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[Tutorial] Guide to PC Photography (or how to shoot your rig...)

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I am a photographer by trade (http://www.amoureuxphotography.com) and several people have now asked me about how I take my pictures. Now I will be the first to admit that my pictures for my hobby have less than a lot of effort put into them (I do this for part of my living, it quickly gets tiresome) but if you want some (relatively) quick tips on how to take decent pictures of your hack/rig – READ ON! Here's a quick mashup of some of my client pics so you get the idea of what I do:






1) It’s very possible to take terrible photos with top notch gear.

There is this false notion floating around, that having top-of-the-line gear is what makes a good photographer. Sure there are people like Chase Jarvis (.com) who tote around tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear to photoshoots, that he in turn gets paid hundreds of thousands for, but he and many others in the field all agree with one thing: good gear does not equal good pictures or good photographer. For example, the image on the right was taken with $4000 worth of gear, the image on the left a 7-year old DSLR I got off of craigslist for $150 with a faulty lens I paid $10 for at a local flea market (my second ever, low-budget wedding). If I may, I would say they are both decent images.






2) It’s all about the lighting.

For weddings, I normally use a $2000+ (used) Canon 1Ds-MkII/5D, as well as an array of lenses that I rent, that are worth as much as my car. That said, even with all of this money invested in great gear, you can’t magically make a scene look good without real lighting. Here is a quick lighting scale (from best to worst):


1) Indirect, bright natural light (i.e. outside in the shade/inside with big windows)

2) Off-camera flash

3) Direct natural light (i.e. outside in the sun)

4) Ambient room light

5) Direct camera flash


The problem is, most people stick with numbers 4 and 5, and then wonder why their pictures don’t turn out well. Nine times out of ten I prefer to shoot in indirect natural light, unless I am doing studio work, and then I will use off-camera flash for some creative lighting. If at all possible, find a big window with sunlight coming in, refracted by venetian blinds or some sheer curtains. This will ALWAYS give you the best photo possible for your gear. Failing that, try and find somewhere outside in the shade. If you have the gear, OFF-CAMERA flash can also be very effective, but if you have a flash on top of your camera (as most do) avoid it at all costs, it’s almost always awful. Below I have taken (almost) the same subject in the same place, at different times of day with different lighting. (Only levels received slight editing, saturation and clarity were not touched.)





Here's another even stronger example. The first image was taken in my basement which has no windows, the second on my office desk next to a large window with very sheer lace drapes:




Still don’t believe me? Watch this for more proof:



(Free pro tip: get married outdoors if possible under a big white marquee. You will thank me later.)


3) An older DSLR is the way to go!

Megapixels mean very little…in fact, even though the more megapixels your camera has the better (in general) there are many downsides. Detail and quality are both affected with higher-megapixel cameras, especially when it comes to less than perfect lighting. So when looking for a camera, the difference between 12MP and 15MP is mostly a marketing tool, and will only be noticed when printing larger than 8″x12″…you probably won’t notice the difference on a computer screen.


That said, what you really want to look for in a camera is creative control. For truly outstanding photographs, you want a camera with manual settings…preferable one with manual focus or the ability to choose your focal point. I honestly haven’t used the automatic setting on any of my cameras is about 4 years.


My advice? Grab a used Canon Rebel XT/Xti/20D or a Nikon D40 and pick up a cheap 50mm 1.8 lens for it ($80 used). The “nifty fifty” as it is called will immediately improve your photos with what we call “bokeh”, or that cool blurry stuff in the background of nice photos. It is available cheaply for Nikon and Canon, as well as most other brands. The kit lens (usually a 18-55mm lens) can do great things with the right lighting too, and most of the time this will come with the camera.


Some of my gear, all purchased used:


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4) Get creative!

Now that you have something to shoot, and something to shoot it with in a nicely lit location, you are ready to go! Now allow me to share a tip with you that was told to me when I first got into photography: DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOOK STUPID. Have you ever seen THAT photographer, laying down on the (muddy) ground or doing a circus-looking move on one leg while balancing the camera in one hand? More often than not, they might actually know what they are doing. Our brain is immediately drawn to viewing angles that we would not naturally view….a sense of intrigue is created with very little effort. If something is on the ground (like a PC case), then don’t take it from above! Get on your belly and find some interesting angles! If you have macro capabilities, GET UP CLOSE! Here's a couple of examples of how a lower angle can give a Powermac G5 and the Mac Mini more of a presence:


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5) Use. A. Tripod.

For anyone taking pictures of a computer case with lights, your are going to have to dim the surrounding light to get a really good picture. That means your camera will automatically (or if you followed my advice manually) be set to a slower shutter speed. Anything under 1/50th of a second becomes very difficult to keep sharp. A good general rule is to not shoot under your lens’ focal length (i.e. 1/50th of a second for a 50mm lens etc.) If you have LED fans or something, it’s time to purchase a cheap tripod. Heck you can even get a table-top tripod for $5 on eBay!



6) Don’t over-process.

One of the biggest mistakes I see (and I have made) are over-processed, over-saturated pictures. This is a phenomenon of the digital age, and is something that even professional photographers feel the need to do. Unless you are specifically going for an effect (rarely necessary), DO NOT oversaturate your photos. Keep the colors realistic and pleasant, rather than overly-intense. Also, never EVER do selective desaturation (those black and white pictures with a red rose)…they are so kitschy it’s not even funny (or acceptable).


And now for some short tips:


7) Take your shots somewhere other than underneath your desk.

8) Keep the background clean, focus should be on your subject, not the CD’s you keep on the floor.

9) Wire management MAKES a picture. Do it now!

10) Get the details. Brushed aluminum, shiny water-cooling parts and colored-sleeving all make for interesting pictures!

11) Setting up an infinity background (all white or some other color) is not hard, see http://www.diyphotography.net for ideas.


Well that’s it for now – I am going to add pictures to this tutorial over the next few days to help illustrate my points, but I hope this at least will help some of you get a good basis on how to take good photographs! Please feel free to PM me with any questions, or for tips/constructive criticism!

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