I get asked a ton about the pictures on Monkey Edge (how I shoot them, equipment, etc) which is flattering, and a bit embarrassing at the same time. Truth is, 5 years ago, I knew not a single thing about photography. Like most folks, I had a decent camera, shot in auto mode, and had the big light box thingie with some constant on lights. Getting from “there” to “here” was a long, frustrating, expensive, process. Hopefully, this series will make it less so to anybody that is going down the same path.
Whether this series helps an enthusiast, a knife maker, or even a competing retailer, I am still happy to do it. Those that pretend that photography is a series of secrets or something are just assholes. I have made the analogy that photography is like being a chef: a master chef can take a person in and show them the recipe, show them the tools, and even show them how to prepare a dish, and it will still be a TON of work and learning before the person can even begin to approach the quality that the master chef has. By the way, I don’t consider myself to be the master chef in that analogy (I am more like the Denny’s short order cook whipping up some Moons over My Hammy).
With that in mind, I would be remiss in not giving a whole hearted shout out to those that have been super cool in helping me. I have “stolen” tons of small tips from all sorts of folks, but the guys below have been the ones to really school me.
Kimo Easterwood of Starlingear • Kimo has been part of the S-Gear team forever and shoots just about all of their pictures. He is a crazy talented artist in his own right. Kimo really taught me to stop worrying about equipment, and just shoot.
Duane Weikum of EDC Knives • Duane runs EDC Knives and I spent a ton of time looking at his pictures (oh my gosh that means technically, Duane is a competitor!) HOWEVER, Duane could not have been more cool and gracious in his sharing of knowledge. He really taught me about the importance of backdrops and settings for images.
Jim Cooper of Sharp by Coop • If you have picked up a knife magazine, you have probably seen Jim’s work. He also sets up at shows across the country to shoot images on site. Jim really showed me some things about how light works in particular when shooting knives. He also showed me the value of shooting hand held.
And finally a disclaimer: I don’t consider myself to be a “photographer”, I just needed to be able to take decent shots of stuff in order to sell it. I am sure if a real photographer looked at my work, or these articles, there would be hundreds of things “wrong”.
Again, this is just a guide of how I do it because folks have asked. This is also not a photography class. There is TONS of information freely available other places on camera settings and “how to”. This kind of assumes you know what F-Stop, shutter speed, ISO, white balance etc. all mean.
OK, truth be told, there are no rules if you like the images you are getting, but here is what I consider essential to ME.
1) Learn to shoot in full manual mode to isolate your variables.
Full manual means you control the F-Stop, shutter speed, and the ISO. The cameras have gotten so good in their various automatic modes they will make better choices than you will many times. When shooting “traditional” stuff like portraits or landscapes, the cameras often do an amazing job.
However, with our small and often times highly reflective subjects, the automatic modes are not consistent. The very definition of automatic means it (the camera) is making a series of decisions with each shot (depending on mode). Therefore, if say you take 10 shots of a piece, it is likely that the camera will make slightly different decisions each time. This means your performance is not repeatable.
For example: you take an image and it appears a bit underexposed (too dark): did the camera auto meter it that way or do you need to make an adjustment to your actual light source? Say you increase your light source output and snap another shot, and now you snap another shot and it super overexposed (way too bright). How do you know if the overexposure is a result of the adjustment you made to the light source, or as a result of the camera metering the shot slightly different?
Initially, your manual photos will most likely suck when compared to the auto modes. But when you power through that, you will then have greater control and consistency. When something needs to be adjusted, YOU will know what it is and know what has changed rather than the camera’s processor.
2) Buy and read (and keep reading) this book:
Everything about photography comes from understanding how light works. This book does a better job of breaking it down than anything I have seen. Easy to understand and extensive diagrams and examples. I still refer back to this all the time. Sometimes, I will be “stuck” on something only to go back to it and realize what I was stuck on was spelled out completely in this book.
3) Buy the best strobes you can afford.
I always get asked about my camera and what lenses I use. Truth be told, it really does not matter too much. Every camera is pretty decent these days (assuming you can shoot in full manual mode with it). What really makes the difference is the lighting. Lighting can be divided into two main groups: constant and strobes.
Constant on: Basically just a lamp you switch on. The upside is that they are much cheaper and less complex. The downsides outweigh them however. in order to get the same amount of light as a comparable strobe, they are bigger and hotter. Even with high output constant lights, you will need to shoot at slower shutter speeds which pretty much means you will need a tripod.
What is a strobe: A strobe is essentially just a large flash. Since they flash for a super short duration, they use what is called a modelling light that acts like the constant on light so you can set up your shot. The advantage is that strobes can have far greater output. You can shoot at fast shutter speeds (like 1/200) so now you have the freedom to shoot hand held and still get sharp shots. Furthermore, at these higher shutter speeds the strobes are not affected by ambient light from other sources meaning consistent white balance.
When it comes to equipment, spend money on the best strobes you can afford. Strobes offer more control and power of light than constant lighting ever can. Start out with two (you will eventually want more). When you really first start shooting, only use one (less variables to chase). When you start to get decent results and are comfortable, you can add the second light for effects where desired. I used only one strobe for like a year. I use Profoto which are considered some of the best but are stupid expensive. The Paul Buff Einstein strobes are supposed to be very good and not nearly as much dough. Again, spend till it hurts on the strobes. Buy the most powerful and best quality you can afford. Camera and lens are way secondary.
4) Shoot in RAW format
RAW files initially look worse when compared to a JPG from the same camera. If you have a camera that will shoot RAW/JPG at the same time and compare the two, the JPG will typically look better. That is because the JPG has some processing done in the camera initially. However, the RAW file actually has more data and allows much greater flexibility in editing. It will initially look flat and washed out, but the final edit can be better. Using RAW files also allows you to make up for a certain amount of mistakes during the actual shooting. Image too dark? MUCH easier to save it using a RAW file when compared to JPG.
5) Learn to post process edit
Pick your poison here. Editing images is almost as important as capturing them. Also, understanding how to edit them will help and reinforce what you need to do while shooing them.
Example: Say you are constantly having to bring up (lighten) the shadows while editing your images, but are otherwise happy with the overall exposure level so just adding more main light while shooting is not the answer. You can address just the shadows by adding a bounce card, or add a subtle fill light, etc. Again, knowing the editing can help you with your actual shooting.
Different people have different opinions on which software. I use Adobe Lightroom almost exclusively for editing. I only use Photoshop for more “surgical” tasks like adding logos to the images etc. all the rest is done in Lightroom.
I learned to use Lightroom by using Lynda.com which is a subscription training site for just about every piece of software. It is awesome and I learn everything through that site. The other advantage to Lightroom is that the edits are non destructive. Meaning, you can edit an image like crazy and the original file is untouched. You can instantly go back to where you started. This means you do not have to deal with file versions etc. and gives you versatility for future use.
I deliberately shoot most stuff wide (meaning the main subject with tons of area around it and then crop down to the size I need. Say months later I need an image for a print ad, well because the edit was non destructive, I can easily revert to the original wide shot and re-crop exactly how I need it for the ad.
Also, I generally prep images for print a bit brighter and sharper than I would for a web image so again, not a problem to make an adjustment. A further advantage is that as you build your image library and learn new tricks in editing, you can go back to an image you did some time ago and easily apply your newfound ninja editing skills to it.