Wednesday, 29 October 2008

What camera should I buy for small item photography?

This question comes up routinely in the Etsy forums and other crafting sites, so I thought it timely to add my thoughts on the matter here.

My comments supplement my writings elsewhere on crafted items photography - see my tutorial at - I recommend it as supplementary reading to explain some of the terms used below.

Knowledge and understanding may negate the need for an upgrade:

For most posters, who are crafters, not photographers, it doesn't really matter so much what model of camera you have, as knowing how to use it properly. Knowledge and understanding is a far more important tool to have in your arsenal than specific models. Learning appropriate tricks and how to get the best from your camera may serve you better, so only upgrade your camera when you know this is the limiting factor. See my tutorial referenced above for some small item photography pointers - and there are other tips here in my blog. It might also help to spend some time with the camera manual and acquaint yourself with various camera features like exposure compensation and white balance - the use of which will solve most of the problems I witness.

OK, so which model?

You will be best suited to choose a camera that has the specific features for the type of shots you intend taking. For some people that will be the option to get close to small items like jewellery, for others, good exposure for outdoor shots, or good colour rendition might be more pertinent.

It might help initially to write a list of the features you think you need - I don't necessarily mean camera buttons you might press, but aspects of your work where it is vital that the camera performs well. Maybe list what your current camera is falling short on, or where you already think your photos have room for improvement. This will help you hone in on what to look for.

More megapixels are not necessarily better:

There is a current trend with camera manufacture, especially at the low and mid ranges of the market, to have become fixated on megapixels - the public started this numerical obsession and the manufacturers have pandered to it. I'm not alone in thinking that this is a retrograde step in camera development. I'd prefer quality over quantity any day. So please don't be seduced by large numbers alone.

Don't be too worried about the amount of megapixels a camera has - a bigger number is not necessarily better (in this context), and in many cases, is absolutely not a measure or indicator of superior quality. I often get asked, when toting my large black DSLR - "how many megapixels is that?" as though that were all that mattered and when I answer, you can see their chest swell in pride as they declare that the silver matchbox in their pocket has more. They depart, smugly thinking that theirs is clearly a superior piece of technology.

For posting item photographs on-line to sell, the features a camera affords you in terms of allowing you to actually secure the shots you have in your mind as you start, is far, far more important than how big the pictures are. And knowing how to get the best from what you have.

What is a megapixel?

'Megapixels' (MP) is the term of measurement applied to the physical dimensions in pixels of the resulting digital photographs. A megapixel is simply 1 million pixels of screen area - something like 1280 x 780 pixels - a typical modern computer monitor is about this sort of area and therefore about a megapixel. So as you can see, having 10 or more megapixels is certainly more than you need for web based photographs. Large resolution images of big MP numbers are only really necessary if you plan to make enlargements of your images in print form and for fine art and professional uses.

So it may be that an older model, probably to be had at a much better price (my current jewellery camera was bought as a clearance item at half price, when it was superseded by new goodies), may offer you more than adequate quality for these purposes. Any camera in the range of 4-6 MP will give you good quality photographs for screen viewing - allowing some capacity for cropping and choosing the best bit of the photo, then still reducing it in size for screen display. The working features, performance and appropriate results are far more pertinent factors in making your selection.

Which model will be best for you will depend on your particular personal needs. Any recent model from Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus etc. will do the job more than adequately - the limitation in getting good results, is almost always the photographer's lack of understanding, not the camera. Learning some good practices and technique will serve far better than buying a new camera for many people. And maybe putting some of your budget into a table top tripod or bean bag will help you get the best from your camera.

Look at exactly why your photos aren't satisfactory before thrashing the plastic. If lighting is an issue, which it is for most of us - look at my DIY lighting diffuser tutorial for some ideas of how you can improvise for free at home with items you probably have to hand.

Beneficial features:

If you have smaller items, choose one with a good macro feature - Canons have good macro which is why so many crafters use this marque - macro focusing it allows the camera to focus when much closer to the subject and therefore fill the frame with your item so that you can see lots of detail. Fujis also have features like super macro which is good for very small items like jewellery - allowing you to get as close as an inch away from the object.

Another feature that may be very worthwhile is a countdown timer. Many cameras have the option for a 2 second or 10 second timer and with close and macro work, this may prove to be a very valuable tool. Especially where light is low and you therefore can only achieve a slow shutter speed, which may mean that you record movement while handling the camera.

Being able to place the camera on a tripod or other improvised stand (a folded towel on some books is good, I use a home made bean bag filled with polybeads) will be a great help with eliminating movement. But even then, just pressing the shutter button, if you're heavy handed or your support has some spring, is enough to jiggle the camera as it takes the shot.

But using the cameras timer allows it to settle from your hand movement before taking the shot - the 2 second timer will probably be enough in most cases. Sometimes you may be casting a shadow or impeding the light by standing over your scene - or causing reflections or a colour cast (bright clothing can often influence the appearance of reflective items) by being close at hand, so using a timer allows you to set it going and withdraw until the shot is taken.

I have a range of cameras and work as a semi-pro photographer - but for my product shots, I use an inexpensive digicam (Fuji now, a Canon until recently) - the perspective and handling of them when taking close shots in a confined space is ideal - much better than my unwieldy DSLR.

The small sensors of current digicams mean that they offer a good depth of field for a given lens aperture compared to larger format cameras. What does this mean? Depth of field (DOF) is the amount of your subject, from front to back, that is within acceptable sharpness. Whilst a shallow DOF can be used creatively for interest, you often want as much of your creation in focus as possible - and this feature of smaller cameras is useful for helping to achieve that. In short, for the same scene and lighting, it is easier to get more of it in focus than with a bigger camera. There is also the added benefit that if you move between focusing and taking the shot, you have a greater room for error and less likely to have out of focus failures.

Pick one up and handle it:

I would also strongly urge that you ensure that you handle a camera in the flesh before purchasing - no, I don't mean go shopping nekkid. It gets old very fast if you can't easily reach a button you use regularly, or keep catching one each time you use another feature. My recommendation for buying is to make a shortlist of suitable models on paper first, based on your wish list discussed earlier and price and availability etc. Then find them, where possible, in stock on the high street and handle them. Ensure that you can reach function buttons easily, can see the display etc. etc. If you're going to be spending a lot of time in its company, ensure that you're going to get along.

Helpful links:

See this site - Digital Photography Review (DPR) for reviews and feature lists of all current and recent models:

This is a very big subject and I've only tickled it a little, so I'll no doubt add more on this subject over time. I urge you to also visit my tutorial on small item photography for more explanation of features like macro mode and depth of field and how they apply when taking small item photographs.

Also see my tutorial article on making my own lighting diffuser, for free, from found objects.

Monday, 20 October 2008

What will I need to take for a craft fair?

Further to feedback I had on the earlier craft fair blog, I've thought of more things I should have added. One thing I see asked about a lot in forums, is what to take with you.

I've lived for quite a long time now and done quite a lot of different things and I've always adopted a policy of being potentially over prepared. It doesn't seemingly matter how well prepared you think you are, invariably there is something that never occurred to you. Over time, you'll fine tune what you need for yourself.

These are my personal thoughts:

For craft fairs, as with many things I do, I keep a case made up that I take to every event - it might not be practical if you're just starting, to do this, but over time as you duplicate items, you can put aside materials dedicated to your craft fair activities.

I now use one of those large aluminium flight cases, that are sometimes used as camera bags or if you're a hitman, maybe your precision rifle. I keep mine partitioned and fitted out with all the things I might need on a typical day - after an event, I fill everything up again, ready to go next time. In fact, I've done such a good job with it, I use it at home when packaging up my items to post out, as I have everything to hand.

In mine I have sections pre-filled with my stocks of gift bags, boxes, stickers, ribbons, sticky tapes (clear tape, duct tape, double sided and masking tape), scissors, business cards, leaflets, carrier bags, stall notices and price tickets.

I have boxes containing an assortment of pins (jewellery display pins, map pins, safety pins etc.) and assorted fastenings - there may be occasions where you need to fix something or a notice keeps blowing over, so it stands to reason you're going to need various fixing methods. I always keep a quantity of BluTak too - that's perhaps what I use most, I stick all my prices on with a tiny blob and display busts can be fixed if they're prone to falling over, getting brushed past or blown. I also keep a stapler and staples and spare bulbs for my lights.

I have a box of small weights (curtain weights covered in dark paper) for display pieces and to put inside some of the gift boxes I use for display - I learnt that lesson the hard way at an outdoor market - I hadn't factored in wind - gusty wind is even worse. I use a free standing mirror for customers to try jewellery on, but in case I forget it, I have a simple, very slim flat one (I paid 25p for it in a bargain bin) that folds that's the size of a CD case and sits flat in the back of my case too. I did forget my mirror once and was glad I kept the spare packed.

I always keep some sachets of hand wipes, tissues, handcream, tictacs, headache pills, nail file (you invariably snag one setting up), a small deo spray and a perfume cream pot, small tie handled rubbish bags and various pens, pencils and a notebook and calculator. I keep spares of my display packaging to replace damaged or scruffy items and some extras of my origami gift boxes, pre-prepared to use, but not made up - they take up much less space and only take a minute to make from there. I have a copy of my insurance documents and all event details and even a card that shows who to make cheques payable to - it's easier for people to see it written than to spell it out to them.

Prepare in advance to save from fiddling:

Because I have a tendency to get befuddled and easily flustered when trying to wrap jewellery pieces and take money, especially if it is hot, busy and a breeze keeps whipping my materials off and I'm working in a confined space, I prepare as much in advance as I can. I've found it a really worthwhile exercise.

I hand my jewellery over, once gift wrapped, in small plastic carrier bags, the size made for CDs and the like. So before the event, I put one of my flyers and a business card inside each one and pile them ready inside the lid of my case. I also pre-shape my pieces of ribbon and place them under my address sticker - and then put the backing paper back on it, ready to peel off and stick on the envelopes. I also cut my tissue into the common sizes I use for wrapping and place these in pockets in the lid of my case.

I also keep a flat piece of bedding roll foam the size of my case interior to hand, which normally stops the materials in my case from rattling and moving around when on the move and serves as a flat surface to work on once the lid is up.

Other tips to make life easier:

Make sure that you have plenty of change and keep it in a portable format, on your person. I've been at two craft fairs where a seller had their cash stolen from off their table. I also separate mine into two locations too. The larger notes I usually keep well hidden, then keep a 'working float' with smaller denomination notes, just enough to give change for any sale. That way, when you give change, the buyer, or witnesses nearby, don't see your whole stash and where you're keeping it. Once you have a quiet moment, or on a bathroom visit, sort it out discreetly.

Price everything - preferably in advance - tedious, but worth doing:

I always price everything individually - it's a tedious task to do (if you do it as you make things, it's much easier), but well worth it in the mess you end up with as you break down your stall. I usually have two prices on each piece; a small silver dumbbell sticker with the item number and price and then I use a little display ticket on the display. If people have to ask, they'll soon get bored and move on. And there is occasionally mischief to be had if things get moved from their original location with the display ticket. I try and store my pieces between events with the display ticket too - makes setting up much quicker - I stick them ready, with a little BluTak.

Take some refreshments:

Make sure that you take a cold drink with you and preferably something to eat that won't make your fingers greasy, drip on your stock (i.e. no sliced tomatoes in your butty) and will not deteriorate too badly if squashed in your bag, part eaten and returned to later. I've found that peanut butter sandwiches remain palatable (assuming that you can stand them at any time) regardless of the abuse they suffer and it's good clean energy food you can swipe occasional bites from if busy. Things like meusli bars that won't melt are easy to snack on when you feel in need of energy.

The mystery of the craft fair

I've been very lucky thus far; I haven't done a craft fair or market where I didn't make back my stall fee. Yet. I'm sure that day will come at some time.

I've been doing craft fairs for very many years in different guises - the first were when I had a craft and sewing shop and I did a few local ones with shop wares. Then I started making my own photo greetings cards and did more events with my cards, then more recently with my hand crafted jewellery. I still always take my cards along too - they've always sold consistently.
Craft fairs can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and I've yet to figure out which format would suit my products and price range best. I have perceived no obvious pattern.

I did a small local one in a community centre as a very last minute decision last Christmas because there was a note on the posters that due to cancellations they had a couple of vacancies. I awoke that morning to horrendous weather - it was howling a gale and lashing down. But everyone dutifully turned up and set up stall. It was 2 Saturdays before Christmas and we found ourselves in a ghost town. Literally.

The weather was so bad that there wasn't a soul on the streets of the town. The nearby market was deserted and for about the first time I can recall, the high street was totally devoid of Christmas shoppers. We had 5 people actually open the door and come in - 4 of those were family members to stall holders bringing them refreshments or popping in to show support. One genuine-ish punter - looking for some respite from the weather before they walked home from work.

But I still did pretty well, almost all the other stall holders did some Christmas shopping with me - and I think that's due to some of my own personal rules for craft fair conduct, as follows:
  • No matter how grim it appears, never moan. Your fellow stall holders are also potential customers. Everyone in the room is, so treat them that way. Would you buy from a whiner? I wouldn't.

  • And certainly never, but never, moan within earshot of any potential customers. Put on an act if you have to - remain cheerful, upbeat and engage anyone who passes or pauses.

  • Never ask a potential customer, who pauses to look at your goodies, a question to which they could simply answer 'no'. A well meaning attempt to engage someone can quickly come to a halt if you ask "can I help you?" Even if I'm sitting making something, I try and start a subtle conversation, just to let them know that I'm happy to be interrupted and available to ask something of - "has the queue gone down at the donut stall yet, the smell is making my tummy rumble", "did you manage to get parked okay or are you local?" etc. etc. As soon as they touch an item it gets much easier "please feel free to try it on", "I can easily adjust the sizes of those", "those stones are aventurine, pretty colour isn't it?" etc. etc.

  • I always make jewellery as I sit at the stall - this serves several functions - it's a good conversation piece in both directions. Men often ask questions about tools or technique as their partners browse. This is good, if they're talking to you, they're not chivvying their lady on to something they might find more interesting.

    You demonstrate that you do actually make the pieces yourself and that you can potentially alter pieces or make something new while they wait. It also looks a whole lot better than sitting there bored, or reading. At the last but one market I did, I sold 2 pairs of earrings I just made, purely because they saw me making them.

    I've made at least one new pair of earrings to match something at every fair I've done - securing 2 sales in that move, the piece they originally saw and the new matching item. Last Saturday, it was a pair of earrings to match a polymer clay brooch. A £14 sale for just having my tools and some basic materials with me. Likewise with alterations - if something isn't the right length, why lose a sale for the sake of being able to shorten a chain or make another longer one. I take all my chain stock and clasps with me, as well as a good selection of pre-made ones. I alter a couple of pieces at every event. Sales potentially lost otherwise.

  • Never pack up early. Once one starts, all stall holders tend to make moves to themselves. This kills the event for anyone new who looks in "Oh, it's finished, they're packing up now, we missed it". I've made several sales when others have been packing up. Often to those stall holders who have already packed away!

  • Know your product and be prepared to talk about them. Know your materials, technique or manufacturing processes. People are genuinely interested to hear about how fire polished glass is made and who makes the best crystal, seed beads or where your pearls come from. People are interested to hear how a pendant of polymer clay with a pattern is made - if I've used mokume gane, mica shift, or swirled techniques.

    When they hear just how many stages are involved in making the pattern, curing, sanding it to a gloss, buffing and varnishing, your price tag suddenly looks far more reasonable. And people genuinely like to hear that you made something yourself and that it's unique and the care you've taken putting it together. They're often surprised to hear that they're not bought components.

  • Engage children or bored husbands. There's always something about a child you can start a conversation with - at my last one, most had been to the face painter and my husband was very keen on getting a Spiderman done himself. He usually comes to fairs with me and makes a good baby wrangler. If you talk to their children, or partners, the ladies - who are predominantly my customers - feel they've got a few minutes to browse with impunity if the party they're with is being entertained.

    When I had a sewing shop I had a large box of toys that I added to frequently and Mums had trouble dragging kids away sometimes and they were happy to come in the shop if they knew they'd get to play with the toys.

    Taking my photo greetings cards has benefits too - men will often browse through those and ask about photography and cameras. Men often choose a couple of cards while their partners look at bling.

  • Be prepared to make an offer to secure a sale. I've turned several contemplated sales into real ones by offering complimentary earrings with a necklace, or rounding the price down, or a discount for multiple purchases. Whilst I'm not prepared to compromise my pricing and believe it to be fair, nor am I daft enough to lose a necklace or bracelet sale for the cost price of some earring components or a modest discount.

    I price my pieces the same in every venue - mail order items incur site and payment fees and post and packing, craft fairs have table fees, travel, parking and display materials - so I see equality in all venues. But a modest hit on price may allow you to clear older stock, create some goodwill and have another customer walk away with your contact details. I would consider a discount to be marketing expenditure.

So, thankfully, I've done pretty well at all the events I've done to date. But it's also true to say that they're an unpredictable beast and there doesn't appear to be much of a pattern to help you prepare. My average sale value may vary a little from one to the next, but I've yet to predict what might sell well at any venue.

And don't even get me started on the constant battle to find efficient ways to combine display and storage to make setting up quicker and easier - yet keep good control of my stock and know where everything is - that's a whole 'nother blog.

Please also see my later blog on what to take with you when doing a craft fair.


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