Photographing felt with a compact camera

It struck me, having written about photographing felt with a digital SLR that it might be more useful to have some help with taking photographs using "just" a simple compact digital camera, rather than blithely extolling the virtues of using a digital camera, tripod and a set of lights. So, here it is.

I’d already taken this photo of the same vase using an SLR.

Felt vase - nice sharp photo taken with an SLR

All the subsequent photos of the vase on this page were taken with a compact camera, a Panasonic DMC-TZ3, if you’re interested, but I think the same approach would work with virtually any modern compact camera of reasonable quality.

First a confession. I did cheat a bit to start off with and I did use a tripod, originally because I just wanted to keep the camera in exactly the same place so I could compare photos. To start off, I draped some black cloth over a cardboard box, plonked the felt vase in front of it, lined it up and took a photo, no flash, just using natural light, just to see how it looked. The result is shown below.

Felt vase - background cloth rather crumpled

On the plus side, the vase is acceptably in focus. On the minus side there are visible folds and creases in the background cloth which draw the eye. Also the lighting, on the front of the vase particularly, isn’t great, and the bottom of the vase is too dark compared to the top. So, next step, I straightened out the background cloth, and tried again, using the flash on the camera this time.

Felt vase - with flash, rather washed out, background still not smooth

The background’s better, although there are still a few creases, but the flash has made the vase look very washed out, and it looks less three dimensional than in the previous photo. The white colour at the back of the vase is also much more noticeable because it’s reflected the flash on the camera. So, flash isn’t going to work very well for me here.

Next approach was to use some lighting. I used two desk lamps, one on each side so as to minimise shadows. I then took several photos with the lights in different positions to try and get it correct. There are several points to note here. I found it necessary to draw the curtains to keep out the sunlight which was casting shadows I didn’t want. Next, the shutter speed on the camera was down to about 1/8 of a second. Do not kid yourself that you can hand hold a camera at anything less than about 1/60 of a second and get a sharp picture. So the fact that I was already using a tripod here was good. Now, even on a tripod, if you just press the button with your finger, there’s a good chance you’ll knock the camera slightly and blur the picture. The ideal solution is a remote control – but most compact cameras won’t allow one of these (and neither will the new Canon EOS1000D SLR, be warned). However, they pretty much all have a self timer, so it’s easy to use this instead. In this particular case the self timer had an additional benefit as I had to hold the two lights above the vase, and didn’t have a spare hand anyway…sort of like this:

Using two desk lights to illuminate the subject

These lights were quite heavy, I might add, and it was not the most comfortable thing I’ve ever done. Be warned, and consider recruiting a helper for this bit. It took about 15 minutes messing about with these lights until I finally got a photo I was happy with:

Felt vase - final photo

Not bad, it’s reasonably in focus, background is fine, and now the front of the vase is much better lit, and the background is less prominent. It could do with a bit of cropping to take out the excess black cloth on either side. What am I less happy about? Well, the vase looks fine with an image of this size, but at higher magnification the front of the vase is not as sharp as it might be, and not as sharp as the back of the vase. This is the better way round, because the front of the vase is plainer anyway – if the blue and white shapes on the back were out of focus it would be more noticeable. The problem here is that the depth of field is too small – see the earlier article for more information about this.

So here’s the thing. I could not get this camera to use a smaller aperture (and hence give a bigger depth of field) despite playing with the multitude of different picture settings, and reading through the manual (a true sign of desperation if ever I saw one). This is just about manageable with this sort of shot of the whole vase, but it gets difficult if you’re trying to show some detail.

Here’s an attempt at getting in close:

Detail of felt vase - front of vase noticeably out of focus

You can see that the back of the vase is nice and sharp, but the front isn’t. This was the best I managed. All is not quite lost however. All the photos so far are just as they were taken. However, the one below was a more general view of the vase like the shots at the top of this page, but here I’ve cropped the image to show just the top left of the vase:

Detail of felt vase - front and back in focus

In this case, because the camera was further from the vase, the depth of field problem is dodged. This is most noticeable on the tear shape on the right. (If you’re still interested, this is because depth of field increases with distance from the camera.) Incidentally, if you’ve got Photoshop or Microsoft Picture Manager loaded on your PC, it’s easy to crop a picture, but if not, there are a few free web services that’ll let you do it online. I tried a few this afternoon and this one at Third Light seemed to be the easiest to use.

So thus far, I’ve managed to take some pretty reasonable photos of the vase using a compact camera, some ordinary lights and some black cloth, but still using a tripod. My final experiment was to do without the tripod.

The good thing about tripods is that you can position the camera firmly just about anywhere you want it. That’s a difficult thing to do without one. You can probably put a camera on a table, and it’ll be nice and steady, but it’ll be very difficult to line it up properly with whatever you’re trying to take. I thought I had a possible solution to this, which was a pocket sized clamp arrangement which I had somehow acquired and never used:

Little clampy photographic tripod thingy

Here’s my top tip about these things. Don’t bother with them. It was awkward to attach the camera, awkward to clamp onto anything (I tried the back of a kitchen chair), and it felt like the camera was going to plummet in the manner of depressed lemming at any moment. Not recommended at all – which is a shame, because I thought that might be a good solution.

So, in conclusion, it is possible to take a reasonable photo without a digital SLR, a remote control, and a set of studio lights but it isn’t quite as easy, and getting the depth of field is the most difficult thing to do. This makes close ups tricky, but a possible way around this is to take a photo from further away and then crop the image to show the part you want. Here’s a step by step summary:

  1. If you haven’t got one, buy a tripod.
  2. Set up a suitable background for your object.
  3. Position your subject against the background.
  4. Put the camera on the tripod and take some test shots.
  5. Look at the resultant images, adjust your background and subject and take some more shots until you’re happy.
  6. Use whatever lights you can find, preferably at least two, try lighting the subject and take some more shots.
  7. Look at the resultant images and adjust your lighting until you’re happy.
  8. Crop images as required on your PC.

The end image is better with the SLR but for most purposes it’s OK with the compact. It is really hard without a tripod however, and they’re cheaper than I thought – about £13 in the current Argos catalogue. So, buy one of these before you buy any of the other stuff. And remember that perseverance is necessary to get a better picture. Good luck!

3 responses to “Photographing felt with a compact camera”

  1. Simon says:

    Shaibu, the main difference is going to come down to the quality of the lens more than anything else. The SLR lens I used for the shot of the purple vase cost twice as much as the compact camera did, so it’s not surprisingly rather better. A good lens with a smaller resolution will give you a better image than a poor lens with a higher resolution.

  2. Shaibu says:

    It’s interesting. But my doubt is that, while comparing 2 images , one with an SLR and the other with a compact digital camera, both having the same resolution, which one will be technically perfect.

  3. I came to this site because I’ve just enrolled to do a course with your wife and then I got a newsletter from her.
    I’m self taught in all sorts of crafts and I inlcude ICT in it.
    So, using Dreamweaver I designed my own website, then with an internet course or two I’ve continued to improve it (and a lot needs done still.
    Your site is very attractive and your notes very helpful.
    thanks for sharing

Useful? Interesting? Leave me a comment

I've yet to find a way of allowing code snippets to be pasted into Wordpress comments - so if you're trying to do this you'd be better off using the contact form.