Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Right Tools for the Job

Many of you probably know my absolute love of my Nikon 18-200 VR lens.  I've blogged about it, always have it with me and use if for almost 90% of the work I shoot.  It simply will do just about everything I need it to.  Its plenty sharp for me, has a huge zoom range and renders colors exceptionally well.  Every now in then though, you have to put aside your "preferred" way of doing things for the "right" way of doing things.  Let me 'splain...

A local artist and a friend of mine recently asked me if I would take some photos of his paintings so that he could get them on the web.  I've photographed paintings before and knew this wouldn't take much time so I told him I would.

He came over with a selection of recent works and I immediately started setting up my gear.  Once I had one shot done, the rest would simply be moving the other paintings in and out.  I know from past experience that when shooting paintings there are three things to always consider.  First off, you don't want to leave a big glaring reflection of your light source in the painting, and two, because it is a painting, you (usually) want to show a little texture in the image.  Lastly, you want to make sure the photo you produce renders the colors of the painting as accurately as possible.

Fortunately for me, my studio is actually my downstairs living room which has neutral gray colored walls (planned it that way) and a glorious, white ceiling (also planned).  I like the gray because that color doesn't seem to throw back odd colors when there is a little spill, and I love the white ceiling because I can easily bounce a light source off of it, creating any size "soft box" feel simply by zooming the flash.

To light the paintings, I decided to use one Nikon SB-800.  I positioned it close to camera axis, zoomed it wide to 17mm (that's with the flip down diffuser in the down position) and raised it up to about 2 feet away from the ceiling.  This light would give me a very large, diffused and even light to light the paintings with.  In order to not let any of that light directly hit the painting, I used a Honl Gobo on the side of the flash facing the painting.  This flash was triggered with my pop-up flash on my camera.  I also held my hand in front of the pop-up flash so it wouldn't add any reflections to the painting either (even though, that light is so minimal, it most likely wouldn't have added any reflections anyways).

After setting my light up, I mounted my camera on my tripod ...HOLY SMOKE I ACTUALLY USED A TRIPOD!!!  Actually, whenever I'm shooting any product photography or perfectly still subjects, I always use a tripod because it makes making adjustments so much easier.  I used a shutter speed that would completely nuke the available light in the room, set my aperture to f/5.6 and ISO to 200, turned off the VR feature on my trusty 18-200 lens, set the timer for 5 seconds (so I wouldn't introduce camera shake when pressing the shutter) and took my first shot.  It was a little dark, so I cranked up the power on the flash a stop.  Bingo, looks great!  Now I'm ready to shoot the other paintings.

Everything was going right along, the photos were looking good, so before tearing down my setup, I pulled the card out of the camera and went to the computer to double check everything just in case I saw something that would need an adjustment.  Glad I did.

After I got the photos on the computer, I noticed right off that the rectangular canvases looked bowed... i.e. not square.  I didn't think about it while I was shooting, and didn't notice this on the LCD but on the computer it was blatantly obvious.  So I put the card back in the camera, and went to try again.  I zoomed that lens to numerous different focal lengths and just moved the camera backwards and forwards, but every single shot looked a little bowed.  Then it occurred to me, that zoom lens is distorting my shots.  See below for an example....

I've read about this many times, that zoom lenses and the wrong subject-to-camera distance can distort your images, but honestly this is the first time I had it happen so noticeably.  Now since my living room is not the most spacious in the world, I only had one other lens that might be a good option, my nifty 50mm 1.8.  So I swapped out lenses and took a few test shots.  It wasn't perfect, but in my eyes (and to my buddy the artist who was right over my shoulder the whole time) it looked way better, see the image at the beginning of the post.

So, in a nutshell, while I know its easy (especially for photographers) to get comfortable using a particular piece of equipment or a certain technique, its always important to consider the right tools for the job.  In this case, I just happened to have a lens that worked and got me away from shooting with my precious.  Always try to let your subject drive the lighting, composition, technique, equipment choices or whatever else to give you the best results, don't always go with what you know you're good at or with.

Hope this post helps a few others out there in some fashion or another.  I know for one that I am a creature of habit (or OCD) so a good jostling of the senses every once in a while is a good thing.

Also, my friend Josh is an extremely talented artist, check out his Facebook page!


Eric Peek Photography said...

My 18-200 has distortion as well. Lightroom as a lens profile that corrects the distortion perfectly. I compared my Nikkor 18-200mm lens with my 18-105mm kit lens and the 18-200 has so much more distortion. Especially at the 18mm end.

John said...

Thanks for the tip Eric! This is the first time I've experienced this, but its good to know there is a work around in case another lens isn't available.