This tutorial aims to teach you how to take photos of your hacks and projects for sharing on the web, and perhaps even in print. It focuses on smaller items, less than 6”x6”x6” in size. Bigger projects present their own unique problems that are beyond the scope of this article. However, you can always “scale up” the methods presented here to take pictures of larger subjects, at least to a point.
I've divided it into two parts: The first part details how to build a small, inexpensive cyclorama (shooting platform) and the second covers setting up the lights and taking the photos. It assumes you are starting with little more than a camera and a subject to take pictures of. I've tried to address a number of questions I've received from folks regarding things that are unique to photographing electronics. These include how to photograph lit LEDs and how to make the stamped text on IC packages appear clearly in photos without being washed out.
I’m going to introduce two lighting setups. The first one uses two light sources, and the second one uses one light source and reflectors. The two-light setup is simple, and is good for things like documenting your project as you build it, time-lapse assembly stuff, and general documentation. The one-light setup is more complicated, but also more creative, and is useful for taking final project photos. It also cures baldness, makes you more attractive, and builds self-esteem. Awesome!
I will not be discussing shooting tents in this article. These are already well-documented and ubiquitous all over the web, and in my opinion they don’t teach you a great deal about creative lighting. That isn’t to say they aren’t useful, or produce bad results. They have their place, and for many things they do work amazingly well. That said, the main goal of this article to provide the reader with a basic photo skillset, and I think a shooting tent just hands you the solution instead of teaching you how to solve the problem.
Ok, now that that we’ve gotten the philosophical stuff out of the way, let’s get to work!
Step 1: What You'll Need
The cyclorama is a separate project, and has it’s own list of ingredients. However you will need the following items to take pictures regardless of whether you build the cyclorama or not.
1. Camera -- A digital point-and-shoot is fine, as long as you can turn the flash off and it has a macro (close-up) mode. An SLR camera is better, but not necessary. A film camera is fine too, if that’s all you have, though shooting on film may cause some color balance problems if you use incandescent lights. I am using a Canon PowerShot G5. The Canon “G” series provides a great deal of control and older models can be had cheap on eBay. Note: the G7 does not support RAW image capture, but all the rest do.
2. Lights -- You need two, and it’s best if they are identical. You can use worklights from the hardware store if you have to, but I recommended investing in “professional” photo lights from a photo supplier (see list at the end of this document). Often these come up pretty cheap on auction sites or at photo flea markets (~$25, as of mid-2010), and they are a good investment if you plan to use them regularly. If you’re going the worklight route you should get the ones marked for 300W lamps. These have a heavy-duty cord and ceramic socket. You should not attempt to use the cheaper low-wattage lamps with a higher rated bulb -- even if the cord can handle the current, the plastic base probably won’t be able to handle the heat of the bulbs.
3. Light Bulbs -- In photo and theater-lighting speak these are simply called “lamps”. You should get proper photoflood lamps from a photo supplier, rather than using the 300W lamps from the hardware store. Two common types are ECA (250W) and ECT (500W) -- both of these burn at a color temperature of 3200 Kelvin, which is the standard color of photographic tungsten lights. Some people like to use daylight-balanced CFL lamps, but there is a tradeoff. The lights don’t generate as much heat, but their color rendition is poor compared to tungsten lamps. For any of the science-minded who may dispute this, I suggest you look at the spectral output of both: CFLs are a pretty much a picket fence, while incandescents are mostly continuous (though admittedly biased toward IR). The high-powered fusion of the sun puts out a mostly continuous spectrum, overlayed with Fraunhofer spikes, and this is what our eyes (and our camera sensors) are designed for. Gaps in the output spectrum of CFLs cause some colors to be rendered unnaturally, so it’s better to use a continuous-spectrum source.
4. Tripod -- You can work without one if you must, but it is strongly recommended that you use one for critical shots. It helps ensure your photos are consistent and without blur. The heavier the tripod, the better -- the greater mass helps dampen vibrations.
5. Physical Space -- You need some space to take your photos, as well as a sturdy table on which to set everything up. You also need room around the table to set up your lights and to move around. The cyclorama shown here has a footprint of about 2x2 feet -- keep that in mind if you decide to use it.