As a photographer, I try to continually improve my skills and adapt to different types of shooting, as well as attempting to utilize more fully the capabilities of modern digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), especially outside of the Ornament studio. Also, I minimize the amount of equipment I travel with, both to reduce weight and avoid problems with airport security, with the realization that the added weight of a laptop is now a must for functioning outside of the office. Instead of multiple camera bodies and lenses, I restrict myself to one body, perhaps a zoom and a macro lens, and if necessary, an external flash. Often, I just carry a DSLR, preferably with my image stabilized 17-55mm lens. If traveling by car, then a full complement of photography equipment may be carried, including a sturdy tripod and ballhead.
In this brief article, I show images shot from late 2016 to recently, mainly photographed with makeshift setups, at museum exhibitions or shows and a few studio photos for comparison. With time always a premium, I still try to shoot images that are good enough to use for articles, news, blogs, and documentation, although it is hard to always match the quality produced by studio strobes in our office. When I am photographing outside of the studio, I consider it shooting on the run and often have to improvise without the proper equipment. But, by using external flashes, high ISO, image stabilized lenses and good camera holding techniques, one can get pretty close to studio quality. The images of the Bedouin necklace shows how a studio softbox and its diffused light can produce subtle qualities that enhance an image, like how the cloves and corralles glass beads are so well delineated, versus that shot with external flash in an improvised photo setup. In the latter situation, the more direct, less diffused light does not separate nor model as well the individual components of the necklace.
When I wrote the Photography of Personal Adornment (2014), I had already used almost all of the above techniques, although I had not used as much high ISO. Sometimes increasing the ISO, which is the equivalent of using higher speed film or ASA, produces too much electronic noise. The image of the Loloma bracelet, if examined at a higher magnification, shows noise or grain. Other times, by using high ISO and closing down the aperture of the lens, I can get very good imagery, even though the image on the viewfinder might be too dark to judge. After downloading to a computer and applying a few Photoshop moves, the image vastly improves, as seen in the minute glass facial mosaic of the Corning Museum of Glass (Liu 2014: 135).
Photography can be a difficult pursuit for both the professional and the hobbyist, but these photographs should give you an idea of what is possible with limited equipment. Experiment and enjoy the process while searching for that satisfying result.
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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. A frequent lecturer, some of his topics include precolumbian jewelry, prehistoric Southwest jewelry and ancient Egyptian jewelry. Recently he has been giving one-on-one photography lessons at our office, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo and matrix jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about photographing in improvised situations while producing near studio quality images, by using accessories like external flash and increasing the ISO of digital cameras.