Small Object Photography Tutorial

Steven L. Van Dyke

All right, here's the deal. You've got some small object (usually shiny just to make it tougher) that you want to get some decent pictures of. You go outside and lay it on some nice background to take a picture.

Note: if you want to see some examples of pictures taken using these techniques you can look in my Etsy shop.

There are only two things that you need to control to get good pictures – the light and keeping things still. The light was bright enough that a hand held shot was steady enough with my regular lens. Now I got lucky (both good and bad for my purposes) when I was taking the pictures for this tutorial in that it was overcast. That gave me the nice, even light you want to have when you do this rather than the bright sunlight you're more likely to have to deal with. That gave me better pictures but makes it hard to show you more of the problems. Ah well, I'm sure you've got some of your own where you couldn't shoot straight down on the object because your big fat shadow got in the way. So instead you got off to the side or one end to shoot and you had two big problems.

#1) It's not square anymore. This is called 'keystoning' and refers the the nearer part looking wider than the far end – your rectangle turns into the shape of the keystone of an arch. With digital pictures there's software that can help fix this for you if you can't avoid it.

#2) It's at least partly out of focus – sometimes a lot of it is out of focus. This is because when you focus your camera it's focused at a certain distance – they call this the 'focal plane' of the image. Ideally your object is complety in this focal plane and all lined up with it like these two lines: (camera's focal plane) | | (surface of the object). The camera is aimed at a 'point' (plane) but things a bit in front of and behind that point will still be in focus. This is good because often your small (shiny) object isn't flat so you get this: (camera's focal plane) | < (surface of the object). If the depth of field (how much in front of and behind the focus point is in focus) isn't as deep as the object then you have to choose what parts are going to be out of focus (or at least try to with a point & pixelate camera).

So as I said I was lucky enough to have a cloudy day with nice smooth light. Take my nice camera with my regular lens to get the pictures and get this:

Not too bad, but I can't fill the frame with the object. This lens won't focus closely enough. There's a hint of keystoning too but since I was shooting a bit from the left side (I rotated the images later) it's not as obvious as if I shot from the top or bottom.

So what can you do about all of this?


I hauled out some example gear to show some of the ways you can do these pictures 'right' (a highly variable goal). I've been doing photography for over 10 years now and I have an ever-indulgent wife so I've got lots of fun toys.

From left to right, back to front, here's what I hauled out:

  1. Copy Stand. This is a great thing to have. The camera is attached to the arm sticking out from the upright and the other arms hold the lights to both sides. Notice that the bulbs are blue? There the special 'photo' lights that are coated to give you light that looks like sunlight to film (or your digital camera).

  2. Sitting on the copy stand is a nice table top tripod. You'll notice it's a lot sturdier looking than the ones you see at Wal-Mart. If you want to use a 'real' camera (SLR or DSLR and I strongly recommend digital for this kind of thing) then you should spring for a real tripod.

  3. Photek Light Tent. Photek is just the brand. Those two rolls are material you can use to give you a white or black background – you can even curve it to make what's called a cove. That little thng to the left is just the switches for the lights on the photo stand. I'll show using the light tent later.

  4. Center column at the back. This is also by Photek, it's a “portable lighting studio' that I bought at Wal-Mart. More on this later.

  5. My DSLR with my regular lens, my remote release cable, and my macro lens. Add the tripod and you've got the stuff you really need for great shots. The other stuff just helps (but it can help a lot).

  6. Right column at the back. This is a light box. Sometimes you can get great shots by setting your object on a light box and turning it on. The light coming up from below the object can make it tough to get the exposure right but it's how you do those 'floating in a sea of white' shots. Well, the ones with light coming up from below. As long as your surface is smooth and even your objects can float – but the lack of shadows under them you only get with a lightbox and that's the key to a really good 'float'.

  7. Small cheap tripod. If you're using your little point & pixelate and this is all you have to hold it steady you're way ahead of most folks. Any tripod is better than no tripod.

  8. Bean bag. This one's actually meant for photography but it's just a bag o beans. You can, in fact, use an actual bag of beans (or rice, or popcorn, or...) from the store. You use this to get things to stay in place. You may or may not have it showing when you do.

  9. Macro positioner. This is one of those things that if you need it, you really need it and if you don't you wonder why it exists. Basically when you're doing macro photography – the sort of extreme closeups where you can get the actual image onto the film at life size or greater, you don't focus the way you do for everything else. You set your lens to the 'size' you want and then move the camera / subject until it's in focus and where you want it. You must use a tripod or other steady support for this. A macro positioner lets you get 'close' with moving the tripod around and then you use the knobs on this baby to move the camera left / right / forward / back until you've got it just right. You can only move the camera a couple of inches but in macro you may only want to move it a few hundredths of an inch.

All right then, that's what I brought out. Let's start playing with it!

Let's start off with that Photek Light Tent.

Ok, officially this one is a 'digital lighthouse' – use that if you're searching on line and if you go to a camera store say 'light tent'. These come in varous sizes and styles. For this demo I'm just doing the very basics so I won't be using the rolls of backdrop. Open up the zipper case and you'll find the 'tent' neatly folded up. It unfolds into a nice box with some panels that come off and some that zip open (so you can stick your lens through):

You can take panels off to make it easy to reach in and arrange things, or to give you a hole to shoot through. If you're shooting a really shiny object where you have to worry about it reflecting every blasted thing in the area then you'll want a light tent. You stick your lens in through the zipper and you get a shot where the only 'thing' in the reflections is the lens of the camera – everything else is the white of the walls.

Remember I said you want your subject to be 'flat' to the camera's focal plane? Generally that means you have to hold it in place in some way. Modeling clay is pretty much the standard but I didn't have any handy so I just wet a paper towel and squeezed it into a lump for a quick substitute. That's it behind the pendant.

Ok, put the top on, open the zipper and... Can't get the shot with my regular lens because it won't focus this close. All right then, switch to the macro lens. Problem then is that it focuses too close so I can't get the whole thing in frame. Even hand held I can get a great shot though:

You can really see every error, flaw, and failure to clean. (sigh)

So there's your biggest problem with a light tent – getting one the right size.

BTW, I didn't have time to show you but you can 'fake' a light tent with amazing ease. Go to the store and get just about any translucent container – storage tub, big bowl, whatever. Cut a little hole in one end to stick your lens through – heck, buy two tubs and cut holes in one and use pieces of the other to make flaps to cover the holes with (use clear tape to make a hinge for the flap and to hold the selected flap open). Set it over your subject out on your patio and you're all set for about $10 (and that's with two tubs at most stores). You can even store your gear in the tub when you're not using it to take pictures).

Ok, back to our tutorial. Let's say we want to use our nice macro lens and get the whole subject. Since I've got a copy stand I'm going to use it.

Once again, since I'm outside with nice light I'm not using the stand's lights like I would if I were inside. I've got the camera mounted to the stand and my macro lens on. The pendant is sitting on one of the 'floor' panels from the light tent (hey, it was handy). Now I just use the stand to move the camera up and down until it's in focus with the subject filling the frame. I don't need my macro positioner because I can just slide the pendant around to get it centered up.

Now those are the shots we wanted! Well, they would be if I had better subjects but hey – I've had my engraver for one month now and I'm (obviously) still learning. The ever-indulgent wife is quite happy with her pendant so that's good enough for now.

But you probably don't a have a copy stand and a macro lens and you probably don't want to spend a few hundred dollars to get them. That's ok, there are lots of other choices. You can go to Wal-Mart and get that 'portanble lighting studio' – it's in the Photo section and the box looks like this:

You can also go to Porter's Camera and get a slightly nicer one. The Wal-Mart one cost me $50, the one at Porter's is $80 but it has a much nicer camera support. At Wal-Mart you get a cheap little tripod, at Porter's you get a stand that will hold a DSLR like mine. The rest is the same but if didn't already have so many tripods it would have been worth the extra $30 for the better stand.

Here's what the thing looks like closed up:

The pouches on the outside hold the lamps and the tripod. It's a nice, compact package that is easy to haul around and to store. Unfolds into a pretty nice little studio:

Once again, I'm outside so I won't actually use the lights. But see how the translucent sides give me nice even light inside? (Just ignore the nice even light outside that the clouds gave me). The backround material is reversible (Blue / Grey). I've pulled it out to make a 'cove' – a smooth curve that will pretty much vanish into the background and I'm using my paper towel wad to prop up the subject.

Hand held with my regular lens. Yes, I know I went on and on about using a tripod but I had good bright light and lots of practice holding still. If I were doing this for real rather than a tutorial I would have been taking more than one picture and would have use a tripod.

Ok, that's enough of how to work with sunlight where you just need to smooth it out and watch for shadows. Let's move indoors where we need to add light.

You can see that I've flipped to the grey side of the background and set my DSLR on my own tripod. I'm running the lights through the sides of the box for smooth light. If I wanted more sparkle I could add some light from the front and/or use my flash. I think when I do more I might just set up on the kitchen floor – it's a nice open space where I can get everything on the same surface, unlike my somewhat cluttered living room.

But since we've already shown that a fancy DSLR can give good pictures, how about I switch to my wife's little point & pixelate I've been using to take the pictures of my setup? It's a Canon Digital Elph and yes, you can even get one at Wal-Mart.

Oh, there are some hazards to working inside:

That's the Elph on the tripod that came with the set and that's HairyCat coming in to 'help'. He's professionally cute so he knows that if I'm taking pictures I must want one of him.

He's a pretty big cat (Himalyan mix, 18 lbs) so the portable studio is bigger than you might think.

Ok, let's get the cat out and set up a subject.

I'm adding a prop here for a couple of reasons. One is to hold up the subject, one is to give me something interesting besides the subject, and another is because using the wet paper towel wad as a support earlier left a wet mark that hasn't dried yet. So what's the prop? A pair of ladie's gardening gloves

By the way, I'll bet you didn't even notice that I couldn't quite fill the frame with the pendant using this camera, did you? That's one of the other reasons to use props.

This plate's a little bigger so I could fill the field. Remember that bean bag from way up there? It's sitting behind the backdrop (which I flipped back to the blue side so the grey steel would show). I can get a nice shot of the back of the pendant this way as well.

So there you are. The two keys to small (shiny) object photography are controlling your light and keeping things steady. Getting your subject 'flat' to the camera is pretty important too, but there are ways to make it look like you wanted to do that when you don't.

The key to light control is... well, controlling the light, which you do mostly by limiting it to just the light you want.

Keeping things steady means keeping your hands off. Use a tripod -heck, use a beanbag if you have to, but take your hands off the camera and you'll get a better shot. If you don't have a remote release do what I did for the shots with the wife's camera – use the timer function. Two seconds is plenty of time for it to stop vibrating from you pushing the shutter and it's not like anything's going to move.

Post processing on all of the pictures I did with a little utility called PhotoCleaner. It's shareware and inexpensive. Basically a guy noticed that he was doing the same small set of adjustments with Photoshop and decided that he didn't really need an expensive and powerful program to do that. The original verison just did those 'standard' adjustments, by now you can do a few others (and have control and choices over all of them). It will even build a simple gallery page you can upload to the web to show them off.

Hope you enjoyed this tutorial and found it helpful.

Steven Van Dyke

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