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Introduction
In the photography business, few jobs take more imagination than product photography. In the Energy, Oil & Gas industry where I work, few products are “high tech”, shiny or sexy. Most are functional, utilitarian and quite honestly, lifeless. Most are made from forged or cast metal which is generally dark gray or black and soaks up light like a sponge or from machined metals which are bright and highly reflective which masks any detail when lit. What many think of as “industrial machinery” is often the the most difficult thing to photograph effectively. Firearm photography is no exception to this rule and in many ways, creating a compelling photograph of a modern firearm is one of the most difficult tasks I've ever faced as a professional photographer.

For amateur and hobbyist photographers, the challenge of photographing that shiny new 1911 can be daunting even with the best DSLR camera on the market today. I've seen the most patient of gunsmiths and competitive shooters almost tear their hair out just trying to get a well focused image of their beautiful new firearm. And like amateur sport shooters that need to focus on the basics of their grip and recoil control, photographing firearms effectively has its own set of "basic skills" that can be practiced by anyone willing to spend the time learning this new skill.

I hope what follows helps guide you all down that path!



Controlling the Light
Here's the fist rule of controlling the light in product photography.

"Bigger light sources are softer than smaller light sources and closer light sources are softer than light sources farther away".

For example, the sun is a great big light source and the most widely used light source in photography today (duh!). But the sun is also millions of miles away so its light is very "hard". Just look at your shadow on a sunny day. It's very dark and very "hard". Now look at your shadow on a cloudy day. It's lighter, softer and less distinct.

Studio photographers spend thousands of dollars every year on lighting equipment designed to simulate the quality of soft, diffuse light that you find on an overcast or cloudy day. Fortunately for us, you can achieve almost the same quality of light by photographing your firearm in the shade!



One Big Light and One Small Light
The first big decision I made when beginning to photograph firearms was to abandon my normal studio lighting setup and to photograph these products outside, using a combination of diffuse natural light and fill flash. I wanted to keep my setup simple and portable so I created a shooting table from a piece of particle-board on top of two saw horses. I taped down some white background paper for a work surface and setup a large diffusion panel to create some "shade" as my main light. For highlight I used a single Canon Speedlite (flash) shot through a 24″ soft box as shown in the image above.


A Simple Outdoor Studio
For most amateur or hobbyist photographers, even this modest professional outdoor studio is way more than they want to spend but the principal is same no matter what gear you end up using. You need a large, diffuse light source (the shade) as your primary light and a smaller, more direct source to add highlights.

The simple outdoor studio shown in the images below was created by using two pieces of white "foam core" as the background (in a shady spot, not under direct sunlight) and a simple desk lamp with a 60 watt compact fluorescent bulb to provide "highlights". The cost of this entire outdoor studio is about $25 from Home Depot or Lowes and it can be setup in minutes.





The white foam core acts as the perfect background for photographing a firearm like the Kimber 1911 shown here. It's perfectly white and reflects the diffused sunlight under the gun to lighten the shadows. The desk lamp with its "daylight balanced" CF bulb makes a perfect little highlight with or without the piece of white cloth attached for additional diffusion. You'll want to buy a "daylight balanced" CF bulb so the light's color matches the sunlight in the shade. Stay away from incandescent bulbs since their color tends toward the yellow and it looks really bad when "mixed" with diffuse sunlight.






Keeping it Clean
The second biggest challenge is in making sure the firearm being photographed is absolutely spotless with no fingerprints, no dust and no hair on its surface. This becomes a real chore with 1911 pistols which are always lubricated with oil so that they function properly. Rather than having to worry about lubricant smudging the gun's surface, I recommend field stripping the gun and thoroughly cleaning each component until they are oil-free, lint-free and dry. Then reassemble the firearm with NO lubricant and use a clean microfiber cloth to remove any dirt, lint or dust from the outside of the weapon. Be sure to check for any fingerprints on the slide, frame or thumb safety before photographing the gun. Fingerprints always show up in your photographs and can ruin an otherwise beautiful image of your 1911.

Hint: If your firearm is black-oxide coated or parkerized I recommend cleaning and oiling the slide and frame before drying with a microfiber cloth. The oil will help "even out" the color differences between the slide and frame so they look more uniform in your photographs.


Camera Selection
Any decent DSLR or "Point & Shoot" camera (including the iPhone) made in the past few years has plenty of "pixel power" (resolution) to create a stunning photo of your 1911 pistol but some make the job easier than others. The first image below was taken using my "professional" camera and lighting gear and the second using the $25 lighting setup and a point & shoot camera which retails for under $400.

Darn tough to tell the difference isn't it?

Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II ($2700)


Shot taken with a Canon Powershot G10 ($400)



Camera Settings
Once you've got your lighting set up and your firearm is clean, dry and ready to be photographed there is one more key step to perform before you begin and this is where the rubber meets the road!

  • Turn off your camera's built-in flash. Remember, we want soft, diffuse light to wrap around the firearm. Your camera's internal flash is about as "soft" as the high beams on your car headlights!

  • Set your camera's resolution to LARGE and SUPER-FINE. We want the highest resolution image your camera can produce. You paid for all those megapixels, now's the time to use them.

  • Use your camera's lowest ISO setting. Most point & shoot cameras offer native ISO of 80 or 100. Using higher ISO settings degrades the image quality significantly.

  • Use your camera's Optical Zoom only. Most point & shoot cameras have both an optical zoom (the lens actually moves) and a digital zoom (the software zooms by cropping the image). The optical zoom should provide more than enough "reach" to photograph the entire pistol (unzoomed, wide angle) or just certain features (zoomed, telephoto). Using the digital zoom (software) always degrades the image quality and sharpness.

  • Set your camera to MANUAL or APERTURE MODE. We want to control the camera's depth of field (how much of the gun is in perfect focus) by setting a higher aperture like f/5.6 rather than f/2.8 for a point & shoot camera. For a DSLR use an aperture of f/8 or f/11. The higher the aperture number (f-stop) the smaller the lens opening and the greater the depth of field. We want the entire pistol in perfect focus.

    Technical Note: We also want the slower shutter speed that comes with a higher aperture (f-stop) setting. A slower shutter speed (the aperture is open longer) will gather more light and help soften the shadows. Check your camera's manual for setting the aperture and shutter speed.

  • Always use a TRIPOD. If your shutter speed is slower than 1/125th of a second (and it will be if you shoot in the shade) then YOU CAN'T HAND HOLD YOUR CAMERA and still get a sharp photograph. The single largest cause of out of focus images is because of camera "shake". Buy a GorillaPod ($20) to hold your point & shoot camera steady while photographing firearms. Trust me on this!


Post Capture Processing
Even the sharpest and best exposed image needs a little help after capture and Adobe's Photoshop Elements is a great little software tool for editing your images. PE can sharpen your images if they are a little soft and correct the exposure and contrast to make your images "pop". For less than $100 it's a great tool for finishing those firearms photos before uploading them to the 1911 Forum.

CONCLUSIONS
I’m very pleased with the results from my point & shoot camera and inexpensive lighting setup. For those of you interested in firearm photography I hope post this gives you a small feel for what’s involved in creating a nice product shot without spending a fortune.
 

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Love it, Love it, Love it!!! Thanks for all the information and tips.
I like using Photoscape for my tweaking.

Question: In the first photo of your post are you shooting in Macro from that distance?

Again thanks and happy shooting. :biglaugh:
 

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Jeff is as good as his word!

Thanks for following through Jeff.

Thread is 'stuck'!
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Love it, Love it, Love it!!! Thanks for all the information and tips.
I like using Photoscape for my tweaking.

Question: In the first photo of your post are you shooting in Macro from that distance?

Again thanks and happy shooting. :biglaugh:
No macro lenses were used in any of these shots. I just zoomed in on specific features and cropped the final images as needed.
 

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Good stuff Jeff. I have a Canon 60D with speed light that I am still learning and plan to take some kickin' pics of the herd one of these days. I just need to get some high quality glass for it.
 

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Thank you very much Jeff.
 

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this is an awesome thread thank!
 

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Nice. Thank you. I've got the DSLR and the tri-pod. Your instructions on lighting are gold. All of my pictures were taken on my dining room table under the incandescent lights. Yellow glare. Yuk.
 

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Special Thanks for the well presented and explained guide Jeff. Thanks to the Staff too for providing the opportunity to learn and making this a sticky. I'm looking forward tp putting these tips in practice.:)
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
Good stuff Jeff. I have a Canon 60D with speed light that I am still learning and plan to take some kickin' pics of the herd one of these days. I just need to get some high quality glass for it.
Forgive me a shameless plug but I also write a blog for amateur and hobbyist photographers that has lots of information for folks learning to use their cameras.

Serious Amateur Photography
 

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Wow, I only thought that I knew how to take a picture, I didn't know that all of that mattered.

Hopefully, the next time I get ready to get out the camera, I'll use what I've gained from this thread and take a half-way decent photo.

Thanks for the info, it's always a great thing when the pros choose to share their tips and tricks...
 

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Jeff,

A huge thank you for your time and effort in putting together your absolutely outstanding piece on One Light Firearm Photography.

What's especially helpful to me are the shots of your "studio" set up. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words. Your pics reminded me of the necessity of a tripod, not to mention a bunch of other things.

Also, for me, I can think of ways to adopt other applications from your advice and techniques beside getting shots of my guns. One is that my wife has been wanting me to take some pics of some jewelry so I can send them to her sister who lives across the state. Another would be taking pics of our small grandchildren, (if I can get them to sit still long enough):biglaugh:

Seriously, thanks again for sharing your knowledge and for writing in a style that's incredibly easy to understand and utilize. :)
 
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