Review: Tabletop Photography Using Compact Flashes and Low-Cost Tricks to Create Professional-Looking Studio Shots

Cyrill Harnischmacher’s new book “Tabletop Photography” is a further sign of the digital revolution in photography… virtually all of the techniques he teaches in this new book are techniques that will only work with digital. I’m not a digital native, but I got here as quick as I could; my experimentation with digital imaging began in the mid-1990’s. The flash techniques I learned relied on an antiquated system known as “Polaroid” – using a sheet or pack Polaroid holder on the medium or large format camera to test your lighting setups. Polaroid was great, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with it now that I have that magic histogram on the back of all my cameras.

Today, we simply shoot a test in-camera, look at the image and histogram, and adjust. Repeat as needed. Polaroids used to cost around $2.00 for a pack film sheet… today, the preview is free. I like free, but I’m also enamored with cheap… I mean, low cost. Cyrill has developed a style of studio shooting that uses inexpensive, last generation flash units, all set on manual control. Setting up a studio with three last-generation flash units, triggering units, and a small infinity tabletop could be done for well under $1,000 US dollars, maybe half that. Early in the book Cyrill states that the reader should expect to learn and become expert on using manual modes with these small flashes… he states, “This is easier than you might expect.”



And, he’s right. Remember that test shot and histogram? Today, it is easier (and less expensive) than ever to master manual flash levels with multiple flash units. He specifically mentions buying last-generation gear like the venerable Nikon SB-24 flash (truly a pro flash, rugged, dependable, and nowadays, cheap on eBay). It’s younger brothers the SB-25 and SB-26, are also readily available. This isn’t to say that your SB-800’s and SB-900’s won’t work – just that the gear doesn’t need to be current generation.

The hardest part of the whole studio photography with small flash units boils down to this: how do I make them fire? There is an excellent discussion on sync cables, wireless infrared, radio control, and even some on the newest wireless TTL control. This is the nuts and bolts of the book – how to actually make the gear work. Shooting directly into a laptop or desktop computer is also briefly discussed.

Next the reader learns about light shaping tools, reflectors, and how to set up a tabletop studio… really, you can do this on your dining room table. Shooting with white and black backgrounds is covered, as well as how to select a backdrop. When you see the shot Cyrill did of an egg in a glass flute, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that it was done with small flashes. Then, near the back of the book, you find the chapter on shooting products for eBay. I figured out a long time ago that there are really two secrets to selling on eBay… writing a great description, and providing really pro-quality photos of the item, especially when the item is photography related.

The final chapter is the do-it-yourself chapter on building your own accessories. From simple platforms to hold multiple flashes to shoot through a softbox, to small flash honeycomb filters, this chapter has several ideas I’m going to steal… I mean, use.

Cyrill states in the preface that “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.” He hits the mark, having written a book that meets this goal admirably. After reading the entire book, the only slightly negative thing I can say is that I would wish to add a few more lighting diagrams. The size and coverage of the book is really just right, and there are a number of topics I didn’t even hit on. Now, if I can just find a super cool crystal guitar like Cyrill shot for the book cover..

Tabletop Photography
Using Compact Flashes and Low-Cost Tricks to Create Professional-Looking Studio Shots
by Cyrill Harnischmacher
2012 1st Edition Rocky Nook, Inc.
ISBN 978-3981229318

Available Editions:
Hardcover
Kindle