Making your ceramics look great in digital photographs

Written by Peter Smith
Thursday, 28 February 2019

It’s important to remember that in the internet age, your ceramic artworks have two existences. The first is the actual object: it has three dimensions, it’s solid and, well, it’s real.

The second is your work’s alternate life as a digital object. In this existence, your work is just a file that is no more than ones and zeros, but the chances are that the first impression that buyers, judges and gallery owners will have of your work will be that digital version, and they’ll see it and judge it, long before they decide to touch the real object.

Social media gurus say that a blog post with a photograph is ten times more likely to get engagement than one without. And a post with a great photo that catches the eye is sharp and well-composed, and that “pops-out” of the screen, will get even more attention.

Research presented at the 2018 International Conference on Information Management found images heavily liked on Facebook tended to display four qualities: brightness, clarity, liveliness, and ingenuity.

EQUIPMENT YOU NEED

Your camera should be the best you can afford, but with care, even a mobile phone’s built-in camera can produce acceptable results.

Better cameras will allow you to take good photographs under worse lighting conditions. The images will also be sharper and more colourful than those from a phone and be of higher resolution. This is essential if the picture has to be published in a catalogue or magazine.

Photographic stations in studios: 1. Emily Murphy’s fold up studio with adapted lighting from desk-lamps, a graduated backdrop and camera on tripod; 2. Warren Fredrick’s natural light photographic setup with graduated backdrop and tripod.
Photographic stations in studios: 1. Emily Murphy’s fold up studio with adapted lighting from desk-lamps, a graduated backdrop and camera on tripod; 2. Warren Fredrick’s natural light photographic setup with graduated backdrop and tripod.

A tripod is the second most important piece of equipment when photographing products or still life on a tabletop. The tripod can be a small table-top version or a more normal full-sized floor model, but it must allow you to lock your camera securely into position and not let it move.

The benefits of a tripod are many. First, it makes sure your camera is absolutely still when you click the shutter. No more blurry images that so often happen when you hand-hold a camera. You’ll be surprised by the difference this will make. Next, it helps you to frame the photograph precisely, so it is square to the horizon and with enough space or “air” around your work in the photo.

Also, with the camera on a tripod, you will have at least one hand free to help out – maybe to hold a light, or a cutter to shield back-light flare in your lens or to position a reflector board to lighten the shadows thrown by your main light. Using a cable release to trigger the shutter is also a good idea.

BACKGROUNDS - TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

Photographs of ceramic art must showcase the vessel, so generally, we use a plain background that is white or grey or has graduated tones from light to dark.

These “infinity” backgrounds put the artwork in focus. Photographic background sheets can be purchased from photographic stores or online from eBay and Amazon for a few dollars if they are paper, or around $50 if they are more durable PVC sheets.

Professional photographers will use an “S” board made of sturdy perspex fixed on a frame, so it is in the form of a flattened “S”. The translucent perspex allows lighting from beneath and behind the board to give shadowless, spotlight effects and also provides for some diffuse reflection of the art-work in the surface of the Perspex, which can look amazing.

For smaller pieces, a lightbox “cube” can be an ideal solution. It has white walls on all sides and an integrated background sheet to give the infinity effect. Most also have integrated lighting via LED strips that you can clip into place. For pieces that have reflective surfaces like gold lustres, the lightbox front can be closed up, and the lens is positioned through a flap that zips open.

Making your own small photo-station within the studio is a great solution. American potter Emily Murphy has published a blog on how to go about it, and the photograph of her setup shows how with a little ingenuity, a compact, low-cost photo-station can fit into your studio workflow.

Images from top to bottom: 1. Lightbox cube with small camera tripod; 2. The distinctive photographic style of Anna-Marie Wallace: 3. Frances Smith’s professionally photographed ceramic work featuring shadowless background and backlighting to show the carved surface textures.
Images from top to bottom: 1. Lightbox cube with small camera tripod; 2. The distinctive photographic style of Anna-Marie Wallace: 3. Frances Smith’s professionally photographed ceramic work featuring shadowless background and backlighting to show the carved surface textures.

THROW SOME LIGHT ON IT

Lighting your work is of critical importance. First, you need enough light so the camera can take useful photographs. The light can come either from natural sources or from artificial lights. In both cases, you need diffuse, indirect light.

Warren Frederick specialises in the natural lighting of his ceramic work, and his rig, mounted near a window is shown below.

When using artificial light, make sure all the light-bulbs have the same colour-temperature, not a mixture of yellow, fluorescent and daylight bulbs.

Mixing colour temperature will result in an inaccurate rendition of the colours of your work.

Lighting kits with soft-lights and umbrella lights can be hired or purchased quite cheaply if you are planning to do a lot of photography.

These large soft-lights really do make a difference to the look of your work.

Professional photographers will typically light a piece from one side and fill in the shadows on the other side with another light, or a light bounced off of a reflector board or small sheet of polystyrene. They will also use top-lights or back-lights to define the outlines of the work.

This is particularly important if your work has grooves or hatched surfaces as the side and backlights will catch the edges of these, highlighting the ridges and with contrasting shadows in valleys.

STYLES OF CERAMIC PHOTOS

For formal art-shots of your work, the classic infinity background gives viewers a chance to judge the piece without undue confusion from other elements in the photograph. These photographs should accurately portray proportion, colour and texture without excessive digital modification or enhancement.

However, for photographs destined for promotional purposes on social media and for websites, then getting noticed is the key.

Many ceramic artists develop a photographic style that is every bit as distinctive as their vessels. For example, Anna-Marie Wallace’s work and photography encompass a particular grey palette, and the work is displayed on natural textures in non-traditional ways to highlight the philosophy behind her work.

USE A PROFESSIONAL

If you are not confident of your photographic skills or you have particular works to be entered into a competition, then hiring a professional studio photographer is an option. While expensive, working with a photographer experienced in ceramic art or table-top product shots can bring a whole new level of skill and creativity to bear on your work. Engaging a professional is often the most worthwhile investment you can make in advancing your career as a ceramic artist.

In the next photography article, we’ll look at composition and lighting in more detail.