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Photographing Small Things – A Personal Voyage

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Souvenir Mask

When you photograph an item for a marketing campaign, or to record its physical condition, it’s called product photography. This is a very specialized type of photography. While you may never be commissioned to photograph a commercial product, some of the techniques used in product photography may have relevance to your personal life.

Perhaps these techniques offer a solution to a problem many people don’t recognize – hanging on to reminders of people, places or events from the past.

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Ostrich Egg on a pedestal

A collection of small things

My wife’s uncle Larry recently passed away. Larry was an incredible guy and was a man of good taste. For a period of about 10 years during his late 60’s and 70’s, he traveled to many far-flung parts of this blue orb we call home. During his travels, he acquired an extensive collection of items that I reluctantly call souvenirs.

To Larry, these items represented mementos, memories and valued objects from his travels. Now that he has passed, any monetary value of these objects is unknown. The stories of their origin, that ultimately made them of personal value to Larry, have been lost. It is left to us to figure out what to do with his extensive collection. There are boxes and boxes of these things, most of which are unlabeled.

Going beyond Larry’s collection, when I look around my house, I see pieces of furniture that remind me of my long passed parents. Most of these are not functional, nor do they match my personal taste. I keep them around because they evoke memories. My wife came up with a novel idea that seemed to resonate with everyone: create a photographic series to preserve the memories that the collection of material objects represents. Perhaps more correctly, for me to create this collection. This digital photographic record would certainly occupy less space than the physical objects.

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Small figure on a black background

Combining approaches to product photography and archival photography

For this project, I am combining the approaches to product photography and archival photography. I am photographing the objects as though I am going to sell them, and recording the images from many perspectives so that the record of their existence is complete. We may also be able to use the resulting images to figure out if the objects have any value outside of our family. From there, we can decide what to sell, what to give away, and what to keep for ourselves and other family members.

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African Mask, a larger piece on a black background

To give you an idea of the project scale, I have 15 boxes containing between 10 and 20 objects each. So we are talking about 200 – 300 objects. Although I have made a dent in the collection, at the time of writing, I still have a long way to go. However, my workflow and objective are solidifying.

In doing product or archival photography, you need good, controlled light with limited shadows. Shadows are great for portraits and drama, but they detract from an image captured for archival purposes where you want to capture the object’s details. You also need to control reflections and ensure that the light appears to come from everywhere.

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This glass bowl with gold leaf gilding was highly reflective

Equipment

I considered using a studio strobe setup. It’s a great way to light things, but it can get complicated when dealing with smaller objects. It also takes up a great deal of space. It’s generally intended for bigger objects in larger spaces. I needed a more compact footprint that would allow me to do the photographs in my home when it was convenient for me.

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A small 24-inch lightbox for product photography

The collection I’m photographing contains objects ranging from 1 cubic inch to large, skinny objects that are almost 18-inches long. I decided it was worth investing in a small portable lighting cube designed for product photography. The 24-inch portable cube has reflective walls, LED lights, and a selection of backgrounds. It packs up into a skinny portfolio sized carrying case and provides flexibility to accommodate all of the objects in a relatively confined space.

I use the cube in conjunction with a small card table and my tripod. There are many brands of this type of set up, but for my purposes, I used the Promaster Still Life Studio 2.0.

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Lightbox interior with a black background and small box to elevate objects

Right from the start, a few challenges presented themselves. Some objects don’t stand well on their own, and some objects really benefit from sitting off the background to make them stand out more. Finding interesting supports or display blocks all of a sudden seemed important.

White balance

In addition, I discovered that I needed to get a baseline for white balance. When you use Auto white balance in this kind of environment, even if you are using a white background, color management becomes problematic. By establishing a baseline white balance, you can color correct all the images in post-production (provided you shoot RAW files) or in camera if you use and set a custom white balance.

Be careful when you use custom white balance settings on a camera that you use for other purposes. If you’re like me, you may forget that the white balance has changed which only creates problems with the other work.

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Some objects have their own stands

The portable studio has a set of LED lights at the top of the cube, a diffusion panel underneath the lights to make a bigger light, highly reflective side panels, and a set of backgrounds in white, black, grey, and light blue/grey. When you take a photograph there is a small hole (either in the front or the top) where you insert your lens, so the lighting is fairly even all around. It works pretty well. Most items are lit well right out of the gate.

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Choice of colors for backgrounds

Depth of field and exposure

Once you’ve set your white balance (either by using a grey card or a custom white balance), you need to consider the depth of field and exposure. The cubes are very well lit, so there’s plenty of light. This light dominates, and you don’t have to worry much about ambient light interfering with your white balance or exposure.

Because many of the objects I’m shooting in my project are small, I need to be close but not quite at a macro scale. Due to this factor, the depth of field becomes a big issue. If I shoot wide open, part of the object is out of focus. Shallow depth of field is necessary when you need to create separation from the background. In this project, the background is akin to seamless paper, which means I don’t need to create that separation. Instead, I can choose a wider depth of field to ensure that the entirety of the smaller object is in focus.

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To get a complete record of an object you need to see it from all sides

I come from a background in forensic engineering investigations. Here, I photographically documented objects to ensure the preservation of as much visual information as possible.

To capture your items, reasonable depth of field (maybe around f/8) should give the right amount of depth of field without diffraction effects. Of course, this depends on the size of the camera sensor.

Because I set the portable studio on a small card table, I can elevate all items I am photographing. When shooting stationary objects, use a tripod to set up the shots, and move the object relative to your camera. Due to the items being three dimensional and digital images are flat (2D), you need more than one image to capture each object adequately.

To be thorough, it is a good idea to capture around ten images. One from the front, back, two sides, four corners, top, and bottom. Depending upon the nature of the item or how complex it is, sometimes it’s fine to take fewer images. In this case, it works best to keep the camera in a great position, set for white balance, depth of field and exposure, and then to turn the item around.

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The depth of field helps show the incredible details of the objects

Labeling the items

In the next step, I labeled my items. You don’t want to photograph an item, only to never be able to find it again! My items were bubble wrapped, so I labeled the boxes with a letter and gave each bubble wrapped item a number. To keep track of all the items and their associated numbers, photograph the letter/number then photograph the item, labeling it with the number when finished with it. By putting an identifier at the beginning of the series of images for that item, you can easily see the name of the images plus the images together.  I have used this technique frequently for event photography as well.

Once I had all my images, I corrected the white balance and then ran the images through a batch process droplet to get the images the way I like them.

In the end, I have a great collection of images, and you can too. You can use either a website or a proofing gallery to look and share all the images. It makes it easier to manage all the images for all of the items.

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Lots of detail in this mask

Conclusion

Taking this approach to photographing meaningful objects from life seems like a way to preserve the memories of meaningful objects without retaining the physical objects. Sometimes I hang onto things because they mean something to me or remind me of people or happier times. However, I don’t have space or need the items, and I don’t want them in my life other than to remind me of others.

For instance, I have a small french provincial style buffet that I have had for as long as I can remember. It was important to my parents and reminds me of them. They passed away many years ago. Through objects like this, I connect to my past when they were here. As a consequence, while it is a meaningful object that connects me to my parents, it’s of a style that doesn’t fit into my house, and it’s large and impractical.

In the end, maybe just a photographic record of the furniture, without keeping it, is all I need. I just need to make sure that the images of all the items both large and small are reasonably accessible for those moments I want to remember my parents or uncle Larry.

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Mark C Hughes
Mark C Hughes

is a photographer, writer, educator, and engineer that specializes in both portraits of people and pets but also creates stunning landscape and nature photography. He’s an accredited professional photographer (PPOC) and has won awards, including one from National Geographic. Mark has exhibited works and has testified as an expert witness in a trial as a photographer. He has taught photography for a variety of groups and skill sets.