When you sell your craft online, photos are vitally important to your success. Without a physical item to touch and look at, your customers rely on your pictures as their tactile experience. Nothing will turn away a customer faster than a blurry photo with inscrutable details. Luckily, there are many solutions to this common frustration that can help you achieve a sharp, crisp, and alluring photo.
Lighting: Good lighting is essential, because without it, your camera can’t capture the fine details and different tones and values of your item. A good source of light can be as simple as a bright windowsill. Direct sunlight, however, can wash out and overexpose your photo, so take care to either shoot on overcast days or diffuse the light with a sheer curtain or a piece of tracing paper taped to the window. Achieving good light levels indoors is trickier, but can be done inexpensively with a DIY lightbox and a pair of high-wattage full-spectrum industrial or shop lamps. When shooting indoors, be sure to have at least two sources of light, one on each side of the item, to avoid harsh shadows. Take advantage of your camera’s exposure values scale and white balance as well (see Bright Light, Big Color: Using EV and White Balance to Make Your Photos True to Life).
Tripod: Snapping a sharp photo requires a steady hand. The slightest movement of your hands or body, even the simple act of depressing the shutter, can result in “camera shake” – the blurring of an image that occurs when the lens is moved while the shutter is open. A tripod solves this problem by providing a stable base for your camera. The camera is affixed to the head of the tripod, so your hands are off the camera until the shutter is depressed. Tripods come in all sizes, from floor models ideal for taking shots of large items such as clothing or art, to tiny table-top models that are great for jewelry and other small items. In a pinch, if you don’t have a tripod, a bag of rice or other bean-bag type surface placed on the table top or on a stack of books can provide a stable enough base for you to angle your camera and snap a sharper photo.
Macro Mode: Taking clear photos of very small objects, such as jewelry, can be difficult unless you utilize your camera’s macro function. Read through your camera’s manual to determine how to switch your camera into macro mode. The icon for macro mode usually looks like a small flower. By switching your camera into macro mode your camera will be able to focus on objects as close as 2cm away, depending on your camera model.
Left: Photo taken with default camera settings. Right: Photo taken in macro mode.
Focusing: Most contemporary digital cameras have a two-step focus function that enables the user to select precisely what part of the item they want in focus. Try depressing the shutter button of your camera only halfway down, and watch for one or more rectangles to appear on the camera’s screen. The part of the image within the rectangle will be in focus. Once you see this rectangle, fully depress the shutter button. Generally this rectangle will appear in the centre of the screen, but if you want the focus of your image off-center, simply move your camera to the left or right while keeping the shutter button half-depressed, then press down all the way when the image is arranged as you wish. You may need to practice this technique several times before achieving a consistent result.
Remote Shutter Release/Timer: If camera shake is your main enemy, you might consider purchasing a remote shutter release for your camera. This is simply a button on a cord that when plugged into your camera, allows you to depress the shutter without touching the camera at all, completely eliminating camera shake. You can also achieve a similar result by utilizing the timer on your camera.
Depth of Field: Ever see those artsy photos that are sharp in one part of the image, and blurry everywhere else? You can create that effect by utilizing depth-of-field. Depth-of-field refers to how much of the area in front of or behind the subject of the image is in focus. A “shallow” DOF means that very little of the image is in focus – perhaps only the item itself, or even just a small part of the item. A “deep” DOF means that most of, if not all the image is in focus, including the foreground, subject, and background. DOF can be complicated to understand, but essentially it is composed of a geometric sequence called “f-stops,” which describe focal length divided by the aperture diameter.
Left: Photo taken using f-stop f/8, resulting in a deep depth-of-field (in focus from back to front). Right: Photo taken using f-stop f/2.8, resulting in a shallow depth-of-field (in focus up close, blurry far away).
The smaller the f-stop (i.e. f/2.8), the shallower the DOF. The higher the f-stop (i.e. f/16), the deeper the DOF. If you have a manually operated digital camera or a camera with an “Aperture Priority” mode, you can take advantage of DOF to create some great photographs. To get that sharp-in-front-blurry-in-the-back effect, switch to Aperture Priority and set your f-stop as low as it can go. In most cameras without an add-on macro lens, f/2.8 is the lowest possible setting. Focus the camera carefully on one part of the item by depressing the shutter halfway as described previously, then snap your photo. Again, this can take some practice but the effects are worthwhile.
Photoshop: Levels: Using the Levels function in Photoshop can help to bring out the details in too-dark or too-light photographs (for tips on how to use Levels, see this article).
Photoshop – Unsharp Mask: Although the name seems counter-intuitive, the unsharp mask function in Photoshop is the quickest and easiest way to sharpen your photos during post-processing. Unsharp mask uses a combination of sharpening and blurring edges to increase contrast, whereas the sharpen function only sharpens, which can lead to unwanted edge pixelation. There are three controls that make up unsharp mask: amount, radius, and threshold. The amount slider controls how much contrast is enhanced. It can generally be left between 100-150%. The radius is the most important slider, as it designates how far to look for anything that might be considered an edge.
Left: Photo before using Unsharp Mask. Right: Photo after using Unsharp Mask.
This means that a low resolution image should have a lower radius setting than a higher resolution image. A good rule of thumb is to take the photo resolution and divide by 200. Set the radius at the resulting number. For example, if resolution is 180dpi, set the radius to 0.9. Threshold basically withholds the results of the other two sliders, so it can usually be left at 0, unless you have unwanted grain in the photo that needs smoothing. Be cautious to not over-sharpen your image, or it will look pixelated – good sharpening is subtle and enhances the photo without overpowering it.
Final Tip: Practice, practice, practice! One of the great advantages of digital photography is that you can take endless numbers of photographs with no waste, so don’t hesitate to take the time to figure out which of these techniques can work for you.