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More than anything else, lighting can make your quilts look good or bad when you photograph them. If you have any doubts on that score, take a look at the Gallery of Wrongs ... then come back here for some simple tips on how to make your artwork look its best.
If you've ever hired a professional to photograph your quilts, he or she probably came equipped not only with an expensive camera, but also with fancy professional lights, light stands, backdrops and whatnot. That's great if you're doing this for a living ... but for folks like us who only photograph artwork a few times a year, there are much less expensive ways to do an equally good job. On this page, we'll show you how to assemble a lighting kit for a fraction of what a pro would pay—and get professional-quality results with it!
Indoors or out?
You may have tried photographing your work indoors, wound up with orange-tinted pictures and decided that it was easier to just pin up the quilt on the side of the garage and shoot it by daylight. And in truth, you can get good results that way ... with luck. But depending on luck isn't a good strategy when you want consistently good-looking results.
The problem with daylight is that you can't depend on it. It changes from season to season, day to day, even minute to minute. Your eyes do a pretty good job of compensating for these changes, but your camera isn't as smart. If you were to shoot the same quilt outdoors on three successive days, chances are you'd get three photos with subtly (or not so subtly!) differing color casts. The name of the game in photographing artwork is control—and control is one thing you just can't do with daylight!
That's why we recommend that you shoot indoors, where you can set things up so that you have exactly the lighting you want, and exactly the same lighting every time. Important: that means drawing the blinds, so that no daylight gets in! Otherwise you'll have even worse problems than if you were shooting outdoors—see the "Mixed lighting" example in the Gallery of Wrongs.
Let there be lights
One of our main purposes here is to show you how to get professional-quality photos without forking over big bucks for professional equipment. In fact, most of what we'll be talking about requires nothing more than a few inexpensive hardware store items. So if we start out by telling you to buy special $15 light bulbs that are only available from one online vendor, you have a right to ask why.
Well, it's true that you can get by with a couple of ordinary household 150W bulbs. Your camera's "automatic white balance" feature will do its best to compensate for the yellowish light produced by these bulbs. Depending on the camera and your quilt, the results may be satisfactory... or not. It's a gamble. And if you want consistent results—meaning, if you want to minimize the need for tedious reshooting and software touch-ups—then gambling is the last thing you want to do.
So here's what we suggest: get yourself a few high-powered daylight balanced compact fluorescent bulbs. How can you tell they're daylight-balanced? By the "color temperature" rating, expressed in degrees Kelvin. If a bulb's packaging doesn't say "5000 K," don't buy it. To be specific, a 30 watt 5000K bulb like the one shown here is the best suited for our purposes. At $4 each, these aren't even that expensive, especially when you consider that one of them will outlast twelve incandescent bulbs.
It's unlikely that you'll find these 5000K bulbs in local stores. We hate to use the old cliché "beware of imitations," but the CF bulbs from local stores that we've tested, even though they claim to be "natural" or "daylight," have noticeable color casts. These 30W 5000K bulbs are truly daylight balanced, so they'll give a very accurate photographic depiction of your quilt's colors. They produce almost as much light as a 150W incandescent bulb, while using only a small fraction of its power. If you're used to regular energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs, you'll be dazzled—literally!—by how much light these put out. They are BRIGHT!
We think these CF bulbs are worth every penny. You can try everything we describe here with regular 150W incandescent bulbs. You may find the results acceptable. But in the long run, the CF bulbs cost less ... and more important, they yield truer colors, making your artwork look its best. And that's the whole point, isn't it?
TIP: Like any light bulb, these can break. But unlike ordinary light bulbs, you can't run out to the local supermarket for a replacement 5000K bulb. If you trip over a cord or bump into a light stand and it falls over, the bulb will probably shatter. Take it from us: you want to have a spare or two on hand. Otherwise you could miss a deadline while waiting for replacement bulbs to arrive in the mail, and you don't want that to happen!
What about flash?
Right about now you're probably wondering, "What about my camera's built-in flash? That's daylight-balanced, isn't it?" Well, more or less. And in fact, you'll often see a professional using flash when photographing quilts ... but not the one on their camera! No, they'll be using hundreds of dollars worth of studio flashes, light stands, "umbrella" reflectors and so on.
So what's wrong with your camera's built-in flash? In a nutshell, it doesn't spread the light around evenly enough. The example in our Gallery of Wrongs shows the result: a picture that's too light in the middle and too dark at the corners. Another problem is that often, on-camera flash makes your work look "flat"—the subtle textures that give quilts extra visual interest are lost in the harsh, flat light from the camera's flash.
We've tried built-in flash photography with a number of cameras from various makers, but have never been happy with the results. Unless you want to spend the big bucks to buy a set of professional flashes, light stands, reflectors and so on (assuming your digital camera is one of the few that works with external flashes), we recommend that you avoid using flash. The daylight-balanced compact fluorescent bulbs work much better.
Mounting your lights
Light bulbs alone are not enough, of course; you'll need good reflector lamps to plug them into. Fortunately, sturdy clamp-on reflector lamps can be found at most large hardware stores—Lowe's, Home Depot or whatever you have handy—for less than ten bucks. In fact, we recently saw them for $5.47 apiece in the hardware department at Walmart. (You may also want a good extension cord or outlet strip to go with these.)
And of course you'll need something to clamp your lights onto. While doors or chairs can be pressed into service, a couple of light stands will make life a lot easier.
You can buy commercial light stands like the one at left for as little as thirty bucks apiece. (If you've ever played an instrument, you'll probably recognize this as a music stand without the holder.) They fold into a long, skinny bundle that stores in next to no space. Large camera stores such as B&H Photo carry many different kinds and grades of commercial light stands, but the least expensive source we've found is eBay.
But you can build your own light stands for about $7.50 apiece—less than a quarter of what the cheapest commercial ones cost. All you need is a screwdriver and about twenty minutes of time, plus a few easily obtainable hardware store items. Sound good? Then read on!
Here's your shopping list for two light stands, including what we paid for the items:
All you have to do is screw four brackets to one end of each 2x4, making four sturdy feet ... and you're done!
These "two by four" light stands aren't quite as compact as the folding commercial ones, but they take up very little room in the back of a closet when not in use. They're actually superior to the commercial stands in one respect: they're much easier to clamp the lights onto than a skinny metal rod.
Finishing the job
Now that we have the camera mounted and the lighting under control, let's move onward to the working setup—a "photo studio" that will turn out first-class pictures! Our next page explains how to hang your quilts and photograph them.