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Set up your own table-top studio
Natural light is always best, but you'd be surprised what a few light bulbs will do

Your setup: a table top, two pieces of cardboard, a clamp, and three lights and you have your "studio." Experiment with bulb intensity, light position, and use reflecting cards (like the one shown at left) to bounce light on your crèche.

Seeing the light—and having a camera—is all you really need to shoot great photos. The images, above, and the explanation, below, will get your started. A home studio is nice, but keep in mind that there's nothing better than natural light…

You back yard beckons! Just perch a crèche on a tree branch, and click that shutter! There's no substitute for nature and natural light. But don't light that candle! Do so in Photoshop—so you won't burn down that tree!
Setting up a home "studio" is easy

I'm delighted to be able to address one of the most often-asked question on, that, in fact, our friend Celso Rosa from Brazil just asked again the other day. Could you please add some tips on taking photos of my collection?

Here we'll talk about "artificial light" photography and how you can set up a simple home "studio."

Yes, my good friends, future An sal Adamses all, there's nothing better than natural light. But what do you do if it's winter in the snow belt? Or if you're in the mood to document your collection in the middle of the night? (Don't laugh, it has happened!). Then, artificial light is the answer.

What you need to do is create your own small photographic universe—with not just one, but three suns. Three lamps, that is, and those favored by graphic folks—with long armatures and springs that allow easy adjustment, (see photo No. 1) above—will work just fine. But you might be able to get by with lamps you already own, provided you can manipulate them and point the light where needed. And be sure to use non-florescent light bulbs.

I normally would take photos in my studio, using professional lights. But for the purpose of illustrating this essay, I set up a studio at one corner of my desk. You may be able to do the same. Position a piece of white cardboard (13 x 19 inches should be just about right) and your lamps as shown in photo No. 2 above. Note that the cardboard creates both the "floor" and "background" of your set—by being gently curved upwards and clamped to the table.

You'll also need another small piece of white cardboard, about the size shown in the photo above, folded at a right angle. And you're ready to shoot away!

Set your white balance

Before we talk about positioning the lights, let's get a bit technical just for a moment: since you'll be shooting indoors, you need to set your camera's "white balance" to "tungsten." (Your camera may use a different designation for non-fluorescent bulbs.)

Use a tripod

Next, and I can't recommend this highly enough, you might think about a tripod. It will prove very useful to you. A small, inexpensive, one is all you need. Many photographers discard a tripod now and then, so there might even be one in your own house. Ask around. You might be surprised how many tripods there are stashed away in this world!

Why do you need a tripod? You have three lights, and even with 60-watt-bulbs they can only output so much light. Don't be tempted in trying to use brighter bulbs in if 60 is recommended—they get awfully hot, and you won't be able to get them as close to your paper nativities as you might need. Besides, paper does light easily, and you don't want to burn your collection—not to mention your house—down!


Might as well get this photographic bugaboo over with right now. All it means is how sharp your photo will be behind, and before, the plane of focus. That's it. (And you were probably dreading even pronouncing it, let alone asking about it!)

Since you want your photo of your crèches to be nice and sharp, you need to understand a couple of things. No one, when you think of "sharpness" think of the "landscape" setting of your automatic camera. This setting allows for maximum sharpness.

For more sophisticated models—and photographers—what we're talking about, of course, is a smaller aperture. (Aperture denotes the size of a camera's diaphragm setting.) The sharper you wish a photo to be, the smaller the aperture. Physically smaller, that is, because the numbers that denote aperture, such as f5.6, f11, f16, etc., get larger as the aperture gets smaller.

But the smaller the aperture—and therefore the sharper the picture—the more time you need to take the photo. We're talking a 30th, a 15th, or an 8th of a second. That's when a tripod comes in handy. Now, some photographers have no trouble hand holding their camera, even at really slow speeds. Still, consider a tripod, because it will give you more uniform photos.

So attach your camera to your tripod, place a nativity in the center of your "set," and begin positioning your lights as shown in photo No. 1 above.

Background light

Position this light just above and behind your nativity. It should be aimed a bit to the left, to create the illusion of directional light along with the other two light sources, and it should be just high enough to be out of your picture. You may need to adjust this light after seeing your first shot, but mostly, once set, it is usually left alone. But it's very much needed to create a uniform, unobtrusive, background.

Main (front) light

Depending on the size of your nativity, position a light to the front and right (or left, if you prefer). Being careful not to burn your fingers (these lamps do get quite hot) position your main light so that it nicely illuminates your nativity. If you see any glare, angle the light in relation to your the front of your crèche front, and that should take care of the problem.

What you now have is what is called "directional light," but by itself, it is not enough: your main light needs to bounce off a card on the left hand side of the nativity, to light that side and reduce harsh shadows. (See photo No. 1.)

Take a picture, and compare it to No. 2. You can see that the right side of the nativity is overexposed, the background dark, and it's almost pitch black in some areas on the inside of the manger. So, a one-light source is not enough. (Unless, again, you are a pro, and using soft boxes that would "flood" your creche in soft light, but that's a whole different discussion.)

Accent (top) light

To eliminate the unsightly shadows inside your manger, you need a light source positioned above the manger. Did you notice that the tip of the light in photo No. 1 is aimed left, however, to reinforce the "direction" of the front main light, which is lighting your set from the right?

The accent light also serves another important function. By enveloping the figures in a halo of light, it helps separating from the background—or other figures—creating a nice 3-D look. (See photo No. 3 above.)

Camera position

Most often, but not always, you'll want to position your camera so that its lens is at "eye-level" with the middle of your crèche. That will produce a nice, balanced photo, but every situation is different. That's what I did with all the photos above because I wanted a symmetrical image.

Look through your view finder and make sure your creche and your camera are parallel to each other—for these photos, anyway. Otherwise, if your camera is at slight angle, your creche will appear shorter on one side.

About other lenses (if you have them)

A short lens gives you a greater angle of view, of course, a long, or telephoto lens, gives you a much narrower angle of view. A telephoto lenses are much longer, therefore need more light. (To see this, cup your hand into a tube shape and place it in front of your eye: everything just got darker, didn't?) And not only long lenses need more light, they also will produce pictures with a much narrower depth-of-field. If you focus on a Magi, the rest of your crèche might be out of focus, as in photo No. 4 above.

Forget flash

So, for now—at least until another lesson!—stick with a short lens. The one that came with your camera will work just fine. Position your camera almost level with your set, and about 15 inches in front of your nativity. Take a picture!

Are you suffering from temporary blindness? And did you just take a photo like No. 10 above?
Look at it now, and see how the glossy surface of the manger is rendered shiny by the flash. Not to mention those ugly shadows it cast onto the manger back wall.

If you have a flash that can swivel, point it at the ceiling, and take a another picture. Sometimes, this will help diffuse the light, but you're dealing with such a small object here—and a tsunami of a light source, so all you'll manage to do is flood your photo, wildly overexposing some areas, and underexposing others. And even if you could manage to take a perfect flash photo, you would not be happy with the quality of the harsh light.

So, the lesson for today is this: stay away from flash. Turn it off, forget it, save it for next time someone wants to take a photo of the Grand Canyon! (Forgive the silliness—don't you just love seeing all those tourists with flashbulbs going off in the great outdoors?)

And here our lesson ends—for today.

By studying the images above and their captions—and using your lights, not your flash—and I know you'll surprise yourself with some great shots

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© 2021

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