How To Photograph Your Designs

One of the most important aspects of the success of any design in any medium is the documentation. In Shapeways galleries and online in general the single most important tool is the first image used to communicate the design, your photograph of your design.

If you spend a week 3D modeling your design, checking it from every angle to make sure it is perfect, then you upload it to Shapeways, part with your hard earned cash and wait two weeks for your part to arrive, it makes sense to spend some time and take a photograph that will best represent your hard work. NOT a grainy photo taken with your phone with your object out of focus with a garbage bin and glowing monitor in the background.

Following is a brief tutorial with some simple low cost tips on how-to take clear, well lit photographs. If you have a digital camera and a tripod you are ready to go, if not find a friend or family member who has a decent camera, most people are keen to help out and get a chance to flex their photographic prowess.  You could 3D print them a little something as a thank you…

Step 1. Set up a clean environment with plenty of natural light and half of your work is done. 

Next to a window with indirect sunlight is best, direct sunlight can cast harsh shadows and create too much contrast.  Make sure there is nothing to distract the eye in the background of your photograph. Something as simple as a couple of sheets of white paper resting on your Shapeways UPS box is enough to get you started.

For extra credit: Another alternative to natural light is to set up a well lit stage with ‘Soft Box‘ or ‘Light Tent‘ lighting as to emulate lighting used in photography studios.  All you need is a couple of lights (type is important), a box and paper or a bit of a frame and a (clean) white bed sheet.


Step 2. Set your camera up on a tripod.  This too is so important to ensure you do not get blurry images. You can now adjust the aperture, ISO rating and shutter speed to optimal performance. If you do not have a tripod you could try resting, taping, cable-ties or blu-tac (not recommended) to hold your camera into position but for best results, find yourself a tripod.

Step 3. Set up your Camera. Start with the ISO or Film Speed. Basically the lower the ISO the less sensitive the receptors are to light but with ‘finer grain’ and less noise. So set your camera’s ISO to 200 or 400 to get best results.  If you are not using a tripod you may want to up this but with 3200 you will get digital noise in your images. 

Set the White Balance most cameras have instructions on how to do this, usually by taking an image of a white sheet of paper.  This tells the camera that is the reference point for white.  If you do not do this the camera usually assumes the brightest part of the frame is white, so if you have a blue spotlight on things will look weird. Some cameras have different modes such as daylight, fluorescent, tungsten so set to appropriate lighting. 

Set the Aperture.  I like to let the aperture drive the shutter speed where possible.  The tricky thing about photography (especially pre-digital) is that aperture, ISO rating and shutter speed are totally interdependent and changing one variable effects the others considerably.  The aperture also dictates the Depth of Field, so if you set your aperture to 5.6 you have a large aperture (confusing I know) but a very small depth of field so very little is actually in focus.  This is great if you want to emphasize a detail of the model and have the rest of the image blurry, but not so good for representing an entire design.  Set the aperture to between 11 and 16 for a medium depth of field and aperture. This should work well with most Shapeways size products, if you were to use an aperture of 38 (making the aperture very small) you would have a very large depth of field, but also very long exposure times.  This is fine if you want to take images of the stars trailing through the night sky or get that soft waterfall look but otherwise not really suitable.

Shutter Speed. As I mentioned I like to leave the shutter speed (exposure time) driven by the aperture.  A rule of thumb though is to use 1/60th of a second or faster if you are not using a tripod. So if you are not using a tripod Set the Shutter Speed to 1/90th of a second or higher, set the ISO to 800 or higher and try and keep the Aperture around 11. You will need to drive the shutter speed a little faster if you are shooting an object in a hand or jewelry on the body.

Flash. Please do not use the flash on top of your camera!!!!! This creates washed out photos with harsh shadows and blinding hot spots from reflections.  This also causes red eye in portraits because the light source is too close to the lens so some kind of light frequency feedback happens and makes us all look possessed… If you have a detachable flash that you can set up on tripods to either side of the object and you know how to use them then go for it…. Otherwise disable the flash.

Step 3.  Start Shooting. If you have a digital camera and a gig of memory take lots of shots, you can always erase the bad ones…

Start with the object in the center of the frame and position the object to best represent your design.  Take photographs from every conceivable angle, if you have multiples put them in together and take images of the object from multiple angles in the same shot

Play around a little with using a lower aperture and focus on a detail or texture of the design.

Take an image in context to help represent scale: If it is an earring, hang it from an ear, if it is an iPad stand, photograph it with the iPad, if it is a puzzle, photograph it both solved and unsolved.  Once you have some clean photos on a white background, have some fun.  These are the shots that may work really well on Flickr, Facebook or FFFFound.

Once you have your images use a photo editing tool such as Photoshop, Gimp or whatever you have access to and make a couple of copies of the best photos and Crop them so they fill the entire frame.  This is so important when all you can see is a 145×110 pixel thumbnail that your design can communicate at a glance.

Which of these two images would you part with your money for? One was taken with a tripod, aperture 11, ISO 200 with a 2 second exposure on a sheet of A4 paper next to a window.  The other with my phone next to my grubby computer and an empty cup of coffee.















Good luck, and please share your images along with any tips you have, or questions you would like to ask.

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Shapeways Designer Evangelist
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