Skunk's Minimalist Guide to Gun Photography


May 1, 2003, 03:06 AM

I use my bed to shoot photos. I shoot in the bedroom because I have a vaulted ceiling in the living room and lower ceilings are better, since I bounce the flash off the ceiling, it puts the 'light source' much closer. IF YOU HAVE ANY COLOR OTHER THAN WHITE ON YOUR CEILING, STOP READING because the rest of this isn't going to do you any good at all. My bed sits almost a yard off the ground because my mattress is on top of six 25-gallon Rubbermaid tubs with my SHTF stash for when blue-helmeted alien paratroopers invade Orange County. Actually they're storage bins because I have moved 9 times in the last 6 years, I'm not a big fan of real furniture...anyway....

For my backdrop, I usually lay clothing or a pack or bag on the bed, something that goes along with the theme and will take up the whole frame. What I mean by 'theme' is because I usually am taking pictures of guns and knives, I have my Royal Robbins pants and pants or Camelbak as a backdrop. Arranging your guns, knives and stuff is a matter of trial and error. You'll develop an eye for it, but it's something I can't really explain. It's like music, without experiencing doing it yourself, you can only explain so much what sounds good, what works and what doesn't, but you can't really definite it. It just is.

Now here's where the hotshoe flash and all that stuff about your camera's interface I keep harping about comes into play. I point the hotshoe flash straight towards the ceiling. What this does is make your ceiling a big flash umbrella. Kind of. It's not perfect, but this guide is for minimalists, not for well-equipped professionals. The flash will be pointing your direction and your eyebrows may feel a little warm, just don't look into the thing when it goes off, okay? If any of your indoor lighting is on, set your camera to 'tungsten', or else you may get a yellowish tinge to your photos. While many modern cameras are smart enough to shoot on full-auto most of the time, the most consistent boo-boo I have seen is the auto-white balance can't really figure out when to transition over to the 'tungsten' setting.

Your camera should...MUST have a focus lock indicator. Messing with auto-focus on anything but an SLR just plain sucks. If you can't lock focus, enable the macro mode, and see if that helps, as you may be too close for the camera to lock on. If it doesn't lock on, you'll get a shot that is soft or more likely, blurry. After you lock the focus, take a shot. Depending on the power of your flash, brightness and reflectivity (is that a real word?) of your subjects, your photo may be too light or too dark. Bump your exposure settings up and down a few thirds and see if that helps, or set the time exposure thingy (Tv on my camera) up or down.

In Photoshop, it's easier to take something dark and make it lighter than it is to take something bright like a Leatherman or a stainless steel slide and try to salvage any detail out of it by cranking the brightness. If there's any bright and reflective parts in my photos, I like to set my exposure so those parts are about right, which will leave all my matte stuff a little dark. Highlight the light stuff, do an inverse select which will then select everything but your stainless slide or whatever. This way, you can crank up the brightness on your dark areas so it's more balanced. You'll be surprised how much detail you can get back, even if it appears too dark when you review it on your camera's display. If the light parts are washed out no matter what, try pointing the flash in different directions, or make sure the mirror-shiny frame on your 1911 isn't reflecting the light from the ceiling straight back into your camera, i.e. fiddle around by minutely adjusting the angle of your subjects, and try pointing your flash somewhere else like the corner of the room instead of straight up.

Finally, because I'm too lazy to read everything about Photoshop, I let the software figure it out by hitting 'auto-adjust'. Sometimes Photoshop over-compensates. For example, I may have a slightly orangish tinged photo that appears slightly washed out and dark. I hit auto-adjust and Photoshop makes it a trifle too blueish, cranks the contrast up way too high. What you do is duplicate the layer, then auto-adjust the top layer, then set the transparency to 50%. This puts you smack dab in the middle.
Hope this helps.

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May 1, 2003, 03:09 AM
And Skunk's Two Dorrar on Photographic Gear Acquisition and Logistics, I get a few PMs and e-mails asking me about my gear, so here it be. None of this would have been possible without Oleg Volk, he didn't so much teach me what I know as much as he opened my eyes, mind and (awww) heart. Here goes. Of course, my two dorrar only, I don't know your needs, but trying to answer the most common questions I get asked. I'm not a pro or anything, but may be able to help you get started?


When you talk digital cameras to folks, they usually ask how many megapixels. Let me say right now that under most conditions, megapixel count doesn't really matter unless you're doing prints. Almost all current production cameras shoot images larger than your desktop area, which is approximately 0.8 megapixels for folks running 1024x768. Most good cameras come with 3+ megapixel count, and you only see anything less than that with subcompact and pocket cameras, which have problems on their own.

IMO, the interface of the camera is far more important. What I mean by interface is how easily and quickly can you check and adjust your camera's settings? Some cameras have no settings at all--literally, point and shoot. I call them disposable digital cameras, because once you take the photos, you throw away the camera. Some cameras, you have to dive through menu upon menu of settings to change something like your white balance or exposure compensation. What ends up happening is you may end up leaving your camera on the wrong settings and find out after you've uploaded them. Ideally you should be able to glance at your camera and know exactly what every single setting is set to, and change them quickly before you lose your shot, whether the butterfly got spooked or the sun drops behind the hills.


I consider a camera with the ability to attach an external flash to be a requirement for a serious camera. The onboard flash is next to useless. Most photos don't need flash anyway, but when it is needed, the onboard isn't nearly enough light and is pointed in the wrong direction anyway. If you're half-way serious about photography, budget in $250 for a good flash. I know that's a lot of money, but you'll be glad you did. As for studio stuff like backdrops, flashes and other doodads, they cost too much for me to invest in considering how infrequently I use the stuff, not that I have room for it in my little apartment. Tripods are also good, but I almost never use them--when out in the field, they take up too much space and are too heavy, they are slow to deploy, and I can usually find some kind of rest. Also, for white balance, a gray card is nice. It's a card that's well, perfectly gray.

Last summer, I almost dropped $700 on a Canon double macro ring flash thing that looks like an Imperial TIE Fighter and a really nice tripod. After experimenting with my cheapo lighting set up and borrowing my dad's tripod, I'm glad I didn't use either. At first it's fun to go out and buy lots of gear. A tripod is handy to have given your needs, but specialized pieces of gear like the macro ring flash, often times you can figure out a workaround. Hell, if I bought that stuff, I probably would haven't have gone to Korea, and what the hell would the toys have been if I had the ring flash but no photos of Gyeongbokgung palace?

Logistically, I'll probably get an SLR some day, so I wanted my camera to be part of an overall system. I bought a Canon G2, but my batteries, memory and flash are compatible with the Canon SLR's. I believe Nikons are the same way. Sony's aren't--while their cameras are good, their memory is proprietary and don't share common parts with a high-end system; proprietary parts are a peeve of mine.


Adobe Photoshop is pretty much the industry standard in photo editing software. Photo editing software is almost mandatory. I have Adobe Photoshop 5.0LE (limited edition, not law enforcment, duh) which came with my camera and does far more than I need it to do. A very credible coworker of mine highly recommends Adobe Photoshop Elements, and I got to play with it a little and it seemed quite good, and balancing cost vs functionality would go that route instead of Photoshop 8.0 or whatever version Adobe is up to now, considering I don't even use all of 5.0LE's features. I haven't tried Microsoft PictureIt! or any other competitor's software, so I can't comment on them. Most camera bundleware software sucks, and with Windows XP's integrated camera wizards, thankfully I can skip them altogether. Photoshop Elements may seemed like a dumbed down Photoshop, but it just takes out all the extraneous stuff you probably won't need if you're just dabbling in photography, and puts the commonly used features up front and easy to get to. If you just bought a camera and it didn't come with any decent editing software, if I had to right now, I would recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements.

May 1, 2003, 03:28 AM
Dr Lunde recommends (and I second) that natural light looks best, no worrying about color balance or odd shadows. Regarding flash, I prefer to have a brighter lens than a brighter flash, but I don't much macro. :p

Other accessories I would recommend:

1. Tripod
2. Remote shutter release
3. Incident light meter: if your gun is black you will confuse your camera's meter. Reflective light meters have no point of reference so if you point it at something black it thinks the world is very dark and overexposes correspondingly.

Oleg Volk
May 1, 2003, 09:31 AM
Another option for getting correct color balance and possibly exposure is to get a grey card and shoot a reference frame of it in the same light as your gun. Set that frame as default (manual) color balance.

If the ceiling is too high, white paper could work for small objects: set folded paper like so < on each side of the object > and shine the flash through the paper on the "top" of the photo ( as it would be viewed eventually. Remember to clean to dust off your subject will show up prominently.

May 1, 2003, 10:29 AM
Hey Skunky,
Did you know that (non-moistened) rice spring roll wrappers can make great diffusers? :p


May 1, 2003, 11:17 AM
skunk, come on now...we all know that you use your bed as backdrop in photos because thats where your guns spend most of their time: cuddling with their owner. :D

May 1, 2003, 11:18 AM
I am curious about your comment regarding the megapixels of the camera. I have a Sony Mavica and have a very difficult time getting good detail in my pics. Some people seem to get very clear shots while mine seem to be a bit less clear. I am sure that lighting is one problem because I have few places in my house where I can take pics of my firearms. I usually take them on my workbench in the cellar under a four-foot flourescent light.

My camera has very few controls so there is not much fiddling I can do (and hence not much I can screw up). My biggest problem is trying to find a way to get clear shots of my subject. Should I look for a stronger light source?

May 1, 2003, 12:25 PM
Here'a a good link to camera info:

May 1, 2003, 12:55 PM
for most digi cams, zooming out and moving in closer gives you a better picture.

zooming in, slows the shutter giving you more wiggle jitter

May 1, 2003, 01:29 PM
Great thread.
Been involved w/ photography for a long time; digital for a couple years. You made an excellent point about pixels, which any good camera shop will try to sell you: mostly important for prints. Anyway, prints from digital rarely can compete with good film (which is why Hollyweird moves are shot on that 150-year-old technology).
Good tips all around, thanks.

Jim March
May 1, 2003, 05:01 PM
Or there's the cheap way:

Get a $50 USB flatbed scanner.

Open the lid.

Lay gun on glass.

Throw any sort of white cloth on top. T-shirt works just fine.

Hit the "scan" button.


Greg L
May 1, 2003, 05:08 PM
Or even easier Jim,

While out browsing on the web if you see a nice picture of one then right click and save it where you want it. :D

Greg :rolleyes:

Standing Wolf
May 1, 2003, 05:37 PM
Bouncing light off a ceiling is a good idea; I've also found it useful to crumple up some aluminum foil, smooth it out, tape it to a piece of cardboard, and use it as a reflector. It seems to reflect more light than ceilings, and gives great diffusion.

It's been my experience that the greater the resolution you start with, the better the finished image will be, especially when you reduce resolution and use Photoshop's unsharp masking feature where it's needed in the image.

Here's an easy trick for making selections:

1. Convert the RGB image to LAB.
2. Go to the Lightness channel, then duplicate it.
3. Return to the background.
4. Use the Lightness channel to make a selection.
5. Duplicate the selection as a new layer, and make your modifications thereon. Adjusting color is much easier and more sensible in the LAB space than the RGB or CMYK spaces.
6. When your color is right, save the document, save it under a new name, flatten the layers, and convert it back to RGB. Keeping multiple iterations of an image lets you easily back up to correct mistakes.

When you duplicate the Lightness channel, you can duplicate it again, then use Levels and/or Curves to modify it. You can invert it. Many times when masking a small portion of an image, I've found it helpful to start with a rough mask made this way, then refine it in the Alpha channel, then use that to make my selection.

May 1, 2003, 06:22 PM
Jim: That works, until someone decides to scan both their Desert Eagle and their Mac-10 at the same time. After that, they'll probably have an interesting story about how they had to buy a new scanner. :p


May 1, 2003, 06:26 PM
The higher the res of that camera (and the longer the exposure), the more the effects of that double latte will show up as blurring of those formerly sharp edges.

Larger digital cameras can help with stabilization.

-sven, needs a tripod

Canon S230 - best investment I made all year

May 1, 2003, 06:28 PM
Canon S230 - best investment I made all year

Cuz you haven't gotten that battle rifle yet :D

Actually if I had to pick one or the other I'd keep my Canon and ditch my cannon. (just the M1A, the Beretta you can pry from my stinking striped paws!)

May 1, 2003, 10:24 PM
One thing I always recomend is to use a tripod all the time....if you can help it. Espcialy if you are in lower than optimal light. Having to have a longer shot makes it very very very noticable.

If you are into digital and like macro shots....remember to use the largest apature you can. And always line up the focus line(it is horozontal to the camera) to what you want the focus to be on. So if you want your guns manufacturing mark to be focused, and you would like to have the trigger infocus as well....line them up.

May 2, 2003, 12:50 AM
Funny, I have a Kodak DX3600 and it seems to be at its best with no zoom at all, non-Macro and using the flash. If you play with angles, you can usually get a fairly non-reflective shot. Even outside in more than ample ambient light, the fill flash helps out.

Not to turn it into a picture thread, but here's two pictures I'm particularly happy with, both with fill flash. Took near identical snaps without the flash and neither came out as well. I'm still a bottom-rung amature as I usually take 5 or 8 pictures to get the 'right' one but at least I try. :p

May 2, 2003, 02:27 AM
Don't forget, though, that you can also gain some benefit by bouncing the flash around in different directions. A tip on photographing nice wooden stocks - "skimming" the light over the grain tends to bring out the figure.

Digital cameras are a godsend for shiny objects - you can experiment getting the best illumination without any reflection. In this case, I bounced the flash off a white wall to the right of the subjects, after turning off the internal flash.

Some of Nikon's digital cameras will work with older flash units. In this case my Coolpix 990 will work with an SB28, via a flash adaptor. Nice that it uses the same flash as my F5 :D The resolution setting was VGA Fine which in this case makes a 112kb file, which is sharp but still fits the screen.

Oh yeah - the important part - Joe Yeates Fighter & Ruger #1, 200th year model in .300win mag.:D

May 2, 2003, 02:48 AM
"Dr Lunde recommends (and I second) that natural light looks best, no worrying about color balance or odd shadows. Regarding flash, I prefer to have a brighter lens than a brighter flash, but I don't much macro. "

Actually, natural light can cause problems with color balance too.

Cloudy skies have a different color tempature than a clear day, and shade will also have a different color tempature. Color balance can have a huge impact on your photography, and in my experience, digital cameras tend to be oversensitive to colorbalance. At least more sensitive than negative films, but similar to slide films.

If you are shooting digital, one of the best things to learn about is histograms. A histogram is a graph that will show you where all of your pixels lie on an image. It will show you if your highlights are blown out, where your shadows are, and will show you where your exposure is and should be.


May 2, 2003, 11:51 AM
I was never a fan of natural light. Several of my photos were shot w/ natural light because of spacial constraints in the apt and the balcony was the only place to lay stuff out.

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