Golem mechanical keyboard project

How to make stunning keyboard photos?

So you've just finished your last build and want to share with the world how cool it is. All you need is a killer glamour shot? Here is how other broke builders do it.

Piece of cake

Shooting a keyboard is relatively easy compared to other branches of photography:

  • It doesn’t move anywhere, unlike a baby or a racing car.

  • It isn’t cautious or dangerous like a wild animal.

  • It’s pretty predictable, unlike a thunderbolt or a basketball player.

  • It stays in good shape for long time, unlike a freshly baked cookie.

  • It doesn’t complain and get sick like models do.

  • You can take and put it anywhere unlike a statue or a building.

  • It won’t beat you like some angry pedestrians do.

It turns out keyboards are quite ideal subjects for shooting.

The philosophy

Taking a photo is like telling a story: You set the stage, introduce your hero, highlight its qualities. To make your story more interesting, you tell the story in chunks and paint the picture in layers. You use supporting characters to place your hero in context.

The trick: focus and depth of field (DOF)

The audience sees the lightest and sharpest part of the picture first.

Make sure the main subject (your keyboard) is well lit and sharp (in focus) and other items on the stage are at least slightly darker and blurred (out of focus).

Try to build up layers: blurred foreground, blurred background and somewhere in between: your gorgeous build in focus. The extent of the sharp area is called the depth of field. A shallow depth of field makes your subject stand out from its environment. You highlight only what needs to be highlighted and blur the less important elements of the composition.

Even phones or point and shoot cameras have settings which can help, but we usually need a quick lens for this. Let’s see what this means.

Gear

You can take great pictures with a phone or a point and shoot camera. Look for the portrait setting in Scene Modes. This setting provides the most shallow depth of field available.

If you are willing to invest some money, DSLR kits are fine. Kit objectives work great in ideal light situations, but can fail under bright sunlight/snow or in a dark room. Purchasing some diffusors and a separate quick (low light) lens helps you take great photos in these extreme cases.

Good news: you don’t need an expensive camera, and the lenses we need are often the cheapest ones.

A quick lens is a lens with low f-numbers. 1.4, 1.8, 2.8. These let in a lot of light even in low light situations. If you want only one lens, a 35 or 50 mm f1.8 is perfect. It’s small, light, cheap and versatile.

In low light you can make use of a tripod, which helps keep your picture sharp even when your hands are shaking. Again, there are free alternatives to a tripod: put your camera on top of anything you have around. Eg. wildlife photographers’ best friend is a beanbag. Pillows are great too.

Another trick is using the self timer. Even the pressing of the shutter button could slightly move the camera and blur the image in low light. Set the shortest timer interval - 2 secs on my Nikon - and you're good to go.

Lighting

Use natural light. The best place for shooting indoors is near a window.

Avoid direct sunlight, though: it ruins the shot by killing the colors and casting harsh shadows. (A too dark shadow will distract the attention from your subject.)

Direct sunlight needs to be diffused. Clouds are great diffusors, so a cloudy day is perfect for shooting. Also, a white bed sheet on the window will diffuse the sunlight and soften the shadows on a bright sunny day. And you can buy nice cheap diffusors of course if you want.

You can further refine your picture with micromanaging shadows: use a black sheet of paper, cardboard or foam to darken shadows or blocking light (especially on the background) and use a white sheet to lighten shadows, brighten parts you want to highlight.

You don’t need expensive lights and flashes. Natural light is totally fine and free. It’s much better than a yellow light bulb.

If the room is too dark and you can’t wait for better natural light, you can fire a flash, but never directly to the subject. Bounce the flash light from the ceiling or a wall. (Use a white card if your flash is fixed pointing in one direction.)

Background

Set the stage. Tidy your room and desk. Remove the unnecessary stuff from the background.

(I’m a big fan of workbench photos, but that’s a whole other genre.)

Since your subject is a keyboard, the most likely background is your desk.

A neutrally colored or nice wooden surface work most of the time, but avoid obtrusive patterns, colorful mousepads, wood patterns with too large contrast.

And don’t forget the magical shallow depth of field to blur the less important parts or large contrasts, fixing the background.

Props

Props are the supporting characters in your story, the spice in your food. Select props that complement your keyboard without being overwhelming: a keycap puller, a spare switch, a pen, anything what is common on a desk may work. Your shoes not so...

You can eliminate boring empty spaces with them, but beware, they are a two-edged sword.

It’s great to have some nice props around your keyboard, but not too much and nothing too colorful. They could grab all the attention and steal the show from your protagonist.

Composition, angle, cutout

To make breathtaking photos, one needs to be a great observer. Or a good copycat.

As a start, try to copy compositions you like.

The rule of third is the most basic composition concept: divide the screen into thirds, and try to position your focus point in one of the nodes.

Angle and cutout

Even if there are only a handful angles used in keyboard photography, you have to choose consciously. What do you want to highlight? The case? The keycaps? The layout? An artisan?

Shooting from above is usually considered inferior eg. in food photography, but it’s fine if you want to show your whole layout. The difficulty of this angle is that almost everything is in one plane: hard to blur out the background and unimportant stuff.

Post production

If editing is needed, a free alternative to Photoshop or Lightroom is Gimp.

Color correction, white balance are easy to fix, but you can play with different cutouts or even remove dust and dirt from your keyboard or whole objects from the scene.

To sum up

For the best result, get a camera with replaceable lenses. Get a nice quick macro lens. Wait for proper natural light. Set the stage: Clean your keyboard and tidy your desk. Place a few props around your keyboard - nothing too ostentatious. Fix the light with diffusors if needed. Check and correct the bright parts. Check and correct the shadows. Take a few shots from different angles. Choose the photo you like the best. Correct your sharpness, colors and cutout in a photo editing software if needed. Upload your photo and wait for upvotes and praises. And keep on your shoes...