Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Better pictures?

In Hardware on Oct 4, 2010 at 00:01

Almost all the pictures on this daily weblog are taken with a Nikon D40 + 18..55 mm “kit” lens. I bumped into a fantastic deal two years ago for that setup and have never looked back since then.

Pictures matter on this weblog. In fact I try to get a picture, drawing, or code snapshot image into every single post. It’s simply more fun – to make, to read, and to look back to later.

And until now, almost all pictures were taken in plain daylight (indoor, on a table next to one of the windows). This has been a mixed blessing really – gorgeous light at times, but a widely varying white balance due to the different times of day at which I decide to take some snapshots. And with winter nearing, good daylight conditions are going to get scarce again.

Seeing some of the pictures uploaded to the new “JeeLabs” Flickr group (check it out!), I felt that I really need to beef up the images on future weblog posts a bit. Better close-ups, and more importantly: more consistent lighting conditions and while balance. I’m hoping to do this without killing the low-key basic approach to everything done at Jee Labs.

After some lengthy conversations with Steve Evans and with many thanks for his tips, I’m going to try doing a bit more with flash. At first I wanted to try something with RGB strips, but it simply makes no sense to light up a little scene like a theater (requiring substantial amounts of light!) while the shot only takes a fraction of a second.

There are three problems with using the built-in flash, though:

  • it causes horrible reflections
  • it causes horrible shadows
  • it’s still fairly weak

For decades, I’ve routinely turned off flash for any picture I took. It seemed so ill-suited to capture anything meaningful in a pleasant way, especially with people.

The good news: project / product shots are different…

First of all, everything I shoot for the weblog tends to be fairly small. So a “lightbox” is definitely an option: a micro-studio set up to photograph a very small area with all the lighting in place.

Ok, time for some examples (sorry if it looks a bit like a JeeNode commercial). This is the JeeNode v3, Jul 2009:

Dsc 0424

This is the JeeNode v4, Nov 2009:

Dsc 0767

And here’s the JeeNode v5, Sep 2010:

Dsc 1968

All of them shot out of hand, in daylight, most of them tweaked a bit for exposure, white balance, and shadows, and cropped / rotated for proper framing. No big setups, no comparisons, just some tweaks until it “looks right”, each time.

Here’s a shot of the JeeNode v5, as it came out today, while spending a lot more time on lighting, setup, histograms – but still essentially just some quick ad-hoc tweaking:

Img 20101003 7

Basically, I adjusted the exposure until the background is fully white, and I’ve boosted both color and the sharpness a fair bit (using Nikon’s View NX2 instead of my usual iPhoto).

That last image is definitely closer to the real thing. Much more detail in the shadows and in the highlights. I’m also pretty certain that this new setup can deliver results which are far more repeatable (and at any time of day).

But it is “better”? I’m not convinced. The crystal on the RFM12B is a good example of how you gain detail, but also lose some “vibrance”. Somehow, that JeeNode isn’t jumping off the page anymore … it just sits there.

Oh, here’s another fun shot:

Img 20101003 10

Maybe I’ve simply been staring at too many JeeNodes today. Comments welcome.

Tomorrow, I’ll show the setup I made for this.

  1. To me, those last 2 pictures have some sort of “LEGO” look (sorry, that’s the first word that pops up in my mind); they look more like some sort of maquette instead of the real thing. Missing the text on the ATMEGA also makes it look unreal, too “clean” – I know there is text on it, so where is it…

  2. This shot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/iantindale/5011039301/ was shot with Nikon D50 + 16-85mm lens, inside a Redwing Cocoon 70, with two Elinchrom D-Lite 4 units, one each side, with a standard spill-kill on each, and an Elinchrom BX250Ri underneath, pointing up to underlight (or backlight — the camera is pointing directly down) the subject. I should have used my 55mm Micro-Nikkor lens, though.

  3. I like JeeNode v5 sep, 2010. It looks like you can touch it and can pick it up, straight from your screen. (eye candy) It looks alive and real, unlike the later one that looks a bit plastic or lifeless to me. If you want or feel the need to blend it into background use a bit of transperacy towards the edges so it softly blends into the solid white. Anyways, I think this by far the best illustrated and informative ‘Arduino like’ website around!

  4. Ok, I now understand that the last two are boring because all the surfaces are lit far too evenly. There is no clear light source, just light – the result is too artificial.

    @Robert – that last ATmega chip has very faint markings. The JeeNode used in the last two shots is not the same one as in September.

  5. I think one of the reasons V5 Sept 2010 looks “pickupable” is due to the angle, it’s leaning, looks like it will fall off the screen. The other thing is the contrast and colour saturation are really pumped up compared to the latest ones. The 16Mhz resonator looks the same colour as half the girls in Essex!

    As JC said, the problem he’s currently having is consistency. V3 has a red tint. V4 is a bit dark round the between the ports (even though the RFM12B is well lit) and V5 Sept 2010 is pushing the contrast a bit! Every time he shoots he doesn’t know what he’s going to get. The sun moves, the bit of table he shoots on moves. He needs to get something which will create constant acceptable results. Sure some of the natural light shots might be better, but what about next time?

    That’s where using flash comes in. You are providing the lighting. You control it. Once you have the set up nailed you can do it again, and again, and again. Especially as all JC’s subject are similar size and colour.

    Just need to get that initial set up nailed.

    I think another go at the V5 at closer to the V5 Sept 2010 angle should make it more engaging, the female port plugs should work less as a wall. Tweak the contrast and colour saturation up a bit so the black bits become really black… And what has happened to the words on the top of the ATmega? :-/

    They’re all certainly better than the mess Arduino have made of the pictures of their new Uno board… They’re resizing in browser with img tag properties shudder

  6. Maybe the use of a little ‘light tent’ to get control over the lighting will help also, they come different sizes and when you don’t need them they fold up. Place two (tungsten) lights next to it with a slightly unevenly distance and height to get a bit of depth in it and ‘Bob’s your uncle’. Maybe use an extra little light source in the tent for some nicer highlights. Search eBay for ‘light tent softbox’ they go for around $15 up.

  7. Your new shot of v5, with white background looks so nice and professional to me. Like what you would get for marketing purpose. Very pure, and clean, a bit like a 3D synthesis rendered scene. The others look more quick-n-dirty. If you look at v5 Sep, I have even the feeling that both sides are blurry. Also, the top of the quartz of v5 Sep is plain white (bad), whereas the Quartz of your new shot looks perfect. I also like the new angle better, you get a better feel of height and depth. With your older shots from above, you had no clue how tall those JeeNode’s were.

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