Friday, July 17, 2015

Photographing Books for Submission to Shows

While preparing all the materials that were included in my instructional books, I had the good fortune of being present when the professional photographers, first Jim Hair, later Sibila Savage, were taking pictures of my books. They each let me look through the viewfinder before the book was shot, pointing out what seemed to work, what parts I might move. So, I've looked through their eyes, in a way, thousands of times. What I wanted, primarily, was clarity. That the books, which are so hard to capture in two-dimensions anyway, could be somewhat understood. That you could see how they were put together. And that their spirit was somehow captured. Eventually, I got into the habit of taking preliminary photos so I could show Sibila the type of photo I was after and so she could take them faster. Hers were always better, of course!

Recently, I was asked to review some submissions for a show in order to choose the works accepted. The quality of the photos was all over the place, from poorly lit and upside down to professionally taken. I tried to overlook the presentation and focus on the books themselves, but the photos were all I had. It occurred to me that maybe some people have not been told how their works would be seen.

So, here is a DIY example of how you might take photographs of your books, working only with a thick piece of white paper, a window, and a digital camera (in this case, an iPhone 6).

My book, Words Collide poses some problems, and I have to decide what is most important to show. There are many possibilities. If you have to choose one, two, or three shots, you have to first decide what the priorities are. Let's say I can only use three. (For Etsy, you can use up to five.) In this case, I want to show the structure and spine, that it expands, and that it comes in a slipcase.

First, the setup. I curve a piece of heavy white paper (in this case Stonehenge, a printmaking paper) against a wall down onto the floor. I'll shoot lying on the carpet, but I have another setup elsewhere in the house where I can use the wall and a table. The window is on the right. The day is bright, the light somewhat diffused by fog. Perfect!

1. Here's a shot straight on. You can see the folds,
but you can't see the overall structure.
Shadows are okay here, I think, they show the book is sitting on something.

2. Slightly from above. Structure is very clear.
The light changed a bit, but could be improved in an editing program.
It is possible that my shadow is creeping in from below.
I might want to re-shoot, making sure the book is parallel to the 
top and bottom of the frame.

3. Front and back (using two copies).
You can see the structure clearly as well,
but someone might think these were two different books.

4. Looking at how the book expands.
Pretty clear. Also slightly from above.
I might want to reshoot, straightening out the book.

5. Okay, so I'm thinking I'll show it both closed and open.
In this case, look at the book at the bottom.
It shows the structure, but it also looks like a trapezoid.
When photographing books with straight edges that are square or rectangular
you want to line up head or tail and one edge parallel with the frame.

6. Here, the bottom book looks more square, 
but you don't get the fishbone top. The change?
A little prop under the bottom book.
Too many extra shadows from me.
The sun is coming out!

Sibila showed me how to crumple a piece of paper, use an eraser,
a little object, whatever works to prop the book.
This is a little blue piece of paper.

7. The book alone, propped.
Still can't see the structure.
Shadows are just too much here and are somewhat confusing.

8. Trying to show the slipcase by using two books.
Might be confusing to a first-time viewer since
the slipcase has a window that is blocked by the book in it.
Again, shot propped, shadows are too overwhelming.

9. Standing up, this works much better, the lighting quite nice.
Can't see the fishbone, but might be okay.

10. Standing, up, fishbone visible, but my shadow creeping in again.
Maybe too much information in this shot.

11. One slipcase, one book. Could work. Needs to be cropped.

11a. This might work. It shows the slipcase, the shine of the window,
the book. The black slipcase may read as flat, however. I'm not sure.

12. Slipcase and book are flat.
Bad hair day. They look lifeless.

13. Could be dynamic, the book slipping in.
But probably should have taking it with the book slipping out instead.

14. Top view shows the structure better. Lots of edge shadows. Let's crop.

14a. Possible. When I crop, I always leave a little more space at the bottom
so it doesn't look like the book is falling out of the frame.

These are just a few ways to show the book. If I could submit only three photos, I'd probably show 2, 4, and 9. It's a hard call.

Now that I know what position I want them, I might re-shoot to get the lighting the best it can be and without any extra shadows.

Instead of this last photo, though, I might take another shot of just the book all the way in the slipcase, or I could crop the one I took. The only issue is the shadow from the book on the right. A retake would be better, if I decide that's the right position. Here's the crop.

In summary: 
  1. Decide what information is important to include (structure, variations, colors, functions, words, interactivity, etc.).
  2. Choose a space to work that is near natural light, preferably diffused light. 
  3. Shoot some trial set-ups, arranging in every conceivable configuration.
  4. When photographing, make sure the book looks true to its shape and parallel to the picture frame if you can.
  5. Reshoot the ones that feel right in order to perfect the lighting, if necessary.
Whenever possible, though, get a professional photographer to shoot your work. If you are submitting to an important show, your book is expensive, there is only one book, you can only show one photo, or it is going to go in a professional portfolio or catalogue or book, pay a professional to light it, arrange it, and make it look its best. These glamour shots are worth it. But for some circumstances, low-tech, DIY abilities work just fine.


Sharmon Davidson said...

Very good commentary and visuals on the problems of shooting photos of a book. I think the 3 you chose look great.

Alisa said...

Thanks, Sharmon. Now I know why photographers are so precise about their work. Looking back, I think I would crop the first of my three so it has less space at the top. There really is no end to this…

Living to work - working to live said...

This is very helpful, thanks. I have much trauma trying to photograph things, and hadn't really thought of white paper.

My big problem is reflections in frames, but I do make smaller pieces and this is really helpful. I will give it a go.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your valuable insights on photographing a Handmade Book! I have made several in recent years and had no idea how to photo it with ease.