Basement Photo Studio

Basement Photo Studio

Recently Steve asked about my setup for the photos I take. So I thought I’d show a few behind the scenes shots.

The setup consists of a table with a white sweep. There’s a roll of white paper held up by a few pieces of wood and a length of PVC pipe. This lets me unroll the paper to replace it as it gets dirty and worn out. A few spring clamps hold the paper in place at the edge of the table.

Basement Photo Studio

The camera sits on a tripod and there are two light stands with flashes and umbrellas. The flashes are old, and fully manual. One of them does have a dial to adjust the intensity, but the other does not. I end up moving them closer or farther a lot to adjust the light. The stands make it easy to move them around and raise and lower them. (There’s also some sandbags holding them stands steady.)

Basement Photo Studio

The flashes are fired by a set of wireless triggers, and even though I’ve had them for years, I’ve rarely had to replace the batteries. The flashes are a different story. I’ve got a set of 12 Sanyo eneloop rechargeable batteries and two chargers. Each flash takes 4 batteries and they tend to eat through them pretty quickly!

Basement Photo Studio

I shoot with a white background most of the time, but if I need black I’ll toss down some black fabric, or more likely, a piece of black posterboard. I’ve also been known to use hot pink posterboard, or yellow, or blue, or whatever I pick up at the dollar store.

I’ve got a few folding reflectors as well, but often I’ll just grab a piece of white foamcore board to use as a reflector. (Cheap foamcore is also available at the dollar store, though I tend to use the better stuff from a real art supply store)

I also shoot RAW images, which gives you a lot of room to adjust things when processing the images. Oh, and right now I’m shooting with a Nikon D3200, and for lenses there’s a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 and a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 that tend to get used the most.

That’s the basic setup. Any other questions?


Shoot RAW

Occasionally I have a conversation with someone about whether you should shoot JPEG or RAW with a DSLR. I almost always shoot RAW. There’s a time and place for JPEG, but I avoid those times and places when I can.

Here’s a great example of what you can get when shooting RAW. I was walking through our kitchen and saw these mourning doves through the window. Well, through two panes of slightly dirty glass, on an angle, uphill. I fired off a few shots, and this was the best one I got.


This photo is sort of terrible. I mean, the shot itself is useable, but we need to coax the awesome out of it, which you can do with a RAW image.


Here’s the results after tweaking the sliders in Photoshop. (You can view it larger on Flickr.)

From what appeared to be a terrible shot on the camera screen was transformed into a totally useable shot on the computer screen, through the magic of shooting RAW!

Shooting RAW is like shooting on film, which is why we say we have to “process” the image. Converting the RAW image is akin to developing film. (And yes, there are alternatives to Photoshop for processing RAW images, it’s just the one I tend to use the most.)


GoPro Time Lapse with MPEG Streamclip

This is the method I use for creating 1280×720 (aka, 720p) time lapse video files from a GoPro camera using MPEG Streamclip.

Go Pro stills compiled into video

I use the time lapse setting on the GoPro, which creates images that are 2592 pixels wide by 1944 pixels high, though we care less about the pixel width and height, and more about the aspect ratio, which is all wrong for a proper video. (In fact, you can use this method for any still images you wish to finish as a video file.)

I start by compiling all the stills into a video file, and I use QuickTime Player 7 for that. There are other tools, but that’s what I’m currently using, and no the most recent version of QuickTime Player is hobbled crap that won’t work. (Hey Apple, how about fixing that?)

OK, we have our video file, but it’s practically square! Terrible! So let’s fix that…

1280 wide image

To choose the best crop I usually do a screen grab of the image area, and then open that in Photoshop (or whatever) and size it to 1280 wide. The height should be about 960 (depending on how accurate your screen shot is.) Time for Math! 960 – 720 = 240, so we need to crop 240 pixels from the height. You can easily just skip this step and plug 120 into the top and bottom crop, but this step will let you easily make some other decision, like 140 and 100. As long as your top and bottom crop add up to 240, you’re good.

Cropping to 720 height

Sometimes I like to make a marquee that’s 1280 x 720 to get a better idea of the crop… Feel free to skip this step if you don’t need the precision I require in every single thing I do.

MPEG Streamclip settings, with crop

OK! Here’s the export window in MPEG Streamclip, where you can see I’ve set the size of the video to “Other” and plugged in the 1280 x 960 values. I then put the 140 and 100 values in the top and bottom crop boxes, respectively. All the other settings are what I typically use for MPEG Streamclip. (The one thing I tend to change which isn’t show here is the ‘Limit Data Rate’ value. But that’s a post for another time. Oh, I didn’t do it here, but you can disable the audio track as well.)

Final 1280x720 Video File

Here’s our final video output at 1280 pixels wide by 720 pixels high. Now, since we started with a video that was 2592 pixels wide by 1944 pixels high, we could actually get all fancy and just select a portion of the video to output at the final resolution. This involved a lot more math, but it’s a possibility, so I’ll leave it up to you to explore.

Now go make some time lapse videos!


Nikon D3200 – Start!

Hey, we got a Nikon D3200 in the studio… how does it work? Just fine. I mean, there hasn’t been a ton of evaluation time with it yet, but I’ll mention one thing.

When we got in a Nikon D3x a few years back the biggest pain point was that we could not open the NEF files without using Nikon’s ViewNX software. (At least not until some software updates.) My workflow is built around using the Adobe Camera RAW converter in Photoshop, so that sort of sucked. Things got solved over time, but right now with the NEF files created by the Nikon D3200, I’m out of my simple NEF -> Photoshop workflow.

DNG 7.1 Converter

The solution for now is to grab the Adobe DNG Converter “Release Candidate” software, which lets you convert NEF files to DNG files so you can open as RAW in Photoshop. (And yeah, I’m still running Photoshop CS 5, btw.)

The version I got says “ beta” and when you launch it you see that it will expire in June. (We assume a new release, or worse-case a new beta, will be out by then.)

DNG Expires

The Camera Raw plugin you see listed on that page? It didn’t work for me. In fact, before I could install it I had to install the Adobe Application Manager, and then it told me it couldn’t install again. I dug through the install files, and while I did find support files for the Nikon D800 (which we’ll get in soon… I hope!) there are no files for the Nikon D3200.


So for now I’ll just stick with converting NEF files to DNG files, and then opening those in Photoshop. It’s another step, and it’s a PITA, but it could be worse. And while Nikon’s new ViewNX2 is a big improvement to the crash-worthy ViewNX, I still don’t care for it as part of my preferred workflow.

So here’s hoping Adobe gets that RAW plugin updated soon, and that it’ll work with Photoshop CS 5.


It’s not the Gear, it’s the Gear!

TWIP - Gear

In the latest This Week in Photo there was another round of the talk of gear, and how gear doesn’t make the photographer, and while I agree with this, I also disagree with this.

The photographers who tend to say “Gear doesn’t matter!” are the ones who have really good gear. I’m not saying that it’s not true, but that it’s partly true. Over the last four years I’ve shot with a Nikon D40 with the 18-55mm kit lens, and I’ve shot with a Nikon D3x with a 28-70mm pro lens. the D40 was the entry level DSLR from Nikon in 2006. The D3x was the top of the line model a few years ago. The 18-55mm lens is a cheap consumer-grade lens that costs about $100, and the 28-70mm is a professional lens that costs close to $2,000.

Enough with the specs… I’ve taken the same photo with both cameras, and the results from the D3x look better. And I’m talking about studio shots, I’m not even getting into low-light, event photography, sports shooting, and other comparisons.

They also talked about the Nikon D3200, which oddly enough, is what I’ll be upgrading to very soon. I’m not expecting D3x quality from it, especially since I’ll be shooting with cheaper glass, and I’m not letting that 24 megapixels number fool me. I’d be fine if it were 16 megapixels, or even 12. (The D40 is 6 megapixels, and yeah, I have come to find that a bit limiting.)

I’m not buying into the idea that to become a better photographer you need better gear, because I do believe that shooting and trying new things is the road to getting better, but I do believe that gear does play a part it helping you make progress, or holding you back.

So my upgrade from a D40 to a D3200 comes with a set of expectations. I expect to be able to get better results in low-light (6400 ISO versus 1600 ISO.) I expect to have more choices in focus points (11 versus 3.) I expect more megapixels (24 versus 6.) And I also expect to be able to shoot video with the D3200, which is something I can’t do with the D40.

That’s about it… I’ll let you know how it goes.