Book Review: Tabletop Photography by Cyrill Harnischmacher

Tabletop Photography by Cyrill HarnischmacherThis is one pretty little book – hard cover, well crafted, good layout, high quality paper, tasteful images and illustrations, and it’s only 8½ x 8½ inches in size. Its thickness, with 135 numbered pages inside, is only 5/8″ – very easy to hold and read anywhere.

The title says Tabletop Photography, but let’s just emphasize its longish subtitle: Using Compact Flashes and Low-Cost Tricks to Create Professional-Looking Studio Shots because this is what it’s for: amateurs who don’t have studio lighting systems yet. The author, Cyrill Harnischmacher, says so in his preface: “This book is intended primarily for amateurs who are making their first foray into tabletop photography and who don’t already own studio lighting systems.”

It promises professional-looking studio shots to equipment-challenged wannabes. Does it deliver? Can high quality shots come from amateurs with nothing more than a camera and one or two flashes?

That will depend much of course with the newbie who will be using this book. If you are the confident type who can absorb written instructions and illustrations without the aid of an instructor who can provide you with instant feedback and answers to your questions as you follow the exercises, then this could be for you.

As far as the book is concerned, it is quite complete. The instructions are clear and concise, the illustrations very straightforward. The images are even very inspiring.

Cyrill first lays out the basics in the first four pages by discussing a few preliminary topics: sharpness and blur, focal lengths, lighting, designing with a purpose, technology, and a conceptual approach to preparing a product shoot.

He expands these by examining cameras and lenses and how to control them, and then discussing light modifiers – light-shapers, as he calls them – softboxes, strip lights, umbrellas, reflectors, diffusers and other special light-shaping tools.

His series of illustrations comparing the effects of light-shaping tools is a nice touch. The nine sets of photos, two per set, illustrate the lighting effects of softboxes, umbrellas, barn doors, snoots and beauty dishes in various configurations that the new photographer can readily comprehend.

How to set up a table top studio is described in detail: from the simplest solution to a complete studio with all the tools and accessories including backgrounds and props.

How to shoot is addressed in the chapter, In Practice, where the author illustrates how to display various surfaces: shiny metal, matte metal, transparent shiny surfaces, glass, textured surfaces, high-contrast surfaces, etc. Shooting with pure white or pure black background is also illustrated.

But this is where it can be tricky. Shooting all those things by yourself and you’re a new photographer could get you nowhere. How do you actually do these shots? How shiny is shiny? How much specular highlight is acceptable? How much texture? How much shadow? The complete newbie might want somebody to hold his hand and walk him through all the nitty-gritty. This is where professional help could be helpful. But then again, an amateur who knows where he wants to go may be able to pull this through without any problem.

What I liked best is the last chapter on Do-It-Yourself Accessories, improvisation at its finest. Now, this is not only a necessary craft for small tabletop photographers; even in large studios photographers must do craft work to trim and crop special reflectors, modify light-shaping tools, paint backgrounds by hand, and build props. This skill can come in handy later.

In this chapter, the author shows how to make a small bracket for multiple flash units, holders for Styrofoam reflectors, a small honeycomb filter, and a few other useful thing-a-ma-jigs.

The book also delves in detail into freezing motion, long exposures, multiple exposures, reprography (reproducing photos and art works), high-key and low-key photography, baseline images for photomontage, photographing masks for extraction, light brushing and painting, food photography, and a lot of other topics that can transform a newbie into a full-fledged professional.

In all, Tabletop Photography by Cyrill Harnischmacher is an excellent book that the amateur can use. If you’re new to tabletop photography and you could follow along – it should not be that difficult – you may just blossom into becoming a professional product photographer.

Cyrill Harnischmacher is a photographer and designer who lives and works in southern Germany. His first book, Low Budget Shooting, won him the prestigious Fotobuch-award of the German Booksellers Association in 2005.

[Site: O’Reilly]

Published by Chris Malinao

Chris teaches Lightroom as workflow software to photography students at the FPPF, Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation. He also teaches smartphone photography.