4 Tips to Make Any Subject Look Good

4 Tips to Make Any Subject Look Good

You can’t polish a turd, but you can do your darndest to make sure all your ducks are in a row, photographically speaking. To prove that you can make anything look good, I'm shooting an old potato. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take a lot to make your images sing, so here’s my top four tips to make any subject look good.

Decide on Your Background

I started from the back of the scene and moved forwards. I kept things simple and placed a sheet of black foam down on the floor with the idea of shooting down on it for a clear, black backdrop, without the need for a backdrop stand.

Black foam is not only dark, but light absorbent. This is much better than using black acrylic because it contains less reflections making a more uniform background.

Subject Preparation

I then raided the kitchen cupboards and found a rather gnarled-looking potato in the fridge and popped it down on the foam. I focused and took a test shot only to notice that both the potato and background were sharp, so I had to find a way to distance the potato from the backdrop to isolate my subject. Again, I went to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of oil to prop up the potato. I used sesame oil because it’s perfect due to the viscosity of the liquid, and the dark amber tones propagate light very differently from olive oil becau… nah, just kidding — it was the first one I grabbed! It still wasn’t zinging, in my mind, so I used a little oil to cover the potato to make it shinier, which would enhance the specular highlights (the brightest spots on the potato).

Underneath the potato, an oil bottle from the kitchen holds it a few inches away from the foam backdrop to allow focus to fall off and isolate the potato.


I was getting reflections on the foam from the glass bottle because I was using ceiling lights for my test shots, so I decided to set up a Yongnuo speedlight YN560 remotely triggered by the YN622N wireless triggers to light the potato. I didn’t want any light to hit the foam so I shoved a nearby notebook in the way, blocking the light, and decided to bounce the flash off the TV unit for softer light (I was too lazy to set up the soft box). I put another flash camera-left on the opposite side directly firing at the potato to add a rim light. 


On my Nikon D750 in manual mode I dialed in f/5 to keep the potato sharp front-to-back but allow the background to fall out of focus, kept ISO low at 200 to avoid noise and used the flash sync speed of 1/250 sec for the shutter speed. It looked good, but I wanted to pop a little color in there, so I grabbed some candy wrappers and stuck them over the flashguns with some tape, one red, one blue. 


In order to make your subject look good (or as good as it can be) it’s important to pay attention to the four pillars of shooting: backdrop, subject prep, lighting, and style. If you’ve ticked all four boxes and it still doesn’t look right, then have a think about swapping out your subject, changing lenses or move the camera closer/farther away to alter composition. But as you can see, if you can make an old potato look good, then there's no making excuses for upping your photography game. What tips do you have for making subjects look good? Share your thoughts below.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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"Black foam is not only dark, but light absorbent."
Darker = light absorbent (if we're talking about materials and not about light sources).
I believe you meant "not only dark, but also light scattering"

Would this work with asparagus also?

Nice article, well presented.

Good Article. We remember once we had to photograph a clear colostomy bag for a client. Just getting that clear piece basic bag to have some dimension was a trick. From there it was an interesting background and then we lit it like a jewel.

You know those Cyalume Chemlights? Well you can activate that liquid and stir it in to whatever you want, even the contents of a colostomy bag.

Some great effects are possible. They are available in different colors. Use your imagine and have fun. Happy photographing!

"You can’t polish a turd" you say. Maybe so. But with Photoshop you can turn cat shit into Tootsie Rolls.