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  • December 2, 2012

    It’s About the Aperture

    Photographing your own artwork and how to set your digital camera.
    My popular article on how to set your digital camera seems to have missed an important setting when photographing small objects like jewelry. Though the quality of a jury image is mostly determined by the lighting, if you can’t get the entire object in focus, you may be wasting your time.

    I recently received digital images from two different jewelers who photographed their jewelry using a DSLR and expensive macro lens. Both times, the lens was set wrong so part of the jewelry was out of focus.

    When using a DSLR (with interchangeable lenses) I always recommend using a macro lens rather than the kit lens that comes with the camera, even though the kit lens might have a macro setting. The macro lens is flat field, which means it’s designed specifically for photographing close up without distortion. But the problem is that for the entire object to be in focus, the lens has to be stopped down to a smaller aperture (opening in the lens) like f16 or f22. This can only happen if you actually set the lens to f16 or f22. If you leave the camera on P (P is for program, not professional) or Auto, the camera will choose a wider aperture like f2.8, f4 or f5.6. The wider apertures have much less depth of field or less area in focus. The camera chooses the wider apertures and related faster shutter speed because in a general photographic situation, it would allow you to hand hold the camera. These settings that the camera chooses are not appropriate for photographing artwork for jurying.

    Another issue is if you keep the camera set on autofocus, it will focus at the front of the object if it’s in the focusable range. Coupling focusing at the front of the object with the camera chosen wider aperture will cause the back of the object to go out of focus. The proper way to set the camera is either full manual (aperture, shutter speed and focus) or to set it on Aperture priority “A” where you set the aperture and the camera choose what it thinks should be the proper shutter speed, which will be much longer to compensate for the smaller aperture that maintains maximum depth of field. And of course, set it on manual focus so you can focus a little past the front of the object so the back is also in focus. Did I say that a tripod is mandatory? USE A TRIPOD or you will negate the capability of your expensive camera and macro lens.

    The aperture setting of a macro lens is much less important when photographing a 2D object like a painting because there is no (or very little) depth to the painting. But for 3D objects the amount of depth of field is very important. You need to keep the entire object in focus for a high quality jury image.

    Nikon macro lens showing where aperture and focus can be manually set

    In the above photograph of a Nikon 60mm macro lens, the top arrow points to the auto focus/manual focus switch and the lower arrow points to the smaller aperture setting that gives you more depth of field. In more recent Nikon macro lenses, the aperture is controlled by a dial on the camera instead of on the lens.

    visual examples of different apertures

    In the above picture showing the differences in aperture openings, you can see that the aperture when the lens is stopped down is smaller. That smaller opening gives you more depth of field.

    If you need help, or have questions about how to set your camera and lens, please ask before photographing your artwork. It will save you a lot of time and aggravation and enable you to have better jury images to meet your deadlines.

    The web site contains an entire section on how to photograph different types of artwork.

    © Larry Berman