At SCG, we believe in the power of mentorship and giving back to our local community. Recently, my colleague Ryan Pederson and I had the opportunity to teach some basic product photography skills to AP art students at a local high school.
We were invited to conduct an informal photography workshop with students from Mound Westonka High School’s AP Studio Art 3D: Design Portfolio class. These talented artists have spent the semester creating original 3D art in mediums like sculpture and pottery. To receive college credit, they must submit high-quality photos of the work, and they asked us to give them some tips on how to improve their photos without buying expensive cameras and equipment. When it comes to product or art photography, just knowing a few basics can go a long way to improving your pictures. Here are a few of the photography concepts we taught the students at Mound Westonka.
Tips for Creating Great Product Photography
Have the right (not necessarily the most expensive) camera. While top-of-the-line professional cameras and lenses can cost thousands of dollars, you don’t have to spend that kind of money to create quality photos. However, I do recommend a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera if you’re at all serious about photography. These cameras have larger sensors, optical viewfinders, more in-depth settings and the ability to change lenses. Mound Westonka’s DSLR is a Nikon D80, which is more than 12 years old – however, it’s still capable of taking great photos.
Understand the three most important camera settings. Any DSLR camera should have these three settings: aperture/f-stop, shutter speed and ISO/light sensitivity. Here’s a basic overview of how they affect your photos:
- Aperture/f-stop. This is the most important setting in photography. The aperture is the small hole within a lens, which allows light into the camera and onto the sensor. It’s a lot like the pupil of your eye; the larger the aperture gets, the more light goes in. This setting can be useful for changing both the brightness (exposure) of the photo and the depth of field. Larger aperture settings result in background blur, which can be an effective way to draw the eye to an object. Aperture settings are expressed as “f-stops”, with higher f-stop settings like f/8 representing smaller apertures.
- Shutter speed. As the name suggests, this setting governs how long the shutter remains open when taking a picture. On some cameras, that speed can vary from 1/8000th of a second to a full 30 seconds of exposure. Shutter speed can affect how bright the photo is, and is important in capturing high-speed movement in nature or sports photography. Longer shutter speed can also be used to artistic effect in creating motion blur.
- ISO/light sensitivity. This setting adjusts the sensitivity of the image sensor to light, mimicking the way that different types of film reacted differently to light in the pre-digital era. Setting your ISO to higher numbers makes your sensor more sensitive to light. This allows you to shoot in low-light conditions but also increases the “graininess” of your photos. Experiment to find the right balance.
Work with what you have. Not everyone has access to professional photography equipment and lighting. However, the students at Mound Westonka proved that you can use a few basic items you might have in your art classroom to drastically improve the quality of your photos. To take advantage of as much natural light as possible, we set up by the window and experimented with both white and black paper backdrops. We used foam boards with light-absorbing matte finishes or wrapped them in light-reflecting tin foil to reduce or accentuate reflections from the overhead fluorescent lights.
Showcasing Their Talent
It was an honor to be able to work with Mound Westonka’s talented AP students and teach them techniques that can help them take better photos of their artwork. We were impressed by how quickly they learned and how much their photos improved in the short time we were there.
These students’ willingness to learn and jump into the deep end of photography with both feet should be an inspiration to everyone. While today’s complex DSLR cameras can seem intimidating, you can produce high quality shots by understanding and mastering the simple concepts I explained above.
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