Look, I made a Coke can! Doesn't it just look so real? I know!
Okay, I didn't make the Coke can, of course, I just took the picture of it, quickly, a few weeks ago at Thien Hong, our squid-y home-away-from-home.
Then I took this one:
Hmmm. Can you see the difference? It may look, from the angle of the first one, that I sat above it and shot down. It may look, in this second one, that I crouched low in my booth and tried to shoot it straight on. But I didn't.
I shot the first one with the wide-angle lens on small silver; that is, I just turned on the camera, pointed it at the can, and snapped the image. I didn't zoom the lens in one bit.
I shot the second one using the zoom lens and sitting as far back in my seat as I could, framing the can within the viewfinder. The lens did all the work here, bringing my subject out of distortion and making it much more pleasing to look at, don't you think?
I took both of these photos while sitting at lunch with Andy one day. I was trying to explain something I'd learned in my newest photography book, something I must have missed in all the reading I'd done, and something I'd never noticed quite so dramatically before when shooting still-lifes: To depict your subject with the least amount of distortion, shoot your still-lifes with the lens zoomed-out as far as you can manage, and pull the camera itself back. Don't get super-close to something with your lens set at the widest angle, or you will get a sort of cartoon-y Coke can, as above.
I bought a book a few weeks ago that has been really helpful in thinking about the kinds of photos I like to take. I don't know why I didn't go to the camera store (Citizen's Photo, though I can't get their web site to work for me today) for photography books first; I only went after I went to every regular book store and said, "Hi, I'm looking for a book that will help me take product shots!" and every book-store person said, pointing across the store, "Photography section is over there." And so I'd go to the photography section and I don't know if you've been in the photography section of the regular bookstore lately but, um, there are like seven shelves of photography books, mostly organized alphabetically by author's last name. It's hard to know. I've bought and returned about six photography books since I bought big black a few months ago and had my little I-don't-know-how-to-work-this-thing! hissy. I probably could've just asked at the camera store the first day I bought the camera, but you know I like to, you know, drive from one end of the city to the other in the blazing heat, cherry-pick the wrong books from the shelves without assistance, and generally reinvent the wheel while hyperventilating with stress for no good reason at all. And then complain about it. That's my special Alicia-way. That's how I do it.
But during that time, and from all of those books, I've actually learned a lot. I feel good about big black, I feel good about what I understand, I feel good about the pictures I've taken. When I got eBay Photos that Sell: Taking Great Product Shots for eBay and Beyond by Dan Gookin and Robert Birnbach, I really wanted to tell you about it, because it has a lot of good information for us craft-blog types — even though we might not be selling things on eBay, the types of photos we often take have a lot in common with good product shots, and this book is the best I've found that helps suss out exactly how to do that without having to understand too much about why it's working.
I call this one "Day-Off with Salt-and Pepper Squid and Bears Jersey." It illustrates one more thing I want to tell you real quick. It's a concept that I think a lot of us want to understand — depth of field. Depth of field refers to the range of focus around the object that you're photographing. When the depth of field is shallow, only the object that the camera is directly focused on will be in focus. Things in front of and behind that object will be soft and fuzzy. When the depth of field is deep, lots of things around the object will be in focus. The range of focus is large, and everything appears sharp.
Depth of field is controlled by the aperture (or "f-stop"). If you are interested in exploring depth of field, it's good to get familiar with the "Aperture" setting on your camera so that you can control this (and let the camera control the shutter speed, etc.). Basically, the smaller your aperture opening (or the higher the f-stop number), the greater your depth of field. The bigger your aperture (or the lower the f-stop number), the smaller your depth of field. If this is confusing to you, it's helpful to think about how squinting works: When you squint, effectively giving yourself a smaller aperture, more things appear to be in focus. And if you think of an f-stop as a fraction — f/4 is really 1/4th [of the focal length of the lens], f/11 is really 1/11th — then the larger number/smaller opening makes sense. But even if you don't understand exactly how and why it works (you don't have to understand it to use it today), just remember that setting your f-stop as small as possible will give you the shallowest depth of field your camera can manage. For the squid photo (which is not tack sharp — a tripod is a lifesaver when you're zoomed in — but you get the idea), I set my aperture to the lowest f-stop/widest aperture, focused on the squid itself, and snapped the shutter.
For the record, I personally think it is okay to know HOW to make things work without necessarily understanding all the WHY. I think the Why comes, eventually, but getting bogged down in the Why can really suck the fun out of everything sometimes. So don't get stuck there. You don't have to understand it completely to see it work.
Now, in addition to aperture, depth of field is also related to lens length — that zoom-in function that we talked about in the Coke can photos. To get the shallowest depth of field, you want the smallest aperture and you want to be as zoomed in on your subject as possible. For me, anyway, this has been one of the most important things to understand and I feel like I've come to it a bit late. Please note that if you do get eBay Photos that Sell, there is a mis-statement on page 59 that directly contradicts this (I won't repeat it because I don't want to confuse you). But after reading this post and getting the book, you will be going along just fine, feeling pretty good — until you get to the paragraph in the big yellow box on page 59. Then you will think to yourself, "Okay, I know that my brain has been a complete disaster-area lately, but that can't be right." And you will sleep on it, wake up still agitated, then sheepishly write to the author who has written about a bobillion computer books, and say, "Er, um, Mr. Gookin? With all due respect, I think something's wrong with what you said on page 59. Oh, and I forgot to say I love your book." And he will very kindly and immediately write back and say, "Yes, Alicia Smartypants, it's true — that statement is the exact opposite of what it should be, many apologies, and thanks." And then you will feel much better knowing that you aren't completely going off your nut in every. Possible. Direction. Every. Day. I'm just sayin.
Now, feel free to correct this post, please.
*By the way, you don't need a fancy camera to play with depth of field and zoom. Small silvers work just fine, as most have a zoom lens and a way to control the aperture priority (usually an "A"). Portrait mode will probably give you a pretty wide aperture, as well — just point your camera at your subject, hold the shutter halfway down until it focuses, recompose the shot (i.e.: put the subject in the frame where you want it, not necessarily in the middle), and shoot. Be sure the auto-focus frame selection is "off" (you want to have just one little box in the center, choosing exactly where you focus). Might need your manual for this one if you don't know what I mean. See "AF Frame" in your manual for more info. Kthx.