by Kip O'Krongly
Imagery plays a more powerful role in our creative lives than ever before. From social media, to grant, residency, and show applications, having strong photos of our work is a vital aspect of being a maker. Getting the highest quality images is on occasion best left to a professional, but recent advances in technology (and lower prices) make it easier than ever to capture stellar shots on your own. Below are some reasons I've found a simple photography set-up to be one of my most valuable studio investments, along with a few approaches (and resources!) to get you shooting your work in no time.
One of the most obvious advantages to having a home photo area is the ability to take images as needed and with short notice. Just discovered a show application that's due at midnight? No problem. Need a different angle on a piece for that grant portfolio due tomorrow? Easy. When you avoid working around a photographer's schedule – not to mention the hassle of lugging your work to photo shoots – you’re much more likely to get those images taken, and have them ready when you need them.
Beyond the flexibility to shoot images on demand, the increased likelihood that you’ll document work along the way is another DIY photo perk. Maybe you have a finished piece that isn’t quite show worthy, but there’s an idea worth capturing. Or perhaps the form isn’t there just yet, but the surface is something you want to remember. Having high quality documentation along the way serves as a record of your progress, and you never know when those images may come in handy for your website, a blog post (!), or an artist talk. With your own photo set up, the only cost to taking an extra image or two is simply finding a little time to do it.
So if you're ready to explore taking high quality photos on your own, what do you really need? Turns out, not much. My first photo set up was a roll of grey backdrop paper with a hanging DIY cardboard light box – I removed the box base, added a diffuser, and affixed a clamp light inside. While it was cheap and worked well, it was a royal pain to set up and took up loads of space. But there are other simple (and still affordable!) solutions. For quick shots, a white backdrop (or even foam core) paired with a tripod and sunny spot in your home = an instant photo booth.
For more intensive photo sessions, I upgraded my trusty cardboard box and backdrop to a 30” soft pop up tent with two CFL lights on tripods. These components can all collapse and be tucked away for easy storage. I purchased the kit (along with the graduated backdrop you see below) from Table Top Studios back in 2008 for a little over $300 – it paid for itself after just a handful of shooting sessions. There are a number of options for purchasing soft boxes and lights these days from Amazon, Sears (who knew?), and more established photography sites such as B&H Photo (see links at the end of this post to investigate some options). Prices range from $45 - $110 for a 30” cube, and a pair of tripod lights run from $70 on up.
Beyond the box, lights and background, a tripod is an absolute necessity for getting crisp images of your work, and a simple model can run $20 or less. To keep things absolutely still, I always use the self-timer when I shoot. With most cameras (and phones) you can set a custom timer – 2 seconds typically does the trick.
In terms of a backdrop, opinions on color seem to be evolving. Up until recently, many ceramic artists chose graduated backdrops that went from black to white or grey. However, the current trend seems to be leaning toward the all-white background of product photography, with some artists even opting for a little reflection. You can achieve a reflective quality by using a plexiglass or acrylic sheet on top of, or as a substitute for, your backdrop.
A big question (and expense) for a lot of artists is often their camera. While there certainly are benefits to the more advanced DSLR cameras (like being able to shoot RAW images), I've found I can typically get what I need with a simple point and shoot model. And you may not even need to look farther than your phone - the cameras we carry in our pockets are often on par with, or better than, a basic point and shoot camera these days. There is even a simple tripod adaptor made just to hold your smart phone!
As you work toward your own photo set up, think about how you want to present your work, the space you have available and the budget you need to work within. There are many options for taking your own images, but most important is that you take the time to do it. Getting started on the path to a cohesive portfolio of work can make your next show, grant application, or website redesign that much easier!
Resources for photo set ups:
Pop up photo boxes:
Do you have any DIY photo tips or tricks you'd like to share? Leave some notes in the comments below!