It is funny how one hobby can lead to another… and then another. Knitting still reigns supreme, but I have to say that photography and blogging are not far behind. I so enjoy working with the fibers and the patterns, capturing the textures and rich colors, and then portraying them in this online environment. Each process leads so seamlessly into the next.
As an archivist, I get to dabble in museum studies, the theory of space, and object portrayal. At work, we are working on a large scale photography/digitization project, and I was shopping around for some supplies. I came across this great professional photography stand, that is great for object/artifact photography. Looking at this equipment, I realized what an asset this would be for my own personal knitting photography and blogging – but with a $255 price tag, it was a little steep. I have seen several bloggers use a light box setup, so Kris and I conferred and planned, and within a few hours, we got the supplies together and had a fully functional photographic light box – perfect for yarn photography, finished knits and other crafts, as well as any other objects. AND it cost less than $20. We used this small tutorial at Strobist.com as the “jumping off point” for the work, and made a few changes and enhancements with our specific interests in mind.
So, here is how you can have professional quality photographs that will showcase your yarn collection, finished knits, and enhance the quality of your blog (we all realize that photographs are a major part of knit blogging, right?)
- large(ish) cardboard box
- box cutter or razor blade
- white or off-white tissue paper
- clear packing tape
- posterboard/foam core/felt/plastic sheeting/fabric for backdrop
- white paper or box top covered with tin foil
- remote flash(es) or bright/flood lighting
- tripod or stand (if using remote flashes)
The Strobist site gives a photographic display of actually cutting your box, so I will not post pictures of that process here.
- Using your razor blade or box cutter, you cut out three sides of your box – leaving one side in tact, as well as the bottom and top flaps. The uncut one will be your base.
- Using the clear packing tape, attach your tissue paper with the clear packing tape. Make the paper taut enough to take away the tri-fold wrinkles, but not too taut to break if you touch it. This doesn’t have to be perfect, it will never show up in a photograph, so if the tape gets mangled and wrinkled, don’t worry.
Once the taping is complete, you can begin to experiment with backdrops. We purchased a small selection of posterboard – one in white, one in grey; two foam core boards – one green and one black; two backdrops of indiscernable material – kind of like a foam(?); two plastic aida cross-stitch counts; and two terracotta tiles – one black glaze and the other white glaze. We had trouble narrowing our options, but all of these are not necessary to get started (but all of them were quite cheap in the overall scheme of things).
The KEY factor to a successful photograph is your light source. We used two separate remote flashes – one on a tripod above the box, and one to the right of the box at a distance of about three feet. (We propped this on our kitchen counter). However, if you do not have a remote flash for your camera, you do not need to buy one for this project. You can use flood lighting, a halogen lamp, a compact fluorescent, or even an incandescent light source. With any light source, you will have to take a number of test photos to determine how bright the light should be, and how close you place it to the box.
Choosing your backdrop and arrangement is definitely the most artistic part of the process. Your object is the most important part of the photo, so you do not want to have a distracting backdrop to take away the viewer’s attention. Therefore, it is best to go with simple neutral papers and non-printed fabrics. Testing your camera’s depth of field is also an important key – do several test shots to see where you should place the object to fit into the frame without showing the sides of the box (or these can be cropped later with a photo editing software).
You also want to determine the best angle for the photograph. Ideally, your camera should be at eye level with the object. If you were to take the shot from above, it would cast odd shadows and could possibly look distorted in shape. Leveling your camera with the box may require you, as the photographer, to kneel on your knees or sit on the floor.
When your object is in place, and you are satisfied with the settings of your light source, do several test photos. Depending on the textures and/or colors of your object, you may find that you still have significant shadows. This is often the problem when trying to photograph darker colors like black, navy, aubergine, and even red. A reflector board, or paper may be your best bet for illuminating these dark spaces. You have the option of using a white cardboard (this worked well for me) or using one of the leftover box sides and covering it with aluminum/tin foil. This reflective surface will counteract with the light sources and bring those shadowed areas to light.
Holding the reflector board at an angle either to the side or above the camera (depending on where the shadow is) will help eliminate the dark areas of the photograph. If you have a partner to help you in this process, they can hold the board above the camera as you snap the photo, but it is also possible to prop the board on the side and wedge the camera between the box sides and the board.
So what do these photos actually look like? Well, considering how easy it is to set all of it up, the photos came out very well! You don’t need the most expensive products to get good results! To ensure good results, however, you have to consider several factors:
The Importance of Backdrop
Each object has its own color spectrum, bouncing light off, and our eyes read that information and process it. Some colors can actually complement others and this aesthetic is what is pleasing and appealing to the eye. The two images below show the same object, in the same light, with two different backdrops.
It may be a matter of opinion, but the colors on the right, with the green background, seem to stand out more, while the photo on the left seems slightly overexposed. The colors in the yarn do not “pop” in the same way. Perhaps if the yarn was a solid color, it would look better on the solid background?
If the backdrop is too busy, or the colors do not complement the object, the eyes will drift away from the image. If the object is ornate and colorful in and of itself, a simpler backdrop would definitely be the best choice. Case in point: the third frame is the perfect union of object, space, and backdrop. The first two do not complement the object appropriately.
The different backdrops on the yarns above cast different moods on the photos: the white is austere and minimalist, while the black is more sophisticated. Both are successful in showing off the yarn, and even the textures of the fiber or fabric. It is the photographer’s decision to determine the mood they are trying to convey in the photograph.
Reflector Board vs. No Reflector
Depending on the shape and texture of the object, a reflector board may be a necessity. This pomegranate (a gift from Amy for my collection) had a harsh shadow because of its irregular shape, and the reflector board brightened up the photograph considerably (maybe even too much?)
The combination of reflector board and appropriate backdrop helped illuminate the notoriously-hard-to-photograph black yarn:
The glossy paper of the label caught a glare from the side flash, but the yarn itself is illuminated well, and you can see the textures of the yarn (a souvenir gift from my sister Mimi – she was recently in New Zealand and brought back these lovely merino wools for me!)
Arrangement of Object / Spatial Considerations / Shadows
The above triptych of the Thai pottery shows three different arrangements – the middle is too close to the camera, as the viewer cannot determine the size and the focal point of the object, while the first fills the frame appropriately. The third image balances the negative space around the object. It is important to note that the eye needs space around the object to fully register what it is. This balance of negative and positive space makes up the balanced composition of the photograph. Some negative space can be attractive to the eye, but too much can be distractive. Experiment with your object’s arrangement to get the proper placement and space. Watch out for odd shadows that an ill-placed object may cast.
The spoon, in the middle of the photo casts an odd shadow in the first photo, and when it is slightly adjusted for the second photo, it looks much more cohesive.
Effective negative space?
It is an arbitrary question in some ways, but the amount of negative space surrounding these acorns allow the eyes to focus directly on the objects.
Proper Arrangement – Differing Heights
The babushka nesting dolls descend in a predictable manner, but items of different sizes and heights can be grouped together and arranged properly. If the items are indeed a unit, as is the case with these dolls, it is important to show them close to each other. If you were arranging a ball of yarn and needles, you would arrange them in much of the same way – the various objects come together in the photograph to show one cohesive object or process.
Each photograph is an experiment. Do not become frustrated if it doesn’t work the first time! Digital photography gives us that luxury. I do hope that you have found this tutorial helpful. Please let me know if you decide to construct your own light box! I would love to see your results.
You spend a great deal of time, effort, and money on making your hand knits and your various crafts, why not show them off in the best light possible?