Help me take better photos in my home studio!
September 8, 2008 10:52 AM   Subscribe

I am a hobbyist photographer starting to do some serious studio work and I need help deciding on lighting equipment.

To start, I run a website about collectibles. I find myself in a position of wanting to do "photo archives" of these collectibles, which range from very tiny Hallmark Christmas ornaments (1/4 inch in size) to very large items (3' long, 1' tall).

I started by using a fairly decent digital camera and the flash, or some desk lamps. I have slowly been upgrading my equipment and now have a Canon Digital Rebel XT, a hotshoe flash, and I bought a lightbox that shines light down on an item, and has white sides attempting to reflect the light onto the object.

It has mixed results. First, the box is too small for several items. Second, with the light being primarily from the top, the front of the item is often left in shadows.

Some self-links to photos to give examples of my current work follow:

One of the better examples of pre-lightbox photo

Picture from the lightbox; bright top, dark front

Overexposed from the lightbox

Circular items do poorly in the lightbox

Lately we've been photographing items and I think it's helped a bit but we're not where I want to be.

So I am looking at a new lighting set-up. I'm driving to St. Louis this Friday to talk to people at camera stores, but I thought I'd ask here what might work best.

We were thinking of taping the gray fabric to a wall and setting up a table on which we can put items, but what type of lights do I need, and how many? I hear about linking strobes to a camera, but is that better than "always on" light rigs? Do I need diffusing umbrellas? Two lights (one from each side), or three (one from each side and one from the front?)

I'm willing to spend up to $500 on this if the need be (the less the better) but I really want to take ASTOUNDING photographs. I think I'm almost there, but can you help me figure out what is needed now?

(and while the still items are my primary concern, if I can also do portrait photography so much the better)

Finally, I've been primarily using the camera's autoexposure to get the lighting right; would a light meter really help? (I'm guessing I still need better lights IN ADDITION TO the light meter...)

posted by arniec to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Flash is better than continuous light because you get a lot more light in one short burst. To isolate things you really need two strobes and a white seamless (roll of paper). Here is an article about lighting things the way you are talking about.

The best bang for your buck if you want to get studio strobes is Alien Bees, their entry level ones are $225, you could get two of those, some light stands, and two cheap shoot-through umbrellas for a little more than $500 which is all you would need. I highly recommend going this route because these are professional level strobes and you will get a lot of versatility out of them (there is a huge number of modifiers you can buy) and you will not be limited to just shooting products. Some people will say go the Strobist route and get small, hot-shoe flashes but I have never really been impressed by those, you do not get the versatility or power that you do with real strobes and the quality of light is just not that great because they are so small. You will end up spending about the same for no real benefits.

I am a professional and I use White Lightning strobes, which are higher end lights made by the same company as the AB's and I absolutely love them. Their customer service is second to none, even compared to ultra-high end stuff like Profoto.

Metering wise you should be shooting in manual with strobes (your in-camera meter cannot judge the light coming from strobes since the lights are flashes and not continuous). If you are shooting digital you don't really need a meter, you can judge exposure based off the histogram on your camera. With strobes the shutter speed is largely irrelevant, your exposure is controlled by the aperture.
posted by bradbane at 12:16 PM on September 8, 2008

Flash is better than continuous light for portraits, because you can keep the light out people's faces and avoid them squinting, but for inanimate objects and macro work you'd be better off with continuous lights. Positioning everything so that the reflections on the packaging don't cover up the contents is probably something you're used to doing a lot, and it's much much easier if the lights are always on while you're doing that. As an added bonus, the autoexposure should work just fine with these lights. The tradeoff is they won't be as good for portraits and field work, should you want to get into those.

Also, carpet rolls work pretty well as a backdrop. They tend to come in muted colors and patterns, and the stiffness helps you get a nice smooth curve up the back if you're going for the 'infinite field' look.
posted by echo target at 12:40 PM on September 8, 2008

Uh, every strobe in the world has a "modeling light" so you can see what the flash is going to do before you fire it. There is no reason to use continuous lights over strobes, there are zero advantages and a lot of benefits especially for inanimate objects.
posted by bradbane at 5:21 PM on September 8, 2008

Best answer:
Save yourself $490 by using a cardboard box.

I've had decent luck with the work light method used in the video on the linked page. I bought 2 lights for 18 bucks total at the home improvement store.

It's not a perfect setup, but it can work to get you started. I wish I could link to some of my test shots, but they are archived on an external drive that I have yet to unpack from a recent move.

OTOH, I would listen to what a pro says. But, rules are meant to be bent....
posted by achmorrison at 8:11 PM on September 10, 2008

Response by poster:
thank you achmorrison! I've seen a lot of DIY setups but none as easy to replicate and with photos to show how well it works

That will at least help me with the "light tent" aspect. I still need some lights to shine, and preferably nice ones that are neutral in color vs. desk lamps (hoping to save by buying used stuff) but I LIKE THIS BOX IDEA :)
posted by arniec at 8:20 AM on September 11, 2008

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