Tips for photographing your Ironwork

By Harry Foster

The first thing to know is that one doesn't really need expensive equipment to do very acceptable photography of your ironwork, rather just having an appreciation for a few simple concepts will set you on your way.  This is not to say you will be able to match the effects of multi light set-ups that pros sometimes use, but it will give you good results. 

Lighting is key, and a soft even light source with some direction will be your best friend.  This can be done by using North Light, open shade or a homemade soft box.  A more hard-edged light with resulting shadows can sometimes be used to advantage, but it requires more skill to ensure the shadows don't confuse the composition and make your visual message harder to read.

The light from a north-facing window (south facing below the equator) produces a great quality light and was a favorite of portrait and studio photographers for years before the introduction of powerful studio lights with which they could almost duplicate the real thing.  If you don't have a good north window to take advantage of, you can do your set-up on the north side of a building outside and get the same effect.  See image P1. The opening to my garage faces due north and that is where I did this set-up, using only items I had around the garage. 

For a smooth background it is hard to beat the material they use for counter tops.  It will be smooth, clean and free of wrinkles and creases that sometimes plagues photo background paper, and it comes in many colors and even textures.   For examples from this set-up, see images P2 and P3.   Muslin drop-cloths can also be purchased from larger photography stores and are sometimes a good choice.  Keep them simple though, as you don't want the background to compete with your ironwork.   

Sometimes a stronger light with more direction to it is required.  This can be done using the sun, and a homemade soft-box between the sun and your artifacts.  See image P4

Your soft-box can be a simple wooden or PVC frame with plain white shower curtain material stretched over it.  This will soften and diffuse the light but it will still have direction and provide modeling for what you are photographing.  The sun should be shinning from overhead and from the back or back side. .  This will help make the piece being photographed jump away from the background.  You can use one or two reflectors on the front side to help define the edge.  This lighting technique is useful for photographing everything from knives, jewelry and assorted ironwork.  See image P5.  

This technique can also be used indoors at night using an inexpensive photo flood light of 250 or 500 watts of 3200 K temperature, you're home made soft box and some simple reflectors.  See image P6 for example of set-up.  Have other lights turned off and use tungsten slide film like Fuji 64T, or if you prefer to use your regular daylight color negative film, you must use an 80A filter to get the right color balance. You could also use a daylight balanced light bulb. For example from this set-up See image P7

Sometimes choosing a background that contrasts in an extreme way with the piece being photographed helps to show it off. An example would be a  finished knife against rock or rusty iron. See image P8.  With the choice of background, you can also introduce a context for the photograph.

For large items like gates, I think it always best to shoot them where they are installed; choosing the viewpoint that best shows off the gate and the context it is in. Cloudy bright days might be best to keep disturbing strong shadows to a minimum.  For detail shots of the gate, one way is to use a longer focal length lens at a wide aperture, so the background is thrown out of focus.  This can also be done with a macro lens. One could also use smooth photo background paper or counter top material behind the details, keeping it far enough behind that no shadows are cast upon it.

Cameras can be film or digital.  It is best if you can set your camera to operate with the flash off and using a tripod will always ensure you of better results. Some tripods allow you to operate close to the ground and this is an advantage to have in some circumstances.  If your tripod does not allow this, then a small table-top one can be had for a few dollars for those times when you need it.

If your camera allows for manual control then it is always a good idea to bracket your exposures either side of what your meter says.  The cost of the two extra shots is nothing compared to the time spent setting up and executing your photos.  This is not a problem with digital cameras as you can usually determine the quality of your shots by what you see on the LCD screen.

Film technology has made great strides in the past number of years and the Fuji and Kodak 400 and 800 ASA films are no longer grainy and course looking, but now give you very smooth fine grain photos in low light situations.  An example would be taking photos in your shop.  By mounting your camera on a tripod and setting your camera for fill-flash.  The resulting image will be far more pleasing than one where the flash alone was used.  It will be a nice mix of your shop lighting and flash, and flash that you are not too aware of. 

Another tricky situation is taking photos under primarily fluorescent light. The lights usually take on a sickly green cast.  Fuji has a film to deal with this situation.  It is called Reala.  Not a high speed film, having an ASA of 125, but one that will give you very natural color under these lights.  The higher speed daylight films work acceptably well in this situation too.

Good luck with your shooting. 


Harry Foster