Taking beter pipe photos

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I’ll start this by saying that I’m no photographer; it’s a hobby for me that I have become a bit obsessive about so I have spent time learning. We all understand obsession and we’re all here to learn so I thought I would share some of the things I have learned about shooting snaps. I’m no authority and I’m sure there will be differing opinions so I’m just going to share what works for me.

Executive Summary
Taking great pipe photos is easy. There are only five simple things you need to do
1, Make sure it’s bright
2, Get close to your pipe
3, Get your background away from your pipe
4, Put your pipe in the middle of the picture
5, Try not to move your camera when taking the picture

Now let me take a few thousand words to explain why.

Expensive photography equipment is not essential for taking good photos; it just makes your life easier. Typically, the more fancy the camera and lighting, the more control the photographer has of all the parameters that affect a photo and the more expensive it is. A simple point and shoot camera makes all the decisions for you based on the software within the camera so all you have to do is put the subject within the frame and click. This does not mean that you can’t take great photos with a simple camera; it just means you need to understand what decisions the camera is making for you and how you can leverage this to your benefit.

To keep things in perspective, I’m going to take most of the photos shown with my iPhone. Unless otherwise indicated, assume the photo came from my phone.

Parameters that affect a photograph:
- Shutter speed
- Aperture
- Film/sensor sensitivity
- Focus
- Sensor resolution
- Quality of Light

I’m going to take these out of order because that’s the way my brain works. We’ll start by talking about megapixels (sensor resolution) because I just want to get that out the way first. Then we’ll talk about exposure which is a product of sensor sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture. Then touch on focus and finally get to the meat of quality of light.


Sensor Resolution
The first thing I want to talk about is resolution. This is the most common parameter banded about by camera salesfolk and it is the most irrelevant - particularly for pipe photos! Where do you display your pipe photos? Most commonly, on a computer screen or as a 4x6 or 5x7 print.

A typical modern computer screen has a resolution of around 1280 x 768 pixels (wide) or 1280 x 1024 (standard). Some are greater, some are less. A 2 megapixel (2MP) camera produces images that are 1600 x 1200 pixels. This means that for every pixel of resolution the camera picks up, a 1:1 display would need a monitor that is 1600 x 1200. When you view a 2MP picture on a 1280 x 1024 screen, your computer is throwing away some of the data because it simply can’t show it.

Here are some common resolutions:
iPhone 4S: 960 × 640
Super VGA: 800 x 600 (0.5MP)
XGA: 1024 x 768 (<1MP)
HD TV (720p): 1280 x 720 (~1MP)
HD TV (1080p): 1920 × 1080 (~2MP)
3rd gen iPad (QXGA): 2048 × 1536 (~3MP)
fancy $1.2k Dell Ultrasharp U3011 monitor (WQXGA): 2560 × 1600 (~4MP)

I bet you will struggle to find a camera for sale today that has less than 8MP. If you take a 8MP image and display it on your screen, over 75% of the data that the camera recorded is ignored. Megapixels are not king (says the guy with an 18MP camera)!

So when is resolution useful? High resolution has its uses for large prints, cropping and noise.
When you are taking a photo that is going to be printed in much larger sizes (e.g. for hanging on a wall) then a higher resolution starting point is preferable. The reality is that you don’t typically view this wall hanging 2 inches from your nose so 3MP or 4MP would probably do fine but people will always approach the photo and look for more detail hence the desire for higher resolution.

Cropping is when you take the original shot and cut bits off before displaying the final product. If something is far away from you and you don’t have the option to get closer, you can take an 18MP snap and then cut it down to a perfectly acceptable 2MP shot for display on your screen. Here’s an example:

Original (fancy 18MP camera)

Crop (cut out of the above image)

A final advantage is noise. Each sensing pixel on a camera has to behave itself but often they don’t - especially when you’re asking it to be more sensitive. This introduces noise into the photo; pixels that are lighter or darker and sometimes even the wrong colour than they should be. If you have a high megapixel camera, you can rely on the surrounding pixels to average out this noise and hopefully still give you an acceptable picture. OK, so remember I was talking about pixels being ignored earlier - this is not strictly true as the pixel displayed is an interpolation from surrounding “ignored” pixels hence the data is being used somewhat.

Later on we will talk about how to avoid noise in your pipe photos and I doubt there is anything preventing you from getting close to your pipes so unless you are making wall sized murals, there is no need to spend money on a super high resolution camera.

Edit: as you can see I'm talking about digital cameras and as pointed out below, you could be using film. If you're using film, most of what I talk about is still relevant except probably this section!


Now to the meat of photography - exposure. Exposure is the amount of light that hits the sensor (or film) to record the image that you want. An overexposed shot is one that looks brighter than you want and an underexposed shot it darker than you want. Notice that I say “you want” as the exposure is for you to determine and desire.

Most people want photos that look natural, being a representation of what the eye sees. This is governed by three parameters:
1, Shutter speed - the time that the sensor is exposed to light. More time = more light, less time = less light
2, Aperture - the size of the smallest hole that light passes through on the way to the sensor. Larger aperture = more light, smaller aperture = less light
3, Film/sensor sensitivity - the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Lower sensitivity = less light recorded, higher sensitivity = more light recorded.

Most of the time your camera will make the decision for you. For higher end cameras you can decide all of the above. I’m writing this with cheaper cameras in mind where much of this control is absent.

Film/sensor sensitivity
Of the three, I’m going to start with sensor sensitivity because you mostly have absolutely no control over this unless you have a fancy camera. The more sensitive the sensor decides to be, the less light required to get correct exposure. Unfortunately, most sensors are designed for a fixed sensitivity and there is jiggery pokery that goes on to increase sensitivity which means the sensor is not operating optimally. A non-optimally used sensor will create noise in your photo and noise is not nice.

So what can you do about it? The only thing you can do is to make sure that there is enough light so that your sensor is always running at optimal sensitivity and is not trying to compensate for insufficient light by increasing sensitivity and hence creating the potential for noise. I’ll leave it at that for now but we’ll talk more about light later.

Shutter speed and blur
The time that the shutter is open determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. Ideally you want this to be as short (fast) as possible. Why? Blur. Blur occurs when something moves when the shutter is open. The something could be you (the photographer/camera) or the object you are photographing. Typically, pipes do not move of their own accord so blur will generally be caused by you.

So how do you get a fast shutter speed? If the camera is making decisions for you, it will choose shutter speed by the available light it senses. The more light that is available (the brighter it is) the chosen shutter speed will be faster to get the correct exposure. We’ll talk about ways to make things brighter later on in the Quality of Light section.

Let’s assume you can’t get more light so what can you do now? Since you pipe is inanimate (unless of course it’s a meerschaum) you don’t have to worry about subject motion blur. The easiest way to avoid user induced blur is to keep the camera still. The fancy way to do this is to use a tripod. Some very fancy cameras/lenses have “image stabilizer” technology built in which attempts to correct for user movement - this is good stuff but expensive. Cheaper and simpler ways are to rest your arms or the camera on still surface (e.g. the table).
Let’s look at some examples:

Hand held

Camera rested on table

Aperture & Depth of Field (DoF)
The next exposure parameter is aperture. Aperture is the size of the smallest hole that light passes through your camera lens before hitting the sensor. As we said before, the larger the aperture, the more light. The more light, the faster the shutter speed so we would like to have as large an aperture as possible. The aperture is actually a property of the lens, not the camera. For those of us where the camera and lens are inseparable, this doesn’t matter.

To illustrate, here are some photos of an old style manual camera lens that allows me to set the aperture and it stays there:

Aperture wide open

Aperture closed down

Unfortunately most built-in lenses don’t allow the user to change the aperture so there’s nothing you can do!

So why am I bothering with this? Aperture has another important effect on your photos and that is “Depth of Field”. Depth of Field refers to the part of the scene that is in focus and that which is not. The part of the scene that is not in focus can be considered “desirable blur”. The photographical term for this is “bokeh”. So why do we want parts of our photo to be blurred? The phrase used is background separation - this means that the subject stands out from the background so the viewer’s attention is placed on the subject and not distracted by the background.

Here are some examples:

A flake resting on the background

A stylish flake (background further away)

Note that it's the same background in both shots but in the second it's blurred so as not to distract you from the flake. This is where art comes into your photography. It’s up to you as the taker of the picture to decide what a nice looking photo looks like and what it doesn’t. Generally, photos with blurred backgrounds make the subject jump out and are considered by many to be aesthetically pleasing.

So what does aperture have to do with all this? Simply, the wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field (the smaller portion that is in focus) so the easier it is to get background separation. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the larger the depth of field and the more of the photo that is in focus.

OK, that's enough for tonight. I'm not finished with aperture but it's dark so time for some aged rum and a smoke...


Wow, iSiv, that's quite some thorough explanation. I really appreciate you taking the time to organize your thoughts so clearly. The only thing I might add to the parameters is the quality of the optics. As digital as the interface has become, the grinding of the glass still matters, at least in what I've witnessed.

My biggest problem is the quality of light. It seems like the shots are either too dark or, if the flash is added, washed out. I guess I could build a white box or?

Anyway, don't let me interrupt. I look forward to our next lesson.


Active Member
Very cool post. I'm lucky enough to have a half-decent Canon Rebel available to me, so I might be able to learn some of these tricks.
Great post. I especially liked the part about getting the background further away from the object. Great shot of the flake. I have a D5000, all I need now is some decent pipes to photo.
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