Reprint and update of a forum post by nato.  Thanks Nato for updating this and submitting it to the blog!

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Want to photograph your nice pretty guns?  Want your photos to look great?  Come with me as I show you how.

First things first, figure out what firearm you are going to be using.  A new one is nice because there is less wear on the finish. Got one picked out? Great!  Now go take a picture of it. Go do it now.  Don’t read the rest of this until you have. We will wait for you. …………………………………………

Photography is a lot like shooting.  It’s not about perfection, it is about improvement. You just created your baseline.

Now, let’s get some house cleaning done. Let’s start with the first and most common question ever asked about photography: Is my camera good enough? Well, let me ask you two questions:

1) Was your camera made in 2008 or later?

2) Does it say any of the following on it “Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Kodak, Agfa, Lenica, or Pentax?

If you said yes to both of those questions, you are golden. If you only said yes to one, then you are probably ok; post up what you have if you are concerned. If you said no to both, it might be time to upgrade. (40 bucks at Walmart will put you firmly in the golden category) However it might be worth it to post up what you have just to make sure before you go spend any money. I promise you will get my honest opinion.

Some other quick notes:

1) I am writing this for Point and Shoot type cameras. I will be providing examples from my Canon A490, which I got at Walmart for $60. You might see some technical photos (shots of the set up), from my DSLR, but that is it.

2) The camera on your phone likely sucks. I don’t care if it is the latest and greatest iPhone; for this purpose they suck. Actually the only thing camera phones are good for is proving to the world that your friend is a complete fool when s/he is drunk. You need to get an actual camera (Again $40 at big-box-land will do). You can try the techniques detailed here with your cell phone, but your results will probably not work that well.

3) DSLR people, this tutorial may or may not prove useful to you; it depends on how far along you are in your photography. If you post up a question about something, be sure to say that you are using a DSLR because the answer will likely be different from that for a point and shoot.

4) I am not a professional photographer. I am a guy with a camera, just like you. My professional experience as it relates to photography was repairing photo processing equipment (and after looking at millions of terrible photos, you learn what not to do), I also worked as tech support for a short time for a major camera maker.

5) I am going to attempt to avoid the really technical (read: photo nerd) speak. If you don’t understand something please, I beg of you, speak up and either I or one of the other photo guys will explain it, if you don’t understand them there are a dozen others who don’t understand either.

6) This will be a long process, I will be throwing a lot of info at you pretty quick.  You will in all likelihood, (if you follow the tutorial) be doing odd things. There is no magic bullet for taking better photos.  It is all about knowledge and commitment. The knowledge, processes, and techniques that are involved here translate over to regular photography very well.

Let’s go over some of the basics of photography. First off, it really boils down to light: its reflection and its detection. Inside your digital camera is a sensor (think of it as a digital version of a piece of film) that detects light that is coming in through the lens and records it in an image. The art/voodoo in photography is merely learning to control that light. Everything else is only attention to detail. Now there are three ways to manipulate the light that is going to hit the sensor. First is the light coming off the scene that we are taking a picture of.  Your first instinct is to say, “Well there is no real way we can control that, or is there?”

The second is to control the period of time the light hits the sensor; the longer the light hits the sensor, the larger amount of light it will see overall; the more light it sees, the brighter it will make the image. In the old days of film there was a piece of plastic or metal sitting in front of the film called the shutter. If the shutter was moved up then the film would be exposed to light, when it was down it would not be exposed to the image, how long it was out of the way and allowed light to be on the film was called the shutter speed. Modern digital cameras work the same way, except with a digital sensor, and the sensor is simply turned off or told not to record what it sees. This is what we call shutter speed and is measured in seconds, so you might hear something like a 1/200th of a second shutter speed. This means that the shutter will be out of the way (or sensor turned on) and allowing light onto the film or sensor for 1/200th of a second.

The third is to control the amount of light allowed through the lens, not the period of time but the amount of light. There is this bladed circular thing inside the lens called the aperture. It if it is wide open then all the light goes into the lens, however it can close down in steps restricting the amount of light that moves through the lens into the sensor. Think of it like the iris of a human eye.  When you look into someone’s eyes in a dark room the iris will be small, while the pupil (the black center) of the eye will be wide open allowing all the light it can into the eye. When outside on a bright day the pupil is really small letting in only a little light (this is how your eyes adjust from being somewhere dark to somewhere bright). The aperture of a camera works the same way, closing down to restrict the light and opening up to allow more in. The way this is measured is in F-stops, I am not going to go into how each F-number is reached, but know that the larger the F number (say f/22) for instance the smaller the aperture (and thus a smaller amount of light will be let in). So f/1.6 is wide open, and f/22 is a tiny little pin hole.

Got all of that, well….kinda sorta. That’s OK, because now we are going to talk about cameras. In particular point and shoots. Now your typical point and shoot camera was made to do one thing, take passable pictures of kids running around, and make it push button easy. They have succeeded: they are easy to use, and the photos of kids running around turn out OK. However we aren’t taking photos of kids running around.  We want really good pics of our firearms so we can share them with others. That is where the challenge begins. In making these cameras easy to use, the designers locked them down and made it so that you cannot manually change some settings. Remember shutter speed and aperture size? Well guess what, on most point and shoots you can’t just push a button and change them; everything is automatic. So, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have to outwit the camera. Don’t fret about having no idea how to do it, or where to even start. We are going to go through it step by step.

Now, let’s have a look at a pretty common photo that is of the same type and quality we have all seen posted.

IMG_0313 blog post

Let’s examine the problems with this photo.

1) It is out of focus and blurry.
2) The background is my carpet.  Ugly, reflective, distracting, and in need of a good vacuuming (yea, yea, yea, I will get around to it eventually).
3) The position of the pistol.  Yep, that is a P30, a nice firearm, but you don’t really want to look at the dead on side of a pistol for any length of time. It’s just not that appealing.
4) Some bits of the pistol are really bright, some are really dark

Now, got your camera handy? Good.

Let’s tackle problem #1 – out of focus and blurry.  This can be cause by a number of things. The most common cause is quick firing the shutter release button. Ok, so what does that mean you say? You know the button you press that takes the picture?  That is the shutter release button. However this is no normal button; it is more like the 2 stage trigger on a national match rifle. Press down on it extremely gently and you will feel about halfway through that the resistance increases. At this point of the button push (let’s call it stage one) the camera knows that a picture if about to be taken, so it begins to focus the lens, meter the area, try and get the white balance just right. Once it is done getting everything ready depending on the model of camera either something on the screen will turn green, or it will beep, or something. Once that happens press the button the rest of the way. If you don’t allow the camera to figure out what is going on, it gets into a hurry and rush through the process to get the picture taken.  Usually it gets something wrong. You know that delay between when you would mash the button and after a few seconds it would take the picture? This is what causes that, and if you use the half press as the engineers intended, you would not have that, and the picture would be taken instantly.

The other common cause for problem #1 is distance. If you are really close (6-12”) to the object, you will need to set the camera “macro” mode. That is the little flower icon; it typically has 2 settings: on and off. If you are taking pictures up close and personal with the object it will need to be “on;” if you are far away it will need to be “off.” So either set the macro mode, or back up (and crop later); either will work.

Problem #2, the background. Yes, this is as easy to solve as it would seem. We just need to use a better background. Many people solve this by using a desk or reed mat. Those are OK solutions but don’t really give it that “wow” feel. I like to use navy blue velvet. The stuff is pretty cheap; you will get all you will ever need for photographic purposes for $10 at a hobby shop or fabric store. There are lots of other colors out there too, greens, reds, and black. Stay away from the lighter shades, as they tend to reflect light; the darker shades absorb light very well. The solution to this problem ties in well with the solution to #4.

(You can also use the back of a cotton dress shirt if you don’t want to buy anything.  Just unbutton the shirt and lay it in the box.)

Problem #3, the pose.  The side shot is everywhere, and everyone does it. So do something else!  Angle the camera and pistol in a way not commonly seen. Get creative about it, or lacking that, steal a pose you think is good from someone else. Also, just the pistol itself is pretty boring, so add a few little things in there, like a magazine and some ammunition. A cool knife, or a nice watch…something. Also if your pistol has some unsightly flaws that you wouldn’t mind hiding (like an engraved rack number), strategically placing props will hide that. If done well, no one will be any the wiser; in fact most will think it is a nice artistic touch. One last thing, if one side is more worn than the other, photograph the least worn side. This too becomes easier with the solution to #4.

Problem #4, the lighting. The bright spots mixed with dark spots. What we need to do is to control the light, and control it a lot. Right now the light is primarily provided by the flash, which is a short, sharp, and harsh sort of lighting. We need something a lot softer, and more subtle. Now there are a few ways to accomplish this, and we will go through three of them. We’ll start with the easiest (which will produce “meh” results). Then we will move on to a little more advanced (which will produce ok results), and then on to the most advanced method we will cover (which will really give it that “pop”). We are going to be using more knowledge than anything.

You already have most of the things you will need lying about the house right now. We are going to re-purpose them.  Here is a full supply list of everything you will need to make it all the way through the rest of the tutorial:

1.  A medium sized cardboard box (10″ x 10″ is fine)
2.  Some background material*
3.  Some tape
4.  A small tripod (they are sold for $8-15 at Target/Walmart)
5.  A large piece of white board (A sheet of poster board from Walmart or an office supply store, or several sheets of copy paper attached to a piece of cardboard)
6.  Lamps (desk lamps with the moveable neck work well, those cheap clamp on work lamps do well too)

* There are a ton of choices for background materials.  I typically use two: Velvet or Twill. Twill is a lot easier to use and get good results from (good not great).  Velvet can deliver some amazing results but is a massive PITA to use. You can get a yard or so of both for about $10 at fabric stores such as Jo-Ann’s or Hancock Fabric.   In the samples section at the end there are examples of both Twill and Velvet so you can see which you like better.

“Wait, we are taking pictures of guns, what do we need all that junk for?” Well, we are going to create a photographic device known as a light box. Here is how we do that.

First, take the box and cut off the top flaps and one of the sides.  If needed, tape up some of the sides so they are stable.

DSCN0011 blog post

Now lay your background material – your twill, velvet, or other fabric of choice – into the box.  In order to get it to stay, you may have to tape it on there.

Let’s talk about our lighting control options.  First off if you fire the camera off with its flash now…the results will in all likelihood stink. So we are looking at three ways to control the light: Flash diffusion, external direct lighting, and external bounce lighting.

Flash diffusion/redirection on a DSLR is easy and moderately effective. On a point and shoot it’s like accurizing an AK — it’s fiddly, annoying, and the results are always disappointing. It is pretty simple to do though: hold a piece of white paper in front of the flash, with the bottom of the paper touching the camera, and the top of it angled away from the camera blocking the flashes direct line to the image, and instead reflecting it upward toward the ceiling.

External direct lighting:  It’s ok, and it is simple. In fact you can probably guess what it is just from the name. It would be where you would take that lamp point it directly at the object (pistol). It’s better than a flash but not really what we are going for. However if you are doing this, then you will likely want to completely turn off the flash and use a relatively high watt bulb (like a 60W in the old incandescent type of bulbs, or the CFL equivalent)

External bounce lighting?  Now we are cooking with fire. It’s not as hard as it looks, and once you find the sweet spot you can pump out the good pistol pics.

Now there are two ways to do this.  The first and easiest is to point the lamps at the ceiling.  The light will bounce off the white ceiling and rain soft light down on the object. Below is a picture of this sort of setup.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second way is to point the lamps towards you (but well above the camera), then bounce the light back onto the object using a large piece of white board (like a poster board).  The advantage with this system is that you can be very directional with the light focusing it where you want it. Below is the best pic I could grab on the fly, of that setup.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now here is where the “outwitting the camera” comes in. Point and shoots like to take bright pictures, which may or may not be what you are going for. So if your pics are coming out too bright, give this a shot:  Use the exposure lock feature. Remember what must now seem like pages ago I was yammering on about the shutter button and holding it halfway. If you are getting darker pics than you want, get the lighting setup like you want it, then take a flashlight (or even a full lamp) and shine it on the pistol, press the shutter button half way down on the camera and hold it there. Once it lights up or beeps (depends on the camera), keep holding the button down then turn off the flashlight (or at least stop pointing it at the object), then press the button the rest of the way down, taking the picture. When the camera figured out what it was going to do it was lighter, but it is still going to use the settings for the brighter object. Voila!  Since it is no longer that bright, the image will be darker. If your images are too dark then do the whole thing in reverse, hold till the camera beeps or whatever, then turn on the light, then fire the camera.

If the colors are getting all weird (really yellow, or really blue) you need to adjust your white balance.

After much fiddling and experimentation you should be coming up with photos that look like these.

Point and shoot velvet sample #1

PSV1 blog post

Point and shoot velvet sample #2

PSV2 blog post

Point and shoot velvet sample #3

PSV3 blog post

Point and shoot twill sample #1

PST1 blog post

Point and shoot twill sample #2

PST2 blog post

DSLR velvet sample #1

DSLRV1 blog post

DSLR velvet sample #2

DSLRV2 blog post

DSLR Twill sample #1

DSLRT1 blog post

DSLR Twill sample #2

DSLRT2 blog post

Here are some final notes.

1) When I was making this, the Canon A490 I was using as a point and shoot died.  Its Nikon L24 replacement seems to be having a noise problem.
2) The DSLR used was an Olympus E-520.
3) Please post questions, comments, suggestions or concerns.
4) If you used anything you learned from this tutorial, post it up.
5) If you are posting a picture with a “Why is it doing this?” question, please leave the exif data attached. It will be helpful in finding out what is going on.

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Discuss on the LGC forums (and post your pictures!) here.