Photographing Ceramics - An evolution of process

Written by
Friday, 31 May 2019

I’d like to start with a caveat as such - I don’t profess to being a professional photographer, but like all potters, I have an ongoing need to document and promote my work through images and a life-long desire to learn. So, I’d like to outline in simple form, the evolution of my photography and share with you my hows and whys and the current results I am achieving.

I currently use a Canon D600 DSLR and have created a flexible setup of lighting and backdrop that is both portable and a size that can handle the scale of my work. Everything from the smallest jewellery piece to pots a metre high.

I use a graduated Infinity backdrop in white to black. It is this backdrop that limits the biggest pot to a metre simply because of its size. It can be used either white foreground to black backdrop (my usual approach), or black to white.

This is governed by the style and tone of the work to be photographed. If you are generally shooting small pieces, then a small light tent is excellent for creating bright but diffused lighting.

Lighting Ceramic Vessels

My lighting consists of two large and diffused lightboxes and an adjustable 240 LED lamp, also softened with a diffuser cloth. All my lights are lit with daylight 5,000 K bulbs.

The higher the Degrees Kelvin, the whiter the colour temperature and the truer the colour response. Diffusing or scattering of direct light is important in that it limits the shadows cast and allows for strong and clean light.

Use of diffuse lighting for photographing ceramic art
Use of diffuse lighting for photographing ceramic art helps the true colour and textures to be captured

Even with diffusion, it can be very difficult at times to photograph highly shiny surfaces and glazes without the appearance of hot spots. These are bright white splashes of light that remove the true colour and surface of a piece which distracts from a quality image. This is where I play with the direction of my adjustable intensity LED light by hand holding it on an extension stand to both remove hotspots and diminish or direct shadows.

If a piece is predominantly white or light in colour, I will often create a shadow to define the edge of the piece.

Cameras and Accessories

Settings on your camera are vitally important. I shoot at 100 ISO, this decreases the graininess of the shot. As you go higher in ISO, you get more light available but at the cost of quality.

Camera and lighting setups that work well
Camera and lighting setups that work well

I use a shutter release cable and a tripod to remove all possible shake. This will also allow a very slow shutter speed without sacrificing clarity and allows for even more light to hit the sensor. It also accommodates a higher F Stop.

The F-stop number is determined by the focal length of the lens divided by the diameter of the aperture. Focal length refers to a lens’ field of view (sometimes called angle of view), which is the width and height of the area that a particular lens can capture in focus.

I generally use a setting of between 9 and 12, this will keep both the front of a pot and the side and back profiles in focus while taking the backdrop out of focus and giving a soft look to it. This will highlight the piece and clean up any marks or scratches on your backdrop while featuring a piece in full focus.

I use the ‘M’ or manual setting on my DSLR to set all these parameters. The distance you set your camera and tripod up is determined by the size of each piece but be wary, if you have a camera with a lens that has a wide-angle available, it can distort verticals in your image. Studies have measured the cone of visual attention of the human eye and found it to be about 55 degrees wide.

On a 35mm full-frame camera, a 43mm lens provides an angle of view of 55 degrees, so that focal length provides exactly the same angle of view that we humans have, so try to keep your lens (if it’s a telephoto) in this zone for accurate renditions.

If you only have a prime 50mm lens, then you can move the tripod back and forth to centre and capture your image. So, these are my general settings. Lens around 50mm field of view, ISO at 100, F Stop between 9 and 12 with the shutter speed determined by the available light.

If you don’t have a DSLR, then the camera on your phone will do if you have good lighting. Some like the Huawei P30 offers a Leica Quad camera with remarkable low light capability, and the new Samsung s10 can provide quality shots with good Bokeh effect.

Smartphones Can Do A Good Job Too

This smartphone camera will recognise the foreground and background of a photo, and then blur the background, while keeping the foreground in focus digitally. So rather than occurring when the photo is snapped, smartphone bokeh is created after the picture is taken.

As cameras in phones are getting better and better, crop sensor DSLR are becoming very cheap and will allow you to do all your own photographic work for yourself, saving all the packing, travelling and added cost of getting your work professionally shot.

My photography has evolved over time to a standard that I am now, with these methods, comfortable with large size reproduction or publication.

Just a note, if you are shooting your work for magazine standard then be sure to save your files at least at 300 dpi resolution and leave a good amount of space around the actual subject of the shot to allow editors freedom of use.

Taking charge of your own images is very convenient and cost-effective.

I buy all my camera gear and lighting from a New York-based company with an incredible range of inexpensive photography equipment, B&H:

www.bhphotovideo.com. They do a great mail-order service and have all that you’ll need.

My first efforts were quite crude, but I have evolved. You will too.