Pictures Are The Ultimate Wood Filler

Tips to Get Professional Results on a Shoestring Budget

Back to Techniques Department

A few years ago, I was browsing at REI for camping gear when I spotted a book on outdoor photography.  The thought came into my head that landscape photography would be a great excuse to get out into the wilderness to go camping and hiking, and the tips in the book might also help me get better photos of my work for my woodworking portfolio.  So I bought the book, and ended up with a new expensive hobby.

After running a few dozen rolls of film through my camera, I noticed that a few of the pictures had turned out pretty good, as in "looks even better than the real thing did," while most of the pictures had, shall we say, problems.  I've learned that photographing three-dimensional art can be an art in itself, because we want to translate something that was meant to be experienced in person - in three (or more) dimensions and probably with several of our five senses - into the flat, two-dimensional, non-interactive world of the photograph, while still doing justice to the original work.  That's a pretty tall order.  As I've learned more about artistic design, how the camera "sees" things, how light interacts with the layers of finish and with the surface of the wood, I've been able to make a few connections and put together a few rules of thumb that I can use to get better photographs of my own work, not to mention "seeing" things differently myself.

And so the idea came into my head (uh-oh; not again!) to put a few of these ideas down on "paper," without getting too technical about optics, lighting ratios, digital file formats, and all of that.  Most point-and-shoot cameras limit you to controlling just a few variables, so we'll just stick to those for this article.

The first thing to learn about photography is to never take a picture.  The term take implies a lack of earnestness; like you're simply bagging a trophy shot or taking something off the shelf.  The result is usually a very haphazard photo.  I prefer Ansel Adams' term, to make a photograph.   Just like making something in the woodshop, you go about deliberately setting the elements in order so as to produce a superb image.  If you spent three days or three months working on a hope chest for a daughter or granddaughter, why not spend five to ten minutes to obtain an excellent photo of it, fit to publish in any national woodworking magazine?  After all, bragging is so much easier with good photographic proof of your woodworking genius, right?

When you set out to make a photograph, it helps to first think about what you want to achieve, and then go about deliberately planning a course of action to achieve that goal. The elements you can manipulate with a basic camera to make the best photograph possible are:

We'll examine each of these as we walk through the steps involved in making a photograph, and see how changing each can affect the image in both positive and negative ways. But first, how about you read the owner's manual that came with your camera? After all, I don't own your camera, so you'll have to know how to turn it on  and off and work all of the other doodads and thingamajigs yourself.

O.K., now that you've become an "instant expert" on how to work all those buttons on your camera, here are some more general tips.


On the left, the photo as the camera thinks it should look; a little under-exposed and very yellow because of the room's incandescent lighting. On the right, the photo as it should appear, with the correct exposure and the color balanced properly.  Many cameras' automatic exposure and white balance features don't exactly get the right answer under certain lighting conditions, so it's always helpful to look at the photo on the computer afterwards and adjust the color balance as needed.

The first thing to know about cameras is that they actually do see things in a very similar way to the way our own eyes do, but the camera has a far more primitive processor than our brains. When you look at a scene in direct sunlight, or the same scene in shade, lit only by the blue northern sky, you don't usually notice how yellow or how blue everything looks, because your brain automatically corrects for the color of light that illuminates the scene. Things only seem to look weird when lit in unusual ways; for example, by bright sunlight filtering through the green leaves of a thin maple tree canopy, giving everything in the scene a leafy green color cast. These very unusual lighting conditions, to which our brains aren't accustomed, can make the scene appear "weird," but a scene lit by the blue light of the northern sky looks "normal" because our brains have learned to automatically correct the colors in the scene. Some digital cameras have been "taught" to correct the colors in a scene in a similar way with automatic white balance, but these systems don't always work quite right. It's very helpful to practice a bit and learn how your camera reacts to different light sources. Placing a white or neutral gray object at the edge of the image when you shoot can give you an easy frame of reference to see what, if any, color cast a photo may have picked up along the way.

The dappled sunlight filtering through leaves gives the photo at left a slightly greenish, high-contrast look. The single strong light source (a 500W work light) used in the photo at right resulted in very high contrast between lit and unlit areas, so the grain in the figured cherry lid "pops", but the shadows are much too deep.

Another way our brains process images differently to the way cameras see them can be illustrated by simply photographing a scene in the dappled sunlight under a tree on a clear day. When we look at the scene, our eyes automatically adjust for the brightness of the particular object we're looking at. When we look at something in sunlight, the iris closes down to admit less light, and when we shift our gaze to look at something in the shade, our pupils dilate to adjust for the decreased amount of light being reflected by the new object. The camera "sees" the entire scene as a whole and can't adjust as well as our eyes to take in both very brightly lit and dimly lit objects, so the sunlit areas appear "blown out" and the shaded areas are "blocked up" in the photograph.

Two photos of the same bowl. On the left, the bowl was photographed in direct sunlight sitting on a light-colored rock, which serves to bounce some warm colored light into the shadows. A gold reflector disk was also used to throw some fill light into the shadows. On the right, the bowl was photographed indoors with a main light on the left which was shining on the acoustical ceiling, creating a diffuse light. A white reflector (such as a white bed sheet) was used to bounce a little extra light onto the shadowed side, filling the shadows slightly.

There are a couple of easy ways to prevent harsh, contrasty photos. One is to photograph using light from a north-facing window, or another similarly "soft" light source. The other is to use an additional light source or a reflective white card to "fill in" the dark shadows with light. Using two different light sources can create weird color casts in the photograph, so I prefer to use a reflector to "bounce" light from the main light source into those shaded areas. It's a simple and inexpensive way to get a professional look without the expense of serious lighting equipment. A white sheet and an amber or gold sheet can be used quite effectively outdoors, or a professional reflector disk can be bought for under $50 with white, silver and gold reflecting surfaces plus a light diffuser all in one disk.

 On the left, an east-facing bank of windows admits the morning sunlight, which bounces off of the floor to create a naturally semi-soft light and some good reflections off of the semi-gloss finish on the cabinets. On the right, lights from two directions create a natural looking soft light; the light from the right is slightly stronger to create soft shadows.

A good trick to use with modern digital cameras is to make a test exposure and view a histogram of the image. Many digital cameras can display a histogram, basically a bar graph of light and dark colors in the image, when playing back a captured image. The left side of the histogram shows the relative abundance of dark tones (shadows) in the picture, and the right side does the same for light tones (highlights). The goal is usually to adjust your exposure settings and, if needed, the lighting within the scene, so you get a graph that looks like one to a few hills roughly centered within the graph, with no light or dark tones piled up at the edges.

 The histogram for the picture of the boxes, below. Note how the graph drops off near each end; this shows that all of the light and dark tones in the image are within the camera's ability to register. If you see a pile of black near either edge, that shows that some of the tones in the image are beyond the camera's ability to show them, and you'll have blown out, white highlight areas or blocked up, black shadows in your image.

On the left, the whirligig was lit by a clip light placed at such a distance as to shine light around the room just enough to avoid the shadows becoming too deep. On the right, these boxes were photographed on my kitchen table under a north-facing window, with suede leather for a backdrop.

Now that we've got the harsh shadows taken care of, it's time to look at enhancing that silky-smooth satin finish you worked so hard to perfect. Direct, point-source light creates nice reflections on glossy surfaces and does a great job of "popping" figured grain, you just need to carefully control the direction and intensity to avoid harsh shadows and glare. Light from a north-facing window makes for a softer, but still natural look.

 The left photo was taken with very soft lighting, with the light positioned to the left so it wouldn't reflect too much off of the shiny surfaces. The flat lighting does little to enhance the look of the pen. On the right, the light was slightly more directional and the pen was rotated so the surface would have a soft reflection. When photographing small, shiny objects, always remember to wipe away any fingerprints or smudges and try to avoid photographing yourself or other distractions in the reflection. Draping white sheets as necessary is very useful here.

Two rules of lighting photographs that I've learned repeatedly: never photograph using fluorescent lighting; and never use the built-in flash as a major light source. Either of these will single-handedly ruin a photograph by creating harsh, unnatural, yucky lighting virtually every single time.


Much like Alice looking up at the caterpillar sitting atop the mushroom, the ordinary can become extraordinary when simply viewed from a different perspective. Looking down on a table is boring, but looking up at a table is something most of us haven't done since we were six years old. Several decades down the road, that can be a new and novel experience, given the right table to look at.

The first thing you must do when photographing anything is to position the camera relative to the subject. The only general rules to this are to keep "up" near the top of the photograph and never allow yourself to just shoot from a standing height if a different angle might look better. Get up high, get down low, get in close, and try a long shot from far away. You might even try a "Dutch" angle, with the horizon tilted off of horizontal, if it suits the subject. This pretty much covers your point of view, but it leads us to another sort of angle.

 The left and right photos are from relatively "normal" eye-level viewpoints. The center photo was taken with a wide angle of view from right at the level of the tray and just a few inches away from it. Which of these photos grabs your attention best, and why?

When you zoom out (or select a shorter focal length lens), the lens takes in a wider angle of view. This can be useful in visually demonstrating spatial relationships: by placing an object very close to the lens, and another farther away, the sense of scale, distance, and perspective is heightened in the photograph. Zooming in (or selecting a longer focal length lens) takes in a far smaller part of the scene and magnifies it, like a telescope. It also tends to "flatten out" the distances between objects placed near to and far from the lens. This is often seen in nature shows and football games, when the ultra-long zoom lenses that bring the action in close can also turn a few light snow flurries into a veritable blizzard by visually compressing a few scattered snowflakes into a space that appears to be just in front of the lens. This can also be useful in photographing larger items, such as furniture, because it eliminates the visual distortions of the wider zoom settings and shows the piece more-or-less as it truly is, with all of its parts in roughly correct proportion and not heavily skewed by perspective. The danger here is that anything that is placed behind the subject can visually merge with it in the final photograph, so if you are shooting in a garden, you might find that the tree that was fifty feet behind your china cabinet appears in the photograph to be growing right out of it!


I'm in complete agreement with legendary photographer Ansel Adams, who had a very dim view indeed of blurry, or soft, photographs. If the subject is not in sharp focus, the whole photograph lacks, shall we say, a focal point. After getting a camera and a good lens, the next most important tool for the photographer's kit is a tripod. Much like a painter's easel, it holds the canvas (in our case, the image sensor or film) steady and frees the artist to concentrate on more important things. One of the more common causes of blurred photographs is camera shake; the camera was moving during the exposure, so the image leaves a trail across the frame. If you ever think that you can get along just fine without a tripod, try standing absolutely perfectly still sometime, with an arm extended in front of you and a forefinger not quite touching a fixed object. You'll find that the muscles in your hand and arm are constantly twitching ever so slightly so as to maintain the proper muscle tone. Also, the signals sent to your brain from your inner ear and the soles of your feet are only just so sensitive, so they cause you to drift around just a bit as you maintain your balance. As your pulse travels from your heart and along the brachial artery, your arm moves ever so slightly. Plus, you're breathing, so that introduces even more movement. In short, you can never hold truly still while you have a pulse, and stopping that would make it rather difficult to operate the shutter release on the camera. While brighter lighting allows shorter exposure times and other modern technologies can help to minimize the effects of the photographer's shaky grip on the camera, a $40 tripod, or even a 10¢ bag filled with sand or beans, is the cheapest, and by far the most effective and easy-to-use way to get consistently sharp images, especially when shooting close-up to the subject.   Also remember to use a remote control or the camera's two-second delay timer so you don't blur the image by directly pressing the shutter release button when you make the image.

On some cameras, there's another way to get more of the image in sharp focus. SLRs and most fancier point-and-shoot cameras give the photographer the ability to play with the iris setting (also called the the aperture or the f-stop), even if it's buried in some corner of the menu system. Like the iris in our own eyes, the iris in the camera's lens controls how much light is admitted, but it also affects the sharpness of the image.

 On the left, the design on the cap of the pen is the subject, so only enough of the rest of the pen was left in focus to give a sense of what the object in the photograph actually is. This was done by adjusting the camera's iris settings and by turning the pen relative to the lens to show more or less of the side of the pen in focus. On the right, the bowl is in sharp focus, and the ripples on the pond are just blurry enough to make an interesting but smooth background. Also note the use of back lighting on the bowl: tricky to pull off, but rewarding when it works; the back light creates a nice glow on the rim of the bowl.

If the iris is set to a small aperture (set to a high f-stop number, such as f/22), it can cause the lens to act almost like a pinhole camera, and everything in front of the camera, from near to far, will be rendered more-or-less in focus. This is called depth of focus. The downside to using the iris to increase the lens' depth of focus is that it also lets less light in, increasing the exposure time. This is something you may need to experiment with to find what setting offers the best balance between sharpness and speed for your camera, but with most SLR cameras and lenses, the old advice to aspiring photojournalists still holds true: f/8 and be there.

One final tidbit on focus: once you've got your subject in sharp focus, remember that everything at the same distance from the camera will also be in sharp focus, including dust, lint, fingerprints, etc. I always give items a rub-down and dusting before shooting, and it's handy to keep a blower or a can of compressed air handy to shoo away any errant specks of dust just before shooting. It's always easier to clean up before shooting than it is to "clean up" the image on the computer.


Half of what makes art "art" is what is left out. Leaving color out of a photograph forces the viewer to focus on the shapes, textures and contrasting values (light and dark areas) in the photograph. Leaving parts of the image, such as the background, out of focus leads the viewer's eye to the subject of the photograph, which had darn well better be in tack-sharp focus. Lighting also contributes greatly to a strong composition; if something is not lit, it is not visible, except perhaps as a dark silhouette. As a general rule, the viewer's eye tends to be drawn toward the brighter parts of an image, so careful lighting can strengthen the composition of a photograph by illuminating the subject in a pool of light while leaving the background more dimly lit.

 In the left photo, the white background is simply too boring. In the photo at right, the color and texture of the sawdust overwhelms the pen. The coarse canvas background of the middle photo enhances the color and texture of the pen, while still remaining less visually interesting, as a background should. Also note that the pen is always placed diagonally in the frame.

Finally, it's important to select a background for your photo that works well with your subject. A very busy background or a background that can blend with or appear to merge with the subject are things to avoid. Sometimes, all that is needed is to blur the background by throwing it out of focus, or you could shift the camera and rotate the subject until a more suitable background appears behind it.


As a woodworker and the builder of the subject you're photographing, it may be difficult to separate it in your mind into its component shapes and colors and see it as something other than what it was made to be, say, as an abstract artwork. If you can find a way to do this, however, you may be able to make some startling detail images of your work, the kind that grab a viewer's attention and make him or her wonder, "what is that?"

The basic elements of the visual arts are shape (and texture), color, pattern, and movement. Breaking an object down into these components allows the photographer to more easily find the compositions that will hold the most interesting details and most effectively hold the viewer's attention.

 Converging lines in this composition lead the eye towards the subjects: the hinge and the contrasting maple keys on the corners. I'd almost even bet you wouldn't notice the finger groove on the bottom edge of the box if I didn't mention it!


For small, simple items such as pens I'll shoot from two to four different viewpoints, and for bigger items like furniture I'll shoot at least six different views. Each view is shot with several variations of lighting, focus and composition of objects within the image frame, so the entire photo shoot may produce a total of thirty frames. I find it's generally easiest to work from big, overall pictures, both with and without a model for "personal interaction," right down to detail shots and super close-ups of joinery, drawer pulls and dovetails; inlay designs, etc. I try to get enough shots that, even without the original working drawings, I could reproduce the project from the photos (after all, I might sell it or give it away, and then get a request for another). At any rate, with digital cameras and terabyte-sized hard drives, the "film" is pretty much free these days. Also, more shots to choose from means a greater chance of getting a really great photo out of the lot.

Once the pictures are opened on my computer, I can view them full screen and with "fresh eyes." I'll weed out the duds and any frames that might show the project in a less-than-rosy light, and I may even go back and re-shoot one or more views if necessary until I get the lighting and focus just right. That's a big advantage of having a digital camera: I can review the photos while I've still got my "photo studio" set up in the other room and there's no need to tear everything down until I've got everything I'll need.


While many photographers debate the advantages and disadvantages of using RAW versus JPEG and other files for their photos, the simple fact is that that stuff makes precious little difference to the actual photograph. The one thing to know about digital files and photography is this: a larger image file contains more information, and that means more detail in the resulting photograph. I always photograph with my camera set to make the largest image; in my case that's 10.1 megapixels. I can always  save a copy and trim the copied file down for emails and posting on the web, but if I set the camera to the "small" setting, I will never be able to get back the detail and quality lost from the image. Anyway, memory is dirt cheap these days: I recently got a 16 gigabyte flash drive the size of my thumbnail for under $40. That's enough space to hold about 800 photos at my large image setting, so there's no reason to cheap out on memory so that you allow yourself to be tempted to save room on the card by using smaller images.


Kurt Herzog wrote a fine article on the basics of photographing your work that appeared in the April, 2012 issue of Woodturning Design magazine ($6.99).

The website is a free, encyclopedic "user manual" on just about everything. The article How to Take Better Product Photographs for Free details both the photographic process and post-production for clean, professional-looking product photos.

Want to get a bit more advanced? Check out the Tabletop Studio online store and how-to. They have both the gadgets and the how-to tips to get some really slick product pics.

© 2012

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