Shooting Digital Photos of your Work

A long discussion of cameras, lighting, and photo techniques for taking the shots for your website and print portfolio. August 23, 2006

I have some questions about digital photography. I know that at least some of the guys who frequent these forums have a photography background. I am hoping they can answer my question, or at least aim me to someone who can.

I don't know much about cameras and I don't particularly care to learn much more. This is a process, however, that I think it would be beneficial to understand. More and more of my customers are asking if I have a website and I think it's time to pay attention to this. I did sign up for a web domain, but only to reserve the spot and have a place to park an email address. I've owned three digital cameras so far. I've worn the hinges off two of the little point and shoots and my daughter somehow managed to lose a relatively nice (at the time) Nikon 990. It's time now to get a new camera.

I have this theory about photography. Professional photographers want to angst all over the shot because for them the shot IS the product. I'm just looking for something that will help a customer make a decision to buy from me. The customer would probably prefer a lot of mediocre shots rather than one or two poster shots.

That being said, I think it's still not so tough to get a good shot. My approach will be to shoot 100 pictures of each kitchen, with a little bit of bracketing on the F-stops and some attempt at lighting the site. My assumption is that out of 100 shots there will be at least one or two that do the job I want. I figure if any of them produce a money shot I can always hire a professional to go back and re-shoot it with a 4X5 film camera. The digital image would then serve to show what context I want captured.

If you go to my website you will see two kitchens. The fir kitchen was shot by a professional. I shot the white one. I shot this kitchen, without lights, on the very first day I had the Nikon 990 and I did it with the “shoot many, keep few” theory. I haven't shot another kitchen since then. The shots I got were good enough to suit my purposes, and arguably as good as the one I paid money for.

I'm ready now to make this effort in earnest. My primary goal is to learn something about how to get a good (better) shot. I'm in so many kitchens that I built and I am always seeing something that is worth documenting. Sometimes it's how a crown molding self-returns onto a wall or sometimes it's the interface between backsplash and endpanel. Sometimes it's a fireplace mantle someone else did 100 years ago. While most of it doesn't warrant the expense and time of sending in a pro, much of it is worth documenting. My primary goal is website development. I want to capture enough images to produce a great website and keep it fresh.

A secondary goal is the creation of a coffee table book. I figure that if I am out there shooting anyway, I might as well capture enough data for the book. What I am trying to figure out here is if this is doable with a digital camera. If it is just a matter of spending $5000 on the camera it sounds like money well spent. The real cost will be the time and labor of setting up and shooting the shot. If, however, the best I am going to get out of a digital camera is website resolution, I can cap my research just go get a simple SLR with a wide angle lens.

Most Pro-sumer cameras capture initial data in RAW format. RAW can then be turned into the other formats, such as RGB or SRGB. (One of these formats is for output on a computer printer and one of them does 4 color separations for printing presses). Does anybody know how many pixels are necessary to produce a viable shot for a large 4 color press book? Some of the cameras out there capture 10 to 12 mega-pixels. Some of the point and shoots will get 8 mega-pixels. I'm looking for the kind that the apathetic can be successful with.

If, however, I can get much better shots with a more complicated camera, I might even be willing to read the manual. Does anybody know what it takes to do 4 color press stuff, or does anybody know where to find this answer?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:

You want to be photographer or a cabinet maker? A hundred shots per job? Don't you think that’s a bit much? The shots you took versus the shot you paid for are just as good for the purpose of promoting your work.

I take about a dozen shots of the jobs we think are noteworthy. Out of them we put maybe 3-4 in the book, just using a little point and shoot Fuji 345 with optical zoom. I would not spend any more money hiring a pro. You seem more than capable of doing it yourself.

From contributor B:
You are really asking two questions:
1. What camera should I buy for website development?
2. What camera should I buy for full color glossy high end prints?

You already seem quite knowledgeable on the overall subject, and suspect you know that you want to keep web shots reasonably sized. I find that a 1024 x 768 shot is too large for my website unless I'm linking a thumbnail to a larger print. Larger the 1024 x 768 even for the linked photo will cause too many people to have to pan across their 15" monitors to see the whole image - an unprofessional presentation in my view.

So, for the website I'd say any good quality 3 megapixel camera is more then enough. I have an Olympus in that category and bought it because it was very highly rated. However, I also have an old 1024 x 768 Olympus point and shoot camera (without a zoom even) that I use to take most of my web photos. Since I'm going to resize most shots for my website down to about 320 x 240 for fast downloads it works just fine. Remember, not everyone has high speed access. As to the print end of things I suspect you already know way more then me so I'll only suggest you do a Google search to find some photography forums.

From contributor C:
This is how I sell a lot of my woodwork. The client comes in and takes a look at my portfolio of shots and finds something they are interested in or gives them ideas. I have a small 4 MP Olympus digital camera. I think it is a great asset to my company. The only thing I complain about is the fact that the wide end of the cameras lens isn't wide enough to shoot some of the cramped rooms I build thing for. I plan on getting a digital SLR so that I can get the lenses that I need to get the shot done. You should also become proficient with some type of photo editing software. With the software you can retouch your photos and eliminate the distracting background that happen when you are shooting in a client’s home. Having, using and knowing how to use a camera is just one of the steps you need to sell more jobs without having to be a pushy salesman. Let your work speak for itself. As for a website, mine pretty much mirrors my portfolio. This is for the over the phone clients. I can send them to my site to have a look at things. I am using AOL and they have a free website that I can (and did) setup for myself. Photography is a great asset to your woodworking career.

The top picture is what I took at the client’s house, I played with it for 25 minutes or so and took all the crap off the countertop (2nd shot). The 3rd picture was taken in my spray room. Concrete floor and white sheetrock walls, looked pretty mediocre. 20 minutes later it looks like a picture you'd find in a magazine.

Click here for full size image

The 100 pictures is kind of a metaphor. I figure if I have a lot to pick from there will be a couple that I'm proud of. A lot of times I shoot a panorama at the jobsite on measurement day because it's easier to explain it to the crew. Sometimes I notice things when I get back to the shop that I was too distracted to notice at the site.

From contributor D:
A $1,000 digital will be able to give you the control for the fancy shots. The key to interesting shots is not the volume and fiddling with exposures, but lighting - the more natural, the better, and the less flash the better.

In addition take shots from angles you don't think of (i.e., not standing at the door) such as kneeling or from the ceiling on a ladder. If you noticed the cabinet/counter picture posted above the photo is taken from the elevation of the counter which would be about the belly button of most forum posters.

From contributor E:
I've given up my 35mm and its set of lenses for a Fuji S9000 digital. It's a 9 MP with a wider angle zoom lens than most digitals. It is nice for taking shots of tight kitchens without a lot of distortion. The information is right about not using flash - shots with natural light look much better. I find myself taking 50+ shots of a room and messing with exposure settings in hopes of getting a nice one to enlarge. With the 9 MP you can do a lot of cropping and still get a quality enlargement.

From contributor F:
A good photo can generate significant sales. We are in the process of setting up to take our own photos. A few points of information - most photos in sports illustrated were taken with an 8mp camera. A digital SLR is fine for the task. Canon’s most basic DSLR is around $800 (8Mp). A Decent wide angle lens is $400. For lighting a consumer flash is not going to cut it. Most pros shoot kitchens with continuous lighting provided by Tungsten lights. Very basically, the lighting should be bounced not direct. The photo is all about the lighting and much less about the camera.

With digital taking hundreds of photos is no big deal. It is reusable memory. You can even bring a laptop and check the results as you go. Are you a photographer or a Cabinetmaker? Neither, you are a business owner. Part of that business is marketing. You need good photos to sell your work. Do you buy the services of a professional photographer? For most I say yes. Do you go in and take photos of particular details of certain kitchens? I think so. The up side is that the business buys the camera but you can borrow it on weekend.

From contributor G:
I was referred to this site and thread by a fellow cabinetmaker. I have answered many questions and am at present posting on a thread on the CMA web site forum concerning this exact question you have. I have been a professional photographer for many years in my past and am helping other cab makers w/their questions. As a matter of fact we are in process of working up a seminar at the Holz-Her show in May on basics of studio type set-up on-site and how to take the best photos of your work. If you are a member of CMA you could jump to their site and go to their members forum and pick up my info on posts so far.

I am suggesting a portable lighting set-up and hope to demonstrate how to use it at the seminar - if we can get things together. Holz-Her is paying for plane fare for woodworkers to come to their plant for their presentation. They are doing it through the CMA for the first 75 applicants. That would be an inexpensive way to receive some instruction and have some fun at the same time.

From contributor G:
I did a search (in upper right corner) saying "taking photos of your work" and it took me to several posts a while ago where I gave some detailed information to several concerning your question - they may be helpful.

As to your question about what is necessary for 4-color process - I also used to be a printer and owned my own shop for a while as well as a photographer. It used to be that the best format to submit photos for color printing was slide film but nowadays you can submit a good quality print of any kind and they will use it in your brochure at any size your design calls for.

It used to be that printing was around 70% a photographic process but nowadays it probably is 90% digital except for the printing plate being attached to the printing press and printed. The costs have come down over the years also so you should be able to get some good prices.

From contributor H:
I was a professional photographer in another life. One of the adages was "The simplest camera can outperform the best photographer"; meaning, of course, that the setup of a picture is more important that the fancy hardware used to take the picture. I did a lot of work for realtors, shooting inside rooms and my most useful tools were the wide-angle zoom, a couple of $25 slave flashes to illuminate corners, and a tripod. All the pictures on my website were taken as snapshots with an old HP Photosmart 320 set to about 70-100 kb per picture for quick loading. Learn about color and composition. That will make you a better photographer than several thousand bucks worth of gear will.

From the original questioner:
I just got off the phone with a very gracious woman who heads up pre-press management at Taunton publications. The long and the short of it is this: 8 Mexapixels will do the job. Lighting and lens is significant. If you want a detail shot of a corner, take the shot of the corner. Don't blow it up then extract the detail.

From contributor I:
You've seen my website and all the pictures there. Many of those pictures are also displayed in an 11 x 17 album that is carried around by my salesman. All of those shots were taken by me, in the daytime, without a flash, without a tripod using a 3 megapixel canon with a $199 wide angle lens. I left the camera on Auto, and aside from paying attention to the angles and putting dirty dishes in the sink, made no other effort to improve the quality of the pictures.

The images for the portfolio were printed on a $399 HP 1220 11 x 17 ink jet printer. The bottom line is, the clients look at the cabinets in the photo, not the quality of the photography. Buy a $1,000 camera, get a wide angle lens, and start taking pictures.

From contributor J:
The number of pixels you need depends upon the size you plan to print finally. The printing process uses around 300 ppi for good definition. That equates to 300 x 300 or 90K per square inch (you can cheat down to about 250 without too bad of an effect). Your computer screen/web is approximately 72 ppi. If it looks good on your screen at 8 x 10, it will only print that good at 3 x 4 litho. What looks good on the web will not reproduce litho as well. You can do the math for what size you need for your catalog. Some printers will have software to cheat up a little too. It is best to check with the guy doing the work. I owned 4 color Litho shop for 38 years until retiring in January of this year.

From contributor K:
To contributor I: I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. The quality of your portfolio and or marketing material is a direct reflection on your work. I believe your work could be made to look better then your photos show. Some of your photo’s are OK some are so-so. I have gotten kitchens professionally shot for $400. When someone looks at your photos they are looking at what they want their house to look like. There is a reason builders decorate and furnish their models. The house shows the “quality of the building” the furniture and decorating makes someone want to live their. Again, I like your website and the work it displays.

From the original questioner:
To contributor I: You missed a marketing opportunity. Rather than cleaning the kitchen you should have exclaimed how great your kitchens look even if the dishes are dirty! (It's kind of like being late on a delivery date. If you bring the work in on a protracted schedule you can clearly demonstrate how life just keeps getting better because they hired you).

I'm going to have to go with the other guys on the prep work. A tripod and lights would probably make most shots look better. The tripod is certainly simple enough. I agree with you that the kitchen customer really doesn't care as much as the photographer probably does. In any case I would rather have more mediocre than fewer works of art.

My primary question in starting this thread was to figure out the pixel capture requirements for a coffee table book. I figure the real cost of the shot is just being there. A kitchen we did is featured in an eight page spread in the current Better Homes & Gardens Remodel Addition. It's hard for me to see a lot of difference between their shots and the ones on my websites.

From contributor I:
To the original questioner: You said "I figure the real cost of the shot is just being there." That is partially why I approach it the way I do. It's hard enough getting eccentric, paranoid clients to let you into their home with a camera, and they get really annoyed when you drag in lighting, filters, and tri-pods. I want to make the experience as minimally invasive on their time as possible. Walk in, pull out a camera, shoot some shots, and get out. If they're in another room, I'm literally running around getting as many shots as I can, many times on the sneak.

I have a list of about 50 jobs I have not taken that are as nice, or nicer, than those we currently show on the website. Most of those jobs are now 5 years old. I thinks it's one thing to say that you're going to take your time and get great shots with lighting, but in reality it's very difficult to get back to jobs once clients have moved in, and very awkward to schedule the time necessary to do it right. My portfolio is adequate given the difficulties of getting access to these homes. And that's good enough for me.

From contributor G:
Most woodworkers, including myself, have taken simple - quick pictures of their work for their portfolio. These suffice for most of us. There are some who want more information on how to improve their pictures - those are the ones that I am giving some hints to.

Contributor I is right about clients (especially high end) who are paranoid about spending too much time fiddling around. What I am suggesting is a simple lighting system that is portable, easy to set up, and requires no tripod for camera - only two lights. Pictures should be taken upon completion of installation instead of making another appointment.

From contributor L:
There is a dramatic difference in the quality of pictures you can take or have done. And it does make a difference. I had some shots taken of a Bar we did by a friend of a friend who was pro but his thing was airplanes. One day I was at the GC's office and he had the same bar shot by a different photographer. His shots were so much better that I bought copies of his. But these guys are using the kind of lenses that bend, slow film that they paint with light, or even waiting for the sun to come up behind the building at dawn. Anyway, once in a while it is worth considering.

From the original questioner:
Here is the body of an email I received from Taunton Press regarding Digital Camera Requirements. I thought some of you might be interested.

Digital Camera Requirements
Following these guidelines will help provide a digital file that gives adequate quality for our publications:

Digital cameras should be a minimum of 6 megapixel resolution. This is generally marked on the camera body, although you may only see a notation like 3.3.
For best quality shoot at the highest resolution your camera can produce.
Please provide the camera’s original file
A) Supply the image files in tiff or jpeg format, not the camera’s raw format
B) Do not crop.
C) Images should remain as RGB files.
D) Do not apply sharpening.
E) Most digital cameras do a good job at reproducing colors; there is no need to adjust colors or tones in a photo.
F) Do not embed profiles.

Images should be copied from the camera to cd, or dvd.
Most local photo labs provide this service. We recommend you keep a second copy as a backup.We do not have the ability to accept ftp transmissions or email submissions. We can download from a web site however.

From contributor M:
I subscribe to a few magazines like PC Magazine and Computer Shopper just to stay somewhat current on tech; their associated sites, as well as photography sites have numerous camera reviews and recommendations.

I use a Sony DSC-H - it is a step below a DSLR, 5.1 mp with a 12x optical zoom. I chose this style super-zoom to have a slightly more compact camera, but still plenty of manual control. Lighting is critical - natural or bounced lighting is better than a small, harsh flash. The best tip is to shoot off a tripod with no flash, use the longer exposures, and experiment with the manual settings.

Here is another tip. Get a small dry erase board and get it somewhere into your shot. Write down whatever settings you are using while practicing - ISO, aperture, exposure, contrast. You may get a great shot and not know how you took it, although I think you can get that information off the file settings.

From contributor C:
All modern digital cameras have EXIF information built into the information of the picture file. This EXIF file will tell you all the parameters of the shot. Most of the software programs that come with the cameras will let you read this file. You shouldn't need the white board any more.