There are three primary things you need to worry about to take good photos of small items, even lighting, white balance, and macro capability. All of these can be done cheaply or worked around to a point. You do not need thousands of dollars of equipment, years of experience or expensive software like Photoshop to take reasonably good photos, but none of that would hurt either.
The number one problem with doing macro photography is getting the object lit evenly. Some people try to take the picture outside and use the sun, some people use twenty lamps, but the smart people use a light tent. This doesn’t mean you have to run out and buy a light tent, although that is the fastest and easiest way, not to mention you can get them for very little money like the CowboyStudio 24in Photo Soft Box Light Tent or if you prefer a complete kit you could try the LimoStudio Photography Photo Studio 30 Inch Light Tent Kit which includes the tent and a couple of lights. I opted for just buying the tent with backgrounds (20″ cube) and bought the lights and reflectors separately.
Using a light tent allows you to use two or three lights and evenly light your items with very little glare. If you do not want to buy one I have seen people make them out of a cardboard box and tissue paper and they work just about as well as the purchased ones, but much harder to set up, take down, and store. I have also seen weird contraptions using thin plastic bags and coat hangers. Whatever works for you.
The second biggest problem is white balance. When you use light bulbs not designed for photography the color seems to be off in your photos, this is because the color of the light really is not white. To fix this you need daylight balanced bulbs like these 40-Watt compact fluorescent daylight bulbs:
They stay cool, are resistant to breakage, use less power and last longer. The down side is they are not usually as bright requiring the use of a tripod (which you should have anyway) and cost a bit more ($30+ each). You will need two or three of them, and the reflectors like these Bayco 8.5 inch clamp lights. The daylight part means that it burns at about 5000k, typical lighting from the sun outside is around 5000k-6000k depending on the time of the day etc. In comparison a standard light bulb burns at about 3000k, a xenon light at about 4100k and a CRT screen at 9300K. Daylight film, and most digital cameras, are calibrated for a color balance of about 5500k, so you see these bulbs are much closer to ideal than other lighting sources and therefore produce much truer colors in the final photographs.
I personally use these sometimes, and flash sometimes. It depends on what I am trying to do. These are great in that you have a ton of time to adjust lights, check for glare, readjust, etc without ever firing a shot. Flash will get you even better lighting but it takes more work. When I say flash is better, keep in mind that is using a flash like the Nikon SB-700 Speedlight off camera, on a light stand like the Interfit COR751 8.5 foot light stand, fired into a umbrella such as the Westcott 2016 45-Inch umbrella , wirelessly triggered with triggers like my Yongnuo RF-603 N3 2.4GHz wireless flash triggers. Not cheap.
There are two ways to get good macro shots, a camera/lens that has excellent macro capability, or a camera with a lot of megapixels so you can crop down to a reasonable size, pretty much zooming in after you take the shot. The best is a mix of both. Just having great macro capabilities means your camera can get really close to the item which in theory is great, in practice it casts a shadow on the item you are photographing. Great megapixels are good, but too often what you thought was in great focus is not because you were so far away you couldn’t tell. The camera I have used could get under 1mm from the object and be in razor sharp focus, but I rarely get within two feet. Here is my basic setup:
Once you have all of this down you need to take pictures that are interesting, that is where the colored backgrounds that came with the light tent comes in handy. You can also get great things to set the items on by going to Home Depot and looking at the floor tiles. Wal-Mart has an almost endless supply of stuff you can prop your items on, in, around, etc (especially the fake flowers department). Don’t forget mother nature, pinecones, leaves, rocks, sticks, flowers and much more are right outside your door.
If you do not have a tripod get one, now, no I mean it, right now. This is the one thing (besides a camera) you absolutely have to beg, borrow or stea…..ok, not that, but you get the idea. This will allow you to use the lowest ISO (basically ISO is the speed of the film, or in digital, the sensitivity of the CCD sensor), the lower the ISO, the cleaner and clearer the pictures will be. Couple this with the camera’s self timer and you have a potent weapon to create great photos. Shown above is a very inexpensive Slik U8000 Tripod w/3 Way Fluid Head I used just for these shots for many years. If you want something a whole lot nicer try the Manfrotto 190XPROB 3-Section Aluminum Pro Tripod and add a Manfrotto 128RC Micro Fluid Head. For inside, with a normal DSLR or point and shoot camera, triggered either with a remote release or self timer, most any cheap tripod will do.
If you would like to see some examples of my product photography including pictures of pens and watches you can follow the link in and get a good idea of what you can do.
Good luck and have fun!
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