Imagine this: To cut costs, your favorite band has decided to forgo the studio time and instead, record their new album with an old tape recorder on the floor of their practice space (or, just consider Metallica’s St. Anger.) They probably wouldn’t be your favorite band anymore, to say the least.
Agree? Of course, you do. So then, why would you promote your artwork with subpar photography? Word of mouth is great—essential, even—but your portfolio is still your best salesman, and your portfolio isn’t selling shit if it’s full of low-res, half-assed, cell phone snaps. It’s time to step up your game. Here’s how . . .
Going Pro: Using a Real Camera.
In a perfect world, every shop would have a solid DSLR camera and a dedicated photography space. Yes, cameras aren’t cheap, but why settle? You’re photographing art. Your art. As in, the visual creations that fund your livelihood. There’s really no reason not to cough up the scratch for a halfway decent machine to do so. Don’t worry; it won’t cost you an arm and a leg, at least not by tattoo standards. You’re looking at less than an arm’s worth of work. For an idea of what’s available, just Google “Best camera for under $1,000.” There are plenty of options out there.
There’s a learning curve when using a DSLR, but it’s worth the time. Whatever camera you buy, there’ll be more buttons, switches and dials than you can shake your needle at. Don’t worry about all of that. Just set it to Manual and adjust as necessary. There are three settings you need to worry about, known as the “Exposure Triangle”:
Aperture. Put very simply, if the lens were your eyeball, the aperture setting would be the degree to which your eyelids are open. Aperture affects light sensitivity, but more importantly, depth of field, meaning how much of your shot is in focus. A wide aperture means only your subject is in focus, while a narrow aperture increases the depth of field and brings the background into focus as well. For your purposes, wide is better. You want 100% focus on your subjects, not what’s behind them.
Shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed, the better the camera can capture movement, but the less light it can take in. A high shutter speed works best in outdoor scenarios. If you’re shooting at high speed inside, you’re going to be using flash, which means a gnarly glare on your work, which means a crappy photo. The other side of it, though, is at a low speed, even the slightest flick of your wrist will cause a blur. But you’re a tattoo artist, so you have steady hands. Otherwise, spring for a tripod.
ISO. ISO measures light sensitivity. The higher the ISO setting, the brighter your picture. Again, though, there’s a rub. Set your ISO too high and you end up with a grainy photo, AKA ‘noise.’ That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid here.
The key here is to learn to walk the tightrope, so to speak, to balance perfectly atop the tip of the figurative triangle these three setting create. The balance is tricky because these settings are simultaneously complimentary and detractory. Set one too high or two low and you must readjust the other, and so forth. Find the sweet spot. Every scenario is different and requires a different configuration, but you can minimize the toggling and fumbling by creating a controlled environment. Hence, our suggestion for a dedicated photography space.
Before proceeding, let’s address one obvious fact: The best photos are taken using sunlight. If you can’t spare the square footage for a dedicated space in your studio, this is your best option. Just make sure the sun is never behind your subject, use a bit of shade for better light diffusion, and try to find a solid, consistent backdrop. However, there’s very little control of an outdoor environment. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. An indoor space with consistent lighting is far more efficient. With that in mind, there are two main considerations:
Lighting. For a quick refresher on the best lighting for tattoos, grab your copy of our previous issue. That should get you up to speed. Basically, just like when you’re putting needle to flesh, you want to illuminate the work while minimizing shadows. Diffuse. Diffuse. Diffuse. There are multiple ways to achieve this. Be creative. Here’s one idea: Get two white sheets and hang them perpendicular to the wall, leaving just enough space between them to comfortably fit your subject. Point high-output lamps on the outside of both sheets to create consistent, diffused light to illuminate your subject. Basically, create a human-sized lightbox. If you can rig up something to get diffused light from the top as well, even better. A simple Googling of the concept will get the creative juices flowing. You’ll just have to figure out how to make it work in your space (hint: make it as collapsible as possible—maybe curtain rods so you can slide the sheets back?).
Backdrop. Whatever you do to achieve that perfectly diffused lighting, you’ll need a consistent backdrop for every shot. Solid colors are ideal, although, a brick wall can create a pretty cool vibe too. Planning to do some work in Photoshop? Consider the classic “green screen” background. Ultimately, a backdrop is as simple as hanging a sheet on the wall. Just make sure it goes down to the floor, so you can grab those foot tattoos as easily as a chest piece.
The iPhone: Everyone’s Favorite Shortcut.
As great as all these ideas are, most of you will probably stick with the lens affixed to the back of your iPhone. It’s understandable. For one, you’re already managing an Instagram account. Why not kill two birds? Besides, your phone’s always in your pocket, it’s easy to use, and every year, the folks at Apple use their black magic wizardry to get a little closer to making the standalone camera obsolete. The same basically goes for the Samsung Galaxy.
“But I have a Blackberry.” OK. Don’t you have some new tribal work you need to post on Myspace? Please go.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten rid of that guy, here are a few pointers.
Activate HDR. The HDR setting on the iPhone is basically how you switch the camera app from Bruce Wayne to Batman. Far more color, Far more detail, and far fewer crappy shots to delete later. It’s almost cheating.
Remember: Light is still important. Even with the magic of the iPhone, you still want properly diffused light to achieve clarity and avoid glares and shadows. Refer to the paragraphs above.
Use the ‘White Paper Method.’ The iPhone software works referentially, meaning, the color you capture is relative to the truest white in the shot. A stark, white background can really make the colors pop. When shooting a smaller piece, especially on the arm, it’s as easy as sliding a sheet of printer paper into the background.
Tweak. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting a photo in post to get it closer to what your eye perceives, and the iPhone has plenty of options here. When you’re looking at a photo, just hit the ‘Dial’ button at the bottom of the screen and tweak away. The three most useful tools are contrast, saturation and brightness. You’re welcome.
Maintain original resolution. Don’t let the Mail app shrink your pic. Always select original size to ensure the highest resolutions possible.
A Few Other Odds and Ends.
Whatever your setup, there are a handful basic rules you should always keep in mind.
Don’t photograph a tattoo the same day you finish it. No one wants to look at puffy, red, bloody skin. For the best result, get your customer to come back in a day or two. You still want it to look fresh, though, so don’t wait longer than that.
Shoot with print resolution in mind. Anyone can post their photos online. Getting them in a magazine is a different thing altogether. But print has an entirely different set of requirements than digital. The minimum resolution for print is 150dpi; ideal, 300dpi. If you can make sure your shots are in CMYK, even better.
Take as many photos as you can. Always take multiple shots and increase your odds of achieving perfection.
Learn Photoshop and Lightroom. There’s really no substitute. For visual artists of any kind, the two programs are practically a necessity. Subscribe to the programs and learn the basics at the very least.
Words by David Pogge, Staff Writer, PAIN Magazine
Co-authored by Brett Herman of Hidden Tattoo Los Angeles