Advice — A guide to photographing your work with limited resources
With universities shut, and access to studios, lighting and cameras limited, it can be tricky to photograph your work professionally. But whether you’re a student or just looking to skill up, there are some universal principles that are always worth learning. Which is why we’ve called upon the talents and expertise of Luke Evans, a still life photographer based in London. For years, Luke has perfected the art of creating stunning images – sometimes on his own kitchen table. Here, he offers us his guide to photographing your work; from printed material to objects, these timeless tips will last you well past lockdown.
You don’t need much to make work shine
I spent the start of my career fooling people into believing that I have access to incredible kit, locations, and lighting, but in reality I was shooting nearly all my personal work in my kitchen, using a film camera I bagged off ebay, and lighting that was one flash away from failing. Seems I have a knack for being able to make cheap things look expensive.
Over the years I’ve shot the portfolios of some incredible design agencies, so here I’m going to distill the most vital tips on how to shoot your own work with limited resources. Trust me, you can make great images without expensive kit. Let’s start with the most common printed work: a book.
How to Photograph Books and Printed Material
Scan, or shoot?
The most simple way to capture a book is to scan it, if you have access to a scanner. Leave the scanner hood open for a black background or closed for white. But if it’s too big or you don’t have a scanner, you’ll need to use a camera.
Cameras (and lenses) vary wildly in terms of quality and ease-of-use, but really just use what you have access to. I would say using a phone camera is a last resort option. You can still get great images, but when shown large on a laptop or website the images just won’t be as crisp as you might like. See if you can borrow a friend’s camera, or even rent one online.
1. Identify what makes the book particularly meaningful to you
Is there a particular print process, binding, layout, material, or otherwise that you want to highlight? Is there a particular spread you want to show? Make a note of them.
2. Consider the context of how you want your book to be shown
Do you want the look of your photographs to be very stripped back and minimal? If so, consider showing it laid flat, on white, square-on to the camera, with even and flat lighting.
But that’s not your only option. You could consider showing your book more playfully, with props, on the floor, on a desk, or even a shelf. Do you want to shoot it on grass outside? Are there multiple copies of the book that you can arrange? You could also have a mix of two styles: some straight-on spreads alongside a few playful ones. The tone of voice is up to you.
3. Set up a backdrop
Next, you’ll need to find something white to shoot it on. It will need to be quite a bit larger than the book when opened out to a spread. You could use a very well-ironed piece of heavy white fabric, a large sheet of white card (G . F Smith offer large paper samples which are perfect for this), or white foam board. Laying the book and background on the floor will make it easier to get the camera high enough above it.
4. Position the camera
This brings me onto the next problem: How do you position the camera? You’ll want the camera held steadily above, directly over the book. If you have a tripod, use it. Some tripods are able to hold the camera out sideways and look directly down which keeps the legs of the tripod out of the shot.
If you don’t have a tripod, use two chairs and a long stick like a broom handle or curtain pole, and attach the camera in the middle using gaffa tape. It looks ugly, but it works. Check out @shittyrigs for more inspiration. If that worries you, you could use a GorillaPod and wrap the legs around the pole.
The worst thing to do is frame it up nicely with the book closed, then open it to find that it’s way too tight in the frame.
5. Check your framing
If you want all of the images to be shot straight down, make sure that you set up the camera with the book open first to see how much room you need. The worst thing to do is frame it up nicely with the book closed, then open it to find that it’s way too tight in the frame.
Once your framing is more-or-less settled, make sure you fix the background to the floor so you don’t accidentally knock it flying. Tape the paper to the floor, or if using fabric, use tins of food to pull it taut. I would also consider shooting everything landscape as it’s easier to crop the image to portrait if you need it, compared to the other way round.
Photographing posters and print
Shooting a single sheet like a poster is somewhat easier, as you can use sticky dots or Blu Tack to pin them to the wall. This also means that your camera doesn’t need to be overhead. But don’t feel like you need to only shoot it straight on, be playful if you want. For example, if you chose a thin and lightweight paper, it might be interesting to deliberately show the print gently folding over itself. Show the piece as an object.
A Note on Lighting
Lastly, and arguably the most important element to consider, is lighting. You can either use natural light or artificial lights such as camera flashes or lamps. I’ll cover both here.
Using natural light
Choose a day to shoot where the weather is consistent. Pick either a fully cloudy day or a fully sunny day, it’ll make the images more consistent. Cloudy days will give a much more forgiving and flattering light that is easier to work with. Sunny days will give you the opportunity to play with interesting shadows like dappled evening sunlight.
The light will be most forgiving if it’s coming from the top edges of the frame to the bottom edges, casting a shadow underneath the book. If the light comes from the bottom to the top it tends to look quite harsh. This is important to remember if you’re going to be shooting a lot of work in the day – because you’ll need to set up, bearing in mind that the sun will move around.
Using flashes (if you have them)
Using dedicated camera flashes or lamps means that your light will stay consistent, and also gives you the option of shooting all day and evening, or over multiple days. But they come with their own quirks just like natural light...Avoid putting flashes too high up because it will normally cause glare on the printed text or image. If the light is too harsh, bounce the light onto a wall instead which will soften it.
For both natural and artificial light, you might find that an area in the image looks too dark. A really easy way to brighten it up is to use a white piece of card (or even a white shirt) to bounce light into the image. For example: If the sunlight is coming in from the top-right hand side of the image and the bottom left looks a bit dark, place a flat white material towards the bottom left to bounce the light back into the picture and brighten it up.
If an area looks too dark, brighten it up using a white piece of card to bounce light into the image.
How to keep your book still and flat
A common problem when shooting spreads is that the book doesn’t always stay flat enough. A good way to get around this is to place a larger book on top to help press the book flat between taking images. Then, to keep the book in place between spreads, you can use re-positionable sticky glue dots to stick the back covers down to the background.
After you have these shots, you want to highlight some of the details you noted earlier. So take the camera off the tripod and be playful with angles. Experiment with moving the light around to see how it best brings out the textures and shape of the print.
How to keep your book standing
Other common problems with shooting books, especially thin books, is if you need it to stand up. You could try putting a smaller, thicker book behind it to prop it up. But if it’s too thin, and you want to look rigid, then you can cut a piece of stiff card or foam board slightly smaller than the book and use double-sided tape or sticky dots to glue the rigid board to the back of the book, which makes it easier to prop up.
Again, remember to consider all your options here. This approach might be too clean and clinical. You could, for example, photograph it using a cheap point-and-shoot disposable film camera with a harsh front flash.
If you’ve got interesting objects to shoot, then the same pointers apply above but with a few key differences...
Set up a backdrop
Let’s say you want to show an object on a plain white background. Find a table positioned closely to a wall behind it. Tape a piece of paper or fabric to the wall above the table, and then drape the fabric down across the table top so there’s not a sharp right angle where the white material hits the table top. This will make a clean even white background with no horizon line.
Get your camera level with the object
When it comes to lighting, try and position the light to the side, or ideally overhead, which will give a really flattering shadow beneath the object and will show the textures well. When it comes to the angles of the camera, try and avoid shooting everything just from the height you would hold the camera at yourself. Try dropping it lower to get level with the object which will show off the shape better, or even shooting directly overhead with the object laying down.
Use card to block reflections
A common problem when shooting objects is that they might be reflective or glossy, and you don’t want to see yourself reflected in the image. Get hold of some plain white or black card or fabric, and use these to block the reflections. Hang them or position them just outside the frame of the image to cut out any reflections you don’t want.