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I do a lot of writing about tabletop games, some of it paid, professional work. Often, editors ask that I also supply photographs of the games in play to illustrate the articles. I know very little about photography and have a poor eye for a good shot but, often, just some snaps of the games in play have proved sufficient.

However, I was told recently that my image work needed to improve. It sounded like a fun challenge, so I set to work. I have no special equipment, only a smartphone and a high-end compact digital camera. It seemed that mini photo studios were often recommended as a "first step" for improvement but that's no use to me: I can't fit an entire board into a small light tent.

Luckily, it's summer, so I took my games outside. Playing a bit with focus and angles, and taking a lot of shots, I managed to create these:

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Which are ... okay. But I'm really not sure where to do from here.

  • I can't take games outside during the winter, and I can't use a mini studio, so what other lighting options do I have?
  • How can I learn to create more interesting frames and shots with these sorts of components?
  • Sometimes be good to take "high level" shots of the games on the table with lots of components scattered around. But these are small objects which won't show on a distance shot. How can I turn these into interesting photos?
  • What other options on my compact camera should I learn to play with?

EDIT: A couple of "unprofessional" samples for those that wanted to see them. These should also illustrate the problem of taking distance shots of board games with tiny pieces.

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  • Good photos will tell a story. Maybe photograph the wargame looking between the lines with the images of soldiers firing in sharp focus. Maybe photograph the freight depot game from overhead to highlight the board layout. For me, my best photographs come when I'm not trying to "document a crime scene" but thinking about making the viewer think. Little things, that seem like too much work, e.g. making all the tiles read the same way matter when communicating. Good luck. – user50888 Jun 10 '16 at 17:50
  • Are you doing any post processing? I feel like a couple of them are a little too dark and could use a little bit of light post processing. – rrauenza Jun 10 '16 at 18:04
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    It sounds like the above examples are what you have now, after having put some work and thought into it. Could you also post examples of the photos you were told were not good enough? – mattdm Jun 10 '16 at 18:09
  • Have you ever studied any kind of text regarding photographic composition? Composition is more than just a set of "rules" made to be broken. It is the art of learning how to guide the viewer's eye through your photos. – Michael C Jun 10 '16 at 18:51
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    Ok Matt, your first "unprofessional" one with the racetrack has a clear rookie mistake in it, that I would bet you have noticed yourself: At least some of light source is behind or above you and your shadow falls across the subject while you take the photo. The second one is not so bad but it's a bit washed out and the reflections are distracting. A polarizing filter which would help with reflections is recommended in one answer, and also trying to get a lot of light coming in from the sides will help with both shadows and reflections. – Todd Wilcox Jul 6 '16 at 17:15
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I'm not a photography expert at all, but I have spent my whole life playing, buying, and most importantly looking at pictures of games of various kinds. I also have painted many miniatures and developed ways to take good pictures of them without spending a lot of money on serious photo equipment over the years. So here are some thoughts from a gamer perspective, which might be closer to where your clients are coming from.

Are these games not being played by humans? Have you been asked to make sure there are no hands in the process of throwing dice or two players pointing at the board and laughing, etc.? Perhaps a wide shot of friends playing the game, or a closer shot of some hands over the board will help make the photos more relatable. It seems to me like the example photos you have in your question are also way too close. I can't see what's going on in the game, what the board looks like, etc. The racing game is definitely clearer than the hex-based... battle game? And that's because it's a wider shot.

The lighting and white point definitely seem off on your photos. Sunlight can be pretty blue (I suppose it's really the sky) and the shadows can be harsh, so even though it's super-bright, by itself it's not always the best light source. One very cheap way to give yourself more lighting options is to buy a decent sized piece of white foam core, and optionally cover one side with the shiny side of aluminum foil. Especially in sunlight having a reflector can help a lot and provide better color than fill flash (which you might also play around with). You can also just buy a bunch of lamps. They don't have to be expensive photographic lights. You can get cheap LED lights with integral clamps and goosenecks, and you can use tabletop lamps - optionally with the shades taken off. You might really think about the white point of typical household lamps and either try to get consistent white points that you can balance out with camera settings or processing, or you might try mixing white points to get a more natural look (like a warm/cool mix). In the end, a warmer look would probably suit photos of games that would often be played in a living room under incandescent lights. Just getting some high wattage LED bulbs can give you a surprising amount of light without dropping lots of cash on photo equipment.

You can also compensate for less light with longer exposure times. Since your subject isn't prone to moving much, you can really keep that shutter open for a good bit, but you'll want a tripod. If you don't want to invest a lot in a tripod it will probably be cheap and lightweight. One trick for getting longer exposures with a cheap tripod without your hand moving the whole deal is to use the timer function. Set it for a three second timer, a long exposure, hit the shutter and then take a few steps back. Don't even walk on the floor around the time the shutter is open because you can move the tripod just by bouncing the floorboards a little. Some extra household lamps, a foam core reflector or three, a cheap tripod, and a little practice and you should be able to get some bright, warm lighting.

Definitely check out what others are doing. I looked at a random assortment of gaming blogs, I see a lot of lower-quality photos (to my eye, at least). But I did come across one where I like the photos because they look inviting, show me what I want to see, and don't have basic problems that distract from the content: http://www.unboxedtheboardgameblog.com I personally don't see advantage in trying to make photos of board games "exciting". I want to see the elements of the game (cards, counters, pieces, boards, etc.) in a clear fashion. For a review of a game, that's basically it. On that front, you might build a three-sided light box with no floor so you can take close-ups of cards, dice, and other elements with a table surface on the bottom and effective lighting. This sequence of Agricola photos is pretty good, IMHO: http://www.unboxedtheboardgameblog.com/2013/10/keeping-it-organised-agricola-e-raptor.html

This is a great example:

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For selling a game, it's common to show people enjoying it, with the implied message of "don't you wish these awesome looking people were at your house having a good time playing with you?"

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  1. Get a polarizer filter. You'd typically want the "circular" ones, though in this day and age you'd be hard-pressed to find one that's not. I noticed that your first and third shots show some reflection due to the board's gloss---you can remove that with a polarizer. Though most cameras not featuring an interchangeable lens system don't allow filters to be mounted on their lenses, that shouldn't be much of a problem since you are shooting a scene that's "set-up" rather than live. It's a minor inconvenience to manually hold the filter in front of your camera lens.
  2. Tweak the white balance. I won't claim to be a connoisseur of color settings but my guess is that you took these shots in Auto White Balance (AWB). You'd get more interesting colors if you set it to "Open Shade" or maybe "Sunlight". And don't be constrained by these two---try out the others and you might get a shot that's more interesting. If your camera lets you define custom white balance modes, experiment with them as well.
  3. Don't shoot when the sun is high up/middle of noontime. Aside from the risk that you'd wash out the color of your boards, it's generally more difficult to shoot with the sun high up: not much contrast and the sky is just too bright. Do it mornings or afternoons, or wait for clouds.
  4. Exploit symmetry, find more intersting angles. In your second shot, I think it'd be interesting to shoot with the lens shooting perpendicular to the surface (but then you'd have to manage shadows but that's another question now). Break the monotony with the pieces strewn about, as if in the middle of a game. How about shots that make the viewer feel as if they are on the board, along with the pieces? Some tabletop games are already crafted to be a few tweaks away from becoming an actual diorama, so play with that.

Lastly, don't worry that there are small objects that may not be visible from your shot. Your purpose in your photos is to complement your words, not reveal every aspect of the game in a single shot. Unless your editor specifically asks for it, I won't loose sleep on it.

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    I'm not great with composition, but I also feel like the photos lack a subject ... the board game is the setting, which item/piece is the subject? – rrauenza Jun 10 '16 at 17:57
  • Nice question, tough to answer :). Depends largely on the game. It's more difficult for plain card games like Smash Up, Werewolf, or Coup; if it was me I'd make a collage of the cards and shoot that, or maybe show your hand as the subject, with the other players in the background. Games with more props are easier especially if they have intricate pieces; not as "thrilling" to play but Chess and Monopoly are great for this. Maybe set-up a scenario with the pieces while you're at it. – skytreader Jun 10 '16 at 20:57
  • For example, the middle picture with the racetrack seems to lack a subject to identify with... – rrauenza Jun 10 '16 at 20:58
  • Answer based solely on the pieces already shown, maybe use the cubes as the subject, show one leading the race with the others left behind in the background; angle eye-level with the cube. Throw in some rubber tires from mini 4wd models as well even if they're not strictly part of the game. With my perpendicular-to-surface idea, I was thinking of using shadows to indicate where the pieces are. I don't really know this game so maybe there's an opportunity with its pieces I'm missing. – skytreader Jun 10 '16 at 21:12
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This feedback covers the framing of the shots, less the technical aspect of it.

I would dig more into the feedback you got - I was told recently that my image work needed to improve. What is important to the editors?

I wouldn´t worry about taking the games outside during winter, unless this is where the boardgames are beeing played.

One idea to take the boardgame outside for a shot could be - to photograph the boardgame in a boardgame topic related environment. In your example you have a boardgame with a race track - you could play around with a shot by setting up the boardgame together with tires on tarmac.

I would otherwise include people playing the boardgames. Just the hands moving the figures/rolling a dice/holding cards could make a difference. This could help to get a more dynamic shot. Taking shots and capture the emotions of people playing the boardgames would also be interesting.

  • Sadly, I wasn't given any more feedback. Only that my shots needed to be more "professional". I took the games outside to solve the lighting problem - indoors, with a flash, what happens is that the components nearest the camera are highlighted and the rest of the photo is dark. – Matt Thrower Jun 10 '16 at 14:27
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    So go back and ask for more feedback. "Professional" means "getting paid for it", nothing more, nothing less. – Philip Kendall Jun 10 '16 at 14:57
7

To complement other answers: there is a lot you can do in post production as well. Here's what can be achieved after playing 5 minutes in Lightroom:

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EDIT - after using the dehaze filter:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

  • That's really cool. I've just been playing around with some of mine in Photoshop, but while it improves colour and contrast, I'm struggling to remove the glare. – Matt Thrower Jun 12 '16 at 12:44
  • I know of one thing, which sometimes (very rarely though) works in software: the "dehaze" filter from lightroom. I had much luck removing some sun's glare with it. It's unfortunately very weak effect comparing to what could be achieved by a real polarizing filter – Rekin Jun 12 '16 at 13:03
  • Oh, take a look also on the following sofware: google.com/nikcollection - it's been freed by google after acquisition. Looks very very interesting – Rekin Jun 12 '16 at 13:06
  • I edited the post by adding a dehaze retouched example. It did punch the contrast significanly, reduced a little fogging, but did not remove any glare. Quite the opposite - it even made it more standing out – Rekin Jun 12 '16 at 13:16
  • By the way, I used the Android version of Adobe Lightroom. There is a dehaze filter in the free version – Rekin Jun 12 '16 at 13:17
6

... so what other lighting options do I have?

Get flash gear and learn off-camera lighting. Off-camera lighting is the go-to knowledge for most . You'd have outgrown a light tent pretty fast anyway. Might as well start out with umbrellas and lights on stands with radio triggers, and have all the control. If your advanced compact has a flash hotshoe, this is a lot easier. If your advanced compact doesn't have a flash hotshoe, it's still doable, but much more of a pain. I'd highly recommend, if you don't have one, that you consider getting a camera that can shoot RAW, has full Manual mode, and has a flash hotshoe. A used Powershot G9 is about $100.

Then get good at shooting in M. Learn to use your meter and to be in control of exposure, rather than letting your camera do it for you. Because flash adds a whole other layer of complexity to that, and you'll want to do the driving.

Then get some cheap manual flashes, stands, radio triggers, and an umbrella or softbox or two. Essentially, you can then make a light tent of any size you please. And you can use it inside in the winter-time instead of going nuts wondering how you're going to get out to shoot. Having off-camera lighting under you belt means never having to wait for the light to be just so. You just make the light what you want.

Having the added light from flash also means you can use a smaller aperture, where your lens will perform better, and you'll have more DoF to play with to get the image looking crisper.

I don't shoot games. I do shoot my vintage fountain pen collection. Off-camera lighting was pretty transformative for me in that arena:

Moss Agate Waterman 92

... How can I learn to create more interesting frames and shots with these sorts of components?

Experiment. Play. Go to town and let your imagination run riot. The basic problem with doing same-old same-old is that you get into habits. Stop trying to look for the picture that's there. Start making the picture. Doodle. Dream. Sketch. Come up with a vision and then try to realize it.

... How can I turn these into interesting photos?

Ask yourself, what captures your interest? What does your knowledge spotlight for you on the table? Then make a literal spotlight of some kind in your image. Focus, DoF, lighting, angle, color, patterns: you have all these toys to play with. Play with them. Experiment. Dare to fail. Nobody but you has to see your failures. Use the freedom of that to go exploring.

6

Re studio and ": I can't fit an entire board into a small light tent.": for a still-life, you can do without a formal or elaborate "studio". If you use a reasonable tripod, you can take an exposure time that's as long as necessary to handle the "available light". And that's the specific term you can search on for more about available light photography.

So, you use these games, so I expect you have a suitable place to lay them out as in play, with light suitable to the task. No special studio needed: just the normal situation.

What you need is a tripod of reasonable quality. A remote-release is good, but you can use the self-timer instead to avoid touching the camera when you shoot.

Second, use a gray card for a reference shot. This will let you calibrate for for actual light color, which is not a studio lamp. If you're using a room lamp like over your table, you could simply buy photo-quality CFL bulbs from B&H and use them in the lamp you use when playing the game.

Finally, be sure to use RAW files.

If you want to improve the lighting, beyond that, you don’t need a tent. You can use a diffuser over the lights, reflectors to fill, etc. You could make the whole table into a tent with some draping material, but a fold-up diffuser suspended in front of the light is probably just as good.

3

I'm a novice photographer. The best advice I can give is using macro, good lighting and some post production using software's like adobe lightroom.
Since you're trying to photograph board games, that usually involve small dice and other tiny 'accessories', I really recommend using the macro mode on your camera. The macro mode is basically a setting in cameras that allow you to focus on small objects. In most cameras, you switch on the macro mode by pressing the button that has this symbol:
Macro button
If you can't find this button then you should consult your camera's manual and find out how to turn on the macro mode.
Macro mode will allow you to get some really good close up shots of your board games. One thing I've noticed when using macro mode is that when there's not enough light, the camera finds it hard to focus and produces images that are blurry and out of focus. Therefore, I recommend getting some good amount of light onto your board games and photograph them. If you're indoors then you should try turning on the flash light of your smartphone and shine the light onto your board games. When you're outdoors than lighting won't be such a big problem because the sun provides enough light. However, you may want to diffuse the light coming from the sun so that it spreads out evenly onto the board game you're photographing. Diffusion of light also applies to whatever light source you're using indoors.
After you've taken a photograph you're satisfied with then you should put into your PC and do some post production. I'm not really an expert in post production, but I usually play around with settings like brightness, contrast, colour adjustment,image clarity and exposure. There are many other stuff you can play around with in image editors like lightroom to make your photograph look professional, but I usually use the ones I've just mentioned to make adjusments to photographs I take.
Hope you found this helpful.

3

Just addressing the light tent bit of your question:

You can get white plastic shower curtains from ikea for very little money. With bamboo canes form the garden centre (or even chairs) and some tape you can make a pretty servicable table-sized light tent. This works better than a white bedsheet as if it ends up in shot the weave of the fabric can show up. Two or three desk lamps can help a lot with allowing you to adjust the lighting, but for weak sources like these, support the camera on something (not necessarily a tripod, a beanbag on the table would work well).

But some dramatic shadows wouldn't go amiss (from off to the side where you've got taller pieces and you get down low). A cheap halogen desk lamp can do some good there. If it's too sharp, bounce it off the less-shiny side of some aluminium foil.

2

Well you asked a loaded question for sure.

Music and photography have a similar language. In order to communicate ideas, you need to know how to speak the language. You also need to have the gear and skills of how to use it. Remember the camera is as dumb as a rock.

Ok, here goes. If I told you I was a professional photographer and was asked to write a interesting article on gaming and gamer's, what would you tell me? There are many answers from people listed above that might help you learn the tools or technique of photography. I've read all those ideas ahead of mine.

How to choose the right one and how to execute them... successfully.

I'm going a different direction with you. Write a bought the "image" you see first. After all, your are a professional writer. Take what you imagine or dream up in words, Then put it on film.

What I ask myself on each new project is: "what do I want to see" and "what do I want the viewer to see." Answer this and you will find the solutions to the minds eye.

Photography is the "art of light." To me it's the manipulation of light. The shaping and bending and changing the color or range of light. It's control over light, with the shutter, the lens length and f-stop. The more control the better! Play with the subject, it's parts and pieces.

Tell a story Matt, your story with light and camera! I'll warn you now. You might become a professional photographer if your not careful.

I'm happy to help you to create your idea on film, after you know what you want to see. Otherwise we are playing darts at midnight.

Cheers, Scott-

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