $4.00 per gallon. Little did I know at the beginning just how detailed this work would become and how much I would have to learn about these “products” to be able to photograph them safely and effectively.

Kimber 1911 Pistol

Kimber Custom II Series 1911 Pistol – Sugar Land, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual using an EF 24-105m f/4L IS USM lens tripod mounted. Lighting was provided by natural light through a 1-stop diffuser and with a single 580EX II with a soft-box for fill and highlight. Post capture processing was done n Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Click on the image above for a larger version.

One Big Light and One Small Light
The first big decision I made was to abandon my normal studio lighting setup and to photograph these firearms outside, using a combination of diffused natural light and fill flash. I did this for safety reasons and for convenience, since my studio space is limited and some of the rifles I would be photographing would be too large to light properly inside.

When working with any firearm, safety is always rule number one. My training had taught me to treat every firearm as loaded and ready to fire and since I would be using “props” including loaded magazines and live ammunition, working outside seemed a safer approach. From a lighting perspective, I knew I needed an area that was both large and open but somewhat sheltered from the elements.

I wanted to keep my setup simple and portable so I created a shooting table from a piece of particle-board on top of two saw horses. I taped down some white background paper for a work surface and setup a Lastolite Skylite Kit using the diffused sunlight as my main light. For fill and highlight I used a single Canon 580EX II speedlite shot through a 24″ Lastolite EzyBox Hotshoe. Since I would be working very close to the strobe I used a Canon OC-E3 TTL sync cord but shot everything in manual, controlling the flash from the camera’s LCD screen.

Lighting Setup

Making it All Look Good
The biggest challenge in photographing small products is in setting up the scene to look interesting without it becoming too “crowded”. To accomplish the this I went to my local sporting goods store and bought the latest issue of every firearm and hunting magazine I could find. I wasn’t “cheating” here folks, I was doing research to see what types of images and lighting technique other photographers had used. I was also looking for ideas on background colors, textures and associated objects that could be used. I settled on a simple 16″ x 16″ tile ($2.99 at Home Depot) made to look like textured marble for the background or base. I chose a gun case made from “Cordura” nylon and a box of live ammunition for my “props” in the scene as shown below.

Product Setup

Keeping it Clean
The second biggest challenge is in making sure the product being photographed is absolutely spotless with no fingerprints, no dust and no hair in the image. This becomes a real chore with firearms which are always lubricated with oil so that they function properly. Rather than keep wiping off each new fingerprint I decided to field strip the gun and clean each piece separately which is how I came up with the idea for this next shot. I had to learn the proper disassembly techniques for this handgun (the included instructions were horrible) but thankfully the Internet is a wonderful resource to have these days.

After I had all the parts oil-free, clean and dry I reassembled the firearm with no lubricant and took several different shots from various angles using different props. I used a clean microfiber cloth and an old lens brush to remove any dirt, lint or dust from the weapon as I “posed” it for each shot. I also decided that the “exploded view” of the disassembled gun looked very cool in B&W and adopted this as one of my signature shots for each firearm I photograph.

1911 Parts

Soft But Hard Light
I had a certain “look” that I wanted for these shots and knew that this would require very soft, diffused lighting with clean and crisp highlights. Using diffused sunlight along with fill flash was a perfect combination to create an almost “high key” (portrait style) lighting on the scene. My fill flash settings were usually in the 1/8 to 1/4 power range, just enough to add some highlights without loosing too much contrast in the shadows.

Right Side View

Surefire

Post Capture Processing
Every product shot requires significant post capture processing and photographing firearms is no exception. Luckily, between Adobe Lightroom 3’s develop module and Photoshop CS5’s content-aware retouching tools, this doesn’t have to take hours and hours.

  • My first step is to choose an image that is tack sharp and well exposed and to set the proper white balance for the overall scene. A gray card is the best tool use for this.
  • My next step is to increase the images contrast using Lightroom’s ToneCurve settings and by adding significant sharpness using the Detail settings. The goal is to add definition to the handgun’s lines and highlights without creating digital noise in the background.
  • My next step is to export the image to Adobe Photoshop CS5 and to use the Content Aware Spot Healing Brush to clean up the surfaces of the objects, removing any dust, dirt or fingerprints.
  • The final step is to clone the background layer and sharpen it using the High-Pass Filter settings and then blend the layer into the background by selecting the Overlay mode. This adds an “edgy” quality to the images and brings out much of the texture and details in the firearm.

Conclusions
I’m fairly pleased with these results and with the overall look these techniques brought out in the Kimber Custom II Series 1911 pistol. For you gun enthusiasts out there please visit the TTAG web site for more information on this gun or for gun related news. For those of you interested in product photography I hope post this gives you a small feel for what’s involved in creating a nice product shot without spending a fortune.

Barrel

Trigger

Beavertail

Closeup

Totally Geeked Out Gear Friday

Several months ago I received an email from a reader asking how and why I used my Canon strobes for on-location lighting. The how is pretty easy to illustrate as seen in the images below.

Small Strobes + Pocketwizards + Small Softboxes = Light-Me-Silly

EzyBox HotShoe w/ Canon 580EX & FlexTT5

My basic on location rig consists of the following:

Canon 580EX II Speedlites – A real work horse but a bit pricey. Throws a lot of light for a small strobe but gets hot and eats batteries. For a serious Canon shooter, there is really no other choice.

Canon CP-E4 Battery Pack – This is battery food for your Canon Speedlites. Very pricey but holds 8 AA batteries. Don’t leave home without it.

Pocketwizard FlexTT5 & MiniTT1 – Just say no to cords! I rented a set of these to try out and was sold after two minutes. Just say NO to Canon’s ST-E2 infrared transmitter. Works in full manual mode like a champ.

EzyBox HotShoe w/ Canon 580EX & FlexTT5

Lastolite Ezybox Hostshoe – This softbox unfolds in about 10 seconds. After spending hours setting up a conventional softboxes, you’ll love how fast this thing gets you to work. Now available in 24″ x 24″ and 30″ x 30″ sizes.

Manfrotto 3373 Aluminum 6′ Stand – Folds to 19″ long and weighs a little over 2 lbs. What’s not to like?

Photoflex Weight Bag – Just add water. Whoever invented this was a genius. Beats lugging around sand-bags all day long. Holds my favorite margarita mix (kidding).

Photoflex Weight Bag

Think Before You Light
The “why” is a little more difficult to explain. I tell this story all the time. I had a nice little weekend gig for a very small Houston manufacturer of oil field widgets. They needed some product shots for a new brochure but didn’t have a lot of money to spend.

I rented a pair of Westcott TD5 Spiderlites after watching a Scott Kelby video about them. The TD5 Spiderlite is a compact fluorescent lamp & softbox providing daylight-balanced continuous light which sounds perfect for product photography.

Working with these lights couldn’t be simpler and I had everything setup in 30 minutes and began to shoot. Since the lighting is continuous, you don’t need a flash trigger or cords and adjusting the lighting is accomplished by turning on or off each of the four bulbs and by positioning the light/softbox closer to or farther away from the product. Since the lights are compact fluorescents, there is no heat to speak of and you can position the light/softbox really close to get that wonderful soft, wrapping light that makes a product really “shine”.

Did I mention that no cords or flash triggers were needed? After about an hour of shooting their stuff I’m just about ready to pack up when an employee comes over with his trusty Nikon D90 and asks if it’s OK for him to take a few shots of the widgets for their web site. I begin to tell him that his camera isn’t going to work with my strobes & trigger when it dawns on me that THERE ARE NO STROBES and his wonderful little D90 will take complete advantage of the beautiful continuous lighting I’ve spend the past few hours setting up.

Talk about a blinding flash of the obvious (no pun intended). Continuous lighting works only too well in the field, which is why it was the first and last time I’ve used the Westcott Spiderlites on location. Yes, I got paid for my work but that senior moment cost me half of what I could have earned.

Lesson learned!

Gear Friday – Extra Batteries

Happy Friday everyone!

In my younger days a veteran sports photographer in the Detroit area used to give me some tips about shooting sports. Mostly little tricks he’d learned over the years and wasn’t afraid to share with a young kid like me. The one that always stuck with me was to bring at least two extra rolls of 36 exposure Tri-X film to every game no matter what. He’d say “sure as I’m standing here kid, if you run out of film before the end of the game the winning touch-down pass will be thrown in the last ten seconds and you’re gonna look like a #$%^ idiot for missing the shot”.

I’ve never forgotten that little tip (since I learned it the hard way) and I’d like to pass it along (updated somewhat) to you folks. Your beautiful new D90/50D/D700/5D MK II won’t do you a lick of good if the battery dies in the middle of a shoot. Keep in mind that your DSLR’s wonderfully sharp LCD and auto-focus / image-stabilized lenses can drain a battery dry in just a few hours of continuous use.

The very FIRST accessory you should buy NO MATTER WHAT, is an extra battery or two. I own five for my EOS 40D and 50D bodies as well as an extra charger. The night before I’m going out to shoot, I always recharge at least two spare batteries to take with me.

My friends at Adorama or B&H Photo carry these spare batteries in stock at all times!

Extra Batteries

Extra Batteries
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 50D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 67mm, f/8 for 6 seconds at ISO 100 on Lexar Professional digital film. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2 using Nik Software’s Viveza. Click on the image above for a larger version.

The lighting setup for this shot was fairly simple using a Lastolite Cubelite and one Canon 580EX II Speedlite. The 580EX II Speedlite was positioned to the right and and slightly in front of the subject with a single reflector directly left of the subject to add fill where needed. All exposure ratio magic was done wirelessly using Canon’s E-TTL II sorcery.