8 Dec 2008

Photography Tutorials: Using Natural Light

You spend hours, days, even weeks, creating your one-of-a-kind, handmade masterpieces. You sculpt. You knit. You weld. You stitch. And then you take a photograph of your creation, your “baby,” so you can show and hopefully sell your amazing work on line. There are so many gorgeous handmade products out there that simply are not photographed correctly, so I have decided it is time to help. Welcome to the first instalment of my photography tutorials: let’s start by turning off the flash!

What does the flash on your camera actually do? It throws light on a subject, allowing it to be seen in low-light situations: great for a quick snapshot of the school play, not so great for an up-close shot of your beautiful sterling silver jewelry. Why? Because when used in a close shot, the type necessary for photographing your handmade items, the light from the flash is harsh and indiscriminate. It washes out everything in its path, creating a blinding glow that obscures the detail of your work.

Here’s an example: a little statue of a bird. We’ll call him “Bill.” Let’s say I took weeks to carve Bill by hand (which I didn’t, because if I ever tried to carve anything, it would look like something my four-year-old made). Now I’m ready to take my picture. The only time I have to take pictures of my creations is after work/after the kids are asleep/after I pay all the bills and the 11:00 news is over. So here’s Bill, shot with a flash:

Well, it’s not awful. You can tell he’s a bird. He’s a cute little shiny, pale-pink bird. But wait! Bill is not actually pink (or shiny), although he sure looks that way in this picture. Anyone NOT wanting a pinkish bird will not give him a second look. Someone who DOES want a pink bird is going to be very disappointed when Bill arrives in the mail. Did I also mention that the flash on your camera can change the color of your object?

Here’s Bill photographed without a flash, only lit by the lamps scattered around the living room:

Hmm….Now Bill is yellow. And a little fuzzy looking because there isn’t enough light in the room (which is why you thought you should use the flash, right?). At least he doesn’t look shiny, and we can start to see that he has a little more detail in his wings and tummy area than was visible in the first picture. So now what should you do?

Let’s give Bill the respect he deserves! You don’t need to buy or build yourself a complicated light box. Instead, let’s choose a weekend where you are finally home in the daylight hours, or even a weekday when you’ve actually gotten the little ones down for their naps (or plopped them in front of “Sesame Street” for a bit…hey, it’s educational and you’ve got a bird to sell). The day doesn’t need to be sunny – even a rainy day will provide enough diffused light for a good product photography. Now, choose a window. Any window. Pull up the shade, draw back the curtains so they cannot be seen in your shot, and sit Bill in that nice, natural light.

Hey, look at that – Bill isn’t pink! Or yellow! Or fuzzy! You can see the fine detail and the true creamy-brown variations of his mottled feathers. And he looks rather lovely, doesn’t he? While the first two images practically scream “amateur,” this last photograph places you – and your work – in a professional league (where it belongs!). And all you had to do was turn off that flash and find a window.

Article written by Michelle Ciarlo of MKCphotography


  1. I wish I had read this a couple of years ago before I figurd it all out the hard way! Without wanting to confuse the issue, even natural light can change through out the day... I tend to get a bluish tinge in the morning and a reddish tinge in late afternoon. Learning to turn the camera off auto onto manual and adjusting the white balance helped with this.

  2. Michelle - this is a lovely blog and you are so generous to share your photography knowledge here.
    I hope "Bill" enjoys his 15 minutes of fame ;-)
    Peace, Judi

  3. Very well-written, Michelle. Great advice, and a lovely photo of Bill, I might add. :), allie

  4. Great little article- natural lighting is by far and away the best light for photographing your product. The flash is your enemy, and the best thing you can do is take your camera off auto and set it to manual. It only takes a free afternoon to learn the basics and one that's done, you'll be 5 star. :)

  5. Love this article, funny, clever and extreamly helpful. Thanks so much!!! :)

  6. Thank you soo much for the photography. I can't wait to read future installments! (about shooting larger items perhaps, and models wearing products ; ) Very cool blog!
    Art Chick in Action

  7. Hi Art Chick - thanks for your comment! I'd be happy to focus on one of these topics (already wrote my second post before I saw your comment!) - stay tuned :-)


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