29 October 2013

Beginning Blogger's Bootcamp: Week Four: Taking Nail Photos

The Beginner Blogger's Bootcamp is a series of posts published once a week on Monday evenings. It is designed for new bloggers, those thinking of starting a blog, or seasoned bloggers wanting a refresher, and covers everything from starting a blog to photographing your nails to using social media. Check out past posts in this series.

Hi bloggers! After blog design, good, clear photographs are essential to creating a strong first impression for new visitors to your site. Because photographs are so important, I've actually split the topic into two posts - today I'm going to cover what goes into taking a good photograph, and next week I'll cover editing.

Photographs are one of the things that new bloggers tend to be very concerned about. I'm a very visual person so most of the blogs that I followed when I was starting out had amazing photographs - some almost professional in quality. It's hard not to feel intimidated when you compare yourself next to bloggers who have been doing this longer than you have. I remember when I first started taking pictures of my nails, I had so many questions:

How do I take better photos?
Do I need any special equipment?
Do I need to have a fancy camera in order to have good photos?
Will my photos ever look as good as I want them to be?

The one thing that you can do to improve the quality of your photographs is PRACTICE! It sounds cheesy but it's true. I've taken thousands and thousands of photographs (literally!), and my photographs have improved even from a year ago. I hope a year from now they will be even better! Just to make my case, here's a simple comparison:

Me: October 2012

Me: October 2013

What Makes a Photo Good?

When it comes to photos of swatches and nail art, what makes a photo good? Here's where you have to think about the blogs that you admire, and that you think have good photographs. Everyone does their photos differently but there is some consistency:

  • A clear image that is in focus and not blurry
  • Evenly lit with no harsh shadows, if there is some shadows they don't obscure the polish or nail art
  • A background that is not distracting
  • A natural hand pose
  • Accurate colour and balanced skin tone
  • A neat appearance in the application of polish and proper clean up
  • Good contrast, brightness and saturation, in other words, the photo isn't washed out and the colours are not dull

These are things you notice if you look at bloggers who have been blogging 2-3+ years. No one expects new bloggers to be perfect, but working to take better photographs will only help in getting your blog noticed. Luckily, you don't need any expensive equipment to take good photographs, just some patience and practice!

Hand Poses

Posing your hand to take a photograph of your nails - with or without a bottle of nail polish - is probably one of the most unnatural, awkward things ever. And yet, a hand pose that looks natural makes for a good photograph. I've found that if you practice your hand poses enough and take lots of pictures, after weeks or months of practice, it will start to feel like second nature.

Bloggers usually have only a few hand poses that they use, and they tend to stick with them. Some bloggers like The Polish Addict or Vampy Varnish only have one hand pose, while other bloggers have anywhere from 2-5, or more. Eventually you will find a few hand poses that work for you, so that when you go to take a photo you can worry about other things like lighting or backgrounds, and not so much on what your hand is doing.

But here are some tips to get you started with hand poses:
  • DO imitate your favourite bloggers. Look at how other bloggers pose, and try to recreate it. We all have different hands, so it's never possible to copy someone 100%. But it helps you to see how a pose in a photograph looks in real life. Some poses will work better for you and will be more suitable for your hand type and finger shape. Note that I'm not talking about copying the arrangement or setup of their photographs.
  • DO realize that what looks natural in a photograph might not feel natural in real life. On the flip side, what feels natural in real life might not look natural or appealing in a photograph. Strange but true!
  • DO try to pose your hand so that it looks relaxed - DON'T squish your fingers together or hold the polish bottle too tight.

Some things are learned better by doing, and hand poses is one of them. But I thought that it might help to see some of my hand poses before the editing process. As you can see I like to rest the polish bottle on the palm of my hand (closer to my wrist), and rest my fingers on the side of the bottle. The thumb helps balance but it doesn't need to:

Hand and nail care for photos:
The camera has this lovely way of highlighting every single imperfection on your skin and nails. Taking a few precautions before snapping that picture is so important. Nothing beats regular, daily hand care - use lotion and cuticle oil a few times a day, and a thick cream with cuticle oil or balm at night. But here's what I do before taking a picture to make sure that my hands look their best:
  1. Clean up any polish around my cuticles and nails with an angled eyeliner brush dipped in acetone. Use pure acetone not nail polish remover. Believe me, it makes a world of difference!
  2. Carefully apply lotion to your hands without getting it on your nails. Use a lotion that is moisturizing but non-greasy. My fave is Aveeno Daily Moisturizer.
  3. Apply a dab of cuticle oil and rub it into your cuticles. If your cuticles have even a hint of dryness, the camera will capture it. I've found that KBShimmer Cuticle Oil sticks are the best for this purpose - you can apply just a touch of cuticle oil without having to use too much.
  4. Wipe away any excess moisturizer/oil. Just like the camera picks up dry skin, too much moisturizer also looks unappealing. Paper or cotton towels work well, and some bloggers use lint-free towels. 
Some of my favourite nail care tools for photos: cuticle stick,
angled eyeliner brush and KBShimmer Cuticle Oil

I may take more precautions than most bloggers, but in the end it's what works for me. But I do think that having healthy looking hands is so important as a nail polish blogger, so take a minute or two before snapping those pictures to make sure your hands look good!

Camera Settings

You don't need to have an expensive DSLR camera with macro lens to blog about nail polish. In fact, many bloggers (including myself) use compact digital cameras. If you are curious to see what some other bloggers use, this article from the Digit-al Dozen is an interesting read.

Although cell phone cameras have improved a lot over the past few years, they still aren't the best option for taking nail polish pictures. I've noticed with my iPhone photos that they are not as sharp and focused as my photos taken with my digital camera. Cell phone cameras also can't be adjusted for special circumstances, like glow-in-the-dark photos. A compact digital camera with manual settings is the best option for new bloggers.

My two blogging cameras: an older Canon PowerShot (used up until December 2012),
and my newer Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20

As a new blogger these are the camera settings you need to learn. I find after more than a year of taking photos, I don't really use much more than this when it comes to camera settings:

White Balance:
The white balance tells your camera what type of lighting you are using, whether it's sunlight, daylight with clouds, incandescent light, tungsten, etc. You can set it to auto white balance (AWB) but often times setting it manually is the best option. Simply go into your camera menu, select white balance, and the option to set the white balance looks like two triangles with a dot or square above them. You focus your camera on a white card or piece of paper and press the 'select' button. A properly set white balance will make your photos look more natural.

Light / Exposure:
This is often shown as a -/+ symbol. When selected, you'll see a scale going from -2 to +2 in increments of 1/3. If you find that your photos are consistently too dark, or too light, adjusting this will save you time when it comes to editing. I have mine always set to +1/3 because I found my photos were kind of dim looking.

The ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. A lower ISO (i.e. 100-200) will result in a sharper, more crisp image, while a higher ISO (i.e. 1600-3200+) will result in photos that are less crisp with more grain. But a higher ISO will let you take better photos in a dark setting, for example sports events. If you use the lowest ISO it's better to use a tripod. For that reason I usually use an ISO of 400. Later in this post I'll tell you of an instance where a high ISO is necessary.

Macro Setting:
This is one of the most important settings for nail polish photos. It usually looks like a small flower, and putting your camera on macro setting will allow you to get up close to snap a picture that's in focus. Typically with the macro setting, the area you are focusing on will be sharp, while other parts of your photo will be more blurred.

I should also add that I never use a flash, so the flash setting is turned off on my camera. I find that the flash messes with the white balance and it washes out my image. Some bloggers use a flash successfully but I've never gotten it to work for me.


When it comes to lighting you have two main options - daylight or artificial light. There are advantages and disadvantages to both:

  • Advantages:
    • Captures the luminosity and shimmer of a polish better. Also excellent for capturing the rainbow effect in holographic polishes.
    • If caught at the right time of the day, it allows for very evenly lit photographs
  • Disadvantages:
    • Having to time your polish/nail art sessions around the time of day, and the fact that there may be no sunlight when you want to take pictures
    • Strange looks from your neighbors when they see you taking pictures of your hand
Artificial Light:
  • Advantages:
    • Being able to take photos any time of the day (night owls unite!!)
    • Having more control over your light setup, you can adjust the lamps as needed
  • Disadvantages:
    • Not always the best for capturing holo polishes
    • Sometimes colours aren't captured as accurately

Sunlight photos: 
If taking photos in daylight, make sure to pose your hand in front of a non-distracting background, unless you plan to crop out the background. I used to take my photos in daylight and my method was to stand in front of my big window (with my back to the window), hold my hand in front of a blank part of my wall and snap away. Usually posing with the sun behind you shining on your nails is the best for even lighting. But too much sun can be bad, so you really have to move your hand around to get the best lighting.

To Lightbox or Not To Lightbox:
If you decide to work with artificial light, you can work with or without a lightbox. If working without a lightbox, you can pose your hand above or in front of a blank piece of paper or cardstock with the light shining on your hand. Having the light on one side or the other will result in shadows. It is best to have the light slightly behind (but not directly behind) your camera. Working this way allows you to capture the shine and shimmer on polish. It also is a way to capture holographic polishes if you can't take pictures during the day.

The Nailasaurus shows her photo setup that involves just a desk lamp and a backdrop.

Lightboxes are great because they disperse the light, so you don't get any harsh shadows and your nails are evenly lit. A lightbox is simply a box with several transparent sides that allow light to shine through. It usually has a backdrop (either cloth or paper) inside so that you can have a plain background. You can make your own lightbox - Chalkboard Nails has an excellent tutorial - or you can buy an inexpensive one from a photo store.

Here's my lighting setup, apologies for the poor quality photo, it was the best I could do:

My lighting setup: lightbox (Cowboy Studio), two desk lamps from Canadian Tire,
each with an OTT lightbulb (OTT bulbs mimic natural daylight)

Because they diffuse and soften the light, lightboxes aren't the best for capturing holo polishes. I always use artificial light but I switch between using a lightbox and placing my hand directly under my lamp. 

Capturing Glow-in-the-Dark Polishes

Here's my method for capturing glow-in-the-dark polishes:
  • Use your macro setting
  • Set your white balance to "daylight" (often looks like a little sun)
  • Set your ISO to a higher setting. I set mine to 3200 which is the highest on my camera
  • Set your exposure to the highest/lightest setting. For me this is +2.
  • "Charge" your nails under a lamp for 30 seconds, then turn off the lights. You will get your brightest shots in the first 15-30 seconds depending on the polish. 

Final Thoughts

I feel like this is a thesis or something, but I get a lot of questions about photos, so I felt this was important. At the same time I suspect I missed something I should have covered. As usual, if there's any questions I didn't answer please leave a comment. If I missed something major I may amend this post.

Let's Hear From You!

How do you feel about your photos? What camera / light setup are you using? What do you need the most help with when it comes to taking good photos?

See also:


  1. This is a really great and informative post! I'll have to try photographing a glow-in-the-dark polish now with your tips, I haven't tried that yet.

  2. Thanks for the tips on photographing glow in the dark polishes. Will surely try them.

  3. What an interesting post! Thank you for all the tips.

  4. I think I have read every how to blog photo blahhhh out there and this by far has been the singular most helpful
    I am looking forward to the rest of the series but this one has gotta be top of the charts for me on helpful.
    Thank you for going into so much detail about photograph taking
    Particularly glow in the dark polish, nothing I tried on my camera setting was getting gitd photos to work so I'm looking forward to having a fiddle with my camera tonight :-D

  5. This is a really great post, thanks. I'd love to improve my photo quality but I think that I'll need a better camera - I know you just explained that we don't need fancy equipment, I have a compact digital camera but it doesn't even have settings like white balance and ISO. All I can do it select the close-up option and point and click. I also do more or less the same hand care before photos, but sometimes I get frustrated when I overdo the lotion (I have dry skin and the acetone doesn't help) and my photos end up looking weird, haha. I guess the one thing I can still try without a new camera is a lightbox. At the moment I use a desk lamp, or I use sunlight when I have it (But I usually do my nails in the evening, so that's not often).

  6. Thanks for the tips!! Though currently I like my photos knowing these tips can help me in the future, like the glow in dark pictures, lightboxes and camera settings. Lol at strange looks from neighbours, thankfully I have a frosted window :P :)

  7. I am so loving this series! You've truly been a great help!
    Actually, after reading your last post on blog design I even went and changed mine to make it simpler and less 'distracting' (although it still needs a few tweeks and is not how I want it yet).
    This, too, has awesome tips and you've helped a lot with how to photograph glow in the dark polishes - yey!!
    All to say 'THANK YOU' - can't wait for the next chapters to this :))

  8. excellent post :) i'm loving this series! i am still learning about photography and like you said, i think i improve all the time, even though i still feel like i know nothing haha. thanks for letting us know about your set up! i'm always curious to know how others work.

  9. Thank you for discussing hand positions as well as camera tips. It is important to remember that we all can only do so much to the shape/size of our hands/fingers/nails...and then it is the position that can make or break the photo. I am still searching and practicing on this - big time. Once again - great article & thank you!!!!!

  10. I am going to have to read this one several times to get it all. That was a lot of information. I only have a cell phone to work with for now. I have the biggest trouble with the colors not coming out true. Is is my lighting or my cell phone camera? I use natural filtered sunlight as much as possible to try to capture the true colors. I've noticed some colors look much different in natural light than under a store's florescent lighting. Great post, very informative, and it is going to help me a lot. Many Thanks!!!!

    1. Aaack! Sorry I missed your question, only caught it after rereading the comments here.

      Regarding the colours in your photos, to be honest it's hard to tell since I don't know what kind of cell phone you are using. Most cameras register colours differently under different light. I say just try to continue using natural light as that's usually the best. If you run into problems you can always try to adjust the colour in the editing stage - which is the subject of the post after this one. ;)

  11. Great post! So many great advises and so sweet of you to share so that other people can skip some of those barrieres :)

  12. These are great tips for first-time bloggers. Where were you a couple months ago??? lol

  13. I use an compact digital camera too which has a super macro setting and allows me to fiddle with the white balance, exposure, and ISO. I try my best to take pictures in sunlight but the odd time I use my bathroom light which is a mix of fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. I have definitely gotten strange looks from my neighbors. :P

  14. Congrats for the post. It is very useful for the ones who are beginners in photing!

  15. this is a really great read! I've been blogging for a little over two years and i can definitely see the difference in the way my photos looked in the beginning.

  16. This is really really interesting. Thank you very much for sharing :-)

  17. Thank you so much! This is all really great info, a lot of it I was already doing, but there are small things that I will adjust now! Also, taking the glow in the dark pics have been a nightmare, until now!

  18. I totally do sun light pictures and I think my neighbors have gotten used to me being out there with my hand in the air!!! My biggest prob is the pose. I just can't get my stupid hands to look natural!!!

  19. Great tips! I am already living by these "rules" but it's always great to read up on information like this!

  20. Fab read - no matter what level of blogger you are. And thanks for the glow in the dark part. Once I asked someone how they did it and you would have thought I asked for the secret recipe to the worlds greatest cookie or something. I had to figure it out on my own in the end, so I'm glad you are so forthcoming with your knowledge and research for everyone!

  21. Thank you so much for this post. I now have a better understanding of the ISO settings on my camera, and I know how to use manually set white balance. I had problems with the last nail polish swatch I photographed, but once I switched to manually set white balance, it worked great =)

  22. This is such a helpful post! I've just moved back home from living overseas (where I had a light box set up) and I've been struggling to get the time to get a proper photo/lighting set up. I feel a lot more inspired now! :)

  23. Awesome post. I was wondering about white balance but I think my question is answered now. I think I need a lightbox to improve my photographs.

  24. I'm contemplating getting a lightbox, as I'm a night owl ; ) and direct artificial light usually doesn't work, I'm a perfectionist.
    Great post! Love the entire series.

  25. I need to photograph a glow in the dark print, hope these settings help!

  26. Oh. Em. Gee! I finally made myself sit down and played with my camera as I read along... wish I had done this the day you posted this post!

  27. I am so glad I came across this post! I will definitely be taking a closer look at the settings on my camera. I just started blogging, and taking better pictures is something I really want to improve on. Thanks for the post!


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