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.
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.
Gary, where do you find the time to write/edit/layout/publish these great articles?
Gary, this is Bill Clark, Thanks for the info about cameras, my wife really learned a lot and has been telling me the same thing about photos and my work.
I’m not the only one working on this magazine. Robert Walker does final editing and layout for all TiC articles. And he does a great job!! Because TiC is a READER WRITTEN magazine, he works diligently with our authors to make sure any edits to their stories are in their words and their voice. That’s one of our most important goals. Yes…I publish a lot of articles in TiC, too. You know me. I’ve always had TOO much to say. I’m glad you’re enjoying the magazine. I am, too!
I’ve got a nice camera (Nikon D300) that can control remote flash units (two SB600’s in my case.) I’ve also made some stick built light stands for them and some diffusers made with sheer white cloth on wood frames, all held together with Pony spring clamps. These simple light accessories have made all the difference when it comes to shooting product pics. Many times on job sights I can’t get back far enough for an overall view and will switch to a wide angle or fisheye lens. On the other hand in a big store that doesn’t yet have its lighting in place I’ll set the flash units behind something way out in front and let them fire for fill flash using a slow shutter. Since I can adjust their output from the camera I can shoot several shots in a few minutes with different lighting levels. I have to admit the camera is smarter than I am. I take two tripods when I drive to a shoot but they don’t fly well so get left behind then. Practice lots locally before you go to a customer’s site. My camera has outputs for either a monitor or a modern TV so I can take a slide show on a card with me and just plug it to whatever they have. I have Photoshop Elements 8 and some good Nikon software that I can use to make it look like I knew what I was doing when I took the shots. My hobby is night photography w/o flash, ISO 6400*, & image stabilized lens. Great fun and no more expensive that bar beer, no hangover & some good photos.
*The camera has built in artifact and chromatic aberration processing. I always shoot in RAW so my original images never get lost in processing.
Sounds like the makings for a Tool Box story on Making Your Own Lights?
A wide angle zoom (18-55mm/Pentax K-7) has become my go to lens simply because my students(middle school) can all be in the shot during the activity. The students want to be seen and individual projects, tasks, or skills can be documented as needed. Every artifact we produce this year has to be documented electronically in our yearly evaluation-education CYA. I would hope that Gary’s article would spur all of us to build portfolios/websites that show the current and future skill and craftsmanship of the trade. Nice comment, great article.
Great article. Passed it along to the other crafts persons for use. We recently learned about RAW settings and how to use Photoshop to clean-up the hot spots you mentioned.
Main reason for us to use photographs is in getting that extra information when we first visit a job for estimating or for documenting ‘latent conditions’ for work change orders. It is amazing how the camera ‘records’ the moment and the subject. Pictures pick up details that we forget to capture on a written estimate form when we’re busy talking with the customer.
In this internet age we’ve used photos to provide the customer with a daily status report of work progress or as part of a blog about a large project.
Another thing pictures are good for are giving to the customer (CD) as another service. This is a value add and allows the customer to have the before and after pictures to show and brag about their new door, floor, crown moulding, new kitchen, etc. We’ve gone as far as to make post cards for the customer showing off the new work. Great PR, free marketing, and great for repeat business.
Keep up the good work.
The U.S. is a country full of treasures. One of them is Gary Katz. We’re glad you chose our trade to elevate with your skills. Thanks Gary.
Great article Gary. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that you can’t invite hundreds of potential clients to your jobsite. Understanding how to photograph your work properly will do the craftsmanship justice, and greatly expand your potential client base by sharing great images on websites, etc. When you have their eye, make sure to put your best foot forward.
Thank you, Ryan!
Yes, we were thinking about our readers when we decided to do this story. But we were thinking about ourselves, too. We’d like more readers to become TiC authors, too! And because our magazine is so photo/graphic heavy, and so financially light, we need good photographs from our authors. Lately we’ve been getting video from authors, too! We’ve even started a lending program: We have a couple Flip Video cameras that we send to authors. They shoot video and then return the camera to us. We edit the video and use it in their articles. Works GREAT! Next week we’ll publish our first article with that video, Greg Burnet’s story: Made In America!
Great job Gary, a straightforward easy to understand explanation of a complex process. Beats the camera’s user guide every time.
Boy, good job! I wish I had read your article some 60 years ago. Many have been the times that I wished we had documented with photos the innovative construction methods developed in the 50s & 60s. We built around LA for many years and no ever took one photo of what we, and others, were doing.
Does Cal-State Northridge have a collection of tract home building on file that I could access and use?
I sent your article on to others who will find it of interest.
Thanks Larry. When can I come up there again for another story?
I’m not sure if Cal Northridge has any photo collection at all! I’m sure it wouldn’t include too many tracts being built. Maybe some of the contractors? I’ll ask around.
Thanks Gary for all the good info. I never remember seeing anyone taking pictures of any job we were working on. Niece Carol did take a few pictures once of individuals on a job site, but none of the actual building process. Building with a well trained group of people is like a choreographed dance worthy of being recorded for history.
I did do some video work recently with John Ross from Fine Homebuilding in Portland. And still trying to get my latest book published. larry haun
Thanks for the input! I just finished a 1/4 sawn walnut plasma built in unit and was set on making this the pic for my homepage. The background is a wall of glass looking onto the S.F Bay, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge! Well,potentially a great pic but practically horrible. I tried everything ( I think) but it was WAy too bright. Maybe you could go into this for your next article. My photographer friend tried to explain, but it seems he is a photography scientist.
If I am imagining the room correctly, I’d suggest placing a light of some kind (a work light, even a low-powered halogen) at a sharp angle to the window. I’d also take the picture when the outside light is a little lower than the inside light, maybe early in the morning or late in the afternoon/early evening, with the lights on in the room. Try with the lights OFF in the room, too, just in case there is reflection from the room lights. And don’t use the flash on your camera at all. Period. Then write an article on that piece!
Another way to capture this might be to “bracket the exposures”. If you google that phrase, you’ll see a lot of articles that basically describe capturing your piece at a range of exposures (fast shutter speed for the brights, longer shutter speeds to capture the darks) and then using a program like photoshop to merge the best bits.
Photoshop has an automated command for this (Merge to HDR) or you can do it yourself using a layer for each exposure level and using layer masks– which sounds complicated but is a great trick to learn and quite easy.
You need a tripod, so the camera doesn’t move between exposures, and you could even put a sheet over the window to help with the long exposure– you’d be using the shorter exposure pic for the golden gate view anyway.
Wow, what a great article. I learned a lot of information that can really help me, and my work look more professional. It will certainly save me time and frustration.
I’ve read dozens of “Photography is Simple” articles over the years but this one has finally hit the ‘aah haah – it’s all very clear to me now’ spot. I was about two paragraphs into it when I realized I needed to stop – go get my camera – and learn something. Thanks Gary.
Great stuff Gary, my camera intimidates me. Just don’t spend the time or put the effort into learning all it can do
This might be below your standards but has anyone tried or heard anything about the Ryobi TK camera.It looks and sounds pretty durable,water proof,dust proof,and so on.I was thinking it mught be good to leave in the truck or would Ibe better of with a regular digital camera? Nice article sounds like a few simple things can make a big difference.The family photo album might look a lot diferent now.
An easier way to understand why a large f # is a small hole. In the case of f/16 the diameter of the aperture opening will go into the distance from the primary lens element to the film plane 16 times. It took me a long time to make the switch to digital. I did it in two steps, a Fuji point & shoot then a Nikon D300. The D300 is a very smart camera but don’t get one unless you are willing to spend a lot of time learning how to utilize all you’ve paid for. The camera’s ability to control remote flash units wirelessly is a real plus on construction sites. I won’t use flash for most things unless forced into it. I will avoid using the on-camera-flash for anything other than a little fill or to control my remotes. Great fun & a real time hole!
I read this article. Then I printed it out and sat down with my camera and read through it again with my camera in hand.
I finally understand how to use my 35mm camera without using it in full auto mode. The article explained how to make adjustments that I never knew how to do before. Amazing how the controls on cameras are similar so your explanations were applicable to my camera.
I am looking forward to my next project.
Thanks for a great article that was very easy to understand!
This was a very comprehensive ‘how to’ for taking shots of your work however I wanted to add that I (like Larry above) avoid using my flash (even when my camera suggests I haven’t enough light). The great majority of us (w/ flashes attached to the top of our cameras) are better served shooting with the existing light and (if necessary) adjusting the brightness, contrast (and even color balance, if you’d like) with a photo editing application (almost all computers come with one now) with Photoshop being the best of them. Shots taken with a camera mounted flash tend to flatten-out and harshly light the subject. I ‘photoshop’ almost every picture I take, especially if it is to be published (a forum post, a web article or for your own website’s gallery). Digital cameras are capable of recording am image in very low light where 30 seconds spent on your computer will bring it’s illumination to very acceptable levels… and you’ll end up with a much more handsome photograph.
Any suggestions on selecting a camera? My old 35MM Canon bit the dust and its time to upgrade. Thanks Todd