Taking process pictures on the job or in the shop
There’s something about photography that’s related to carpentry, I just can’t quite put my shutter finger on it. But I know a lot of photographers who are carpenters. I think it has something to do with using tools. After all, a camera is just another tool: in order to use one, you have to know how it works.
If you’re one of those carpenters who has an interest in photography, but you spend most of your energy mastering techniques for your “day job,” this article may be of use to you—in your own work, your website, for personal photographs, or if you want to write an article for Fine Homebuilding, JLC, or THISisCarpentry. You can’t invite hundreds of readers or potential clients to your job site. Having good photographs is the best way to communicate the quality of your craftsmanship. For that, a camera is just another tool!
How Cameras Work
Photography is all about light.
A camera is really just a lens with some film behind it. Today we use digital “film,” but it’s still treated as if it’s film. When you open the lens, light—and that means the scene in front of the lens (which is made up of different shades of light)—is recorded on the film. Magic. I don’t understand that part, and you don’t have to either, any more than you need to know how to build an electric motor for your miter saw. All you really need to know is how to control the saw—how to make a butt cut, a miter, and a bevel.
A camera is a tool for capturing light, and you can control light in three ways:
1. The size of the lens opening
2. The amount of time the lens is open
3. The sensitivity of the “film”
1. Aperture: The Lens Opening Size
Imagine the lens on a camera is like your eye: When it’s bright outside, you squint; when it’s dark, you open your eyes up wide. That’s how you let more light or less light into your eye.
A camera lens works the same way. If it’s bright and you want to let in less light, you close down the lens until it’s just a pinhole. Conversely, when it’s dark, you open the lens up wide, which allows more light to hit the film.
The size of the lens opening is called the aperture, or f-stop. That’s easy, huh? Too easy. To make it more difficult, the industry sizes aperture openings in reverse of common sense; but if you’re into shotguns or electrical wire, you’ll take to this system quickly: small aperture openings (think SQUINT) are around f-16. Wide aperture openings are around f-5.6.
2. Shutter Speed: The Length of Time
Taking a picture is like stopping time—at least, it’s as close as we can get to doing it. In the nineteenth century, photographers used to control time by removing the lens cap then replacing it. Of course, they weren’t able to do that very quickly (plus the film wasn’t very sensitive!), so people had to stand very still for long periods of time because of the slow shutter speed.
Today we can take really fast photographs—in fact, we can stop water from a faucet; we can stop a ball coming off your kid’s baseball bat.
We stop time with a camera by opening the lens (or lens shutter) and closing it really quickly—in a fraction of a second. If the lens is open a long time, more light goes through. If the lens is open for a short period of time, less light goes through. That’s how you control the amount of light that reaches the film, by changing the amount of time the shutter on the lens is open.
3. Film Sensivity
The third way we control light is by changing the sensitivity of the “film.” Before digital cameras, we had to change the actual roll of film in the camera for darker scenes, but today all we have to do is push a button: the ISO button.
Increasing the ISO number increases the sensitivity of the film. For shooting outdoors, an ISO number of 100 to 200 usually works well. For shooting indoors, an ISO number of 600 works much better. Some cameras can take good pictures even at ISO 2000 and higher—almost in total darkness.
Using a Camera
Let’s review a little before we move on. Cameras capture images made of light. There are three ways to control light: lens opening, shutter speed, and film sensitivity.
The neat thing is, you can use different combinations of those controls. For instance, you can use a small lens opening with a slow shutter speed and take a good picture. Or you can use a wide lens opening with a fast shutter speed and take a good picture. You can brighten both pictures by using a higher ISO setting. That may seem confusing, but in practice, it’s easier than you might think.
Let’s go inside my shop and I’ll show you what I mean.
Shooting on Automatic
As soon as I go inside my shop, or inside most homes and jobsites, I turn the ISO setting on my camera up to 600. The ISO speed is one of the most important light-control tools on a camera. If you’re using your camera on automatic (Program Mode), you might find that’s the only adjustment you need to make! So always try that first! Try it with the flash on and the flash off—after all, taking digital pictures is free.
One word of warning: on many lower-priced cameras, turning up the ISO too high can hurt the quality of the photographs. At ISO speeds over 800, common point-and-shoot cameras produce too much noise or “grain” in the photographs. When shooting at high ISO settings, always check the quality of your photographs by zooming in while viewing them.
Exposure compensation is another critical light-control tool, especially when using the camera on automatic settings. Cameras today are a lot smarter than they used to be. But you still need to know what you’re doing to take good pictures! And learning how to use exposure compensation is the first step!
Because you can’t control the ISO setting with the camera on fully automatic, for most photographs, leave your camera on the Program (P) mode and take a test shot. Remember, if you’re outdoors, set the ISO from 100 to 200; if you’re indoors try 600 to 800.
If the picture is too dark or too bight, adjust the exposure compensation setting.
|On most cameras, the exposure compensation button looks like this:|
Press that button and a slider-type bar will appear on the viewer screen, displaying the exposure compensation amount.
The main control dial or toggle adjusts the exposure compensation.
Now, let’s look at two other automatic settings, both of which come in handy on the jobsite.
Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority
When your camera is on Program Mode, it will choose the shutter speed and aperture opening based on available light, without any other consideration. But there are often other considerations.
For instance, when I’m not using a tripod and holding the camera in my hand, I don’t like to take pictures slower than 1/30 of a second. I shake too much and the pictures come out blurry! That’s when I switch the camera from Program mode to Shutter Priority (Tv).
Shutter Priority (Tv or S Mode)
There are two reasons to use Shutter Priority: 1. If your hands shake too much at slower shutter speeds; and 2. If you’re photographing something that’s moving fast and you want to stop the action so the picture isn’t blurred—like someone making a cut with a saw. Shutter priority allows you to do that. Just turn the automatic camera setting from P to Tv, then turn the dial or toggle switch to a speed higher than 1/30 second.
When I’m using my camera hand-held, I set the shutter priority at 1/30 sec. However, I know some photographers with steady hands who shoot as slow as 1/8 sec.! I can do that, too, but only if I’m using a new lens, with stabilization, and only if the carpenter isn’t moving a lot!
Aperture Priority (Av or A Mode) – Depth of Field
For this first article on photographing your work, I wanted to avoid discussing depth of field, but I can’t, otherwise you wouldn’t understand why a camera has Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. And you should. After all, it’s a tool, and you need to know how it works.
There are times when you take a picture and you want the viewer to see only what they need to see, what they have to see, and nothing else—like isolating the tip of a pin nailer seated on a piece of crown molding, or emphasizing the tooth of a saw-blade cutting right to a pencil line.
To take a photograph like that, the lens must be focused sharply on the pencil line and the saw-blade tooth, but the background and everything else must be slightly blurred. For that kind of photograph, you want a narrow “depth of field” or “depth of focus.”
Depth of field is controlled and influenced by the size of the aperture opening.
Remember, aperture size controls the amount of light that comes through the lens: The larger the opening, the more light comes through the lens; the smaller the opening, the less light comes through the lens.
But aperture size has another effect, too. Large aperture openings have a narrow depth of focus; small aperture openings have deep depth of focus. It’s exactly the opposite of what you’d think! Just like aperture size is the opposite of what you’d expect: f-16 is a small aperture opening—with a deep depth of focus (the background is sharp and in focus, as in the first photo below); f-5.6 is a large aperture opening—with a narrow depth of focus (the background is blurred, as in the second photo below).
|If the background distracts from the main subject of the picture,|
|then blur the background by tightening the depth of focus on the main subject of the picture (use a smaller f-stop number, like 5.6 or 4).|
I keep this straight in my mind by thinking of Ansel Adams, the famous photographer. Adams liked to take landscape photographs where everything was in focus, from the rocks at his feet to the mountains in the background. So he always took pictures with small apertures. In fact, he started a group of photographers called f/64—now that’s a very small aperture with a deep depth of focus!
Use Depth of Focus
Let’s put this to practical use. If you’re taking a photograph in your shop or on your jobsite, and the background—the floor, or the walls—is filled with crap, like electrical cords, moldings, lumber, trash cans, etc., and you don’t want all that distracting stuff in the picture, choose a large aperture opening (smaller number) with a narrow depth of focus, at least f-5.6.
Conversely, if you’re photographing an entire kitchen, from the island cabinet near your feet to the refrigerator wall, you want to use a smaller aperture opening (larger number), at least f-8, so that you’ll have a deeper depth of focus.
If depth of focus is important to your picture, set the camera on Aperture Priority and choose the right aperture size.
Once you’ve set the Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, take a test picture—just like you would in Program Mode. Then use Exposure Compensation to adjust the light until the picture is perfect!
I often use my camera on a tripod—especially when I’m taking pictures of myself, and when I have to shoot at very slow shutter speeds.
A tripod is the first accessory you should add to your photography tool kit.
If you want to take process photographs of yourself building stuff—photos that are good enough for an article—invest in a decent tripod. You can get a good one for around $50.00.
And remember, when you take process photographs—of building a mantelpiece or a bookcase, or framing a dormer—someone must be in every photograph doing something!
If you work alone, like I do most of the time—or if you don’t want to slow down your crew—then that “someone” in your pictures will probably be you.
I always set my camera on a tripod and turn on the self-timer. I compose the photograph and plan for where I need to stand and what tool I need to hold, then I push the shutter release and walk into the picture for the shot.
Most self-timers have a ten-second delay, which is plenty long enough to climb a few steps up a ladder carrying a nail gun! If you’re careful!
This advice is worth repeating: Don’t make the mistake of taking a bunch of pictures with no carpenters in them. They might look pretty to you, and they probably will be, but they’re not “instructive.” In other words, pictures without carpenters doing something don’t “tell a story,” they don’t explain what’s going on in the photograph, they don’t help describe how to do something, there’s no “step one, step two, step three” in a picture without a person. In fact, because “empty” photographs don’t tell a story, they won’t communicate the right impression to your clients.
When you take process pictures, always think in terms of “steps.” The steps form the story line. For instance: Step One: draw careful pencil lines; Step Two: cut to the pencil lines; Step Three: drill pocket holes; Step Four: assemble the pieces.
Wide Angle, Medium, and Close-up Shots
Sometimes the story a photograph needs to tell is accomplished best with a close-up shot; sometimes the story is clearer with a wider shot. The safest bet is to shoot both, for every picture you take. In fact, shoot every picture three ways to Sunday:
|A wide-angle shot, showing the whole story;|
|a medium shot, showing just the main idea;|
|and a close-up, concentrating on one or two details.|
And make sure there are human body parts in every shot—preferably ones that are not objectionable (like the zipper on your fly, a big tattoo of a naked lady, the backside of a plumber, the trash pile on your jobsite…you get the idea).
Different photographers will tell you different things when it comes to focus. Some like to shoot on Automatic, some on Manual. I’m mostly a Manual guy. Here’s why:
If you’re shooting a picture of a carpenter cutting a sheet of plywood, with the focus set on automatic, the camera will focus on the closest part of the plywood and the “action area” will be blurred. Remember, the camera will always focus on the closest object (see below).
If your camera is on auto-focus, you can tell the lens where to focus by pointing the camera directly at the object you want to focus on, then holding down the shutter release button half-way, then re-composing the shot before taking the picture.
But if you’re taking pictures of yourself, trust me, use manual focus! Focus the camera on the most important part of the picture, and then release the timer and step into the shot.
Flash & Lighting
I’ve intentionally saved this subject for last, partly because it’s a little more complicated, and partly because using flash correctly—as fill light—is a technique that professional photographers rely on for good reason: fill flash distinguishes their work from the amateur snapshots most people take. So pay close attention to this discussion.
First, let’s correct a fundamental mistake most people make with point-and-shoot cameras.
You will probably find that by increasing the ISO on your camera, and adjusting Exposure Compensation, your photographs will improve tremendously. But you’ll still have problems, especially when you use a flash. Whenever you shoot a picture straight at a shiny object—a mirror, a window, or anything with a high-gloss finish—you’ll get a “hot spot” from the flash, which ruins the picture.
|If you want to take your photography to the next level, look into a high-quality on-camera flash with a swivel head (see photo, right) that allows you to rotate the flash and point it at the ceiling or the wall behind or beside you. A good flash can make the difference between a mediocre picture and a great shot.|
One way to take a poor photograph is to set the camera on Full Automatic, then let the flash determine the amount of necessary light. You can’t depend on the flash alone to light a photograph. Photographs like that always look “baked,” overly lit, with dark shadows around the edges of the light from the flash—you can even see the circle of the flash.
“Fill flash” is a technique that mixes the ratio of ambient light (the constant available light) and flash light (the brief burst of light from the flash) so that you get the best of both types of lighting.
Not long ago, setting up fill flash required the use of a light meter and an understanding of flash power and distance measurements. But anyone can do it today.
Start by setting your camera to take a photograph without any flash, as I’ve described earlier in this article: turn the flash off, set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting, then take a test picture. Adjust the settings until the photograph is acceptable. Now turn on the flash and take another picture. With the flash on, the photograph will be brighter, especially in the foreground. If the foreground is too bright, and you have a flash that pivots, try raising the flash so that it bounces off the ceiling. If your flash doesn’t pivot, try reducing the output or power of the flash. Even if your flash pivots, you may still have to reduce the output of the flash.
Adjusting Flash Output
Flash power is easy to adjust on most cameras. It’s very similar to adjusting Exposure Compensation. On many point-and-shoot cameras, if the flash is switched on, push the Exposure Compensation button until the flash compensation bar appears on the screen (some cameras will toggle through Exposure Compensation, White Balance and other settings before reaching Flash Compensation). That bar looks very similar to the Exposure Compensation bar, but flash compensation will be identified somewhere on the screen of your camera, by an icon or a label. Simply use your main dial or toggle switch to decrease the amount of flash power.
If you want to have even more control over lighting, there are many alternatives other than investing in expensive or cumbersome photo lights. Photography is all about light, but these days, it doesn’t really matter what kind—not with digital cameras and software that can balance most mixed-lighting problems.
So if a room is too dark in your photographs, turn on some lights! If the room is still too dark, bring in a low-watt shop light on a stand, or even a halogen light, if necessary. And if a window is too bright, cover it up with a thin piece of fabric, a bed sheet, or even a sheet of plywood!
Like carpentry, photography works best if you just keep it simple. The tips in this article, and the ability we now have to shoot an endless amount of test shots with our digital cameras—experimenting with different aperture openings, shutter speeds, ISO and flash settings—makes it easier than ever to improve your photographs.
- Outdoor photographs: 100 ISO setting; 1/125 second shutter speed; f-11 aperture
- Shop or Jobsite: ISO to 600 or higher; 1/30 second shutter speed (or lower); f-8 aperture.
- If the picture is too dark: increase exposure compensation; increase the ISO setting.
- If the picture is too bright: decrease the exposure compensation; decrease the ISO setting.