Good cheap camera setup for taking top-down product photos?
July 17, 2010 10:09 AM   Subscribe

Good cheap camera setup for taking top-down product photos?

My girlfriend runs an online business selling things like armwarmers and gloves. For her product photos she puts them on and poses them over top of a white textured fabric. I stand above and take the photo top-down. This is just done on our couch so we get the natural light from the window.

This currently works okay with photoshop's help but only during a couple times of the day with good lighting and when I can manage to keep the camera straight (I'm at best a "competent camera user", definitely not a photographer). The camera itself is absolutely ancient and only 3MP.

I'd like to get a nicer point-and-shoot camera and some kind of tripod setup so we can get it more consistent, and figure out a way to get that nice lighting without relying on the sun rising or setting. Basically, I'd like a setup so it's just "put something below the camera and hit the button". Optimally she wouldn't even need me to hit the button (but that's just me being lazy).

Any recommendations for cameras, tripods, lighting, etc. are greatly recommended! I'm trying to budget this to a couple hundred dollars, I'd definitely prefer to keep it under $300 if at all possible.
posted by nmaster64 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Buy a tripod and make two of the legs really short and the third leg really long. Then, get something heavy and anchor down the long leg. Finally, extend out the neck and put the camera at the end, adjusting the angle of the tripod head as needed so that it is top-down.
posted by 47triple2 at 10:13 AM on July 17, 2010

You want a copy stand. Though they can get pricey, there appear to be several sub-$300 options, even with sidelights.
posted by rhizome at 10:21 AM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: Kinda hoping for something under or around $300 total, like new camera and all. :/
posted by nmaster64 at 10:30 AM on July 17, 2010

$150 for the copy stand and $100 for a Canon A490
posted by rhizome at 11:36 AM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: It sounds like you need a cheap tripod, plus a lightbox. Here are a couple DIY designs. <>cheap tripod, and you should have plenty left over for a new camera.
posted by JiBB at 12:14 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This tripod will do what you want quite nicely, though that plus a tripod head will probably set you back $200. Of course, you'll also have a very nice tripod for general photography use.

Considering the size of the items your girlfriend needs to photograph, though, a small copystand is probably the most economical and effective way to go. Here's a bunch that could work, though be sure to pick ones that actually include the column, platform AND light sockets; many of the cheaper items on online stores are only one of those three things.
posted by chrominance at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: Why is a piece of metal attached to two other pieces of metal so expensive? The prices on copystands are absolutely absurd! D:

I think I'm looking more for a DIY solution for the lightbox, as JiBB suggested, with a recommendation of what kind of cheap lights to buy (all the lights in my house seem to give pictures a yucky yellow color).

Camera is easy for $100-$150, but it's the tripod then that's hard to get for $100 or less, especially one that can hold the camera out so it can look down. I'm not really looking for professional-level (or even semi-pro) stuff here though (especially on the tripod side, it doesn't need to be terribly big or portable or anything), just the basics to take decent pictures without the hassle.
posted by nmaster64 at 4:39 PM on July 17, 2010

For lightbulbs, you can try looking for full spectrum or cool white bulbs, but the easiest solution is going to be adjusting the white balance on your camera. Any reasonable quality new camera you get (and probably even your old camera) should support several preset white balances (including a tungsten/incandescent one that will make the light from your normal bulbs look pretty white) and a custom white balance option that you set with the camera pointed at a white piece of paper to exactly match your lighting.

There are plenty of cheap tripods out there, but it looks like ones with a horizontal or articulated center column are generally more expensive. Depending on how you feel about wood working, you could try something more DIY for this too, especially if you're looking for a fixed setup and don't need adjustability. Build some sort of frame that will hold the camera steady, and has a 1/4-20 bolt sticking out horizontally to connect to the camera like a tripod.
posted by JiBB at 5:12 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You need: 2 cheap hat/coat racks. (vertical stick with heavy base), 1 broomstick (span between the verticals), a gorillapod, and maybe some duct tape. Basically just something horizontal that you can wrap the gorillapod around. Then you could use the time delay shutter (or even remote triggered shutter) to take the snap without shaking the camera too much.

If you get a little Cannon that supports the CHDK software (free) you can build a remote shutter control with some batteries, a USB cable, and a button.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:46 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Nice JiBB! I think if I can't find anything reasonable I may very well go that route. A $20 trip to Home Depot sounds a lot more reasonable than a $300-$500 online order!

Wrestling between Easyshare MD41 and Powershot A490 w/ Kit.

Also toying with my GorillaTorch and thinking of a way to that a GorillaPod might work as the tripod.

Edit: And I refresh the page and zengargoyle has the idea I was hunting for! I was leaning towards the Kodak until he mentioned the CHDK software, which looks awesome! Although, the A490 is neither on the supported nor unsupported list...
posted by nmaster64 at 5:53 PM on July 17, 2010

Best answer: There are 3 features you want to be sure your camera has. This is sort of reiterating what other people in this thread have said, but that's because what they've said is essentially correct.

1. Ability to set manual white balance.

Light has color. Daylight is blue (like the sky), incandescent (light bulb) light is warm "yucky yellow", and so on. This is called "color temperature" and if you can set it by pointing your camera at something neutral - the background of whatever you're photographing against, since you want it to be neutral would be fine - and telling your camera "this is white under this light".

Note that using indoor light mixed with outdoor light will lead to bad results - you don't want to mix two types of light. You'll get photos that are blue in some places, yellow in others.

2. Ability to set manual exposure.

Photography is all about light. The more light that can get into the camera, the better the picture - that's why cameras have flash bulbs on them. But if you're photographing something still, a good way to get more light into the camera is to simply allow the camera to take a longer exposure. More time = more light.

Since you don't want to spend a lot of money on light, why not use the available light in your apartment & let the camera do the rest. This sounds complicated, but it's not. It's just a matter of putting the camera in M mode, setting the ISO to the lowest number possible, setting the aperture to the lowest number possible, and then turning the dial for the length of the exposure until the little "matchstick" needed reads 0 (zero).

This is where a tripod comes in. A tripod is needed to keep the camera absolutely still during the long exposure. A Gorilla pod should be fine, so long as you've got something to mount it on. I have no experience with them personally, but they should work in theory.

3. A self timer.

No need for all sorts of fancy remote triggers, just set the timer. By setting a 2 or 10 second timer, you don't have to worry about camera shake from you pushing the shutter button - the camera will have stopped shaking by then (provided your tripod setup is sturdy).

Now for setup - a broom set between two coat racks & a gorilla pod sounds fine. A tripod will always have a problem of the legs being in the way when you point it straight down unless you get some sort of extension arm for the tripod (not that I've seen many of these in my time) - a gorilla pod is probably your best bet, and will let you get down low for small products too.

Another thing you may want to experiment with is softening the light - a bare lightbulb produces harsh shadows, but something between the light bulb & the product such as tracing paper (as mentioned in the other posts, or a frosted shower curtain - anything translucent & without much color of its own) will create a softer "wrap around" light with a soft transition between the light and the shadow.

Finally, you may want to invest in a gray card. These cards are a neutral color so you can set white balance to it. They're also midway between black & white so you can set the camera's exposure to it, and leave it there as long as the light stays the same. Gray cards are cheap - you can get them for under $10.

So let's go through a typical photo shoot.

1. Do you want to use daylight? If so, then you don't want to use lightbulb light. If it's dark out, then you want to use lightbulb light. Be sure all the light sources are of the same basic type (don't mix incandescent & halogen, for example).

2. Set up your photo area - put the white paper or whatever on your couch, get your lamp set up with the tracing paper or whatever between the bulb & the area you're photographing (or not).

3. Set up your camera - tripod, gorilla pod, whatever. Put it in place. Put it in Macro mode if the product is small & the camera is really close to it (like within a few inches).

4. Put the gray card in where the product will be.

5. Set your white balance to the gray card.

6. Put the camera in M mode, set the ISO to 100 (or whatever the lowest number is), set the Aperture to 4 (or whatever the lowest number is - for most point & shoot cameras it'll be around 4), and set the exposure time to whatever it takes to get the needle in the middle.

Note: You may need to zoom in to the gray card to "fill the frame" with the gray card - make sure it covers the whole picture. When you zoom out the aperture may change. You can work around this by either turning the knobs a bit & experimenting with settings, or finding something bigger that has a similar level of darkness as the gray card - a sweater or blanket, perhaps. It can be colored, just as long as in a black & white photo, it would appear the same level of darkness as the gray card.

Why is it important to do this for the gray card? Most cameras try to average everything it sees & sets that to a middle level. If you're shooting on a white background, or if you're shooting a light colored or dark colored product, the camera will set the exposure incorrectly. Some cameras are smart enough not to do this, but generally not at the point & shoot level.

7. Put your product in place & focus the camera. Make sure the flash is turned off.

8. Put the camera in self-timer mode, push the button & don't touch the camera until the photo is done - it may take a few seconds, depending on the length of your exposure.

That's it. You should now have a photo that is crisp, clear, without noise (because of the low ISO) or shake, and color accurate.

When you're done, remember to put the photo back in Auto and Auto White Balance, otherwise your other photos will look funny.

I use this method to take photos in near darkness, though I go for artistic rather than accurate. Here's a link to some of my photos taken with long exposures.

As for what camera, I recommend the Canon SD 1200 IS. I don't own this camera, but I've used it. It's relatively inexpensive, has a manual mode that's "good enough" to do what I explained and it's pocketable. You'll take it with you everywhere, to parties, etc. and people will be amazed that you also took product photos with it. It has a good, powerful flash too, which is good for parties or when you want to experiment with flash photography.

My friend recently dropped this camera on the floor (passing it from one person to another - it slipped) and the zoom lens bent up. We thought the camera had to go to the repair shop, but the next day she had the camera again - just popped it back into place and it kept working. Plus they come in fun colors.

Remember - when doing photography, what's in front of the camera, and what's between your ears, is far more important than anything else. As long as the camera lets you use what's between your ears, it's a good camera. I have a camera that I don't particularly like (for other reasons), but since it has a good manual mode, I can coax a lot out of it that I couldn't with other cameras. People are always asking what camera I have because they think it's a good camera - it's not the camera that takes the photos, it's me & a basic understanding of photography.
posted by MesoFilter at 11:57 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

nmaster64: "Why is a piece of metal attached to two other pieces of metal so expensive?"

Because you get to know for sure that everything is adjustable, at a 90 degree angles, and you won't need to futz with it like you would two coat racks, a stick, and a Gorillapod. There's no accounting for taste or time, natch. :)

nmaster64: "I'm not really looking for professional-level (or even semi-pro) stuff"

Oh, but you are: who else ever needs to take pictures like this? Almost nobody. I'm sure when top-down picture taking becomes all the rage we'll all be able to go down to Target and pick up a $20 copy stand, but until then...
posted by rhizome at 12:55 PM on July 18, 2010

Response by poster: @rhizome: The real answer is more along the lines of "because everything photography-related is set at a gouging 1000% markup, just because the greedy bastards can". What do you think the actual cost to manufacturer is on one of those $400 copystands? I'd venture to guess somewhere between 'nil' and 'relatively nil'.

"Wisecracks don't help people find answers [smartass]. Thanks."
posted by nmaster64 at 8:02 PM on July 18, 2010

Response by poster: Weighed my camera options heavily, and after narrowing it down to a Canon SD 1300 IS and the Samsung TL320 (both about $180). I think I'm going to go with the less-safe choice of the Samsung, and just make sure to return it in the 30 days if it's not working out. I'll probably have to brush up on my basic photography with that one, but overall it seems to be the better camera (but maybe the CHDK software could give the Canon that kind of power, although the 1300 isn't listed in supported devices).

I think I'll try the Samsung TL320 after my next paycheck.
posted by nmaster64 at 9:21 PM on July 23, 2010

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