DT&G Magazine Photography Department
The Design Center / & Photographic / Dennis Curtin, Desktop Photography  

Desktop Photography

with Dennis Curtin

Dennis Curtin One thing digital cameras are great for is photographing small objects—coins, jewelry, prints, maps, even insects--anything that will fit on a tabletop. You can put photos of things in your collection right onto the Web or make prints to file in a safe deposit box for insurance purposes.

When doing tabletop photography with a digital camera, you have a huge advantage over film cameras because you can review your results and make adjustments as you shoot. Just delete the bad images and try something new. A film photographer has to wait to get the film back from the lab before they can make adjustments. By then, they have probably taken apart the tabletop setup or forgotten what it was they did. Take advantage of your instant feedback to experiment and learn.

The guidelines that follow are just that--guidelines. Feel free to experiment and break the rules. Never let the fact that you don't have something like a light source stop you. Innovate and experiment. That's how great photographs are taken.

Choosing A Lens

The lens you choose for this kind of photography depends partly on the size of the objects being photographed. Photographing stamps or coins requires a different lens than photographing a collection of African art. Of course with most digital cameras, you don't have much of a choice, so make do with what you have.

Here are some things to think about when it comes to lenses and tabletop photography:

Focusing and Depth of Field

If you look at some close-up photographs, you will notice that very few of them appear to be completely sharp from foreground to background; in other words, the depth of field in a close-up tends to be shallow. The depth of field in an image depends on how small an aperture you use and how close you are to a subject. When you get the camera really close, don't expect much depth of field -- maybe as little as a half-inch. It's best to arrange the objects so they all fall on the same plane. That way, if one's in focus, they all will be. Another thing to try with a zoom lens, is to use a wider angle of view. This will give you more depth of field if you don't also have to move the camera closer to the subject (doing so will offset the advantage of the wide-angle lens). If you are photographing flat objects such as prints, posters, or stamps, be sure the camera back is parallel to the subject.

Also, when you focus, keep in mind that depth of field includes the plane you focus on plus an area in front of and behind that plane. You'll find that about one-third of the sharpest area will fall in front of the plane on which you focus and two-thirds behind it.

Shallow depth of field has its own benefits, so you don't necessarily have to think of it as a problem. An out-of-focus background can help isolate a small subject, making it stand out sharply.

Parallax, The Curse Of Point-And-Shoot Cameras

Point and shoot cameras often have an optical viewfinder through which you compose your shots. However, the axis of this viewfinder, unlike an SLR, is offset from the axis of the lens. This means that the closer you get to a subject, the more likely it is that you are seeing a view that is different from, and offset slightly from the one seen by the image sensor. You can adjust for this by slightly shifting the camera in the direction of the viewfinder. For example, if the distance between the lens and the viewfinder is 2", compose the picture, then shift the camera 2" to the side. If the viewfinder is to the right of the lens (from your position behind the camera), shift the camera 2" to the right.

Setting Exposures

The exposure procedure for Tabletop photography isn't a lot different from normal photography but you have the opportunity to control lighting. The biggest difficulty may arise from automatic exposure. Many close-up photographs are of small objects that don't entirely fill the viewfinder frame. Automatic exposure systems can be fooled if the brightness of the small object is very different from the brightness of the brightness of the larger background. The meter averages all of the light reflecting from the scene and may select an exposure that over- or underexposes the main subject. One solution is to make a substitute reading of a gray card and then use exposure compensation to get the right exposure settings.

Gray cards, available from your camera store, are usually white on one side, gray on the other. The gray side reflects 18% of the light falling on it, the same percentage of light that your camera's exposure system expects and average scene to reflect. In other words, the gray card produces the amount of reflectance the meter needs to calculate the correct exposure. Here's how to meter the card:

Position the card so that the same amount of light falls on it as on your subject when seen from the angle at which you'll be shooting. You can usually do this by positioning the card parallel to the back of the camera.

Focus through the viewfinder. Move close enough so that the card fills the entire image area.

Meter the card and note the exposure settings indicated in the viewfinder and use these settings to take the photograph. If they are different from the settings indicated when focusing on the actual object. Use exposure compensation to override the automatic exposure system.

Next... Backgrounds, Lighting and more...


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