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Formating Digital Images for Artists Part 1
Posted on August 18, 2011 by George Heath
Next to the quality of the work itself nothing is going to do more for one’s career as a sculptor than the quality of the images one uses for submissions or an online web portfolio. Having submitted images to juries for way too many years, (don’t even ask), and done web based portfolios for the last eight I’ve fallen into just about every pitfall there is. Perhaps I can save the reader a little head banging and maybe some serious money. In the coming articles I’ll cover the whole process from setting up a studio to proper submission format for Zapp. Finally I’ll write a bit about website design. For the first article I’ll cover the fun part. That is, buying stuff cheap.

The Equipment

Professional photographers earn every penny. It is a highly skilled occupation with an insanely high equipment budget. For your premier pieces the professional is a great idea. $90 an hour is not unreasonable. You can also take excellent photos on your own with little if any pain to your pocketbook. In fact a complete photo studio, (assuming you have a computer already) need not set you back more than $200, and that includes a good camera.

The bare bones ‘get it done’ set-up is possible for less than $200
The Camera

You will want a decent digital camera. It should have a good sharp zoom lens and manual settings. A new one will have a 10 megapixel ccd and set you back $200 to $500. Here’s the neat thing though, 3 or 4 megapixels is ample for web work or for submitting images to a jury. Find a good candidate on Craigslist and then Google the model number and read the reviews. You can even download the manual to see if the camera fits your needs. In fact right now there is a Canon Powershot on Craigslist for the grand sum of $25. It would do nicely.

As sculptors you will be shooting 3d objects. You will want to control what is in focus and what is not. Usually you will want your piece in sharp focus and the background fuzzy. For this you need to control depth of field or how much is in focus between the lens and infinity. Controlling this precisely requires manual settings for aperture, (size of the lens opening), and shutter speed and a zoom lens. A 3x zoom lens is sufficient. You’ll want a shutter delay feature where the camera waits until you can get yourself into that family photo. In a low light situation where a long exposure is required the very act of pressing the shutter button will blur the photo. The shutter delay will give the camera time to stop vibrating. So, your camera should have: a manual setting feature, a good 3x zoom lens, 3 megapixels or better and a shutter delay or self timer feature.

If you already have a digital camera and it does not have manual settings it will probably do ok if it has a good lens and an aperture priority setting.

The Tripod

Unless you can stand very, very still you will need a tripod. The Goodwill stores are awash in them. A decent one will set you back $5 or $10 at the most. Your camera has a threaded hole in the bottom. There is a little quick release doodad that fits into the top of newer tripods that has a bolt that fits that hole. Make sure the tripod you buy still has that little doodad with the bolt. Older tripods just have the bolt and no doodad. In either case make sure it’s pretty sturdy and extends to a decent height. They make decent light stands too.

The Lighting Setup

Harsh shadows, unless you want them for special effect, tend to look pretty bad. What the pros do that makes their pictures look so good is control the light and shadow very precisely. They use remotely controlled high powered flash units, soft light boxes and reflectors of various kinds and sizes. What can you do for $25? Quite a lot actually.

You will need: 3 clamp lights, 3 photo flood bulbs, light stands, (these can be anything you can attach a clamp light to), enough pvc plumbing pipe and connectors to build a frame that can hold your pieces and enough white ripstop nylon to cover the frame top and two sides. I use a light gray construction paper for the background and foamcore for both shading and reflecting light into dark spots.


Lighting Setup

Lighting setup

Pictured left is my setup. It’s downright ugly but it works. The lights are just clamped to the basement rafters. Usually I don’t even have the legs on the frame but just hang the top part from the rafters and drape the ripstop over it. The ripstop softens the lights eliminating harsh shadows. For the sample shot I held a piece of foamcore behind the piece to create a background shadow.

Image Editing Software

You will need to crop, resize, adjust exposure, contrast and color, and sharpen your images. Photoshop Elements will

Gray construction paper background pops the bright colors of this piece
do the job as will Paintshop Pro. There are also gazillions of freeware programs to do the same. Unfortunately most aren’t very good. Google has one called Picasa for both PC and Mac that is quite good and free to boot. Download only from a trusted source of course. Both Paintshop Pro and Photoshop Elements run about $60. Paintshop Pro is probably a little better than Photoshop Elements.

The full version of Photoshop is the holy grail. If you are a student or a teacher you can get an 80% discount at the student bookstore. Photoshop has a long learning curve but it is a medium in itself. I mean what’s it worth to take that old family group shot and switch everyone’s heads around. Little Bessie’s head on Uncle Fester?…priceless. Retail the price is astronomic but last I heard you don’t have to be a full time student to qualify for the student price but you do have to be taking a class for at least 3 credits. Check with the bookstore before enrolling.

George is the web person for Pacific NW Sculptors and has designed web based portfolios and websites for a number of NW artists. He has been an avid photographer since 1969.

He is a tight fisted scoundrel

Handheld foamcore creates a shadow on the background construction paper.