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MAKE: Intern's Corner
Every other week, MAKE’s awesome interns tell about the projects they’re building in the Make: Labs, the trouble they’ve gotten into, and what they’ll make next.

Part 1. Setting up a background for your project.

By Ed Troxell, photo intern

As a DIYer, you share your projects to show off your expertise and to help others find theirs. But building a project and writing the steps is only half the battle. The other half is capturing images of your work that clearly show what you’re talking about and what you’ve done in your steps.

As the photo intern for MAKE, I shoot lots of projects for the magazine and website. Here are my steps for setting up a background for photographing your project clearly to show it off in its entirety.

1. Set up your project and mini studio.
Find a well-lit area that’s clear of visual distractions and provides you with enough room for shooting. If you’re shooting on a workbench, clear off all the clutter and if necessary, drop a bedsheet or paper backdrop to hide everything that’s not your project. The camera doesn’t want to see your mess, it just wants to see your masterpiece. Extraneous items on the bench or in the background will only confuse the viewer and make a good project look bad. Clean up before you shoot.

Clean bench good (but what’s that junk in the corner?):
IMG_3610lores.jpg

Cluttered bench bad:
IMG_3612lores.jpg

2. Know your “light temperature.”
Light temperature means the color of your light, and it affects your “white balance.” Most cameras react best to daylight, which is a bluish light, and I strongly recommend shooting in daylight. Shooting your project near a big window (with no direct sunbeams coming through) is a good place to start. Shooting outside in smooth shade is good option too (but not in speckled tree shadows).

Your flash is daylight balanced, so you can use your flash as a “fill” or secondary light to fill shadows. (Your flash should never be the main source of light, unless you’re using a real strobe system.) Also, most of those compact fluorescent light bulbs are close to daylight balanced. They can be a nice fill too.

Just be careful not to mix the color of your lights. The white balance on your camera will get confused if warmer light is in the room (like a normal household tungsten filament light bulb), conflicting with the daylight or CF lights. Choose the light temperature you’re shooting with, and stick to it.

3. Choose a clean background.
Use a plain, simple background, nothing too distracting. You want clean backgrounds that show off your work. Pick colors that go with your project or make it stand out. We tend to use bright colors. We recommend not using red, as red is a very difficult color for digital cameras. Do not use black. White is fine.

Instead of a distracting background pattern like this:
IMG_3618lores.jpg

Use a clean background color like these:
IMG_3617lores.jpg

4. Place your project on a level and straight surface.
Here’s the photo booth we use here in the Make: Labs for shooting indoor shots, when we’re not shooting on the workbench:
IMG_3604lores.jpg

5. Test your settings.
Take a few shots, then check the images on your computer (ideally in Photoshop) just to check focus, brightness, file size, grain (ISO), and other details. Sometimes a setting can be off. It’s best to know now, rather than find out when you’re done shooting.

For example, if you’re submitting projects for MAKE magazine or Make: Online, you’ll need to take high-resolution photos at an aspect ratio of 4:3. High resolution means they can be printed on paper at 300dpi. (Yes, even web photos — because we might want to print them later.)

In my next post: Shooting your project in high resolution.

Keith Hammond

I’m projects editor of MAKE magazine.


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