Many many moons ago, when I started out my career here as assistant editor to our magazines Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated, there was one rule of pottery photography that would show your work in the best way possible: Photograph your pots on a neutral gradated background with a wide depth of field. Nothing got magazine submissions tossed to the reject pile quicker than a crushed velvet leopard print background. While that rule is still a pretty important one to follow in certain circumstances, some new trends have emerged in the pottery photography area.
Now with sites like Etsy and image-heavy lifestyle blogs looking not just for good work, but interesting, beautiful images, artists are photographing their work in a more artsy style similar to high-end product photography. We’ve all seen these photos. The product is in focus, but the background is soft, drawing your eye right where it is supposed to go (the pot!), and creating an aesthetically pleasing image too. So how do you photograph pottery like that? In today’s post, an excerpt from the May/June issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, my friend and colleague Kevin Davison explains how to photograph ceramics in this way. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
How to Photograph Pottery for Etsy and Beyond
by Kevin Davison
Focal Length aka Bokeh
Now, grab your camera, a lens or two, and a pot that’s ready to be photographed for your website or Etsy page. You may have noticed when looking at a product image that while the subject is sharp, the background is out of focus. This blurring of the background is called bokeh (bo-kay or bo-kuh), the Japanese word for blur (1). This effect causes our eyes to focus on the subject at hand, creating separation between your pot and the background. How do you make this happen? Locate a set of numbers at the end of your lens. One indicates the focal length of your lens and the other the lowest aperture possible. (2). The focal length tells you how much of what you’re seeing through the viewfinder will be captured; the lower the number, the wider the angle. Not all lenses have a focal range, some have a fixed length, which is called a prime lens (eg. 85 mm 1:1.8) (3). Asking why one would choose a prime lens over a zoom lens opens a debate akin to whether a Mac vs. PC is better, so just understanding the difference between the two is a good start.
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Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO
Covering all of the cameras on the market would take a far fatter magazine. Refer to the owner’s manual or check the Internet for the anatomy of your specific camera and what buttons do what.
We’re most interested in three different settings; aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three components comprise an ever shifting balance of exposure elements to achieve the best photos. Learn how to change these settings! Aperture: how much light is let through the lens. Shutter Speed: how quickly the shutter opens and closes to expose the sensor. ISO: Dictates how sensitive your sensor will be to light coming through the lens.
The aperture determines how much light passes through the lens to hit the sensor. The lower this number is, the wider the aperture, allowing more light in (see 2). A wider aperture means a shorter depth of field or focus area. The aperture also affects shutter speed. If you have a low F-stop (wide aperture), the shutter doesn’t need to stay open as long.
Depth of Field
To illustrate depth of field, extend your arm and focus on your thumbnail. Now bring it closer to your face, keeping your thumb in focus and you’ll notice that whatever is in the background will get increasingly blurrier. This is decreasing the depth of field (DOF).
Take your pot and place it on a table, or on a stack of books in the middle of a room. It might be preferable to have something other than a blank wall as your background. It’s important to give some distance between your subject and your background and also important to be somewhat close to your subject, to decrease the depth of field.
For the purposes of this article, use aperture priority mode (A or Av) (4). This allows you to set the aperture and allows the camera to adjust the shutter speed automagically. Lower the aperture as much as you can. This is typically done by clicking a button then adjusting one of the finger scroll wheels (5). The lowest you can go corresponds with the 1:# on the end of your lens. This means that the lens aperture is wide open.
Now, focus on your pot and fire away! You have the maximum amount of light coming in through the lens and your camera is adjusting how fast the shutter opens and how sensitive the sensor should be. If you’re shooting indoors, you’ll likely need more light to get a proper exposure, so the camera tells the shutter to stay open a little longer to let in more light, which translates to a lower shutter number. In aperture priority setting you can also adjust the ISO, raising or lowering the sensitivity to help render a proper exposure. Take a moment to look up your camera’s native ISO and then take a moment to look up what the heck that even means.
Kevin Davison is the videographer behind the camera on the Ceramic Arts Daily video series, and works on various productions around the Columbus, Ohio area.