Taking Better Pictures #1: Cameras and Photo Editing

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Blog entry by tpastore posted 03-28-2008 03:38 AM 4334 reads 34 times favorited 22 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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Hello fellow woodworkers,

I have enjoyed looking at all of the excellent projects displayed on LJ. They inspire designs and urge me to make that next piece even even more challenging. All these project are shown to the world via pictures. A picture is your way of expressing the time and effort you have spent on a piece. It is important to take time on the composition and setup of your picture taking to optimize the quality of your pictures. After all, you have spent countless hours working on your do you really want to detract from the viewing experience of your peers by putting pictures online that do not reflect the time and effort you placed in your work? It can be difficult because we tend to be so excited about the completion of our project that we rush to get the image up online but the new reality is that the project is done when you have truly captured the beauty of your piece.

I am an amateur photographer and woodworker. I have been doing both for a number of years now and I have found that being involved in both has helped me a number of times be able to capture the “right” picture. My goal is to help some of you take better pictures so we can all appreciate the woodworking you do. If you are reading this and you are an intermediate or expert photographer please chime in. I do not profess to be an expert by any means, but I hope to be able to provide some general guidance on how to improve pictures overall. The irony is that I have only one of my projects on LJ and it isnt even photographed well. I need to get some other projects uploaded.

One of the things that scare people off in photography is that they think they need expensive cameras, or software, or special tools. Well just like in woodworking, where you can either go to Rockler and buy that special jig or you can make your own, there are ways to achieve quality in photography without spending a ton of money.

In this series I plan to cover a number of subjects:

Basic Photography:

Cameras – From camera phones to high end DSLRs

Lighting – How to make your pictures look professional

Editing software – Did you know there is a great FREE editing software?

Basic Editing Techniques – Rotate, Crop, and Resize

Posting pictures – Tips on where/how to post your pictures

Adding pictures to post – Showing more than just the 3 pictures on your project

Advanced Photography

Depth of Field – How to call attention to a specific part

White Balance – Getting the colors right

Composition – Rule of Thirds and leading your viewer into the picture

Lens Distortion – Why does my square box look like it was stretched?

Flash – How do I keep the glare down?

Special items

Photographing Chatoyance – How to capture just how figured that wood really is

Dealing with Shiny Finishes – I cant see my part through the glare


Camera Phones

It seems like everyone has a camera or two with them all the time these days. The technology is getting smaller and cheaper each year. Manufacturers have been moving toward the all-in-one device for us all to carry in our pocket –combining music, video, audio, pictures, and phone all into one device. Camera phones are convenient for candid shots but are not well suited to taking pictures of woodworking projects. The pictures from these phones are not proportional in quality to the quality of your woodworking piece. The images tend to be blurred, have a low dynamic range (muted colors) and poorly lit (Inadequate flash or ambient light). I understand that not everybody has a digital camera so maybe their camera phone is the only digital camera they have. If this is the case, here are some tips to optimize your chances of getting a better picture.

Clean the lens

Let me repeat this – Clean the lens! Your phone has been rattling around inside your pocket or purse and has all kinds of stuff on it. Use a cotton swab and some window cleaner (damp not dripping) and gently clean the lens. Then let the lens dry before you try to take pictures. If your pictures look like it is foggy or there are halos around your bright spots, your lens is dirty (or scratched)

Use plenty of light

If you can, try taking the picture during the day. Try taking the picture outdoors or near a window. If you are taking the picture during the night you will need lots and lots of light. When you think you have enough, you need more. There is a technical reason for this, having to do with the way that CMOS sensors work but we will avoid that technical jargon for now.

Keep the camera still

One of the most common issues with the camera phone pictures is blurring. Part of the reason why we want so much light is to keep the exposure time to a minimum – the longer the exposure, the more possibility for motion blurring. You will want to setup a mock tripod for your picture. Set the phone on the edge of a table or on some other hard surface while you take the picture. Try to avoid holding the phone in mid-air while taking the picture. If you must take the picture in mid-air try these tips:

Keep the phone close to your chest

Hold the phone with two hands and press both elbows into your belly button for support

Take a deep breath and hold it right before you take the picture

When you press the button to take the picture, be careful not to move the camera in the process

Do not use zoom

Get closer to the thing you are photographing and take the picture. The zoom is digital and is just impacting the resolution of your image.

Select the Highest Resolution

Some camera phones allow you to select the resolution of the image. Select the highest resolution for the images.

Point and Shoot Cameras

These cameras are by-far the most popular and are getting smaller and more reasonably priced every day. These cameras are designed to have minimal effort on the part of the photographer to get a decent picture. You just need to point the camera in the direction of your subject, look at the LCD, and press the shutter button. The camera automatically decides the exposure, flash, focus, etc. Many of these cameras have some intermediate level controls that can allow you to improve your pictures beyond the “stock” photo that your camera will take in the automatic mode. The drawbacks to the P&S cameras is that they are so automatic that sometimes they will not let you take the picture you want to take. Without getting into the mechanics of sensor vs. lens size, let’s just say that most P&S cameras have a very large Depth of Field (DOF). This means that everything is in focus. If you want to have the item you are highlighting in focus and the background out of focus you generally cannot do that with a P&S. One other thing you need to remember with a P&S is the shutter lag. This is how long it takes to actually take the picture after you press the shutter button. All that being said, you can take some excellent pictures with a P&S.

One thing you should not be hung up on is the number of megapixels. I chuckle every time I hear someone say I upgraded from a 6 megapixel to a 12 megapixel and the pictures are so much better now. Honestly, the number of megapixels really has nothing to do with that. The only time the megapixels comes into play is if you are going to crop or zoom into a picture on your computer or if you are going to print your picture out in a HUGE format. For example, my 6 megapixel Nikon D70s can print out a picture that is 24”x36” without seeing any pixilation. So the improvement you may have seen in your camera is probably a better lens, better dynamic range, better post processing, etc. Now keep in mind that the pictures that we post online are typically only about 400×600 pixels so that 4000×3000 12 megapixel picture is going to need to be scaled down significantly before you post it online. I cover this again in the photo editing section. Here are some tips to improve the pictures you take on your P&S:

Clean the lens

Most P&S cameras have a lens cover that protects the lens when the camera is off. The issue is that many people reach around the camera and plant a perfect fingerprint in the middle of the lens. Use a cotton swab and some window cleaner (damp not dripping) and gently clean the lens. Then let the lens dry before you try to take pictures. If your pictures look like it is foggy or there are halos around your bright spots, your lens is dirty (or scratched)

Use plenty of light

Just like the camera phones, you will need lots of light. Even pictures that are supposed to be dark will need more light than you expect. If you do not have enough light the camera will need to bump up the ISO (this means more grainy image) or it will need to slow down the shutter (this means possible motion blurring or artificial white balance effects)

Keep the camera still

P&S cameras have a ¼-20 threaded hole on the bottom so you can mount it on a tripod. If you do not have a tripod, any rigid mounting location with a ¼-20 screw will work. You can make a very simple stand out of wood. Keep in mind that the screw will only go into the camera about ¼”. This means you need to choose the thickness of the wood and/or the length of the screw to only have the screw protrude from the wood by ¼”. If the screw bottoms out, add a washer between the camera and the support. Don’t over tighten the screw. If you do, you may damage the camera or the threads.

For Closeups, use the Macro Setting

Many cameras have a macro setting. This macro setting is for focusing on objects close to the camera. Most cameras use a little flower icon to represent the macro setting.

Avoid Using the Flash on Close Up Pictures

If you have adequate light, you will not need a flash. Flash has a definite purpose and time for use but on close up pictures the flash tends to create “hot spots” or areas where the part is all white from the reflection of the flash. Flash can also create very harsh shadow lines. You may need to turn off the flash manually. If you do need to turn off the flash you must put the camera on a stand otherwise you will get blurring.

Use a Flash Diffuser

When you do use the flash on larger parts, try using a flash diffuser. The translucent material that milk jugs are made of, make a perfect diffuser. Cut a square of the material and put it an inch or so in front of the flash. Here is the fancy version of what you are aiming for.

You can get this ad-on feature at:
Get it Here

Use a Light Tent

For smaller parts you can easily create a light tent. In the machine vision world where I come from this is called a Cloudy Day Illuminator or a Continuously Diffuse Illuminator (CDI). I will explain how to setup one of these tents later

Select the Correct White Balance

Most point and shoot allow you to adjust the white balance of the camera. This is the tint or hue of the image. Florescent lights cast a blueish-green hue on an image while the sun casts a yellow hue on the image. Adjusting the white balance to match the light environment means that you will be getting as close as possible to the actual color of the object you are trying to photograph.

This picture is setup for sunlight. The blueish tint would normally be cancelled out by the yellow of the sun.

The following picture is for a cloudy day. The colors are still not quite right.

The next picture is the correct white balance. The white is white and the maple is the right color. Overall, the image is a bit dark, but the colors are correct.

Select Your Zoom

Your first instinct may be to just go to a wide angle shot, get real close, and take a picture. In some cases this is the right thing to do. However, the wide angle lens may distort the image. There are times when you will want to actually zoom in and take a step back. A longer lens will distort the image less.

The image below is taken “zoomed in” and further away

The image below was taken “zoomed out” and closer. The image is distorted. As a side note; this distortion tends to make people noses look huge. Always try to take portraits a bit further away and zoomed in.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras

Most SLR cameras these days are digital so I will refer to them as simply SLR. The SLR camera offers the photographer all of the controls they need to be able to customize the picture to meet their needs. Selection of lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, White balance, post processing, filters, remote flash, and other parameters are all available to be controlled automatically or manually.

Most, if not all, of the tips for P&S and camera phones also apply with DSLRs. DSLRs are intimidating to many people but the cameras are setup to be as simple as a P&S if you want or as complex as required to get that special composition. With digital cameras the beauty is that you can see the image immediately after it was taken and you can take hundreds of pictures to get 1 or 2 that you actually keep. These two things allow you to have a very short learning curve.

Get your flash off your camera

If possible, use the remote control for your flash. Keep in mind that you may want to minimize the harsh shadows (or make them more pronounced to highlight a particular edge). Using a diffuser and/or bouncing the light off a ceiling or back wall will help soften the shadows and create a more uniform image

Try different Depth of Fields

Try selecting
a low f-stop number (2.8) to minimize the depth of field in the image. This will help remove the clutter around the “subject” of the image.

Try using different filters

Polarizers make a HUGE difference in the photography of pieces with shiny finishes especially outdoors.

This Picture is taken without a polarizer

This picture is taken with a circular polarizer

Editing Software

There is a group of developers around the globe that believe that software should be shared by the masses and contributed to by the masses. The GNU Image Manipulation Program team is one of these groups. The “GIMP”, as they call it, is actually an open-source program that has many, if not all, of the features you would want in your basic to intermediate editing needs. You can find this software package at Look for the installers as you will have no use with the source code. You will also need to download the help files. Here are some screenshots of the process:

Your web browser may have a security feature turned on that requires you to allow the download to occur. If you see a security warning bar pop up at the top of your browser, click on the bar and select Download File…..

Once the file has downloaded it will ask you what you want to do. Select the “RUN” button to start the extraction of the software.

Installing GIMP

Follow the prompts and continue by hitting the NEXT button until the software is installed.

Basic Editing Techniques:

Rotate an Image

If your part is tall you may have held your camera vertically in the portrait format. The issue is that the picture is saved with that tall part laying horizontal now. Some cameras are intelligent enough to rotate these pictures for you but most are not. Before you post this picture online you will need to rotate it to the portrait format. This section will explain how easy it is to rotate the image.

Let’s start by opening GIMP. You can do this by going to the START menu > All Programs > GIMP > GIMP2

Once GIMP is open select File > Open

Then use the file browser to select the image you want to open:

Sometimes your camera will tell GIMP that the image is rotated. If so, let GIMP rotate the image for you.

For the purposes of this demonstration I will tell GIMP not to rotate this image so I can show you how it is done manually.

Here is the image ready to be rotated:

Now to rotate the image we go to Image > Transform > Rotate (Pick a direction)

Here is the rotated image

Resizing the Image for the Web

Today’s cameras have a large number of pixels but the monitors that we use do not have a large number of pixels so we need to resize our pictures. For example, a 6 Megapixel camera takes pictures that are 3000×2000 pixels. The average monitor only has 1024×768 pixels. If we sized the image at 100% we would only be able to see a small portion on our monitors.

With the assumption that the average monitor is 1024×768, that would mean that the average width is 1024 pixels. Most web pages have borders on the right and left of the image that limit us to having images that have a width of about 650 pixels as a maximum. That means your fancy 12 megapixel camera that takes pictures with super high resolution at 4000×3000 will need to be scaled down to 650×487 (width x height) to fit on a web page in a landscape format. With a portrait format the picture will be 650×978 (width x height).

To resize your image select the menu item Image > Scale Image

Whether your picture is in landscape or portrait format you will want the width number to be 650 pixels. Make sure the little chain beside the numbers is connected. This keeps you from only stretching the image in one direction. You also want to make sure that the units are in pixels.

Saving the image

The last step in the editing process is saving the image. Most likely you will want to save the file as a different name than the original file because you have just reduced the resolution of the file and you do not want to lose your high resolution original.

To save go to File > Save As. From there you will need to change the name of your file and save it.

With all .jpg files you will be asked what level of quality you want. The image is small enough that we can select 100% quality without the file size being too large


Photographing larger pieces
Getting shots of that figured wood
How to improvise a light tent/softbox
Cropping images
Posting images

22 comments so far

View closetguy's profile


744 posts in 4896 days

#1 posted 03-28-2008 04:02 AM

Very good article. I look forward to the next ones.

-- I don't make mistakes, only design

View pashley's profile


1047 posts in 4722 days

#2 posted 03-28-2008 04:05 AM

Wow, you put a lot of work into this to help others. Thanks so much!

I try to put some work into my photography, figuring that I put dozens, if not hundred of hours, into a piece, it only makes sense to spend an hour on doing a good photo job!

-- Have a blessed day!

View David's profile


1969 posts in 5143 days

#3 posted 03-28-2008 04:12 AM

Thank you for such a well written and detailed article. This information will be very useful!



View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27249 posts in 4826 days

#4 posted 03-28-2008 04:14 AM

Thanks for the post. My photographic skills tend to be based upon point and click technology. I point and click and hope for the best. This has helped me better understand what is going on with my camera.


-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4993 days

#5 posted 03-28-2008 05:50 AM

That is a LOT of information! Thanks.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View GaryCN's profile


499 posts in 4939 days

#6 posted 03-28-2008 06:04 AM

Another good resource is the Tech Guy group at Flickr
They will post an assignment where you can upload
you photo and compare them to others.

-- Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

View Bob #2's profile

Bob #2

3810 posts in 5026 days

#7 posted 03-28-2008 06:18 AM

This should be locked at the top of the pages.


-- A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner

View rikkor's profile


11295 posts in 4879 days

#8 posted 03-28-2008 11:25 AM

Man, that is wonderful. You put a lot of work into that tutorial. I hope everyone reads it. Thank you!

View Martin Sojka's profile

Martin Sojka

1893 posts in 5477 days

#9 posted 03-28-2008 12:02 PM

Excellent tutorial! I added whole series to the Stickies so keep them coming.

View NDwoodworker's profile


48 posts in 4739 days

#10 posted 03-28-2008 04:45 PM

Great tutorial, It will help since I don’t know much about photography besides pushing a button.

-- Stuart, North Dakota

View Earle Wright's profile

Earle Wright

121 posts in 4725 days

#11 posted 03-28-2008 04:58 PM

What you’re doing here is EXACTLY what I need! Thank you, thank you! I will reread many times. Now I’m off to find a plastic milk jug!

-- Earle Wright, Lenoir City, Tennessee

View ChasHutch's profile


56 posts in 4719 days

#12 posted 03-28-2008 05:09 PM

I just got back from my shop carrying my point and shoot Sony Cybershot. I had intended on uploading a few pics from my shop as I want to ask folks for comments on what to do to make it usable (it is a blank slate and needs TONs of work).

Now that I have read this blog (and I can’t find the little usb thingy that the camera’s memory chip plugs into to, suck the pictures into the computer) I need to go out and do it all again.

Thanks, this helps a bunch.

-- Hutch - North Dallas, Tx - Safety First

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5223 days

#13 posted 03-28-2008 07:23 PM

With articles like this you’re going to set off the photography bug in these LJ’s and then they’ll be spending as much time on that end as on the construction end!

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View tenontim's profile


2131 posts in 4749 days

#14 posted 03-29-2008 01:48 AM

Thanks for all of this info. I do my own photography for my web site (with the exception of a few pro shots) so I need all the help I can get. I think just a good back drop will improve my photos greatly, then work out something with the lighting.

View Kerry's profile


162 posts in 4794 days

#15 posted 03-29-2008 02:01 AM

This is a great article – most helpful and I’m looking forward to the series. Thanks for putting so much into this.


-- Alberta, Canada

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