How To Photograph Books :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Photograph Books

by David Peterson 0 comments

Hey, do you remember those things people use to buy? You know, they had a lot of paper in them, and they were held together by a cardboard cover, and there were a bunch of words? Books! Yeah, that's what they were called, they were called books. You might want to take some photos of them before they disappear from our world forever. Read on to find out how.

Seriously, though, in today's world, e-books may reign supreme, but almost all of us still own a paperback book or two. If you jumped on the e-book bandwagon like a lot of other people, the books that are on your bookshelf are probably the ones that mean the most to you—cherished heirlooms, books that don't come in e-book format, or books that just seem to have more meaning because they're printed on paper. Now, since you are a photographer, you have a unique opportunity to immortalize those cherished books, either for your own records (which is particularly important if those books are old or valuable), or if you decide in the future that you might want to part with one or more of them.

Now, if you've ever shopped at eBay or any of the other popular websites where you can buy used goods, you may have noticed that listings for books often have one thing in common: very poorly photographed subjects. The truth is that most people don't really do a great job photographing books for sale, which is really a shame not only because a good book deserves a good photograph, but also because a poorly-photographed book tends to sell for less money than a well-photographed book. So first, let's take a look at some of the typical problems that photographers encounter when photographing books.

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Silliest Book Concept Ever: Complete Idiot's Guide: Natural Magick by Flickr user blue_j


In this example, the glare steals the show, and not in a good way. Glare, in fact, is one of the biggest culprits of poor book photography, especially for books that still have their dust jacket. The dust jacket is typically printed on glossy paper, and when you photograph it you can easily get glare just from the ambient light around you, nevermind if you're trying to use the flash (more on why you shouldn't do that later).

In particular, if you're trying to sell your book or value it, the picture needs to accurately represent the book, which means it needs to show all of its imperfections, as well as its perfections, and glare, will cover up the detail on the cover of the book. When a buyer looks at a photograph of a book that has a lot of glare, he won't be able to discern whether that cover is in mint condition or whether it has some nicks and scratches. And don't think that that's a good thing if the book does have nicks and scratches—you want to accurately represent what that book looks like in the photograph, or you may get someone who buys based on false pretenses and then ends up returning the book at your expense. Even if you're not photographing the book to sell, if it's a valuable book and you want it protected in the event of loss, your photos need to show the insurer exactly the quality and condition of the item. So no glare. That means that you have to photograph the book from an angle that eliminates glare or use a diffusing system such as a light cube to soften up the ambient light.


Another problem that you often see in photographed books is distortion. A book is a geometrically shaped object. With very few exceptions, the cover of a book is either rectangle or square. That means that slanted lines don't give the viewer an accurate impression of the book. Now, instinctively we know that that book must be rectangular, and yet the distortion is still unsettling. So when you photograph books, remember that your camera's lens has to be parallel to the cover otherwise you're going to have an unappealing photograph, even if you know that intellectually most people understand that the book really isn't that shape.

The Horrors : Terrifying Tales Book One by Flickr user Vernon Barford School Library


Some booksellers try to get closer to their subject at the expense of losing focus. This can happen if you're shooting with a camera that doesn't have a macro setting or a DSLR without a macro lens. Even if you have to back out a little bit and crop in, its much better to shoot a sharp, in-focus photograph from a distance than to get close to the book and end up with a blurry image. If you don't have a macro lens or a macro setting on your camera, shoot in RAW, which maximizes the potential of your image sensor. Remember if you're shooting with a higher megapixel camera (which most modern cameras are), you don't really need to get that close to the book in order to capture plenty of detail.

You may also have trouble with focus if you are shooting handheld. Especially with smaller books, the closer you get to your subject the harder it's going to be to keep your camera stable enough for the cover to remain in the plane of focus. A tripod is a great tool for photographing books because not only does it help you stabilize your camera, but it can also make it easy to fine-tune the angle so that you don't end up with any distortion in your photo. Another advantage of the tripod is that you can take photos in relatively low light—that might be necessary if you're using window light or a dimmer source of light.

    Sweet deal by Flickr user onshi


    When you're only shooting the cover without the spine, you don't need to use a very narrow aperture because the whole cover of the book is going to be on the same plane of focus. But when you angle the book to include the spine, you'll need to narrow the aperture in order to make sure that everything is tack-sharp. If you're not sure, use depth-of-field preview. If your camera doesn't have depth of field preview, take a test shot and then zoom in on your camera’s screen. Make sure you check the sharpness of the spine as well as the sharpness of the cover. Your shutter speed matters less, especially if you're using a tripod, but try to keep the ISO low—remember that higher ISOs can create noise and cause other minor quality issues that really start to become noticeable when you're shooting images meant to convey detail. If you have to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for the lower ISO, do so. As long as your subject isn't in motion, you can shoot it at fairly long shutter speeds, but do remember that excessively long shutter speeds may also produce noise, so try to keep your shutter speed at no longer than a few seconds.


    Your flash is daylight balanced, so it might be tempting to use it as a way of ensuring accurate colors. But direct flash always produces glare, so unless you're using an off-camera flash placed on the outside of a piece of diffused material, flash is really not going to improve your picture, because you'll be trading correct color in exchange for glare.

    Instead, use a natural source of light such as open shade or window light. For the most accurate colors, set a custom white balance. All cameras do this a little differently, but for the most part, setting a custom white balance involves shooting a photograph of something that is true white such as a photographer’s white card, and then using that image as a reference point to tell your camera where true white is. You only have to do this once per photo session, and then those settings will be accurate as long as the light doesn't change.

    Remember that the closer you are to your subject, the more distortion you'll get, especially if you're shooting your book at an angle, which you may want to do if you're trying to capture detail on the spine as well as detail on the cover. That's another reason to back away from your subject and use a zoom lens instead of getting very close and filling the frame. Remember that you can also crop into the image if you're using the RAW format and shooting at your camera’s maximum megapixel potential.


    Background matters. Remember that unless you crop very close to the edges of your book, which is something you don't want to do because the buyers are going to be looking at the condition of those edges, you're going to have a visible background in your photograph. And the background you choose really does make a difference. A textured or patterned background is going to distract from the detail of the book, whether you mean it to or not, and whether your buyer is serious or not. So choose a neutral background. A piece of black posterboard works very well for this. Lay the book flat and take one photograph from straight on, taking care to keep the lens parallel to the book cover so that there's no distortion or diagonal lines in the image. Now angle the camera so that the spine of the book is visible. In this shot, it’s okay for the top and bottom edges of the book to be slightly diagonal because this is the perspective we often see books from.

    Nouveau voyage autour du monde [Exterior] / Nouveau voyage autour du monde [Extérieur] by Flickr user BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

    Now take these two images into post-processing. You're going to want to use the levels tool or possibly the highlights and shadows tool to make the background drop off into pure black and to bring the colors to life. Try to do this with a well-calibrated monitor, and have the book on hand so you can get the colors as close as possible to the way they appear to the human eye. You might be tempted to make them look even punchier than they do in real life, but don't—remember your goal here is accuracy, not art.


    I think you'll find that there are no more patient subjects than books—if you're not completely happy with your results, it's easy enough to set up and start over again. All you need is good light, posterboard and a free afternoon. And the beauty of this technique is that books are, for the most part, the same basic shape and size—which means that once you get the technique mastered for one book it's a simple matter of dropping a new book into the same lighting situation and set up, and you've got a pretty efficient photographic production line. If you've got a small collection, you can probably get it all covered in a single afternoon—if it's a little bigger you might have to devote a few hours here and there until you're done. Whatever the case may be, I think you'll find that capturing and photographing your book collection is rewarding, even if you don't think you're ever going to want to part with a single volume.


    1. Avoid glare
      • Glare can hide detail
      • Use diffused light
    2. Avoid distortion
      • Keep the book parallel to your lens
    3. Focus
      • Use a macro lens or the macro setting OR
      • Zoom out until the book's title is in focus, then crop in post-processing
      • Use the RAW setting to capture as much detail as possible
      • Use a tripod for small books or detail photos
    4. Settings
      • If shooting at an angle, use a narrow aperture
      • Use your screen to fine-tune focus
      • Keep your ISO low
    5. Flash
      • Don't use it
    6. Background
      • Choose a plain background, like black pasteboard
      • Use the levels tool to deepen the black background
      • Don't punch up the colors

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    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.