Better lighting for photographing machine tools
February 4, 2011 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I need to take better pictures in my home machine shop. I have a decent camera (Nikon L100) but my workshop lighting is poor (mostly florescent lights) and my camera's flash is too directional and too harsh. I think I need to invest in a small umbrella light but I'm not sure and I could use some advice, including what to buy. I take a lot of close-ups, I don't have a lot of room to work in and I'd like to work with a continuous light rather than flash. The photos are for my blog.
posted by 14580 to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried just putting a kleenex or other piece of paper over your flash to mute it a bit? Might be the cheapest and easiest way to solve your problem. Worth a shot, at least!
posted by Grither at 12:00 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Could you use a tripod? A basic model might serve your needs, so you can just do longer shots. Perhaps, since you're tight for space, one of those "gorilla pods" which are made for P'n'S cameras anyway.

Or at least, force the camera to do longer exposures.
posted by notsnot at 12:03 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: no space and on a budget, you can get one or two small white LED lamps, diffused with some vellum if you buy the lamps that have clips on the base that would give you the most flexibility
posted by kanemano at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: Get a dimmer. Get an umbrella. Make your own set up and you will save money and gain from having a modular setup.

You should do some research on different bulb types (I don't know what kind of color temperatures and lumen outputs you need). After you do that, check out a hardware store for a work light.
posted by JesseBikman at 12:16 PM on February 4, 2011

If you're photographing smallish things, how about a light tent? It's a white enclosure in which to place your item; they often come with backdrops in a few colors. The small ones are between 30 and 60 dollars. Amazon sells them in sizes from 20" to 60". Most of them fold down to be flat and thin. for easy storage.
posted by wryly at 12:36 PM on February 4, 2011

If you want to shoot without flash, maybe a faster (lower f-stop) lens is in order?
posted by rocket88 at 12:50 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: I take a lot of tiny macro photos, and here's what I do.

I shoot on a tripod usually, but often on a monopod. I take a styrafoam bowl and cut a hole in the bottom just the size of the end of the lense. I then push the bowl onto the lense. This makes an awesome flash diffuser as it lights from all around.

I generally also use an overhead 150 watt equivalent fluorescent bulb at right around 5000k for constant light. It's cool and I can easily white balance my camera to it. It gives me simple, well lit shots like these.
posted by sanka at 1:00 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I already use a tripod and my pictures are well-exposed, just often flat or shadowy. I'm taking pictures of a lathe and mill being used so a light tent won't be big enough.

I like JesseBikman's umbrella suggestion, but I take enough pictures that I'm willing to invest in some decent equipment, although I don't have a huge budget to work with. But I'm still not sure what kind of lights and umbrella to buy. I think I need something that I can set or mount on top of a workbench or machine. My camera is frequently within 2-feet of the object I'm trying to photograph.

Thank you for your responses so far.
posted by 14580 at 1:02 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: What color are your walls/ceiling? How close are they? An easy and cheap and quick way to diffuse on-camera flash is to bounce it off of a large white surface: white wall, large white sheet.

As for continuous light options, Home Depot or the like has clamp lights you can clamp onto anything and they're super cheap, just make sure to not light your object directly but to put some kind of diffusion between the light source and the object - I recommend a light box for smaller things, but they come in all sizes. Home Depot also has big orange flood lights used on construction job sites that are cheap and work great for continuous light. They also warm a room up considerably.

When working with these kinds of lights, make sure that you calibrate your white balance to match the kind of bulb in them.
posted by rhapsodie at 1:04 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: As you've figured out, don't use a flash coming from near the lens. It can light up faces, but for your work, there will be horrible reflections, harsh shadows, loss of textures, etc.

You might be surprised how cheap 500W workshop lamps are. Like, $11, or $55 for a set of two that comes with their own tripod. A kilowatt of halogen shining on a white ceiling, or poster, gets enough light for photography, plus it's useful when using the workshop. It will be warmer than a flash, but that can be corrected - you'll get colors photos, not that orange monochrome you get when there isn't enough light.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:16 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: Halogen workshop lamps (500W and bigger if you're taking photos of more than a couple square feet). Get three of them with adjustable stands and clips so you can place them anywhere. Crumpled aluminum foil to bounce and diffuse the light. Also some scrap foam core or art board is good for bouncing light around into shadows. Binder clips and gaffer tape to hold 'em in place.

It sounds janky, but I know a number of people who use this setup who get regular compliments on their workshop photography (Including me. See the last couple issues of Make Magazine to see some.)

Oh, an turn off the fluorescents when taking photos with this setup. Having more than one kind of light in a photo can make it impossible to properly white balance.
posted by Ookseer at 2:44 PM on February 4, 2011

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