Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In search of better photos

I am attempting to set up a primitive photo studio in my house. I need to be able to shoot projects in progress, and finished work. Until now, I have been shooting my finished pieces outside, and my how-to shots inside under regular lights. Sometimes the results were okay, sometimes not. My goal is to shoot consistently good quality photos.

I decided to use a section of my interior hall near my studio. It is dark (no windows, since all the rooms in the house branch off from it), so I can have better control over the kind of light I project onto my subjects. And I simply don't have space for the setup in my studio.

For advice on setting up to shoot my quilts, I took a close look at Holly Knott’s website. Holly is married to a photographer (Andy Baird), and together, they have dedicated a section of her website to helping aspiring quilt photographers learn how to take better photos of their quilts. It is called “Shoot that Quilt!” and it offers some terrific advice and links. 

I started by setting up a folding table against the wall. I built light stands using 2x4 pieces of lumber and metal shelf brackets screwed into the bottom to make four sturdy feet, following Holly’s instructions. I bought a cheap tripod for about $20. My biggest investment was the 30W "Trumpet Top" bulbs by Tabletop Studio ($30 for two). They got screwed into cheap clamp-on reflector lamps, and then were clamped onto the light stands. They are moving around a little bit, which worries me. So tomorrow, I'm going to add some nails to the light stands in a few spots, so the clamps won’t slide around.

For my finished pieces, I plan to move the stands into my studio and hang my work on my design wall. For the how-to shots, I made a little three-sided ”stage” using white foam core, so the light would bounce and be more diffused on the subjects.

Within minutes of placing the stage on the table, my cat Max decided that he was my first subject. He hopped right up and got himself ready for his first photoshoot. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may already know about my photogenic cat who loves to pose for the camera doing funny stuff. If not, you can see lots of shots of him here.) And a funny video of him here.

While he snoozed under the warm lights, I got some nice photos of him, probably the best lit and detailed I have ever taken:

On to quilts. Here are two photos of the same piece. The first is a shot taken more than a year ago. The quilt is the start of a second version of my Round Red Barn (with more detail; all the stones are cut out separately). It’s not bad. The second shot I took today. The colors are much more accurate, especially the red of the barn siding and the grays in the stone foundation. They look much yellower in the old shot. Notice how much the bottom green fabric is unevenly lit in the earlier shot? It is much darker on the right side than on the left.

I have a confession to make. I have always used the Auto setting on my digital camera. People often comment on what nice photos I take, and are amazed to find out how little I know about the technical side of photography.

I aim my lens, compose my shot by zooming in or out, and click the button. About the only feature I do know about is my macro button, since I use it a lot in my attempt to get closer, closer, closer to my subjects. But I don't know diddly-darn about depth of field or F-stops, shutter speed or ISO (except to know that I should know something about them if I want to control how my photos look). I almost never consult my camera manual.

There, I have confessed my sins. Now it is time to learn. Knowing something about composition, color, texture, line and shape helps me take nice shots. But I think learning the technical stuff will make my photos even stronger.


  1. I am the same way, always on auto. I need to make a place for indoor photos too. The lighting in my house is horrible, either too light or dark.


  2. Really love your write up of photographing quilts! I actually took a little course on photographing quilts, but seem much more complicated than you've outlined here! If you don't mind answering, what camera are you using? I think the reason everyone thinks you take such wonderful pictues is the composition of your shots!

  3. Thanks, Deb! I got a new camera for Christmas, mostly because I wanted one that could shoot my daughter on the soccer field, far away, and my old camera couldn't. It is a Canon PowerShot SX10 IS. It is bigger than any camera I've had in years, but it can do a lot more. Here are the details:

    10 megapixels
    20x wide zoom
    optical image stabilizer

  4. Okay, I'm not a great photographer either, but my husband usually studies our photos more closely and edits and manipulates them in Corel Photo. From his experience, he tells me that it is better to take the photo without using the zoom because zooming amplifies any movements you've made when taking the photo. Obviously, this would not apply when using a tripod. So we crop the photo in Corel Photo and correct the colors as well.

    It's another way to go. Hope it helps.

  5. I do photo correction in Photoshop. But there are some competitions (AQS, for example) that won't let you make ANY changes at all to your images, including cropping or color changes. I personally think this is ridiculous. But to follow their rules, you have to get it right with the camera, and not through software.

  6. I wondered if there was something "shady" about color correcting the photo (pun intended), and obviously, I haven't submitted to a quilt show or anything. Thanks for the info. I'll be watching for updates.


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