Friday, April 5, 2013

From Nails to Blog - Part 1: Cameras for Nail Polish Photography

Welcome to my very first series of informative posts - From Nails to Blog! In this cornily named series, I will be showing you my workflow for photographing my nails, editing and posting them on my blog and Instagram.

I've been wanting to write more "wordy" posts (aka not just nail art and swatches) for a while, but I couldn't think of what I have enough knowledge of to write about. All I have is a degree in architectural computing. Since there is basically no overlap between architecture and nail polish (apart from maybe architecture-themed nail art??), the next best thing is my irritating knack for understanding technical computery and design stuff.

I've seen a lot of questions about Photoshop, cameras and camera settings,the best lighting setup... Everyone's methods are different and it's all very subjective, but in this series I hope to break down some of the complex technical mumbo jumbo into easily understood information, specifically how it relates to nail polish.

Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to do things, and it's up to you if and how you incorporate these into your own workflow. But I hope you find these posts helpful in some way!

So without further ado, here is part one:

Cameras for Nail Polish Photography

The cameras you can use for nail polish photography fall into 3 basic groups: point and shoot, in-between and SLR cameras. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one, and certain features you want to look out for when buying.

Point and Shoot Camera 

- Cheap
- Light and easy to hold

- Difficult to control brightness and detail
- Lower colour accuracy

This is my point and shoot camera, a Canon IXUS 95 IS. It's about 3 years old now but it still works a treat.

A point and shoot camera is obviously the most accessible option - most of you will already own one. If you're in the market for a good point and shoot for nail photography, here are the features to look out for:

- Macro mode - Macro basically means "close-up" - the better the macro mode, the more useful it will be for taking detailed photos of your nails. Look for numbers like 1:1 or 1cm, or as close as you can get to those.
- White balance adjustment - This is important for getting colour accurate photos in different lighting (eg. lightbox, sun, shade). Most cameras have this function but double check to be sure. 

The features that retailers try to upsell you on that you don't need to pay attention to (for nail photography) are:

- Wide angle lens - This is for fitting more into the photo, which is useful for landscapes or rooms. It's not particularly helpful for nail photography.
- Extra zoom - I don't use the zoom at all, it makes it harder to get a clear picture.
- Megapixels - Megapixels are purely to do with the dimensions of the photo, not the quality. Anything over 6 megapixels is fine (the current standard is about 16).

I personally recommend the Canon IXUS range, because their cameras are excellently priced for the quality you get. They are really easy to use and the "auto" mode is the best in any camera I've ever tried. You don't need to go for a really high end model either - anything mid-range, around the $200 mark, is fine.

In-Between Cameras

- Really good image quality for the price
- Still small enough to be "compact"
- More customisable than a basic point and shoot
- Some support RAW mode

- More expensive
- Still don't get full control over brightness, detail and colour accuracy

If you want something a bit more hard-hitting than a basic point and shoot, but aren't prepared to invest in an SLR camera yet, your answer is a high end compact camera like the Canon G15.

These cameras provide exceptional picture quality as well as giving you more control over the exposure (brightness) and detail. Colours are also more accurate and richer. For all that, they're still pretty small so they're easy to carry around and take steady photos with just one hand.

Other cameras in this range include the Nikon P7700, Sony RX100 and Panasonic Lumix LX7.

Many of these cameras also feature the capability to shoot in RAW mode. This term is explained in the SLR section below, but try to look for a camera that supports this, if possible!

The same features to look out for in point and shoot cameras also apply to these high end compact cameras.

SLR Camera 

- Best image quality
- RAW mode
- Best control over exposure and detail
- Ability to change lenses to suit your needs and budget

- Heavy and bulky
- Expensive

Using an SLR camera is definitely the way to go if you are serious about nail photography. However, they are a substantial investment, and you will need to fork out for some decent lenses as well.

I use a Canon 60D, a mid-range SLR camera. For nail photography, even an entry level SLR camera will be great, as it mainly depends on the quality of the lens that you are using with it. The differences between models are mostly features that don't apply to nail photography, so work out what you think you will actually use.

The one huge advantage of SLR cameras in my opinion is the capability to shoot in RAW mode. RAW mode is a way of capturing images which gives you a lot more control over exposure, colours, contrast and detail when you're editing later on. This takes a lot of stress out of the actual photography process, as you don't need to be constantly worrying about getting the brightness and detail right while taking photos. Most SLR cameras have this capability, but make sure to double check. 


The standard kit lenses that come with SLR cameras will not be able to take close up photos of nails, as they can’t focus that close. You can take the photo further away and crop it later on, but this results in loss of detail. I also find it really hard to actually hold my hand far enough away from the camera. My arm just isn't long enough.

So to really use an SLR camera for nail photography, you will need a macro lens. I use a Canon f2.8 60mm Macro USM lens which is perfect. I'll break down the numbers and terms for you:

Macro: The lens must specifically be a macro lens. This enables it to focus on objects a lot closer to the lens than a regular lens will allow.

Focal Length: The focal length is the length of the zoom in mm. On a full frame camera (e.g. Canon 5D, Nikon D600), a 90-100mm macro lens is ideal. On a crop sensor camera (basically every regular consumer SLR), a 60mm macro lens is ideal. Find out which one your SLR camera is and pick the focal length accordingly.

F-stop: The lower the number, the easier it will be to get sharp, non-shaky photos. A lower number also gives better depth of field, aka that nice blur in the background. f2.8 is pretty low, which is good.

USM: This is a Canon-specific term, but it means the lens will focus more quickly and quietly than other cheaper lenses. The Nikon equivalent term is SWM AF-S. This also makes it easier to get sharp and steady photos of your nails.

There are different price points for macro lenses, and this is reflected in the lens quality. I have a number of different macro lenses from different brands and the one that I mentioned above is the best one I have tried. It cost around $400. 

The best thing to do when you're deciding to buy any camera or lens is to take a memory card to a camera shop like Ted's or Paxtons, and try taking photos of your nails with all the different cameras. You'll get a feel for what works best for you personally, and when you get home you can compare the photos on your computer, as the screens on the cameras aren't always accurate.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below, or send me an email at

Stay tuned for the next installment on lightboxes and lights! Thanks for reading!


  1. I have a Canon EOS 550D with the carry-on lens, an I've been wanting to buy a macro lens, not only for my nails but also for taking picture of nature. Can you suggest me the best focal length for my needs? Thank you very much! This post is supper informative!



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