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.

Published in General Stories

Every pottery picture tells a story. An essential part of that storytelling is the composition or relationship between the elements within a photograph.

The things that affect composition of a photograph are:

  • Line — the path the eye moves around when looking at a photograph
  • Shape — the distinct masses (like pots) that make up the images
  • Colour — the hue, tone and luminosity of objects and how the colours relate to each other
  • Texture — the surface character causing shading, forming patterns the eye will explore
  • Value — lights will cast shadows that will give depth and definition to the ceramic object
  • Form — the eye will use all of the elements above to infer a 3-D shape from the flat 2-D images
  • Space — positive space is the ceramic object itself while the negative space is the areas between the objects. Both are important compositional elements.

Here are some well-proven guidelines that will make your photographs tell better stories and look truly professional when you use these guidelines thoughtfully.

Once you know the rules of composition, occasionally breaking them can be fun too.

THE RULE OF THIRDS

the-rule-of-thirds

Imagine two horizontal lines and two vertical that divide the scene into nine equal areas. Place key elements on or near the lines or the intersection points. This will result in a balanced image with a clear point of interest. Some cameras show these lines in the view-finder.

BALANCING ELEMENTS

balancing elements

Here the main element of the photograph is set to one side, though still positioned according to the rule-of-thirds. The empty space to the left then has a balancing item, the spoon, which also adds further meaning to the story being told by the photographer.

LINES THAT LEAD THE EYE

lines that lead the eye

This composition is a classic example of the rule of thirds but has an additional element where the layout of the elements leads the eye in a triangular pattern from one object to the next. Such triangular patterns give a feeling of stability and unity to the image.

SYMMETRY (MAYBE WITH A TWIST)

symetry

The human eye yearns to discover symmetry and balance in nature and things human-made. This photographer has catered to this craving for order, and pattern with two elongated vases set symmetrically side-by-side and then used the colour and form of the flowers to add a quirky twist.

COMPOSITION IN-DEPTH

COMPOSITION IN-DEPTH

Conforming to the rule-of-thirds, this photograph is framed by two small elements at the lower corners. The eye is invited to look beyond the main image to a blurred background that enhances the colour and tone and invites the viewer to imagine more about the story of the pot.

 

STONG DIAGONAL JOURNEYS

STONG DIAGONAL JOURNEYS

This composition uses a strong diagonal composition from the top right to bottom left. The positioning of the three ceramic elements dominates the image, the use of light and shade reinforces the diagonal line, and the chop-sticks finish it off. Note the strength of the triangular layout.

Published in General Stories

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.

Published in General Stories