May 29, 2023


Digital Art Community

Making Book Part 5: Cheap Shutterbug
Note the backlighting and diagonal elements.

If you’re really into photography, this might be the last blog entry you ever voluntarily read with my name on it. 

I’ve always been into taking pictures. When I was in junior high I took classes at Westark, our local community college, about darkroom processes. I built several pinhole cameras. And I was a lab technician with T.P. Davis Studios. All that happened before I entered high school.

Since the beginning I’ve always eschewed fancy equipment. At first that was because I couldn’t afford anything but basic, used gear. My first camera was my dad’s Vietnam-era Yashika. The first SLR I bought was a Pentax K1000, a completely manual and bulletproof camera. 

I haven’t progressed much past that. I still shoot in full manual. I dislike using auto-anything – auto-focus, auto-exposure. Hell, I didn’t even want auto film advance. It’s not because I don’t like technology; this stuff just gets in my way and can break in the field. It’s the same way I feel about dovetail jigs for routers. I have a saw, so I don’t need that headache.

My camera skills have always helped me get jobs as a writer. So I’ve pretty much shot hundreds (sometimes thousands) of frames a month since I was 13. But my photography skills are admittedly down-and-dirty. I’m not trying to make art. I’m trying to convey information as I see it.

With that (lengthy, sorry) preamble, here’s the point: You don’t need fancy equipment, lights or training to make book-quality photos. In fact, the expensive gear will absolutely get in the way of learning to shoot good photos.

My current setup: A Canon 5D and two ARRI LED lights. I honestly miss my old Canon Rebel and CF light setup. But I loaned them to LAP authors, and they never came back.

Until recently, I shot every frame with the cheapest Canon Rebel I could get. My lights were a cheap compact fluorescent system (less than $100). When we work with authors, I still recommend a entry-level Canon Rebel and a cheap LED lighting system (still less than $100). Plus a used high-quality tripod. I have a Bogen that I bought used 20 years ago. I don’t know how old it is, but it is rock-solid. Honestly, you can get everything you need to be a book author for less than $700. Less if you buy a used camera.

Once you get the gear, stop reading about gear. Just work with what you have and don’t think about new gear. Don’t listen to podcasts about gear. If you think tool junkies are a problem in woodworking, just spend five minutes in any photography forum.

Guidelines for Good Photos

When I train people to take workshop photos, here are the principles I emphasize.

  1. Lighting. Color temperature is important. Don’t mix a bunch of different lighting sources – lamps, daylight, overhead lights and your shop lights. That will confuse your camera. I recommend two different kinds of lights at most. I use the daylight from the windows and my LED lights. All other lights are turned off.
  2. Lighting, part two. Keep it simple. I use two artificial lighting sources for workshop photos: a keylight and a backlight. Backlighting your subject (even if the subject is an electric drill) improves almost every photo (try it and you can convince yourself). The keylight is used to illuminate and isolate the subject. Move the keylight to produce highlights (like bouncing a billiard ball from the light, to the subject and into the lens). The above paragraph could be expanded to be a book. Move your lights and observe the results.
  3. Lighting, part three. Sometimes removing a light from the setup is the answer. The more light sources you are juggling, the more difficult it is to control the result.
  4. Shutter speed and f-stop. Learn the relationship between shutter speed and your aperture (the f-stop). The aperture controls how much of the frame is in focus (called the “depth of field”). Because you are shooting with a tripod, choose an aperture that shows exactly what you want with the background blurry. You can use any shutter speed – even slow ones – because the tripod holds the camera steady. I regularly use shutter speeds that are 1/2 second and slower. You just have to hold still. Use the timer on the camera (or a remote shutter release) to prevent camera shake.
  5. Set your camera to shoot RAW files. These are easier to manipulate in Photoshop and don’t degrade like jpegs do. 
  6. Composition. Avoid taking photos that are like construction drawings: straight-on elevation views, for example. The eye likes diagonal lines. If you can compose objects in the frame, you can use them to guide the viewer to what is important. A chisel can guide the eye to a joint, for example. This takes some patience and relates to the next principle.
  7. Composition, part two. Do your cropping in the frame. Don’t assume you can “zoom in” on an image in Photoshop and get good results. That said, I crop tight and then back up just a little to give myself a little background to play with. 
  8. Never stop with one image. After you take a photo, force yourself to move the camera, move the objects in the frame (or both) and try another setup. I almost never use my first frame. It’s usually my second or third (at least). When shooting a finished piece, I might do 10 setups.
Note the shallow depth of field and the diagonal lines of the legs of the divider that take you to the armbow.

When I shoot photos for a book, I record every process at the bench, even if I don’t think it will make it in the book. When I move images from my camera to my computer, I also delete anything that is unpublishable (to save disk space) and give my photos meaningful file names that reflect what is going on in the image.

These actions have saved my butter many times in the last 24 years. Recording all the woodworking processes helps me remember construction details while I’m writing the text for an article or book. And having meaningful file names makes it easy to find the photos years later when I might need them for another book, magazine article or blog entry. 

— Christopher Schwarz

Note: This is the first of several posts on photography, though they aren’t all going to run one after the other. The next post on photography (in September) will show some lighting setups and what happens in the frame.

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.