Prosumer Digital Cameras in the Photo Studio
by Larry Berman and Chris Maher
Prepared for Shutterbug Magazine

* Equipment * Table Top Photography * Flat Art *
* Conversion to 35mm Slides * Conclusions * Links *
* Digital Photography Resources *

The Equipment

Less expensive digital cameras are beginning to replace tradition film cameras for casual shooters, but can they do the job of professional level cameras in a studio? For some assignments, the answer is clearly yes.

We work with many artists and craftspeople that are selling their creative products on the Internet. They are in constant need of high quality images of their latest work. Digital cameras are an obvious choice for creating these images, but without control and repeatability the results can be less than satisfactory.

To demonstrate the Nikon Coolpix 990 in a traditional studio setting, we photographed a leather pouch created by Mark Mowen, a wooden box produced by Nick Molignano and a painting by Ginny Herzog.

We shot the product pictures with a Coolpix 990 and a pair of Nikon SB 24 flash units. Then we shot the overview pictures with a Dyna-Lite dual flash head kit that was set up on light stands in the corners of the studio and bounced into a second set of umbrellas. We connected the Coolpix to the SB-24’s with Nikon’s SC-18 and SC-19 cords. The Dyna-Lite system was linked to the camera with professional quality Paramount sync cords that contained built in trigger voltage protection circuitry and Nikon proprietary fittings. Nikon recommends that the trigger voltage for external flashes should not exceed 5 volts, or damage may result to the camera.

  1. Chimera Soft Box
  2. Dynalite Flash Heads and Cables
  3. Dynalite 1000 watt second Power Pack
  4. Tripod
  5. 2 Light Stands
  6. 2 Umbrellas
  7. Nikon Sc-18 and SC-19 flash cables
  8. Bogen (part # 2905) Swivel Umbrella Adapter
  9. 2 Nikon AS-10's (AS-E900 can also be used)
  10. Nikon CoolPix Digital Camera
  11. Assorted Paramount Synch Cords with Nikon proprietary fittings
  12. Lens Hood from RX
  13. 2 Nikon SB Flash Units
There are two reasons to use studio lighting - consistency and control. Studio strobes like Dyna-Lite have modeling lights, which allow you to view the effect of your lighting adjustments as you are making them. And their wide range of available power settings makes it easy to control lighting ratios. The Nikon SB flash units lack modeling lights, of course, so only a quick review of your LCD will show you the exact effect your lighting adjustments have made. But other than the lack modeling lights, their power and flexibly made them quite suitable for the small objects were photographing.

Incandescent lights, such as halogens or photofloods, are an option but have two disadvantages. First, they have a more limited spectral output than the electronic flashes. A digital camera can compensate for white balance and produce neutral tones, (no more tungsten film or filters required) but it can’t render a blue with the precise tones if those frequencies of light are simply not being produced by the light sources themselves. Second, they produce a great deal of heat, complicating their use with light modifiers such as soft boxes and umbrellas. Hot lights have some advantages of course, such as relatively low cost, and the ability to see exactly what changes look like as you adjust the lights. The simplest alternative, shooting available light next to a window or in open shade, also has it’s advantages especially in not having to purchase any lighting equipment, but it lacks both consistency and control.

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Shooting on a Table Top Set

Nikon SB Flash on an AS-10 and Bogen Swivel Umbrella Adapter
We began by placing the items to be shot on a tabletop, and setting up a pair of umbrellas to light the work. Umbrellas are a versatile and relatively inexpensive way to control lighting. They naturally wrap light around the object you are shooting, causing rich modeling and soft, open shadows. We attached the SB-24 flashes to Nikon’s AS-10 multi-flash adapters, then attached them to the Bogen Swivel Umbrella adapters, which were connected to the light stands. Next, we hooked up our Nikon SC-18 and SC-19 flash cords to the flash units, linking them to each other and to the camera. The AS-10 served two purposes here. It allowed the flash unit to attach to the 1/4x20 tripod thread of the Bogen adapter and also allowed the flashes to be connected to each other and synch with the camera. We then set the flash units to manual and used the incremental power settings on them to control our exposure, checking the effect of each exposure test on the camera's LCD screen. Additionally we checked each set of images on our laptop computer before making any lighting or set changes. At this point we were ready to begin shooting.
The same dual umbrella lighting with SB-24's was used for the leather handbag and the wooden box. Because of the high gloss of the wood finish we shot the box on a piece of black velvet. This emphasized the lines in the wood grain, and prevented a wash of reflected light from obscuring details.

Don't let the complexity of the professional Dyna-Lite system scare you. The same results can be achieved by using either the Nikon SB's or your own flash units.

Leather Handbag by Mark Mowen
Wooden Box by Nick Molignano

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Shooting Flat Art

Dave Smith photographing Ginny Herzog's painting
Dave Smith Photographing Flat Art
Painting by Ginny Herzog
Pittsburgh photographer Dave Smith helped us set up these illustrations. To photograph a painting Dave uses a camera stand (he only uses a tripod when on location) and shoots with a Nikon F4 with the macro lens and a grid screen to visually keep the painting squared to the camera. He also prefers to use Chimera soft boxes at 45-degree angles instead of umbrellas to control the direction and fall off of the light. It is important to note that when the required output is a billboard sized image, he switches to his 4x5 view camera instead of 35mm.

We took the accompanying photograph of the painting with our CoolPix from the same position on the camera stand. If we were to shoot the same type of picture at home, we would set the camera on a tripod with a right angle column and use a level on the CoolPix to keep it square to the floor. Then we would bounce our Nikon SB-24's into two matching umbrellas the exact same distance to the painting at 45-degree angles.

Step by Step – Shooting Ginny Herzog’s mixed media painting.

1) Check the level of the floor using a bubble level.
2) Place the camera on a studio stand or study tripod with a right angle arm that can extend the body out over the painting, or reverse the center column so the camera is suspended below the tripod, with a clear view of the painting on the floor.
3) Place the bubble level on the camera back to level it as well.
4) Align the painting in the viewfinder, raising or lowering the height of the camera, check to insure the level is still true.
5) Set up your lights, one on each side, at a 45-degree angle. We used a pair of soft boxes. The idea is to create soft, shadowless illumination, spread evenly across the entire painting.
6) Test your exposure, then to be sure bracket up and down by a half stop.
In post processing the image in Photoshop we found that the Nikon Coolpix’s lens introduced an unacceptable amount of barrel distortion which bowed the straight edges of the frame. This was easily eliminated with the LensDoc Filter from Andromeda. LensDoc is a Photoshop compatible plug-in that corrects barreling and pincushioning distortions in digital images.

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Conversion of Digital File to 35mm Slides

There are times when the acquired digital files need to be converted to 35mm slides. Artists may need jury slides from their images, or other kinds of traditional presentations may require them. We’ve found that when properly created even relatively small digital files can be made into slides that project beautifully. Here are the basic steps:
1) Shoot at full resolution that the camera is capable of.
2) Come in as close as you can, keeping 35mm proportion in mind.
3) Call your local lab or service bureau to find out how best to prepare the digital file for their film recorder. (Our lab requires a file that is sized to 35mm-proportion (7.33x11) and converted to an 8 megabyte TIF)
--I've listed two labs that we have experience with in creating slides from digital files in the Art Show Section version of this page


From the quality of the images we were able to make, we concluded that, yes, prosumer quality digital cameras can serve an important role in studio shooting, especially when the output is intended for electronic media, like the web. But one must not forget that a well composed and properly exposed photograph is just as important whether shooting digitally or shooting with film. Lighting, composition, and exposure are key factors no matter what kind of camera you are shooting with.

Today’s digital cameras do have room for improvement. Not all cameras have the ability to easily synchronize with external flash units. For those that do, like the Nikon Coolpix, you may need proprietary connectors to plug into the camera. And the optics can exhibit flaws, such as curvature of field that is objectionable when shooting subjects that emphasizes straight lines. Even so, digital cameras offer some real advantages compared to film cameras. With a digital camera you can view your tests immediately on a monitor and see exactly what you are getting. The cost of film and processing is eliminated, and no additional scanning step is required before post processing in Photoshop is done. And the resulting images can be outstanding.

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Andromeda - http://www.Andromeda.com/
Bogen - http://www.BogenPhoto.com/
Chimera - http://www.ChimeraLighting.com/
Dyna-Lite - http://www.Dynalite.com/
Nikon - http://www.Nikonusa.com/
Paramount - http://www.ParamountCords.com/coolpix.asp
Ginny Herzog - http://HerzogArt.com
Dave Smith - http://DaveSmithPhoto.com
Nick Molignano - http://WoodBoxArt.com
Mark Mowen - http://LeatherStuff.com

This copyrighted article was prepared for 
Shutterbug Magazine and may not reproduced

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