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Photography and Signs: An Efficient Tradition

Take a good picture to begin with will save you time in the long run

By Staff

In the sign business, you do not always have to start from scratch with a new sign to make a profit. Often you will be asked to improve or replace an already existing outdoor billboard or electric sign.

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  • In the past, you could take photographs of the original sign, bring them back to the office, visualize features that could be added to enhance the sign, and sketch you ideas.

    However, creating a hard copy that accurately depicted the image in your mind--plus visualizing the way it should actually look when placed in its original location--was not a simple task. Even if your were blessed with superb drawing skills, creating a realistic sample of your sign idea would consume too much valuable time. Then, after having a difficult enough time showing customers your suggestions, you would often face the frustrating experience of trying to interpret and reproduce their brilliant ideas.

    In today's computer age, affordable and fairly simple-to-operate technology has wiped away most of these problems.

    Now you can photograph an existing billboard, scan the photo into an image-editing program, and manipulate the sign until both you and your customer are satisfied. You can view possible changes as simple as changing the color of the sign's background or as complex as replacing the image of last year's product with this year's new and improved version. After showing your customer a color realistic printout of the new design, you could almost promise, "What you see is what you'll get."

    The most vital step in creating a photorealistic sample is taking the picture of the original sign. The sign's location will determine the level of picture taking difficulty. The camera's quality and your photography skills will determine the quality of the photo.

    If the initial photo is of poor quality, you will not be able to produce impressive results on the computer. Therefore, though you want to stay within your budget, you do not want to skimp when selecting a camera.

    Ideally, you should have a traditional 35-mm SLR camera with an attachable telephoto lens. Though automatic features--such as automatic focus, automatic aperture control, and automatic shutter speed control--are appealing and less intimidating to the amateur photographer, you should look for a camera that also allows you to switch to manual mode, or at least lets you focus and set the shutter speed manually. The computer in the camera cannot always read you mind. It focuses on what it thinks is the main subject, and it picks the shutter speed it thinks will work. But you want to have the option of focusing as close as possible on the sign you are photographing. You also want to be able to adjust the aperture properly on days when the Mother Nature does not supply adequate lighting.

    If you do not already have a good camera, bypass the discount centers. The old lady or the teenager at the electronics counter is not likely to know any more about 35 mm photography than you. Plus, these stores do not usually have a decent selection of quality cameras. You are better off going to an actual camera shop. There the sales people normally know something and will be able to help you select the camera best suited for your needs.

    Unless you have a lot of extra cash cluttering your budget, a digital camera should not be your initial camera of choice. Though the quality of photos produced by these cameras is improving, only those costing near and over a $1000 can, in the end, come close to the quality of traditional film. A digital camera will eliminate the need for film, for processing, and for waiting to get the pictures back, but the images shot do not usually rate with a quality traditional camera.

    Though the latest photo-editing software packages have amazing image-enhancing abilities, you are better off starting with a quality photo. Then you can spend your valuable time improving the actual design of the sign, instead of endlessly pointing and clicking in your attempts to compensate for poor photography.

    Once you have a quality camera, you can get useful pictures by carefully planning the photo and implementing some basic photography techniques.

    Don't always expect to be able to shoot the photograph of the sign during your lunch break. Leave plenty of time for the photo session.

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    Your photo editing software may be able to compensate for common problems such slight overexposure, but it can not (in any reasonable amount of time) fill in parts of the sign that got cut off because of poor planning or a camera that does not have through-the-lens viewing.

    Even if you did manage to recreate the unintentionally cropped section, the end result would not look as life-like as it could have if the original photo had been complete. It is difficult to impress customers with less-than-complete pictures. They might ask, "If the picture is incomplete, what will the sign be?"

    The distance between you and the sign you are photographing is another factor that you will need to consider to get a good workable picture. The farther away the sign is from the camera, the flatter its face will appear on the photo. Plus, the image will be too small, and the image will be surrounded by unneeded distracting objects or empty space.

    This is where a telephoto lens will come in handy. It is the ideal lens to use when you can't get close enough to the sign (a typical problem when photographing most large billboards and signs on busy roads) to produce a large, complete, undistorted image.

    A telephoto lens has a narrower angle of view and so produces large subject images. Because it minimizes the illusion of depth between the foreground and the background and creates a more magnified image, you must especially follow two of the basic rules of good photography: focus carefully and hold the camera steady.

    Though using a very fast shutter speed can help avoid a blurred image, you can guarantee the camera will be held steady by using a tripod and, if available, a cable release.

    Take the picture from a variety of positions. For some signs, the best shot might be taken above ground level from a lift on a truck, a bridge, or multiple story building.

    Using different angles will help vary the composition of the photo. Of course, the main subject is the sign. But you can add perspective and a life-like quality to the picture by including some of the road, a few cars, or a neighboring building.

    This technique could also help choose effective design elements for the new sign such as background color. You would be able to see if the new sign stands out from its surroundings. Just be careful not to get carried away when including surrounding objects. You want the largest image of the sign possible, so the sign itself should take up most of the photo. You are a sign maker, not a landscape photographer.

    Not only do you need to decide where you will you will take the photo, but often you will need to carefully consider what part of the day is best to shoot the picture. You don't want to waste time trying to improve an under-exposed or an over-exposed photo on the computer. You want to take the picture at a time of day when the sun is cooperating.

    Basically, the sun cooperates most when it is at your back. Therefore, the sign's location will determine the ideal time of day to take the photo. Remember, too much sunlight can cause a glare or unwanted shadows to appear on the photo. Too little sunlight--such as on a cloudy day--may dull the colors in the sign. You need to find a happy medium, which may mean simply taking the picture from a different angle or taking the picture on another day.

    You will not regret the extra time you spend carefully planning the sign photo with a good, traditional and practicing basic techniques of good photography. It will save you the time and the frustration of attempting to "fix" a bad photo with the computer. Instead, you will simply scan the great photo into your computer, and it will be ready to manipulate. Then you can spend your time improving the design of the sign, pleasing your customer, and making a profit.

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