How To Photograph Microphones

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 | by

This post is almost entirely self-serving. In a nutshell, I’d love to teach you how to take better microphone portraits so that you can send better pictures to me for use here on the RecordingHacks website.

The Mic Database has nearly 1400 microphones in it, with at least one good photograph of each. These days, most vendors publish decent product photos, which we use whenever we can. But there are hundreds of interesting older mics for which no such photos exist. We need photos of all those mics. If you have mics in your collection that aren’t already on this website, please shoot photos and send ’em in!

But first, read this so your photos won’t suck.

Quick guide to home “macro” photography

Camera setup for macro photography of microphones

  1. Find a neutral-colored wall. White is best. A corner is better still.
  2. If possible, create a backdrop from a large sheet of paper or poster board. (See photo at right.)
  3. Use as much ambient light as possible.
  4. Turn off the camera flash, or find a way to bounce/diffuse it.
  5. Stand the mic up on its butt end, with no shockmount.
  6. Turn the camera sideways (portrait mode).
  7. Use a tripod, or brace the camera on a table, for any exposure slower than 1/60th of a second.

The photo shows my rig from a year ago, but the real point is the staging, not the camera gear.

The curved posterboard provides a smooth (“infinite”) backdrop. The white sidewall helps bounce light onto the subject. The room has multiple overhead track lights (note the shadows), helping to provide even lighting from multiple angles. Further, two flashes are used, with diffusors, to create more light and softer/fewer shadows. The on-camera flash is bounced off the ceiling. The side flash lights the subject directly, but also bounces off the side wall.

The problem with most photos

Illustration of flashburnIt’s all about the light. Your on-camera flash provides a single point of extraordinarily bright light, which causes unwanted specular highlights as well as extreme shadows. Neither is helping your mic photo.

Professional studio photographers have multiple light sources, all of which are diffused. The cheapest way to reproduce this effect is to shoot in a brightly-lit room. Either turn off your camera flash, or find a way to bounce or diffuse it.

For example, bounce the flash off the ceiling (if it can be articulated). Or, if the flash can’t be pointed elsewhere, hold a piece of thin white paper or waxed paper in front of it when you take the photo — instant DIY diffusor!

The photo at right shows the difference. The left half of the image used direct on-camera flash. For the second image, I increased the ambient light in the room, then held a piece of printer paper in front of the on-camera flash. No additional gear was used — well, except for a piece of 8.5×11” paper. Notice how much more evenly lit the subject is, and how soft the shadow is.

Shiny microphones are notoriously difficult to photograph, so while neither of these images is great, the second one is much more usable, with less editing required. (It’s a DIYAC RM5 ribbon, by the way.)

Better cameras take better photos

Image quality comparison, pocket camera vs SLRI hesitate to point this out, in part because it’s obvious but also because I’d rather have you send me nicely staged and lit iPhone photos than no photos at all.

Pricier cameras tend to have better glass in the lenses, and larger sensor chips. Both contribute to image quality. See sample at right, which compares the output of a typical pocket digital camera (in this case, a ~$300 Canon from SD450 from about five years ago) to an EOS Rebel XTi with a nice lens. The larger camera reveals much better detail. The image from the SLR suffers from much less distortion, and fewer compression artifacts. The image from the pocket camera looks smeared.

Still, for the purposes of showing what the mic looks like, the photo from the smaller camera is adequate.

Post-processing images

Artifacts from the Magic Wand toolEven your neutral, “infinite” backdrop will probably show some shadows. With the right gear and technique, you’ll have multiple, light and diffuse shadows rather than one sharp-edged dark shadow. Whatever shadow you have, the photo will be improved if you remove it.

Here’s the wrong way to do it: Photoshop’s “magic wand” tool. Yes, you can click and magically select most of the shadow. But the edges are ragged. The result is that the mic looks like it has scabs.

The far better way is to outline the mic with the Paths tool, then convert the path to a selection, and fill with white. You’ll get perfect, crisp edges.

By the way, this video is the most entertaining way to learn about the Paths tool, courtesy “You Suck at Photoshop.”

How to take a terrible mic photo

Lay it on your desk in front of a 1986-era PC keyboard that has enough grime and junk stuffed among the keys that, if you dug it all out, you could use to reassemble an entire hamburger. And maybe a cat. Use a wide-angle lens and hold the camera very close; this makes the mic bulge, and maximizes flashburn. Then wiggle while you shoot.

Not even Photoshop can help that picture.

Photoshop is truly like Pro Tools for images, but the same rules apply. There is only so much studio horror that can be “fixed in the mix.”

Respect for Curves

Color cast correction via Photoshop CurvesWhile we’re on the subject of Photoshop, I’ll give a shoutout to Curves. It’s the best color and contrast correction tool I’ve found. Check out the example at right; it shows what my camera’s automatic white balance did with the goofy lighting at the Anaheim Convention Center during NAMM. A couple curve corrections later, and we have a black microphone again. Nice, eh?

What about a Macro Box?

You can DIY a macro studio. I used to have one of these, and got pretty decent results with it. But this giant box was always in the way; it couldn’t be flattened for storage. Also, I have gotten better results without the box. Still, this is a valid low-cost way to shoot some nice photos.

In a nutshell, you’d put a posterboard backdrop into a cardboard box, and cut tissue-paper windows in the top and sides. You can use it outside, too, sometimes without additional lighting. See the canonical howto in Strobist’s DIY $10 Macro Photo Studio.

Macro box photo courtesy Flickr user FutureFashion

Help Me Help You

I’m on a mission to document every microphone ever made. But I need a photo of each of those microphones first. If you have mics in your locker that are not already present in the mic database on this website, please follow the steps above and shoot photos for me. Contact me here.

You get bonus point for shooting photos of the circuit board and capsule too. 🙂

Posted in DIY, Photos, Technique | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “How To Photograph Microphones”

  1. James

    January 22nd, 2013 at 9:29 am

    I LOVE that you found/cited “You Suck At Photoshop!” Not only are the tips useful, his style is, shall we say, engaging. This is what would happen if Dr. Professor Mark Fouxman ever had his own podcast, except the name might be different: “You SUCK at microphone design.”

    Good article, sir. And hey, if the whole microphone thing ever gets old, you can fall back on product photography!

    Cheers Matt.


  2. Stuart

    February 10th, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Hey Matt,
    Nicely written and detailed summary! I have done my share of trial and error, so I know where you’re coming from…
    Keep shooting…and deleting,

Leave a comment