by Glenn Gordon   January 7, 2005

A real dilemma for sculptors, furniture makers, potters, and other producers of three-dimensional objects is how to get good photos of their work: everything depends on these images. Glenn Gordon here offers a guide to doing it well yourself.

Photography shows people who might never see your work in person what that work looks like. A photograph can never have the tangibility of the work itself, but it has tremendous power to communicate—or miscommunicate--what the thing is like. If you've done a piece you're proud of and want to try to publish it, submit it for jurying, or just want a print of it in your portfolio, you owe it to yourself to get decent photos. If your pictures are out-of-focus, the colors sickly, the lighting harsh, the perspective distorted, the backgrounds distracting, juries and editors will pass right over them, even if you've just created a masterpiece. It isn't always the best work that gets published or juried into shows, it’s the work that’s been most skillfully photographed.

You do not necessarily have to be a professional photographer to pull this off. You can take studio-quality photos of your work with a modest investment in equipment, some of which you might already own. If you’re shooting slide film, this is the equipment that is needed:

  • • a 35 mm. single-lens-reflex (" SLR") camera body with a built-in exposure meter (which most SLR film cameras nowadays have.)
  • • a "short telephoto" lens and lens shade
  • • a tripod
  • • a cable release
  • • a pair of lights, light stands and white or silver photo umbrellas or reflectors.
  • • a backdrop of unobtrusive, neutral material.
  • • the proper kind of film


  • The camera body can be either one of the older manual focus-types or an autofocus type, but if autofocus it should have an override that permits focusing the lens manually. The lens should be in the "short telephoto" or "portrait" range of focal lengths, because these give pictures the most pleasing, natural perspective. The most common focal lengths in this range are 85 mm., 90 mm., 100 mm., or 105 mm. Zoom lenses that encompass the 85 mm. to 105 mm. range will generally also work pretty well but cheaper zooms and some of older vintage might mean your pictures won't be quite as good as those shot with a lens of fixed focal length. Some of the best of the portrait- or short-telephoto lenses (and now some zoom lenses, as well) have a "micro" or "macro" feature that enables you to shoot details closer in.

    It’s also possible to use a longer (which is to say, a higher magnification) fixed focal length—for instance, a 135 mm. or 200 mm. lenss--but these will force you to stand further back from the subject than may be practical in most rooms, and may increase the difficulty of keeping every part of the work in sharp focus (as focal length increases, the "depth of field," or the zone you can keep in sharp focus front to back, decreases).

    Except for situations that necessitate shooting large objects like monumental sculpture or beds or dining tables in the confined space of small rooms, it's best not to use wide-angle lenses (21mm., 24mm., 28 mm., 35mm.) because their optics will distort and exaggerate the proportions of most objects. Finally, no matter what lens you use, be sure to use its matching lens shade, to block out stray flare from your lights.

    Besides a camera with the right lens, you need a tripod to minimize vibration and keep the camera still, and a cable release (or the camera's delayed self-timer or a remote wireless release) to trip the shutter. There is much less chance of blurring the image if you aren't hand-holding the camera, or pressing the shutter button directly with your finger, snapshot style.

    Until recently, before the ascendance of digital, anyone seriously shooting for publication or juried competitions had to shoot slides (or "chromes," as hip insiders refer to them). For print media, slides were not only preferred to prints from color negative film, they were often required. Slides or transparencies are still the only thing that some publications and juries will accept, but because of advances in digital photo-scanning technology, more and more will now accept glossy color prints, and, of course, digital files on CD or emailed.

    The widespread availability of digital technologies--photo editing software like Photoshop, and the capacity to scan slides and burn CD’s--is rapidly making the question of the capture medium moot… whether the image is shot digitally, or on slide (“positive”) film, or on print (“negative”) film is fast becoming less important than it used to be.

    Let’s say, though, that for one reason or another, you choose to shoot film. Whether you're shooting slide film or print film, the approach to lighting will be basically the same: you can work with flash, or even with available natural light--daylight streaming in through the windows, or in open shade outside. On the whole, however, it is easier to control the look of a slide of a sculpture or a piece of furniture by using tungsten lighting, or "hot lights," and “tungsten” slide film, and to shoot in an otherwise darkened room (easiest done at night) with no light straying in from other sources.

    Tungsten lights come either in the form of photo-floodlights or--better, but more expensive—quartz halogen bulbs, housed in special reflectors. Tungsten lighting equipment can be rented from places like West Photo in Minneapolis. Quartz halogen bulbs, or “lamps,” as they’re properly called, must never be touched with bare hands either when the lamps are hot or after they’ve cooled down: the oils from your skin can cause them to explode.

    Shooting slides using tungsten lighting requires that you use tungsten slide film specifically matched to your bulbs' color value, or "color temperature." If you have tungsten lights but can only find the more commonly available "daylight" slide films, you can use a correcting filter (no. 80A) on your camera lens but it makes the camera harder to focus and the results will likely be not quite as good, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Hunt down a source for tungsten-balanced film.

    If, on the other hand, you want to shoot your slides with flash or in natural daylight instead, then you must use "daylight"--not “tungsten” --film. Whichever type of film you use, however, the relatively slower-ASA films (ASA 25 to ASA 100) will give the best results (I recommend Kodak’s Ektachrome 64T or Fuji’s Fujichrome 64T) provided exposures are no longer in duration than one second, or four seconds at most (with longer exposures, funny things can happen to the colors...you have to experiment to find out).

    After the shoot, don't drop off slide film at the drugstore. Have it processed and mounted by a professional color lab instead--the cost is not that great. In photo jargon, the code name for the color slide developing process is "E-6." Most labs can process and mount E-6 within two or three hours, at the cost of about twelve dollars for a roll of 36 exposures. Some labs now are equipped to imprint your name and other information right on the plastic slide mounts, and the copy can even be put on upside down so that it can be read right side up in a slide carousel.

    Print film is easier to work with than slide film. Unlike slide film, it isn’t specifically corrected for tungsten, daylight, or any other light source. The colors of any print, however, are only a printing lab's interpretation of what’s on the color negative. Interpretation is by definition subjective, but you can help the lab get it right by telling them what kind of light the film was shot under. The lab can then make adjustments when printing to make sure colors look as they appeared to you when shooting. If you don't clue in the lab about your lighting, your prints could come back with an unacceptable reddish orange cast, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a bluish or a greenish one. If that happens, a good lab will re-do them at no extra charge, though they may not be too cheerful about it. (A side note: avoid shooting either kind of color film--slide or print--under fluorescent lights. Fluorescents impart a nauseating, greenish cast which makes wood and people's skin look awful. This is not a problem when shooting digitally, where “white balance” can be corrected.)

    The slickest approach to controlled lighting, and the method used by most commercial studio photographers, is to use electronic flash (which in photo slang are often mistakenly called "strobes") but without fancy studio equipment, you can't really see how your lighting setup looks in the brief moment of a flash. Unless you use expensive Polaroid film for preliminary lighting tests, you have no real idea of the outcome till you get your film back. Working on a budget, you have much more control using hot lights instead—what you see is what you’ll get. Again, though, this isn’t an issue when you shoot with a digital camera and you’re getting instant feedback on its LCD or an attached computer monitor.

    There are conventions about how and where to set the lights when shooting works such as furniture or sculpture. Lamps or flash guns should either be aimed through diffusers or faced back into reflectors, such as photo umbrellas, which then bounce and disperse the light back onto the subjects. Diffusion or reflection creates softer light with fewer hot spots and less emphatic shadows. For reflectors, you can also use such things such as sheets of white styrofoam insulation board or Fome-Core, or even mirrors, as well as low white ceilings and nearby walls. If the light striking the subject is still too hot visually, try diffusing it through a translucent vinyl shower curtain or something similar (take care, though, not to let lights get close enough to melt the plastic).

    A common setup for shooting furniture is to have the lights positioned roughly six to eight feet away from the object at about 45º off either side of the lens and at a height of about seven feet off the ground. Rather than robotically following a formula, however, it is better to experiment, and see how the lighting actually looks through the viewfinder, shifting things around if you don't like what's happening with the shadows, reflections, glare, hot spots, etc. Sometimes, for example, things look good when one light lights the backdrop, the other the subject (some photographers use a three-light setup--one reserved for the backdrop, two for the subject) or when one light is positioned high up and just off to the side of the camera, and the other 45º and some distance away on the other side. Whatever the lighting setup, be attentive to keeping glare and hot spots off the image and check to see there are no electrical cords or the feet of light stands creeping into the edge of the frame.

    Some ceramics and other three-dimensional forms might look fuller with the lights set 180º apart, or lit from below as well as or instead of from above, the object set upon a surface of sandblasted or frosted glass or Plexiglas.

    Backgrounds must not be distracting. When shooting on site rather than in a controlled studio setup, a neutral background like a truly blank wall (no outlets, no electrical cords, no dust-bunnies) and clean floor will do, but in general, objects shot against a plain backdrop eliminate competing visual distractions. Paper backdrop material, called "seamless," is available from photo supply houses in rolls 4-1/2 feet, 9 feet, and, in a few colors, 12 feet wide. (Smaller objects can be shot on tabletops, with backdrops made of just about any material that comes in sheets or rolls--construction paper, fabrics, etc.) The roll of paper is suspended from a horizontal pole securely supported at both ends. Before you unroll it, weight the end of the paper (taping it, for example, to a length of thinwall electrical conduit or something similar, which will function something like the stiffening stick used to weight the bottom of a windowshade). Carefully unroll the paper so that it drops plumb and drapes, without crimps or dimples, to a softly curved cove on the floor (which should be swept clean underneath, and note that a hard floor surface is preferable to one that’s carpeted) then roll it out ten to fifteen feet along the floor. Next, take off your shoes and in your stockinged feet set your object down carefully on this "sweep" (another word for "seamless") positioning it far enough forward of the "wall" (at least four or five feet forward) so that the shadows cast by the lights don't curve suddenly back up the sweep. A middle grey color sweep works well for shooting almost anything made of wood or stone or metal or clay. White is nice too, and so, sometimes, is black, but both are hard to keep clean, and may confuse your camera meter, forcing you to compensate to get the right exposure (remember here that we’re still talking about working with film… with digital cameras’ automatic “white balance” and metering, proper exposure and color values can be determined and checked right on the spot.) If the meter reading is suspicious, take the camera off the tripod and meter manually, up close, right off the subject--not off the backdrop--taking care not to block the light that will be falling on the subject, and set your exposure for that reading, ignoring what the meter says when the camera's mounted again back on the tripod. Another method is to meter off a "grey card" held in front of the object. Grey cards are available from most camera stores. Yet another method (and in many ways, the best) is to take an "incident light" (rather than the in-camera meter's "reflected light") reading with a separate hand-held incident meter.

    When the shot is all set up, use the camera's depth-of-field preview button to check that the whole piece will be in focus front to back when the lens stops down to the set aperture (a rule of thumb is to focus on a spot on a plane parallel to the lens about one third into the depth of the work).

    Shoot one or two overall views of the piece, perhaps trying a few variations, changing not only the lighting setup but the angle of view, and possibly, the camera's height. Generally, works of furniture look better shot from lower down, from about eye level when seated, not standing. Compose with the camera positioned vertically if vertical is a better way of framing the image, e.g., when shooting a grandfather clock, a Giacometti, or a ladderback chair. Whether the composition is vertical or horizontal, try to keep the verticals of the object (legs, posts, etc.) parallel to the edge of the picture frame, and, without crowding the image, be bold--fill the frame with the object, so it doesn't rattle around like a lonely little B-B in a big bowl of space.

    It should be noted that print film, in comparison to hypersensitive slide film, is much more forgiving of exposure errors. Shooting slides, you really have to try to nail the correct exposure whereas an under- or over-exposed negative can still yield a decent print. To be absolutely sure of getting a good exposure when shooting slide film use the technique known as "bracketing" i.e., shoot exposures a full- and a half-stop above and below what your meter says. If you're confident your exposure is accurate, it’s a good idea to shoot many duplicates while you're at it, to avoid the greater expense of having duplicate slides made later on. Professionals will often shoot a whole roll of the same setup at exactly the same exposure.

    Your overall views of the piece will make people want to draw in closer, so shoot some details too. The details represent the world you were in when your hands were in there creating the work, and photos of those details can carry great meaning to a viewer who might never get to see the piece in person. Photography is a matter of seeing for strangers what they cannot be there to see for themselves. You are their eyes. The trick is to try to detach yourself from your own familiarity with the piece and see it for others for the first time. Photographing your own work, you can also learn a lot about your own way of looking at things. It can bring a sharpened perception to the next work you design.

    Recommended film and equipment

  • Tungsten color slide film: Ektachrome Professional 64T or Fujichrome 64T
  • Daylight color slide film, for use with flash: Fujichrome Sensia II 100
  • Black and white films: Kodak Tri-X 400 for low light, and people at work; Kodak T-Max 100 for sculpture, furniture, still-lifes
  • Cameras: Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Minolta, or Pentax are all good -- older manual models of these are in some ways preferable, because newer automatic cameras often lack the critical depth-of-field preview feature which helps assure that everything’s in focus.
  • Lenses: A couple I can recommend from personal experience are the Tamron 90 mm f/2.5 manual focus Tele/Macro, and the Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 manual focus Micro-Nikkor AIS (Both are excellent for overall shots and perfect for shooting details. Besides camera companies' own brands, which are always more expensive, good aftermarket lenses are made by Tokina, Vivitar, and Sigma, as well as Tamron.)
  • Tripods and tripod heads: Bogen, Slik, Gitzo
  • Hot lights: Smith-Victor makes inexpensive light-stands and reflectors for photofloods. For quartz-halogen, Lowel Tota-Lites are very good—expensive, but they can be rented. Juryrigged setups using arrays of ordinary clamp-on reflectors with household tungsten bulbs have also been known to work just fine. Sometimes, instead of facing into umbrellas, lamps can be aimed directly at the subject through homemade diffusing frames covered with white sheets or white vinyl shower curtains, but keep the lamps far enough back from the fabric that the vinyl doesn’t melt or the sheets catch fire.
  • Umbrellas, reflectors, and light stands: Four or five good brands are available, but be sure to get umbrellas designed specifically for use with hot lights. Most umbrellas are designed solely for use with flash but these are not heat-resistant. If you’re shooting with hot lights, I recommend Lowel brand umbrellas.
  • Backdrop paper—a footnote: After shooting, cut off and discard the length that’s lain on the floor if it’s scuffed, wrinkled, torn, or dirty. Roll up the rest and keep it in the long box it came in, storing the box vertically (if you store it horizontally, the weight of the roll settling upon itself will cause the paper to look corrugated or rippled under the light the next time it’s unrolled.)