This is a rewrite of an article I wrote for WetCanvas! in June 2004. Changes have been made based on questions I have received and to keep up with the times.
It can be extremely frustrating to achieve high quality digital images of your glass beads and jewelry. Hopefully this tutorial will help you come closer, if not achieve the image quality that you desire.
I have seen how-to articles on how to achieve quality digital images for single objects with the camera aiming from the front. I have tried many set-ups and manipulated many variables (lighting, background, angles, etc.) based on what other people have shown to work for them. I found that while they might work for single, upright objects, I couldn't achieve the same effect for my sets of glass beads that I wanted to photograph flat. I also did not have the proper conditions for sunlight, whether it be direct or indirect, and wanted a set-up that I could use any time of the day.
When I originally wrote this article I was using a similar set-up that was adapted from an article at WetCanvas! by Dale Lynn titled "Improve your Glass, Bead & Jewelry Photographs". Dale's tutorial shows how to build a pvc pipe light box, step by step. Since that time, many brands of light tents have come on the market, at reasonable prices, and I now use a portable white nylon cube (I found mine on eBay). Dale's pvc light box is beneficial if you do not have some type of framework or stand that allows your light to shine over the nylon light cube.
Photo Set Up
1. My lighting shines down from the top in the center of the cube, toward the surface of the beads that lay flat.
2. I use white printer paper for my background. Some whites are not all that white so you might want to try different papers. I've found that glossy photo paper gives a nice reflection, if you like that effect.
3. The light is a clamp-on shop light from the hardware store and it cost about $7. The actual bulb is a 100 watt GE Reveal bulb that is found in most any store that sells light bulbs. The look like they're tinted purple or blue and give off a natural spectrum of light.
4. The camera is on a tri-pod and is a necessity for clear pictures. A regular tri-pod set up will allow you to come in at an angle. I purchased a boom for my tripod that allows my camera to extend into the cube and directly over the beads. It was the most expensive part of this set up (next to the camera) and is optional.
5. I also have on hand, pieces of gray and white foam core board that I have used to direct the light. If you find you have a hot spot (a bright area) in your image field, place the gray foam core on that side of the tent. It will serve to absorb some of the light. Likewise, if you have a dark spot, place a piece of white foam core to reflect some of the light back into that area.
6. It is best to have a room that can be completely dark, aside from your photo lighting. This will ensure that you have consistent results at any time of the day. Cover any windows that allow sunlight in and turn off all other lights.
Camera and Settings
I use a Nikon Coolpix 4500, which is now an old camera. The only settings I change are to make sure that the macro capability is enabled, the flash is turned off and the white balance is set to incandescent. A good macro function is key to good images. For web images you only need a 1 megapixel setting. For print, the higher the better but 5 megapixel is plenty for up to 8"x10" photos.
Don't be alarmed if your image is dark. This is what results when taking digital images on a white background. In the following steps you will learn how to lighten that background and remove any residual shadows around the edges.
Step one is to lighten the background to get it back to white. To do this, open the image in your Photoshop program and press Ctrl+L (cmd+L on Mac) which will bring up the Levels window (shown here). It might look confusing to you, but it's not. You can fiddle with it to see what it can do but the one thing we're interested in here is the little eye dropper tool bar right above where it says 'preview'.
Click on the one on the right. When you hover your mouse over it, it should say 'Set White Point.' You are going to use this to turn the background white again, and it will also adjust the other colors accordingly.
After clicking it, take your arrow cursor and click it somewhere on the background of your image that should be white. Be sure not to get too close to the actual beads because you might be clicking on a shadow, which should not be white. You will know if you do this because your image will be thrown all out of whack.
If that does happen, either click the cancel box (it shows here as reset but will really be 'cancel' on your screen at this point) and start over, or press down the Alt button and the cancel box will chance to 'reset'. Click on this and it will go back to your original image.
Here you see the image after I clicked the background to whiten it. Notice that, while it is much better, you can still see some darkness around the edges. You could leave it like this or you could follow the next steps to remove it.
Removing the Background
Either type W or click on the picture of the magic wand in the tool menu. If you hover over it, it will say 'Magic Wand Tool (W)'. Make sure that the tolerance is set at 32 on your toolbar, then click on a white area of your background.
You will see what is called 'marching ants,' or the dotted line in your image. The magic wand has automatically outlined your image and its shadow, if there is one. We are going to delete everything the magic wand has selected, but we need to feather the edge first or it will not look realistic.
To feather the edge, either press Alt+Ctrl+D, or on the drop down menus click 'select>feather' and then set it to 3 pixels and click OK.
Next, hit the delete button on your keyboard and then press Ctrl+D (cmd+D on Mac) to deselect the tool and leave your image. If you do not see the background delete, press ctrl+X to cut the background out (cmd+X on Mac). Save your image.
Here you see the final image, after I cropped out the extra background. I wait to do the cropping until the end so that I don't cut it too close and cut out any of the desired shadow.
I hope that this tutorial helps you to achieve great images. While the steps might look daunting if you've never used Photoshop, they're really pretty simple and as with anything, the more you use it, the easier it gets.
Lori Greenberg is a glass beadmaker in Cave Creek, Arizona.