Need some quick pictures of small parts? Try this quick and cheap table top photography studio.
- Digital camera
- Card table
- Clamp-style work lamp
- 100 W. incandescent light bulb
- Large stapler (or other heavy object on which to clamp the light)
- Extension cord (if needed)
- Cardboard box approx. 9″ deep, 9″ high and 14″ wide, cut as shown (see pictures)
- Cardboard reflector flat approx. 8.5″x11″
- Sheet from unlined flip-chart pad, cut to 14″ wide strips and taped (ends only) onto cut box as shown (see pictures), could also use white butcher paper from your local grocery or supermarket and which is probably free for the asking
- Small parts holder (to hold cardboard reflector) (see pictures — this one is from an electronics store but a couple of small spring-powered wood clamps from Home Depot grasping each other could also do the job)
- 8.5″x11″ sheet white paper, attached to cardboard flat (see pictures)
- 8.5″x11″ sheet white paper, creased 0.75″ to “hook” over lamp (beware of fire!)
- Scotch Tape
- Optional: table-top or other tripod for camera (I have a 12″ goose-neck that just happened to have the right threads on each end that can be attached to the tripod with the camera on the far end — this is great for setting up the more interesting camera angles!)
Caution: The light bulb gets hot and may pose a fire hazard to the sheet of paper hanging over it. Never leave the work unattended and, as soon as possible, turn the light off and allow it to cool.
A less hazardous approach would be to fashion a (cardboard?) frame for the diffuser (sheet of paper) and use a second small parts holder to position it a few inches from the light bulb. Alternatively, one of those old fashioned laundry pins — the ones with a spring — clamped onto the (hot) shell of the lamp with the paper diffuser scotch taped to the tail end of the laundry pin might work nicely.
Place the part(s) to be photographed onto the stage. For small parts that need to be leaning against the backdrop at an angle, use a small loop of tape, sticky-side out, to anchor the piece. Set the camera focus for close-up work and the white-balance for incandescent lighting.
- primary light position: move left and right, in and out, up on a stack of books, and beam direction toward the work, toward the reflector, off-angle, etc.,
- reflector position and angle, and reflector sheet color: add a small piece of color paper on the front of the white sheet, or replace the white sheet completely,
- fill-flash or none (I prefer none in most cases),
- and camera position (paying attention to image versus object alignment and keystone effects).
Where possible, arrange multiple objects to be at the same distance from the camera lens. This will minimize the required depth of field. And if push comes to shove, add more light because the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field. More light will cause the camera to close its iris as much as possible thereby giving a greater depth of field. (Oops: In the “example” picture below with the numerous small objects, you can see I did not follow these guidelines and portions of several objects are out of focus — depth of field was not sufficient with this arrangement.)
With reflective objects (see the image with the 2.5″ computer disk drive in the Results below), extra gyrations may be needed to get an acceptable combination of primary object and reflected surface images and colors. Also, there were a few left-over dust flecks that had to be retouched digitally.
Camera versus work angle will be important if you want the edge of the work to line up with the edge of the image. Although this can be partially corrected in post-processing, avoiding the problem in the first place is usually easier. There are two solutions: line up the work and the camera before taking the shot, or intentionally avoid this requirement and use a moderate to steep angle between work and image. In the latter case, depth of field will be important and some understanding of your camera’s pre-focus and exposure capabilities will be helpful.
For example, if the camera gives you little or no control over aperture, then light intensity and camera distance will be the variables to control. Alternatively, choose the plane you want to have in focus, move in and to the appropriate viewing angle and pre-set the focus, and then move the camera to shooting position and capture the image. Depending on the work, this can be challenging so always be aware of simplifications: maybe a flat shot (where little depth of field is needed) wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Finally, make several exposures with each of several different combinations of light, reflector and camera position. Multiple exposures from each position will allow you to throw out the occasional camera shake or camera operation error such as not giving the camera time to focus, or pre-focusing incorrectly for the shot.
Here are some general rules to follow.
- Inspect all the images and discard any that are clearly unusable (due to camera shake, focus problems, etc.).
- Save the original image files “as is” and make any adjustments on copies, not on the original file.
- If the camera color balance was set for incandescent lighting when the image was captured, you shouldn’t need to adjust the color unless some effect is desired.
- Do any rotation, keystone or similar adjustment next. (These changes may be objectionable in the finished work so saving an original image without these problems is all the more helpful.)
- Crop the image as desired.
- A significant increase in brightness and contrast may often be helpful.
- Enlarge and retouch as may be needed. (Remove dust flecks, blot out undesired areas, etc…)
Here are some processed images (shrunk to approx. 640×480) from my first use of the table top studio.
No doubt there is considerable room for improvement but for something that is quick, easy to use and cheap, the table top photography studio may be just what you need.