Fair Woodworking

April 22, 2015

Fairwoodworkings Photography For Woodworking Dummies

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 12:49 am

Last week I attended a talk about Guilding (gold leaf), that was absolutely fascinating, and I have no doubt the guy that was doing the talk was one of the upper echelon in the world of guilders. I doubt that I will ever give it a try, but the concept is pretty cool.

Along with the talk were many in-shop pictures that were very difficult to look at. The guilder did what all of us have done before.

Apologized for his pictures, and said that they didn’t do the project justice. I mean him no disrespect, he just suffers from the same issue that many woodworkers suffer from. A simple lack of understanding of photography.

Before I go any further, I should mention that Chris Schwarz wrote about this last year. I agree with everything he wrote, but my concern is that it assumed a certain level of photography knowledge that not every woodworker may have. Before you continue, please go give his version a read. If all your questions are answered, and you feel like it is all within your grasp, I doubt my post will really add anything. However, if you finish his post, and are at all puzzled, or unsure how to make his recommendations work in your shop, come on back and I’ll see if I can’t muddy the waters a little more for you.


Be a good lad, and click on the link above. Don’t worry, it’s not a link to inappropriate pictures of Neil Cronk.



So in a classic case of the blind leading the slightly more blind, lets learn a wee bit about how to take a decent picture in a poorly lit and messy shop.

First off, most woodworking pictures would fit into the category of table top photography. These are pictures that are on your work bench that do not involve movement, and differ greatly from pictures of your children at soccer practice, or that of your trip to Mt. Rushmore.

Here we go.


There is a saying in photography, “The best camera for the shot is the one you have.”

While this is true, and you should never skip taking a worthwhile picture because your camera is not “worthy” of the shot, using your iphone with its lens covered in fingerprints and pocket scunge when you don’t need to is a little silly.

The Boy Scouts also have a saying, “Be prepared”.

If all you own is your iphone, well that is unfortunate, but if you do own a real camera, and you still just use your iphone, you may be wasting a perfectly good opportunity for a great picture.

If you can afford a DSL camera your pictures will thank you, but you can still get a good picture from a simple point and shoot camera.



DON’T  stand over an object, with arms outstretched shooting down. We all do it, but you will rarely get anything but a flat blurry picture.

God made tripods for a reason, and you will need one. Again, if you can afford a good tripod, you won’t be disappointed, but even a cheap tripod will perform better than shooting hand held.

A tripod is the gateway to good tabletop photography, and everything else here hinges on the camera remaining rock solid during the shot. If the subject is not moving, and the camera is not moving, you don’t need to rely on a fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

Additional tips

– Use a remote, or time delay (check your manual) to take the picture so you don’t have to be touching the camera when it takes the picture.

– Hold perfectly still during the picture. Even when not touching the camera your weight may cause the floor to move the tripod or your bench. Also when you move, your shadow moves as well.


The flash is designed to increase the light so you don’t need as long a shutter speed, but at great expense of exposure quality.

Unless you know how to make the flash work for you (and trust me, you don’t, and neither do I), the flash is not your friend. It will over expose the closest and most reflective parts, and under expose everything else. It also will cast unrealistic shadows.

Turn the flash off. (This may involve reading your manual. Hint – Try switching from AUTO to P or Program.)

If you can’t turn it off, cover the flash with electrical tape.

If you have no electrical tape, smash it with a nail set.

There are better ways to get a good exposure.



ISO is a term from the old days of film photography. It refers to how quickly the film would take to fully expose. The lower the ISO the more light was required (In low light situations, that would require a longer shutter speed = blurry picture). Back then, you would need to consider what kind of lighting you would have, and buy your film to match. On a sunny day you’d want 100, for exploring caves 3200.  The digital equivalent is improving over the years, but still in either case, the higher the ISO, the more grainy the picture. Since we have a tripod, and our subject is not moving, we can go with the lowest ISO your camera offers.


Auto focus sucks. It doesn’t know where you want to focus, and will often get it wrong. Many great pictures are made by getting just the right point in focus, and your camera won’t know intuitively where that is.  Every camera will be a little different. Most point and shoot cameras were not made with the expectation that the user knows what manual focus is, but you will benefit from learning how to control it.

With my DSLR I find manual focus, along with the LCD screen works very well to pinpoint the focus where I wanted it.

When I bought a new point and shoot, a functional manual focus was a key requirement that I shopped for.


You don’t necessarily need a bunch of lights to get a good picture. I’d love a pro style lighting kit, but I just can’t afford the space in my shop. Also, many of my pictures are taken in between woodworking steps. Just the tripod alone is inconvenient enough.

In most cases, I will stop my work, grab the tripod with camera mounted from the corner, set it in place, take the picture, and put the camera back in the corner. Setting up lighting stands does not fit into that equation.


Most of my pictures are taken with just my work light. I use and old fashioned 100w bulb and that’s it. It is easily moved around, and does not get in the way. If I want direct light I point it at the subject. If I want more diffused light, I point it at the white ceiling above.

Editors note 12/18/16 – Errr. Ya. The opinions on lighting given in this post do not necessarily reflect my current beliefs. Get the straight dope here.

So will all of this make you a professional photographer?

Heck no! Few of my pictures are anywhere near professional quality, but I do hope they get my points across, and on occasion, are beautiful.

The way I try to think of it is that while they say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you have to say “This picture doesn’t do it justice” it is only worth those 6 sad words, and would have been better served as a really good story.




  1. While it is often nice to see how the workshop is set up and what tools there are; it is not generally what the photographer wants to show. Regularly it is even difficult to see what we are supposed to see because the background has a similar wood texture and color. This is where focusing could greatly help with a blurred background.
    A smaller sensitivity means a greater aperture for a given shutter speed. A greater aperture means a smaller depth of field; so your small iso recommendation is a very good point.
    If the subject is in the shadow (natural light inside) and there is a bright window in the background, the flash would help but of course you risk the flash light coming back to the photo as in your second saw picture. This is where your work light gives better results if you take care to angle the reflective surface in such a way that the reflection of the light is not directed to the lens.
    Good tips.

    Comment by Sylvain — April 22, 2015 @ 6:34 am

    • Thanks for your input. I’m just not a fan of on board flashes. Getting your shop lighting to match in warmth to that of the flash would be a big hassle. If they don’t match you have 2 lighting areas to white balance. A flash is a last resort in my books.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — April 22, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

  2. Always enjoy a good woodworking/photo crossover, even if I often fall on the wrong side of the gear/skill acquisition fence (sadly, applicable to both topics.)

    -One other point is to really mind the background. Items often seem trivial when taking the shot, but ruin pictures later just because you didn’t move that garbage prior to taking the shot and you can’t crop it out. This killed me in film, but with digital if you stop and check for this in your first shot, it’s usually fixable.
    -Someone on Instagram recently posted their solution for small items was a small roll of paper hung over bench that could be pulled down and took care of isolating the subject for 90% of their projects. I haven’t yet replicated, but it’s planned as I often struggle with this in my less than perfect shop space.
    -I must admit that I do often use an iPhone for quick pics. With enough ambient shop lighting, it can do just fine (for online sizes), even hand held , but when coupled with a directional shop light for shadows, often they are too harsh for it’s dynamic range. but you can reflect a little light back in there.
    -I always thought of reflectors as complicated affairs but grabbing a chunk of light poster board, cardboard (or my white trashcan lid) and just waving it around till you find the sweet spot that lightens up the shadows while looking through the lens can solve some tricky problems especially with reflective tools.
    -Same thing using black for killing reflections.

    Comment by Jeremy — April 22, 2015 @ 9:52 am

    • Good points. I often prefer to shoot at night so I dont have to deal with sun light where I dont want it. Also if I want a black background I can turn off the shop lights and only use the work light. Very handy to remove distraction.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — April 22, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

      • That’s an excellent follow up tip. I hadn’t thought about killing the ambient light, look for lots of dramatically dark backgrounds coming up…

        Comment by Jeremy — April 22, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

  3. Another point is to get to know your camera. Most contemporary point and shoot cameras have a dizzying array of settings and special effects… one or two of which you might find useful for shop use. My current camera has a “microscope” feature which allows you to take pretty good close up photos, and there is a subsetting there that actually blends together seven or eight exporsures to focus more things in a close up. It’s handy sometimes, and not others, but useful when I need it.

    Comment by Brian Eve — April 22, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

  4. Thanks for this post.

    Comment by Matt Rae — May 4, 2015 @ 8:55 am

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