Thursday, March 18, 2010

Trials and tribulations

In the past month, I have been working on getting better shots of my quilts, and learning how to take better how-to shots that I can use on my blog. There have been days when I wanted to rip my hair out. I am an artistic photographer, not a technical one. Today, the members of Fiber Art Options came over for our monthly meeting, and to photograph all of our work from the "Orchids: Sensuality Stitched" exhibition that just closed at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Our goal is to create a CD of our work to send out to potential future venues.

We worked inside today, with professional flash units and light stands, and pinned each piece to my design wall. We rigged nylon fabric over the flash units to soften and diffuse the light. We bounced the lights at a 45 degree angle off foamcore positioned at the sides of the pieces. We tried putting one flash to the side, to skim light over the surface (the result was hot spots, or bright areas, near that flash, even at lower settings). We experimented with setting the flashes at different power settings. I shot in manual mode, and I played some with my f-stop and my shutter speed and my ISO. You can see the result here:

The color is fairly close. The light is even, and I think the exposure is okay. But it is totally flat. When you zoom in, the detail is okay, and you can see the stitching, but it looks like a painting and not a quilt.

If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you can see a photo I took a few months ago of the same piece. The texture is great. I took it outside. I put it on the ground, got up on a ladder, and shot straight down. It was a sunny day, and either early morning (9-ish) or later in the afternoon (4-ish) to avoid the harsher lighting of mid-day. I shot in auto mode.

If you read my post earlier this month, you can see the little foam core “stage” I set up to shoot my smaller pieces and how-to shots. This quilt is too big to fit on that stage, so it had to be shot in a different way.

So… here’s my big question: Why is the first shot so much better? What am I doing wrong when I shoot inside? If you know and can help me, please leave a comment! I’d really like to have some of my hair at the end of the month. Thanks.

NOTE: Since writing this, I have had several e-mails from people suggesting Holly Knott's excellent information called “Shoot that Quilt!” on her website. I read it long ago, and built her stands and purchased the special bulbs. I’m still not getting the texture. I just e-mailed  her, and when I hear back, I will certainly share what I learn by posting here. The lights I’m using now are professional level flash units, so that changes all the variables. 

LATER NOTE: Here is Holly's response to my plea for help: 
"Hi Susan! I hear your frustration! Just checked out your blog post and you are certainly doing all the right things. It’s all in the lighting. You have to light one side brighter than the other, to create little shadows from the raised areas in-between your quilting lines. The only thing I can think of is that even though you’ve tried different lighting scenarios, that perhaps you’ve evenly lit *both* sides of the piece. You’ll want one side to be lit a little brighter than the other. I’m guessing that your quickie shot taken outdoors that shows the quilting fabulously worked because the sun was hitting it at an angle. Perhaps try moving one light stand close to the quilt and aiming it at a 25-degree angle across it, and move the other light stand to the other side of the quilt but farther away, 45-degree angle as you normally would, just to make sure that side of the quilt isn’t in total darkness. Possibly even try a brighter bulb in the light closest to the quilt. See this very quick graphic in case this doesn’t make sense:

"Also, you mentioned using flash units. Are they literally flashes, that only go off when the shutter clicks? I never use those myself (unless I’m taking a quickie auto shot) because I can’t see the light before it goes off (compared to the fixed lights on the stands that you can move around and judge brightness with because they’re always on). "

Thanks, Holly! I guess it is back to the drawing board! Stay tuned, everyone!


  1. Hmmm, I've fiddled with this issue as well. I always prefer natural light but Pacific NW Winters demand having an inside solution.

    The first thing that strikes me in the second photo is it just doesn't look crisp. Do you always use a tripod? I find when shooting inside I have to use my tripod and I have to be careful to 'squeeze' the shutter to not rattle the focus.

    The color looks flat too. I like the trumpet light bulbs I purchased but I still feel like I have to adjust the color in photoshop to make it look realistic.

    Looking forward to hearing what others have to say on this!

  2. I am considering taking a photography class to learn how to photograph my quilts. I am never happy with the pictures I take inside!
    Great question I look forward to reading what others suggest.
    I posted about the book today
    thanks again

  3. Thanks, Kathy,
    No, I wasn't using a tripod yesterday, but I tried that this morning, and I don't think that is the issue this time. I'm still getting the same flatness.

    The AQS shows don't allow ANY changes to your original image (brightness, color, cropping out the background). Crazy, I think! Which is why I have not entered any AQS shows until I had the professionally shot one of Pink Petal Party! So if I want to enter any AQS shows or other exhibitions that prohibit "fixes" to photos, I have to figure this out.

    I really need an "inside solution" too! It always seems to rain on the days I really need to take a photo of something. Even here in sunny North Carolina!

  4. The flatness is a lighting issue, I would think. Sounds like there is too much light from all sides.

    A tripod is a must, definitely. Also, if your camera has a timer, use that instead of pushing the button. The timer has to be put "on" for each exposure.

    Re "changes" to the image... camera setting such as the f-stop, exposure, plus the color and angle of lighting and the file format all affect the appearance of the image... whatever techniques used to end up with a more accurate photograph of the artwork should be acceptable in my opinion.

    Try using camera RAW if your camera has it and you have Photoshop. RAW allows you to adjust the image before it opens in Photoshop. Of course, your monitor has to be as accurate as possible, too, preferably adjusted with a calibrator. Good luck!

  5. Thanks, Loreen,
    I tried using one main light (in front) and one at the side, but no matter how I adjusted the brightness settings on the side light (set there to skim across the surface) I got hot spots (too much light in one spot).

    I agree with you that "whatever techniques used to end up with a more accurate photograph of the artwork should be acceptable". But it is not acceptable to AQS, from what I've read. Other big shows have no problem with it.

    My camera doesn't save in RAW format.

  6. Another option may be to altogether change the quality of the light being emitted from one of the lights with a diffusing theatrical "gel". Basically what gels are is a thin sheet of heat resistant plastic, with color or texture to change the qualities of the light itself as it hits the subject. I would suggest getting a sheet each of Roscolux 100 frost and 101 light frost. Try here

    If you find that one of them seems to help, but also seems to darken down too much, you can create an artificial hot spot on the gel (again, creating a brighter zone of light on the subject) by adding just a drop of 3-in-1-oil to the surface of the gel and spreading with a finger.
    Don't ask me how to take pictures, but ask me about Lighting...:-)


  7. Susan,
    You have been given the Sunshine Award...perfect timing for today:)

  8. I do find using an extra light and casting shadows makes a bid difference. I like your photo better than with professional lights;)


  9. I think we're all waiting to see how things go with your photography adventures. Do keep us posted and when you think you've got it, then please give us all a tutorial! Can't wait to see the outcomes! I'd say good luck, but you've already got that with the Four Leaf Clovers you keep finding!

  10. Like your other commenters, I am fascinated with your process and am so glad you are sharing your problems and working through them. I agree with the flatness you see. I'm looking forward to seeing how Holly's suggestion turns out.

  11. I didn't see this comment yet, and I have been meaning to post, so here goes. Try moving your lights further back and using a longer setting on your camera. You must, must use a tripod to do this, and a shutter release mechanism is much better than pushing the button. I also set up lights like the diagram Holly showed you. Regarding show requirements, I would love to know what technology they have that allows them to know if you have altered the photograph or not. I didn't think you could tell with Photoshop. I suspect that what they want are photos that represent the art work accurately, and not enhance to look better than they actually are, but they don't typically write their requirements like that. I ALWAYS color correct my photos and have not had any rejected. Caveat...I don't enter Paducah. I correct shadows, sharpness, values, the temperature of the light, but most of these are in camera RAW setting which you do not have) And I also shoot with a grey card. Good luck. Don't give up!


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