I looked at your photos and you have a good eye for composition, so you're on the right track. Just a basic understanding of how light acts will definitely enhance your images.
I'm flooded with ideas I want to tell you, so let me just ramble and I'll try to keep it on track (Nick, if you're already familiar with the principles of photography, you should skip to paragraph 9, where I started writing to you directly.):
First off, a very basic lesson for anyone who doesn't already understand the fundamentals of photography: the only thing you need to know about photography before getting started is that light is recorded from pure black to pure white, and the camera's meter's job is to suggest what exposure will give you an average 50% gray. Since you know that your image will not be just a middle gray rectangle, it is up to you to determine how you want to balance the dark and light areas of your scene. The way you adjust exposure in a manual camera is by manipulating any of three features, the sum of which will be determined by the total amount of light available.
1. ISO: This is sensitivity of your film (or sensor). A lower ISO, like 50 or 100 features much fine grains of emulsion, so relatively much more surface area, which means it absorbs light relatively slowly. A faster ISO, like 800 or 3200 has larger grains of emulsion, so, with less surface area it absorb light much more quickly. Each doubling of ISO rating, for example, 400 to 800, represents twice as much light that can be absorbed in a given duration. In the case of pens, which are motionless, I suggest the lowest ISO possible. The drawback of higher ISO's is a grainer or nosier image (though this is changing with technological advancements).
2. Shutter Speed: This is how quickly your shutter opens and closes. If you are shooting with a low ISO, you will need a relatively slower shutter speed, to allow enough time for the light to be absorbed by your media. Each doubling of shutter speed, for example, a half second to one second, represents twice as much light that may pass through the lens.
3. Aperture: This is the opening in your lens that allows light to pass to the sensor. A large aperture (or f/stop) allows more light to pass through, allowing you to lower your ISO and/or increase your shutter speed. This results in a very sharp focal point and then a rapid falloff of sharpness to points further away (think soft background portrait). A smaller aperture allows less light to pass, so may require a slower shutter speed and/or a higher ISO, and will result in a deeper depth of field, so a sharper image from the focal point outwards. Aperture is expressed in numbers like 2.8, 5.6, 6.3, 8.0, 11, 16, 22, 32, etc. The lower the number the wider the aperture. Doubling an aperture, for example from 2.8 to 5.6, halves the amount of light that can pass through the lens.
For anyone who likes imperfect metaphors, let's think about your kitchen sink for minute. Imagine your faucet is a lens, the sink is your camera body, and a sponge directly below the faucet is your film or sensor. Our objective is to halfway saturate a sponge, and how we do that will depend on a few factors. How long we keep the faucet open, how wide is the faucet's opening, and how absorbent is the sponge?
For example, if we want to wet the sponge quickly, but our faucet's opening is narrow, we'll need a more absorbent sponge and/or we'll need to run the faucet for longer. Changing any one of those three factors will affect the sponge's exposure to the water, and thus may require an adjustment of either or both other factors.
Pens, being inanimate, will often benefit from a low ISO, slow shutter speed, and small aperture. If the wind is blowing and your pen is likely to move, then a shorter shutter speed may be required, and you can make up the difference with either an aperture or and ISO adjustment in the opposite direction.
That is photography in a nutshell.
Nick, one recommendation I have is to make what photographers call V-flats. These are assemblies of two boards bound with a spine of tape, much like book covers without pages between. (Note, Europeans also refer to these as "bookends" or sometimes just "flats.")
The height and width of the v-flats is dependant on the subject matter, but in the case of pens, a flat that is 24" square should suffice in most cases.
V-flats are possibly one of the cheapest and most useful pieces of equipment in any photo studio. They can act as light sources, flags (to block light), reflectors, supports, and more. With enough V flats (3-4) you can easily make a tent, if that is the style of shooting you choose.
As a side note, since you mentioned tents, they are both wonderful and total garbage depending on the situation. They are sort of a 65% solution, but they are totally expendable in light of several alternative and preferred techniques.
Below are three snapshots of a small v-flat. In portraiture, we use V-flats that are made from foam core boards, black on one side, white on the other, that measure 4 feet by 8 feet and are 1/2 inch thick. The thickness gives it stability and durability, and the duotone give it flexibility of purpose. The only real trick to building small flats is that when you tape the edges, you should use a flexible tape, like gaffers tape, and you should not tape too tightly, otherwise they will not open and close without resistance. The standard board photographers use is very difficult to find (there is basically one place in NYC to get it), but you can also use smaller boards from the art supply store. I recommend buying both black and white in this case, so rather than flipping a duo tone board, you just have an option of two separate boards. Use 1/4" thick boards of you can find them. The 1/8" boards won't last long. the beautiful thing about V-flats is that they are cheap, replaceable, customizable, and there is basically no wrong way to use them.
I could write an essay about making V-flats, but I won't - instead I'll explain some of the ways they are used.
Let's say you are shooting in the sun. There is only one sun, but you want light from more than one angle. If the sun is to the right, use the white side of the v flat to reflect from the left. This will fill/brighten the shadows cast off that side.
If the sun is behind your subject, you can use two v-flats in front, one on either side of your subject, to allow the direct sunlight to act as a backlight or rim light, and the reflected light to act as a front light or "key light."
If the sun is shining directly on the subject in a harsh manner, use the edge of a v-flat to feather a shadow across the blown reflection.
Often the best placement for a V-flat is just outside the edge of your field of view.
Note that with highly reflective subjects, like polished gold, you are essentially photographing a mirror, so you will see anything that you allow to reflect on the surface. V-flats can offer a uniform reflection that follows the contours of your subject. Therefore, you might need to move your V-flats very close or construct large ones in order that your reflection covers the entire area you want to fill.
When thinking about reflections, realize that the size of the subject doesn't matter nearly as much as its shape/contours. A foot-long gold rectangle will reflect a much smaller area than an inch-wide gold sphere. The contours of a reflective object will determine the size of the light source you need.
Also realize that what you can achieve with a larger light source you can also essentially be achieved by moving your small light source closer to the subject, and vice versa.
The size of your light source will determine the edges of your shadows. So, if you want very soft shadows, you need a very large light. The unobstructed sun, being very far away, acts as a very small light source. When the weather is overcast, the sunlight is being diffused through the cloud cover, and become much larger, creating much softer shadows.
It is important to control your highlights (whites) and shadows (blacks) to make sure neither is really pure white or pure black, unless you intend it to be so. Once your camera records pure white or black, you cannot recover those pixels. For our purposes, there are 254 gradations of gray between black (represented digitally as 0) and white (represented digitally as 255). If you can avoid capturing pixels with a brightness value of either 0 or 255, then you will be able to do virtually anything to your pixels in post-production. This is one of the reasons why controlling light is so essential. (for example, https://www.flickr.c...57655593646316/ - in my opinion, this very nice image would be improved by toning down the blown highlight across the center of the pen. It's distracts from the beauty of the nib, which could have also been lightened just a tad. Am I correct that the highlight is a reflection of a long window that turns a corner? It could be toned down with a translucent shade, or you could bring some sort of diffusion material closer to the pen, just above your camera, to darken it a bit., or you could shoot a darker exposure to lower those white, and simultaneously add light into the other parts... or... so many ways to do it!)
I noticed you use Legos to support your subjects sometimes. You might instead gather some little bits and bobs that you can hide entirely. Tiny acrylic cubes can support and add to a composition. A small wood finishing nail or toothpick can often be hidden behind a pen or tucked under a curve to stabilize it and prevent it from rolling. TopStick brand tape is an industry secret I might get in trouble for revealing... it is a highly workable double-sided tape made for scalps, so it will not mar precious and delicate surfaces when handled gently, but it sticks with almost no pressure and is easy to cut into small enough pieces to hide. Very fine fishing line can be used to suspend or stabilize your subject, and can either be removed in retouching or, better yet, lit in a way that makes it disappear in camera.
Don't be afraid to try lights other than the sun. You don't need anything special. The most important thing is that all your lights are the same color temperature. So, I don't recommend mixing the sun with LED flashlights. But your results using 3-5 LED flashlights with some V-flats might blow your mind.
There is a lot more to say, but I need to get back to work, so please allow me to leave it there for now. I know this might have raised more questions than it answers, so please feel free to ask anything.
Meantime, keep up the good work.
Edited by Usernameistaken, 08 September 2016 - 02:37.