Lighting for a Natural Djembe Photo

One challenge I’m always faced with is getting a good product photo. I sell mostly online and I know how important a good photo and presentation are. Especially with hand drums, people like to hear them before they buy, so I have to make sure the photo is as good as it can be when I don’t have audio.

I start with a good camera. I am currently using the Nikon D5000 digital SLR for all my drum photos. There are much better cameras, and there are cheaper cameras that would give similar results, but I just really like this camera 🙂 I do all my product shots outside and have been experimenting with lighting. Sometimes my photos come out great, sometimes they look dull and sometimes the light is extremely harsh. The time of year, the time of day, cloud coverage.. all these things are fighting against me when trying to take consistent photos.  I feel consistent photos really helps to ‘brand’ a product, or in my case helps me to set a image for my drums.  If someone sees one of my photos, I want them to know, that’s a Rhythm House Drums djembe..

I could just set up a photo booth inside and I’ll have a perfect, consistent photo every time… but I really like the idea of using the natural backdrop (my yard), natural light, and have come to use a large tree as sort of a staple of my photographs.

I’ve found that my favorite photographs are taken when it is bright out, but the sun has just gone over the tree line, taking away the harsh light, or in the morning before the sun gets up too high in the sky. I can’t always take a photo at these times, so I’m forced to make do with the photos I get with the harsh light and high contrast.

Using a tripod and a low ISO (200 or so) is a must for a crisp photo.  I’m also getting a cleaner photo when I use a lens shade, but that is perhaps specific to my location and the direction I’m shooting relative to the sun.

Through some experimenting I’ve found this solution to get a more constant photo with even lighting no matter what time of day it is… unless it’s raining of course 🙂  Sorry about the quality of the photo here, I’m using my camera phone as to not move the camera on the tripod during the shoot.  I need to build a stand for the diffuser but the beautiful model and happy baby seemed good for this purpose.

 

Lighting Setup

Lighting Setup

I use a light diffuser to even out the harsh light from a more direct sun. I use the same style panel on the opposite side to reflect light back to the drum. This helps bring out the detail in the carvings that can be lost in shadows. This panel acts as somewhat of a fill light, but more natural than a flash, and it’s position can be adjusted for the specific amount of fill I need.

The diffuser and reflector use the same build method and same material, one goes between the sun and the drum to even out the lighting, the other goes past the drum facing the sun & drum to lighten the shadows.

I know you can buy these from a specialty photography store, but I don’t have that kind of money, so I got creative.  I built frames out of PVC and PVC hardware readily available from any big box store like Home Depot or Lowe’s.

 

Light Panels

Light Panels

 

I used some white ripstop nylon from the local fabric store.  I got quite a few yards because I initially got this for a different project.  However much you need depends on the size of your frames.  I used PVC frames that were 2.5×2.5 feet (don’t quote me on this, I don’t have them here to measure) to make use of the 1 yard width of the fabric I got.  Just make sure you have enough to wrap around the PVC frame, or to Velcro to the frame.

Since my wife is quite handy with the sewing machine I nicely asked her to sew some some hoops in the fabric so that I could slide the PVC in and then connect the ends with 90 deg. elbows.

Really a very simple process and it makes a world of difference in my photos.  For the few minutes the project took, and the simple set up, and cheap materials… I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier.  You can see how using the reflector behind the drum brings a natural light back into the shadows (second photo).  And then on the third photo I have very consistent lighting with both panels in place.  I do think it looks a bit flat, I should have fixed this by moving the reflector back some so I didn’t loose the depth.  A little tweak in Photoshop should bring it right back to life.  Check out the difference it makes in the following photos.

 

Harsh-Light

Hard Light

 

Harsh-Light-Fill

Hard Light w/Reflector

Soft-Light-Fill

Diffuser and Reflector

 

Another aspect that I have to think about is how the drum is finished.  Any gloss finish is going to shine, which I’m not a real fan of on the drums.  I like a little luster, but not a gloss finish.  If I oil the drums right before I take the photo, they’re still a bit wet so the drums look super glossy.  Best case scenario is to let the oil seep in for a day or so before taking the photo.  This way you have the warmth and contrast that the oil brings to the wood, but without the glossy or wet looking drum.

I usually touch up the photos just a tad in Photoshop.  They have a nice plugin that lets me edit the RAW camera shot from my camera.  This lets me make small adjustments to the contrast, lighting colors, and to crop if I need to, all while keeping the integrity of the original.

 

Soft-Light-Fill

Diffuser and Reflector

 

Above is the original photo (converted for net so it’s not 15MB) with the diffuser and reflector both in use.  Below is the same photo with a bit of retouching.  On this drum I think I had the reflector too close, so I lost some of the depth.  I added back in some contrast, warmed up the color just a tad, and  cropped it so the drum is the main focus.  In the future I think I’ll move the reflector back even further so it doesn’t look quite so flat, but you can see how the final with the reflectors is a MUCH better photo than the first shot with the harsh light (no filters used).

 

Final-Retouched

Final – Retouched

 

I’m sure this technique can be used inside on a smaller scale for any craft photos, or can be adjusted to fit almost any need.  Photography is so important on the web, yet I continue to see lots of good products out there with poor photos.  Take the time to do it right!  It will pay off in the end.  Hopefully some other inspired drum builders will fine this in their search to better market their drums.  This technique will work great for any outdoor shoot.  It can also be modified for indoors using a back drop.  By building a cube in the same manner I build the panels you can put the drum inside with a backdrop and pro lighting to get a super consistent photo every time.  Light boxes that size are EXPENSIVE!  I personally like the natural backdrop of my tree/yard!

If any other photographer stumbles upon this, please leave me some feed back…. I’m no pro here, just experimenting and finding what works!  I’m always open to suggestions!

One Response to “Lighting for a Natural Djembe Photo”

  1. dj GoddessaAugust 24, 2011 at 9:52 AM #

    Hello there,

    I love the look and feel of your blog–the photos, professional look and inviting feel. Looking forward to spending more time here. Lucky to find you from the Alexa hop and am your newest GFC member and admirer. Have a beautiful day!

    Love,
    Me

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