One Ring To Rule Them All
The Iron Ring is worn by Canadian engineers as a symbol of pride in their profession and as a reminder of the responsibility and care needed when making decisions that affect the lives of others.
Small item photography like this can be highly technical, as well as time-consuming. I’ve written a description of how I put together this shot, in case anyone’s interested.
A picture like this is really a still life. A lot of photography is about reacting to your environment: timing, available light, available angles, and so on. But in a still life, you have full control, and can take your time. Since you’re really assembling an image from scratch, not capturing something that already exists, the first thing you need is an idea.
I had this idea earlier tonight. I was thinking about what to do for today’s photo, and since I didn’t have time to go outside during daylight, I decided to do another small item shot. It occured to me to photograph my ring, but a picture of a ring lying on a table isn’t that exciting. So I came up with the “One Ring” idea – hang it like a necklace. It works nicely with the legendary tongue-in-cheek arrogance of engineering students, who all know that Engineers Rule The World.
I had the ring but needed a chain. This particular chain is from an old, broken bracelet that for some reason I haven’t thrown out. It’s just the right size for the ring — my current bracelet is a much heavier chain, and I don’t think it would look as nice.
Backgrounds are important. This is true for all pictures, but especially in close-ups. You normally don’t want any detail in the background to distract from the subject. It’s common to use a background with no detail at all. A picture of a flower, on the other hand, is often nice if you have more leaves and garden in the background to give it context, but even then it’s common to make sure the background is out of focus. In this case, I wanted a black background; white backgrounds seem more popular, but I wanted a lot of contrast between the ring and the background.
I was originally going to lie the ring down on something with the chain going through it. But I thought that a suspended ring would give a nicer curve to the chain, and look more natural. So I needed something black to hang it in front of. We have a black fabric cover over our breaker box in the basement, and I’ve used that once before (for Hootbot). Perfect.
To actually suspend the ring, I attached the chain to a pen (with a rubber band and the pen clip), grabbed a convenient cardboard box, stuck the end of the pen on top of the box, and put a CD wallet on top of the pen to hold it in place:
Very crude, but it worked great.
I had to fiddle with the angle of the pen a bit. I wanted to see the “face” of the ring, not the edge, and I also wanted to see the curve of the chain. Since the ring naturally hangs at a right angle to the chain, I needed to put the pen at about a 45-degree angle. This meant that one end of the chain was farther from the camera than the other; not what I originally envisioned, but I liked it. I thought it would give more depth to the picture.
So, that’s the “studio” all set up. It was pretty dark (the picture above was taken with flash), so I turned on whatever lights were handy (not that they made a big difference). I set up my tripod so that the camera was vertical, and at about the same height as the ring:
(This was actually taken at the end of the shoot. I’ll explain the other props – the red box and the towel – later on.)
To get the improvised necklace to fill the frame properly, I had to use my 75-300mm lens. It can’t actually focus that closely, so I added a +2 close-up lens. To get the picture as sharp as possible, I turned off my image stabilizer (since I was using a tripod), turned on mirror lock-up, and hooked up my remote control.
Finally, I put my camera in aperture priority mode. This allowed me to control the image’s depth-of-field by setting the aperture, and leave the shutter speed up to the camera. I fairly arbitrarily picked an aperture of f/7.1, and took the picture.
Not a bad first shot, but I had another idea in the back of my mind. I wanted the ring to be lit from below by a red light, so that it looked as though it was hanging over fire. I looked around for some sort of object with a red LED, but couldn’t find anything. So I tried an experiment. I took a small red cardboard box, put it underneath the ring, and lit the box with a little white LED I have on my keychain. I was hoping that if I shielded the ring from the light, and just let it reflect off the red box, I’d get red light from below.
Kind of, but not really. There’s red in there somewhere, but also a lot of white and blue from the new light. There are also some weird reflections off the backdrop that are kind of cool but kind of distracting. And it was really awkward to hold the light and take the picture all at once. On impulse, I took the picture with the red box under the ring, but without the light.
That actually kind of worked. The ring and chain are silver, so they’re reflecting the red box, and there’s also a little bit of red light coming up from the bottom. I grabbed a small red bar towel that was nearby, and hung it over the box:
While I was reassembling the whole thing, I adjusted the angle of the chain a bit so that the chain was wider, and the ring was narrower. The result:
Now I was getting somewhere. It looked a little blurry though, so I re-focused and also increased depth-of-field by switching to an aperture of f/14. (Actually, the previous two pictures were shot at f/8 and f/9, not f/7 like the first one…I’m not sure if I did that on purpose or if I just twiddled the dial by accident.) My fifth attempt:
Ooh, nice and sharp. And I got the red reflections I wanted. With the increased depth-of-field there’s a little more detail in the background, but I was fine with that. This picture would do nicely.
Total so far: about 20 minutes, from the time I had the idea to the time I took the fifth and final picture.
Of course, you’ve probably noticed that this picture doesn’t really look the same as the one I have up at the top of this post. That’s because I hadn’t finished with it yet. I captured this photo as a RAW file. The picture above shows how the camera thinks the RAW should be developed. Sometimes the camera makes really good choices (especially in ‘easy’ conditions like outdoors in the shade on a sunny day). Other times, it makes really bad choices (especially in bad lighting, like I was using here). And sometimes it makes acceptable choices, but not the ones that you want for the picture you have in mind.
In this case, the white balance is way off. That ring and chain are both made of stainless steel – they should look silver. But the lights I was using are really, really yellow. And it wasn’t that well-lit, and my camera seems to have a hard time with white balance in low light. The exposure is pretty good – the camera chose a 25-second shutter speed to go with my f/14 aperture. That should give you some idea of how dark it was (I was shooting at ISO 400). However, it’s not the final look that I was after — I wanted a darker background and more contrast overall.
So I loaded the RAW file up in my RAW processor, and went to work. First, the exposure. I raise the black point, so that the entire background turned black, and lost its texture. I also adjusted the gamma to give a bit more contrast to the entire image. (Gamma, black point, and white point are three related adjustments that any RAW processor allow you to make. They’re basically the same as Photoshop’s Levels tool, and if a picture is taken as a JPG instead of a RAW, you can use any decent photo editor’s Levels tool to make similar adjustments.)
That got the background pretty good, but the colours were even worse…the ring looked -really- gold. Actually, it’s not a bad picture if I really wanted it to look like The One Ring. It’s pretty easy to fiddle with a RAW processor and get a result that’s completely unlike reality. But I try to make sure the output is at least somewhat representative of reality. Besides, it didn’t look like an Iron Ring anymore. That’s OK, though; white balance is nice and easy to adjust. You only have two controls: colour temperature and magenta/green balance.
And hey presto, there it is. I got the silver colour, and managed to keep the red reflections pretty strongly. I actually went back and made some minor adjustments to exposure after finalizing the white balance, since the two affect each other a little. Specifically, I decreased overall exposure by 1/3 stop, because the highlights on the ring were blown out (that is, they were overexposed, making them solid white where they should show detail). I also raised the black point a little higher. In the earlier shot, the bottom-left quadrant of the background is slightly lighter than the rest of it, and the background has an overall red tint. With the new white balance and lower exposure, I could correct that without having a negative effect on the ring and chain.
And that’s it! The RAW editing, as elaborate as it sounds, probably took under ten minutes, meaning the entire process was about a half hour.
(Now, if you start using flash, it gets *really* tricky…)