Photographer's reflecting in artwork
Photographing reflective surfaces can be a pain but it's important to keep track of your work.

Don’t Forget Your Camera

Lessons Learned in Documentation

Of all the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, one of the easiest to prepare for is the creation of your next project. Like every such event, you should have lots of pictures of the process and your only chance is now. After making the novice mistakes of relying on fuzzy photographs of a (temporarily) working circuit with an iPhone 2G and arranging for people to demonstrate a piece without taking lighting into account, Elizabeth wants to spare you the same agonies. Learn why, what, and how to document your next great project. Elizabeth will share opportunities missed, lessons learned, specific tips for documenting your next great project.

Overview

I’m not a professional photographer.

I write code for a living.

But I’m also a maker. And I’m proud of my projects.

With the help of a talented friend (Jonathan Ystad) I was able to have quality pictures at the end of my projects.

So, Pro Tip 1: have a professional take your pictures.

The problem is, when I’m in the middle of experimenting between different solutions for my circuitry, or I’m assembling a frame, or I’m creating a mold that will, eventually, be broken open, I can’t call in my friend for every photo.

And yet:

The end of a project shouldn’t be the only time for documentation.

There are so many amazing projects I see people doing, and yet, when it comes to blog posts, tutorials, presentations, and such, their process pictures are poor to non-existant. Which is why I want to break down the issue, exploring why we should document, what we document, and how to document.

Why Document

Save things that are temporary

Photography is particularly appealing for its ability to capture a moment in time. If something is created that will not last, it is a clear subject to preserve since you cannot return to take a picture when you want it in retrospect. An example might be a tattoo…when painted on with eyeliner.

Sanity Check

Frequent photography is also important for those unpredictable changes. Jiggling a circuit a little might dislodge a chip that had been working and now your project is no longer functional. After three hours of fevered tinkering, one can loose track of what arrangement was working or even wether it was working. If you can look back on a photograph, not only can you affirm that, “yes, it did light up” but what arrangement you may have had at that time.

Recreate it later

Similarly, it is easy to presume that when a project is done, it is complete and all that is needed to be recorded is the final product. Yet, a few years later, a similar project may crop up and memories of the details may well have faded. A good photograph takes so little effort relative the the potential benefit down the line.

Share it with others

Your work does not have to be groundbreaking to be sharable. Even if you are your only audience at the time, it is a good skill to develop for the future and a point of reference for yourself. As the audience expands, not only can you be a source of information but a catalyst for conversation and illuminating suggestions. We all look forward to the next big break through.

It may be useful in a presentation

‘Nough said.

What to Document

We live in a wonderful age, and one of it’s perks is digital photography. Pictures are cheap to take and just as easily destroyed. The size of your SD card should not be the limiting factor of you documentation. By all means, take ten photographs to get one good one because that good one is priceless.

When I embark on a new project, I photograph EVERYTHING. I photograph materials, measurements, processes (like machining, soldering, or pouring silicone), circuits, and even mistakes. Just keep in mind, while you may not think it’s useful now:

It’s hard to predict what pictures will be useful in the future.

For my first analog circuit, I placed LEDs in a cardboard box, shining through a backless picture frame lined with mylar pulled out of a potato chip bag. Easy enough to forget. Yet, a year and a half later, I returned to the concept with mirrored plexiglas. Three years after that, I hand chiseled a wooden pillar, wired the interior, and topped it out by a hand sanded 1x1x1 ft plexiglas cube that just so happens to be at Maker Faire today. Yet, who would have thought that an early analog circuit could be relevant or meaningful.

How to Document

Before even turning on the camera, the first thing to consider is composition.

Don’t rush. Rushing leads to messy, blurry, and useless pictures. Take your time to ensure that the picture is self contained – that it encompasses all the information necessary to be of value. In many of my early pictures, wires wind in and out of the frame. Which one goes where is anyones guess. I quickly became more meticulous with my wiring on breadboards so that photographs could easily track what LED is connected to what pin. After all, a photograph can only record what is made visible to the camera.

Basics of photography

A camera is a tool. It captures what data you make available to it. And you have a lot of control over what data there is and how much. A camera captures light that has bounced off of the intended subject, through the lens of the camera, and onto the sensor. Individual sensors are collecting the amount of light they are exposed to, and, collectively, form a picture. What light does reach the sensor and how, is determined by a collection of variables.

The core goal in digital photography documentation is to maximize the amount and range of data collected in an image by finding the sweet spot between a collection of variables.

This is where we come across the issue of what camera to use. Early on, I was using my iphone camera because it was handy. But that did not allow for the flexibility or resolution that I needed for proper documentation. An SLR (Single lens reflex) camera is an investment. An SLR camera allows for better control over variables, flexibility of different lenses, and larger sensors to collect more data.

Your camera body doesn’t have to be a HUGE investment. Unless there is a special reason to be blowing $2k on a camera body, it’s just as well to buy the introductory body from either Canon or Nikon. Others can argue till they are blue in the face as to which manufacturer is ultimately better, but for the maker, what will probably make the biggest difference is: what do your friends have? If your friends have Canon cameras, get a Canon. If your friends have Nikon cameras, get Nikon. Having the same brand means that your friends can better help you and you can share lenses.

A quick over view of what variables to consider while taking a picture:

Focus

Make sure your main subject is in focus. You’d be amazed how many times the most important text in a photograph is blurry because the focus is off. Content out of focus is data lost. As much as CSI might make it look like a picture is an infinitely zoomable window into a place and time, it isn’t.

Aperture

Aperture describes the size of the whole on the camera that allows light into the sensor. The size of the aperture is inversely related to the depth of field in the photograph. A smaller aperture setting will allow for a larger depth of field so that more of the foreground and background is detailed. For makers, where capturing detail is key, smaller apertures can be useful.

Exposure

Exposure is the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light. This is not how much light is exposed. The same exposure time in a poorly lit room is going to result in much less light hitting the sensor than in a well lit room. An overexposed image will have washed out areas that are all white. An underexposed image will have dark areas where the details are obscured. Both cases loose detail. While having an overexposed image can be artistic, it’s usually not the realm for documentation images where getting the perfect exposure means getting the optimal amount of data.

ISO

ISO describes the light sensitivity of your sensor. It’s a good rule to try to keep the ISO as low as possible because heightened sensitivity also leads to “noise” in your photos. For most projects, this shouldn’t be a problem. But if you are working in lowlight situations that involve movement (say, a rotating LED panel) increasing your ISO will be necessary because the alternative (increasing exposure time) will lead to blurred images. Still, for most documentation purposes, this is not an issue.

Tripods

Mostly in low light situations, but often even in indoor lighting, using a tripod can make a big difference in the clarity of your photograph. Consider: even moving your camera the distance of a pixel on your camera sensor during the period of exposure will effectively HALF your resolution. The less light your have, the longer you will need for an exposure and the bigger difference having a tripod will make.

Another useful tool can be a bag of rice, which you can rest your camera on to steady it on a surface when a tripod is not an option.

Lenses

Lenses are excellent tools that can allow you to get the right shot. Lenses are measured by focal length, which describes the angle of view and magnification of a lens. Prime Lenses (or “fixed focal length lenses”) have a single focal length that the photographer can shoot with. If you want to change how large of small a subject appears, walk towards or away from them. Conversely, a zoom lens allows for variable focal length. A wide angle lens will capture a distorted “fish eye” view and is generally not optimal for documentation photography. In some cases, a telephoto lens may be useful. It has a long focal length, making it optimal for far away subjects. Most interesting to me, however, is the macro lens, which has a short focal length – great for capturing small details.

Macro for makers

Macro lenses are expensive. Once you get into the realm of fine details, you can be dropping a good $2k. While I am proud of my detail work, I have other things in mind for that kind of money. Instead, greater minds than mine have discovered and shared that we can reverse lenses to replicate a similar effect. A favorite lens for this is a 50mm lens. It’s really useful, and it’s quite affordable. With the added bonus of a reversal ring (which you can buy on ebay) you can flip around your lens to get usable macro shots. Be careful, though, when you are buying a reversal ring, make sure that it fits your particular camera body and lens. I’ve already made that mistake for you.

Reflective Surfaces

My last project has a mirrored surface. In my documentation photos you can see my couch, pillows, coffee table, and view depending on what angle I am shooting. Despite fiddling around with filters, it took some basic googling to find what photographers already know: hide. Depending on the size of the subject, you can use tools like poster board. Just cut a whole in the board for your lens to peek through and shoot away. In my next round of shots, I’ll be constructing a curtain out of a bed sheet to hide behind.

Before and After

When taking pictures to compare, it is critical to eliminate as many outside variables as possible. Thus, it’s important to take your pictures in a consistent and controllable environment. By taking your pictures in a room with consistent lighting (morning sun light and evening sun light are dramatically different) and a solid background (neither white nor black), you have both control and a point of reference to do any necessary color correction later.

Sharing it

Before the end, I just want to encourage you, again, to share your work. Participating in the community isn’t just about instruction, it’s also about creating a conversation. You can help people or others could give you advice. It’s also just a nice thing to do. Just keep in mind:

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

When you are writing up about your project, try to be as detailed as possible, but when details turn into delays, it’s time to just post and update as needed.

Conclusion

Measure twice.
Cut once.
Photograph everything.

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One thought on “Don’t Forget Your Camera

  1. This is awesome reading material! It’s packed with useful info that anyone can read and understand. I love to read articles by writers that truly care about the content they produce and share. Thank you.

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