HOWTO: Take jaw-dropping photos with a mid-grade digital camera and worklights


Photo: Ray Dobbins (click for big)

The Velosniper points us to the amazing bicycle photography of Ray Dobbins. Using consumer cameras, Ray gets tremendous results in his modest garage photography studio. Ray's process has been perfected with considerable trial and error, but surprisingly little money. With a $30 tripod, $35 halogen Sears work lights and a $55 roll of seamless, Ray has proven that I can no longer blame my camera for my poor quality photos.

From Ray Dobbins:

I started with a very cheap 3.2 megapixel digital camera, the Olympus Camedia D-395. About four months ago I moved up to a better camera, the 4.0 megapixel Kodak EasyShare DX7440. It has a better lens, more features and higher optical zoom, which really helps with the close-ups. However, all things being equal, the difference in the quality output between the two cameras is not significant. One of my best looking albums, the Colnago Oval CX, was taken with the Olympus. The big difference is in the features. So don't think that you need an expensive camera - even my new one only cost around $300.00.

Take a look at the Colnago Oval CX gallery, consider your own photographs and then come to the grips with the fact that he took those photographs with a generations-old digital camera that routinely sells on eBay for under $40! Ouch! We suck! Ray rules!


Photo: Ray Dobbins (click for big)

Ray Dobbins Photo Set-up (via Velosniper)


  1. I learned the same thing in design school. A crap design with superb lighting will look better than a superb design with crap lighting.

  2. With enough control over the EM spectrum, all you need is 3 megapixels. Those of us who don’t or can’t use kilowatt halogen lamps for our shots (or even a tripod!), we’ll go with the fancy processing in firmware.

    Setting up the environment is neat, but cutting-edge image processing is nothing to be sneered at or ashamed of. Consider “super-resolution”: and the open source ALE:

  3. my take:

    he has a nicer (older) bike than you, and keeps it in better condition.

    the photos dont really say a whole lot by themselves.

  4. The main difference in photos is how much time and thought you put into your preparation. Only rarely can you really go out and take great photos on the fly, and quite often you need to throw out hundreds to get that one great one.

    Clearly Mr. Dobbins has put a lot of care into designing his studio and preparing his shots, and for his work he has been justly rewarded.

  5. All true and fine for on-screen viewing. Until you need to print at 8×10 or larger. Then lens quality and pixel count start to make a big difference.

  6. I do the same thing on a smaller (desktop) scale with a Canon SD400, a small light tent, some tabloid-size bright white inkjet paper (which also gets used in my tabloid-size printer) and a couple of small daylight fluorescent lights. Works great, if you fiddle with the exposure settings a bit and remember to set the 2-second self-timer to let the tripod stop shaking.

    My only real problem is getting good focus when I can’t see the subject well enough on the viewfinder. Using the A/V out to a TV helped, but I don’t really have room for that in my current setup. A full manual focus would be a big improvement, and this model doesn’t seem to have that.

  7. ..$35 for halogens? Jeez, Home Depot has 250W ones for $10 with two extra bulbs! I’ve been using them for five years now, and they work great on everything *except* for women with extremely white goth skin tones. It makes them look more like Casper than in real “life”.

  8. @ Rageahol

    I agree with you. The pictures are nice. Some of them are well composed but they lack any story or interest. This is just my opinion. To me they are just a little bland. Sorry :(

  9. There’s only a scant difference in quartz floods that photographers use and those that are in floodlights sold for utility use. With a cheap filter you can correct them back and with digital you don’t even need do that, just tweak it in Photoshop.

    If you’re very clever, you’ll just look online and do a bit of studying because ‘studio’ quality work is just in the tips and tricks that are really rather easy to do.

    I used to shoot catalog work eons agon in LA and I can tell you the fancier your equipment either the richer your daddy was or the more you’re mortgaged up the hilt to buy it. Light is light and a camera as we used to say in the days of film is just a nice little box to keep the film to you’re ready to expose it.

    It’s all about painting the objects you are photographing with the right amounts of light, arranging it all and trying not to let it go out of focus.

    The owner of my old studio, a guy named Earl who jumped as a combat photographer on D-Day used to be fond of telling me, “Photographer? I can train a monkey to be a PHOTOGRAPHER! Now get back to work!”

    If a monkey can do it, how hard can it be? I ask you.

  10. I used to use 500W security lights for video work some 12 years ago. I made some sheet steel barn doors for them which I fixed on with small cabinet door hinges; they had to be steel because the things get just as hot as red heads.

  11. I have a similar setup, but found that halogen work lights tend to make the background yellowish. I use a 3 yr old Canon Powershot, adjust the white balance, and it seems to work well, just not as well as these photos :-(

  12. So, professional photographers want you to know that the photographer is more important than the camera.

    Every artist makes this claim, that it’s they who produce the greatness, not the tools they use. Not saying it’s incorrect, but it’s not a groundbreaking claim, either.

  13. Anything is possible with good light. This is merely confirmation of that. No one who’s ever used a “mid-range” digital camera should be surprised by these shots.

  14. @#6 (aaronlyon): Excellent point about the final output size/type and quality.

    Another aspect to consider is that the photographer’s old, slow camera might be fine for static shots in a studio, but take it out in the world and try shooting things that move (racing cyclists, football players, a 2-year-old with a sugar high, etc.) and you’ll quickly realize the benefits of a more expensive DSLR-type camera.

  15. @ #4 Rageahol
    “my take:

    he has a nicer (older) bike than you, and keeps it in better condition.

    the photos dont really say a whole lot by themselves.”

    I don’t think the photos are meant to say anything. The guy has a lot of bikes, so he probably sells bikes and parts on Ebay or other online sites. He may be illustrating the best way to showcase sale items.

  16. I’m a semi-professional photographer, and some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken were shot with a 4-megapixel Panasonic.

    I love how quickly and precisely my SLRs focus (that’s very important since I shoot extremely fast-moving subjects), how close I can get to a subject using my 400mm, how immersive my pictures are when I use a super wide angle lens, and how the lens sharpness and low grain allow for huge prints. But if you’re not going to make huge prints, if you don’t need an unusual focal length (and for decades most artsy photography was done at 50mm), and if you’re willing to put up with slightly lower dynamic range and greater depth of field, the SLR does not really offer any advantage.

    So I still use my Panasonic a lot, especially in situations where I don’t want to risk taking an SLR (backpacking, the beach, a dangerous neighborhood) or where carrying one would be inconvenient (parties, dinners)… which might be why some of my favorite pictures were taken with the Panasonic. Using the Panasonic also forces me to be a better photographer: I have to hold it more steadily and track my subject more carefully, since the focus and the image stabilization are not as good as my SLRs’ and since I tend to use lower ISOs on the Panasonic which forces me to use slower shutter-speeds. And I have to think about exposure and white balance more carefully, since the more intense grain and lower dynamic range means that the images from the Panasonic are much harder to post-process than the ones out of the SLRs, so I have to get it right the first time rather than trusting that Photoshop can “save” an image.

    As for the lighting… I almost only shoot outdoors, so I know nothing about studio lighting. I barely even know how to use a flash. But this post has certainly encouraged me to experiment, especially if it can be done so inexpensively.

  17. I have a little light studio I made. I use the back side of xmas wrapping paper (it is white) as my generic backdrop it’s stuck to the ceiling with pushpins and rolled down to and over the table… then I have a bit of white fake fur draped over a banker box lid. It sits at a bit of a slope and many things I photograph either stick to it or sit well on it. I use sewing pins to hold up heavier items, like, jewelery.

    I have the tripod with a gorilla holder for my digital camera that doesn’t fit the tripod, haha… but it makes for steadier photos. And I find that shooting is best in the day with natural light streaming it and a desk lamp.

    I also made a reflector board with aluminum foil spray glued to a bit of card… but to use it requires 2 people -one to hold the board there and one to hold the lamp over here – as the lighting can either be too harsh on DVD & book jackets it takes a bit of fussing… but so far so good.

    I usually end up taking a series of photos and picking the brightest as the light bulb seems to have a yellow hue… gotta try a natural light bulb maybe?

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