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How to Photograph Tattoos/Column No. 4: You Are the Camera

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When I was sixteen, I landed my first (unpaid) position, on a big-budget film. I remember sitting at base camp with about three other, more-experienced camera apprentices, when a big eighteen-wheel truck pulled up. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “They fit the whole production in one truck?” The other guys looked at me with confusion on their faces and said, “No, man, that’s just the camera truck.” Awestruck, I looked inside and saw the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. Before me was a cornucopia of filters, cans upon cans of 35mm film, camera accessories of every shape and size and what seemed an ocean of lenses. In spite of all that bounty, we maybe used six different lenses and as many filters, on the whole shoot, from beginning to end. Not that we couldn’t have used everything, if we wanted to. It was all we ended up needing.

Prime Lenses

Prime lenses

Camera lenses are like tattoo inks. You may have hundreds to thousands of different colors and types, but, for any one tattoo, you may only use a few. It’s all about what’s right for the job. Since photographing a tattoo is nowhere near as foreboding as a movie, you can usually accomplish it with two different styles of lenses, regardless of the shape, size or placement on the body. These two styles are known as “normal-primes” and “macro lenses.”

A “normal-prime” is a lens that has no zoom, and a wide aperture to bring the most light possible into the camera. These are usually used for portrait photography and are excellent for capturing a full tattoo in one shot. Your first normal-prime should be either a 35mm or 50mm. Why? Because these lenses (depending on what camera your using) are closest to what we humans can see, or most closely match our perspective. That means, what you see with your eyes is roughly the same as you’ll get with your camera, making it easier on beginning D-SLR users. If you’re using one of the cameras we mentioned in Column #2, the 50mm 1.8G AF-S and 35mm 1.8G AF-S for Nikon users, EF 50mm 1.4 for Canon and 50mm 1.4 A-Mount for Sony users would all be good choices. Subsequently, the photos that were shot in the last article on basic lighting techniques were done using a Nikon 50mm 1.4G AF-S.

#4 Normal-Prime lens

Tattoo photo with Normal-Prime lens

The one drawback to a normal-prime is their lack of close-up detail. Because they see roughly as much as we do, it requires some cropping of the photo to zero in on just one small tattoo, or to show a specific portion of a large tattoo that you are immortalizing. Cropping too much can reduce the quality of your work, so, as a solution, you can use a macro lens. A good macro lens, like a normal-prime, doesn’t zoom and has a wide aperture for light to pass through, but is different in two special ways: First, a macro lens can focus very close to an object—some just centimeters in front of the glass—allowing your art to fill the camera’s frame. Second, some macro lenses are capable of creating what is known as a one-to-one ratio. That simply means, whatever tattoo your taking a picture of will look as proportionally large in the photo as it actually is on the skin. It is important to note that macro lenses can only achieve the one-to-one ratio at very specific focus distances and not every macro lens is even capable of doing it at all. If you already have a macro lens, you may want to consult its users guide or give us a call to see if it’s really what you should be using. The same goes for normal-primes. Some good macro lens options would be the AF-S 85mm 3.5G Micro for Nikon, the Canon EF-S 60mm 2.8 Macro USM and the Sony 30mm 2.8 Macro A-Mount. All of these are capable of using a one-to-one ratio and have a guide built into them, to tell you when you’re there.BANNER

#5 Same tattoo shot with a macro

Same tattoo with Macro lens

Macro lenses and normal primes can drastically vary in price, but the ones we mentioned typically run between $200—$600. It’s also very unlikely that either of these lens types would have come with your camera. As for the settings that you should use with normal-primes and macro lenses, follow the instructions laid out in my post (Column #3) on basic lighting techniques.

Next time, we’re going to lay down some knowledge on backdrops and show you some cool and creative ways to “frame” tattoos before photographing. As always, for those looking for one-on-one photo instruction, my team and I are standing ready. Just book a lesson or sign up for a membership via our handy-dandy website.

—Keith Folz, Primary Photo Education

with 2 comments

Written by Baxter

April 14th, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Posted in How to Photograph

2 Responses to 'How to Photograph Tattoos/Column No. 4: You Are the Camera'

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  1. Almost every day I am emailed or snail-mailed tattoo photos for inclusion on the website. And every day I am busy Photoshopping each image, making them brighter or darker, repairing flash burn, improving the focus and attempting to make the photos look more respectable. Some tattoo artists know how to take solid, professional-looking pictures, but most do not. That is why we have initiated these excellent “How To” articles by Keith Folz. I hope you take advantage of the opportunity to learn important tricks of the trade to improve your photos and create a portfolio that truly represents the quality of your tattoo work.


    17 Apr 13 at 4:06 pm

  2. This was very instructive, thanks a ton. Could you also list out some of the challenges you face while shooting with prime or macro lenses?


    23 Apr 13 at 9:28 pm

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