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How to Build an Affordable Small / Mini Photography Studio Set-up for eBay Photo / Pictures
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I'm not a professional photographer... I'm a professional ebayer. I don't need to know all the technical terms and details, I just want to take good pictures that make my items sell better.
In a previous hub we saw how to get very good pictures quickly and easily. The theme was learning to use your camera. In this hub, we'll pay attention to the photography studio. You don't have to spend a fortune to get good photos, but a small investment can make a big difference. All you need is a basic practical setup and a bit of common sense.
To start with, it's useful to have a small dedicated place for your ebay photo studio. A table in the corner, something that doesn't take up a lot of room. You could set it up every time you want to use it, but it's easier and quicker if it's always ready. Especially if you're listing auctions and realize you missed a particular shot, and have to go back to shoot it again. If you have a bit more room to work with, even better. I use a small dining table. It's old, beat up, and a bit larger than necessary, but that extra size gives me room for larger items. Positioning is important. You want a clear wall-space behind the table. I use the rear of an entertainment unit in our back room, with the table pushed up against it.
You'll want your chair to be easy to reposition. I put an ad on Craigslist for an old office chair. My specific request was for a wheeled chair with no back and no arms. Someone called the same day with exactly what I asked for, and gave it to me for free. I like the wheels because you can rapidly change position and angle without having to stand up, or put down the camera. I was lucky enough to get one that adjusts the height with the pull of a lever.
The next most important, and very inexpensive, item is the drop cloth. You'll want a nice background for your pictures. Good color and contrast, something that helps your item stand out. My favorite was a deep vivid blue I found from a bolt of fabric at Wal-Mart. I bought a few yards of it, and hung it behind the table. Over the years, several other colors have been added to my choices. White, Black, Green and a deep velvety red. Normally the blue is all I need, but it's nice to have some variety for the occasional odd piece. Tack it up on the wall behind your table. You want about half on the wall, and the other half on the table. It makes a nice 'infinite' look to your image.
At this point, if all you can afford is the table and drop cloth, you have a workable studio. Lighting will probably cause you trouble, but there are work-arounds for that, mainly good light in the room itself, and the built-in camera flash. But there's still plenty you can do to improve... so keep reading!
Digital Concepts PS-101
The next item up is lighting. This is key to getting good photos- you want lots of light, but it needs to be controllable. It doesn't have to be expensive. I like Daylight bulbs (found at Wal-mart, of course!) in an overhead holder. The main bulbs are clamped above the table to shine straight down. Then a couple of smaller lights on stands to either side. They came as part of the portable lighting studio mentioned below, so there's a bit more detail there. These are 20w to 50w lights, placed on the sides to fill in shadows and make the subject jump to the front. Or sometimes to highlight the image from behind. Being small, and self-standing, I move them to suit the needs of the moment. The final light was made from an ordinary desk lamp. It's mounted behind and slightly above my head from when I'm sitting at the table. It has a gooseneck to make aiming easier, and comes into use when the image needs more ambient light in front.
To sum up the lighting- One source over the subject. One high and in front of the subject. Two small movable lights to fill in from the sides. The two side lights don't have to be glaring straight on. Often, they're more useful just 'glancing' a bit of light from the edge of their radiance for a softer effect. You don't even need to use them all the time. Once you've tried it, you'll see how easy it is to adjust these on the fly.
Now we've covered the most important elements. The following are some useful extras that make the job easier:
Small photo cube - I use the Digital Concepts PS-101 Portable Lighting Studio. It's a small box with a vivid blue/gray (interchangeable) base and back wall. The top and sides are white, and do a great job of diffusing the fill lights. It comes with the two lamps mentioned earlier, and a mini-tripod. The mini-tripod works well enough, but rarely sees any use. The fill lights are a bit underpowered, but you can get stronger wattage from a local hardware store. My PS-101 came from Amazon. If you'd rather not spend the money, get creative with a thin white cloth (like a bedsheet) and a pair of small desk lamps. Given the choice, though, get the portable lighting studio. It's very affordable, and extremely useful. Most of my pictures are of Hallmark ornaments, and the light studio gives a perfect setup.
Tripod - If your hand isn't steady, this can make it easier. A
full-size tripod will give you the most versatility, but a miniature
tripod for table-top use can be handy sometimes.
Camera copy stand - Some items are best shot from straight above. For this purpose, I have a copy stand. These are expensive bought brand new, but sometimes you can find a used one for less. It's basically a flat gray tabletop, with a 3-foot tall post. There's a spring-loaded camera mount on the top (of the one I use). It's honestly a bit of a pain to use, but it does come in handy. Sometimes I use it to hold my lights, and put the light studio box on the tabletop. Then I can easily raise or lower the top light, depending on how strong it needs to be.
Sandbag... wait, really? Yes, a sandbag. I took builder-quality sand, because it packs well but shifts easily, and double-layered it inside 2 ziploc storage bags. When I need to shoot something low and close-up, the camera sits on the sandbag. Stable, highly adjustable, and easier to use than the mini-tripod.
AC adapter for camera - Not really necessary, but it really extends your battery life. The batteries were always dying before getting an AC adapter, now it's not a problem.
Styrofoam head - This one cost $7.00 on ebay. If you ever sell hats, glasses, wigs, this helps tremendously! By the same token, if you sell necklaces, you might want a 'neck model' to display it on.
Very small easel - This was given to me. I use it to hold up items that don't like to cooperate. Plates, books, flat items. It makes controlling the glare much easier. When I first starting using it, I was unhappy because it showed as part of the picture, and wasn't pretty. Then one day I put the easel UNDER the dropcloth, and it's been a perfect tool ever since! Blends perfectly into the background, so all the viewer sees is your item.
Don't forget you'll need something white to adjust your camera's white balance with. I like using a thick sheet of paper. It lasts a while, and when it gets dirty or bent, I just pull out a new one.
I've never used it, but I've heard Quake Hold is also useful. It's a moldable putty, and can be used as a base to hold items that have no easy way to keep in position.
Last, a couple of tips -
If I want my subject to be raised, like on a small pedestal, I place a box UNDER the dropcloth on the table, and the item goes on top of the cloth. Looks very nice like that.
The drop cloth will pick up lots of dust and small debris very quickly. An easy way to control this is to hang the entire drop cloth straight down behind your table, while still attached at the top. Give it a good shake, then pull it back up onto the table.
It's not hard to get good pictures- and you don't have to invest a lot of time and money.