Photograph Case Mods (In the dark)

I’ve had the question asked how I end up with these shots in a very dark room. Another common question is how do I avoid blowing the shot out with the glare of the bright lights most systems have? The answer to both question is the voodoo photography magic called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography.

The simplified version is this:

  1. Use a tripod.
  2. Take multiple shots at different exposures.
  3. Combine the shots into an HDR image.

Yeah, that was probably too simplified… so…

Here is the longer version

  1. Use a tripod. This is a must. No way around it. If you don’t, the multiple exposures will be from different positions and you will likely be dealing with some long exposures that cannot be compensated with any sort of image stabilization technology your gear might have.
  2. Get down on the level of your camera and pick your shot. Frame it up with your eyes and get your camera in position. You want to avoid harsh reflections from other systems, people, etc. You also want to eliminate as many distracting objects as you can other than the system. At a giant LAN party, this might be hard to do, especially if the owner isn’t there. Raise and lower your camera, move side to side… figure out your best position and lock your tripod height.
  3. Shoot in RAW mode. This is also a must. RAW saves all of the details and dynamics in the image. If you shoot in JPG, what you see is what you get. There isn’t any more detail to be had.
  4. Use an external light. This is a must if you want to see the outside of the case. I just use the LED on my Samsung S5. It doesn’t take much. You want to use something that has a very wide and even flood effect.
  5. Use aperture priority mode. This will allow you to set your desired depth of field via aperture, and let the camera worry about shutter speeds. You are using a tripod, so don’t worry about long exposures.
  6. Set your aperture to give you the desired look. I tend to use f/4.5-f/5. At 18mm this gives a total depth of 2.8 feet that will be in focus. The entire case will be in focus, but some of the background will be blurry. Even if you have a f/2.8 lens, generally you are going to give up some sharpness shooting wide open. Here is a handy depth of field calculator.
  7. Use a low enough ISO to eliminate obvious grain. On my Canon, I use ISO 800 and it is clean. 1600 would probably be fine on this camera, but 800 was as high as I could go on my old T3i. ISO 400 might be nice, but your exposure times will become ridiculous. You could combat this with a large light, but then you are going to wash out a lot of the contrast you are getting from under exposing and you will have glare to worry about.
  8. I suggest figuring out if your camera will allow you to do ‘back button focusing’. If so, set it up and get used to using it. In a nutshell, it allows you to assign the autofocus action that you normally get by the half-press on the shutter to another button, and make the shutter release only release the shutter. Why do you care? In this case, you want to pick a focus point, and be assured that it won’t change. Focus once.. and don’t worry about the angle of your camera etc. As long as you don’t move your tripod, your selected point will stay in focus.
  9. If using a zoom lens, set your zoom range. Remember, 18mm may be wide enough to get most of the system in frame up close, but it will add distortion that you will have to correct later.
  10. Select your focus point. For this kind of work, I turn all of the many auto-focus points off on the camera and use a single focus point in the middle of the frame. When it is really dark, it is hard to ensure you are focusing on the right thing otherwise.
  11. Fine-tune the framing of your shot by pivoting the camera on the head, but do not move the tripod, or you will mess up your focus. Once you like your framing, lock everything.
  12. I also recommend using a remote trigger of some sort. I didn’t on the referenced set above just because I don’t have one for my new body yet. I plan on getting one like this, but have not gotten around to it yet.
  13. Take 3-5 shots with varied degrees of over and under exposure. My Canon 7D mkII will do this via a menu setting. I take 5 shots (at exposure values of -2.6, -1.3, 0, 1.3, 2.6). You can take as many as you want. My camera will take up to 7 exposures and can go up to +/- 6.3. I find anything more than 5 and +/- 2.6 to be overkill in this application. You will end up with images similar to the following.
    Over-exposed by 2.6 stops

    Over-exposed by 2.6 stops

    Over-exposed by 1.3 stops

    Over-exposed by 1.3 stops

    Normal exposure

    Normal exposure

    Under-exposed by 1.3 stops

    Under-exposed by 1.3 stops

    Under-exposed by 2.6 stops

    Under-exposed by 2.6 stops

  14. Use software, plugins, etc to combine the images. I am currently experimenting with using Adobe Lightroom with the LR/Enfuse plugin. It requires that you also install a couple of other packages from the ‘Hugin’ project, but this can all be done from within the plugin configuration. I have also had great results with Merge to 32-bit HDR plugin for Lightroom and it is easier to setup.
    The end result will be as follows:

    HDR image

    HDR image

  15. Perform additional actions as needed in Lightroom. I typically will:
    1. adjust the highlights down to ensure nothing is blown out/overexposed
    2. increase contrast slightly
    3. adjust white balance, saturation, etc as needed to ensure the colors are as they should be (if you are working on a calibrated monitor)
    4. correct distortion under lens corrections by applying the lens profile
    5. crop the image to eliminate as many distractions as possible
  16. Save your finals as TIFF or PNG files to avoid the compression artifacts and banding you will see with JPG. Sorry.. there’s no way around this, you are going to end up with some decent sized images.. but drive space is cheap. 🙂

Let me know if there are additional questions. There are plenty of how-to guides for the tools.. just not a lot of applications for taking pictures of modded computers in a dark room.

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