Sunday, March 29, 2009

Simple Pen Photo Tutorial

A pencil of mine was recently awarded "Featured Photo" at the International Association of Penturners website ( Since then I've been getting lots of, "How did you take that picture?" type questions.

I've significantly changed my way of shooting pens since the last time I talked about it, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a walkthrough of my process.

It's actually VERY simple, and requires minimal equipment.

First of all is the camera. Many moons ago I was into "serious" photography. I had tons of gear, 35mm and medium format and all the bits and bobs that go with those cameras. But when digital cameras were able to match (or exceed) the quality of 35mm film, I got out. I sold the bulk of my gear while I still could, and only had a few accessories left.

Considering that background, I have always had a hard time buying a digicam that did not have a PC socket. The PC socket is a generic flash socket and has been around for decades. It allows the most flexibility in strobes and flashes. I had hung on to some of my lighting gear (my main photography focus was nature, but I still had need for artificial light on occasion), and a PC socket was required to utilize that gear.

My current camera is a Kodak Z7590. It's a few years old, but was the best camera sporting a PC socket I could afford. It also has some pretty decent manual controls, including a realtime levels meter.

The built-in flash is surprisingly good, but of course is still fixed in place, and REALLY close to the lens. So its use is limited.

But I have a Vivitar flash that has more than enough power for my needs, and will attach to the PC socket on the camera. The camera has no way to control the flash other than "on", but the manual controls on the camera for aperture take care of that. The flash also has an "auto" mode, where it tries to guess the exposure based on a sensor in the flash body, but that is never used.

The flash by itself isn't much better than the built-in flash in the camera. What makes it perfect for me is the fact that I can bounce it off the ceiling or wall as needed. It doesn't need to be mounted to any brackets or the camera itself. In fact, it wouldn't be as good that way. (There is another way though if you have a higher-end flash with a pivoting head. If you're interested, leave me a comment.)

Depending on how lazy I am at the time, I may or may not mount the camera to a tripod. The flash allows hand holding with minimal loss of sharpness, so it's not critical. In one hand I hold the camera set to "M" (manual) and with the aperture set to 4.0 to start with. Shutter is 1/25 or so, just fast enough not to capture any ambient light. With the camera pointed at the subject, I point the flash at the ceiling and press the shutter.

That's it! No magic, no sacrifices of small animals, nada. From here it's just a matter of playing with the aperture until you get the image you want.

I find that having a white background for the subject is much easier than a colored background. The reason why is apparent when I move into the post processing.

For post processing, I use Adobe Photoshop. The most recent version I own is CS3 (thanks work!). Any version of Photoshop should be able to do what I'm going to show you, as well as most other image processing applications. But I've been using Photoshop since v3 so long ago passed the learning curve.

When shooting the image, try to fill your frame with the background. As you can see from the photo on the left, I got some extraneous stuff in the image. That's OK though because I was going for a detail shot of the clip. It will be cropped anyway.

I load the image in Photoshop, and define my final image crop. As I said, I was doing a detail shot of the clip, so that's what I cropped to.

Once I'm happy with the cropping, I open the Levels tool (Image - Adjust - Levels in Photoshop CS3). As you can see, the white levels are maxed out. They're "outside the gamut". That means there is no information other than "white" there. So I can move the light colored caret to the left to essentially remove that section.

Doing that may provide an apparent washed out look. So the gray and black carets must be moved to compensate. Tiny adjustments are usually all that is needed. The background stays true white, while the subject gets darkened as you adjust.

Once you're happy, resize the image (for web use I do no more than 600 pixels for the longest side), sharpen if desired, and save.

It sounds a lot harder than it really is. And with digital cameras, there's no film cost, no processing cost, no delay while you wait for your pictures. You get instant gratification, and can keep trying over and over until you get an image you like.

Drop me a note over at the IAC (username DurocShark), the Woodnet forums (same username), or leave a comment if you have any questions.

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