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Gun Porn: How To Take The Perfect Picture Of Your Firearms [Complete Guide]



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DON'T FORGET THE HASHTAGS

Photos by Ryan Burns, @dexterity_media

We’ve all been there before, scrolling through your social media vice of choice and looking at all the various gun-related posts. 

Sifting through an endless sea of AR variants, fancy bolt gun paint jobs, and the occasional beautiful wood grain on a skeet gun, thinking to ourselves, “I should post a picture of one of my pieces for some anonymous internet validation.”

Out comes the cell phone, a quick snap is taken, uploaded, and we sit back to pat ourselves on the back, waiting for our perfect picture to go viral.

Problem is if you were that proud of the gun in the first place, did you do it justice? Does it look as good as it possibly can? Are your dirty, unclipped, unwashed feet making an appearance in the bottom of the frame? 

Is grandma’s floral couch from the late ’80s washing out the background so badly that you can’t tell your rifle from a broomstick? If that gun were Scarlett Johansson, did you make her look like Keith Richards?

It doesn’t take professional equipment to learn to frame and light a subject properly, focus on details, and truly bring out the best in any subject. As a professional photographer, I can assure you that you don’t need to be one to shoot some epic gun porn and stack up those elusive internet points. 

EQUIPMENT/SETTINGS

It's 2023, and reasonable to assume that most people who are attempting to take quality images of their firearms have access to either a smartphone with a relatively advanced built-in camera system or a standalone camera of some sort. 

While a standalone camera will almost always yield better results, it also comes with an owner’s manual, which is probably in a landfill somewhere. Phones, on the other hand, are much more immediately intuitive to operate due to our day-to-day interaction with them. 

However, that ease of use can result in laziness, lack of control, and poor-quality images. 

Regardless, cameras are nothing more than a collection of settings that, when combined properly, can deliver us the results we want. 

The four major settings you’ll probably find referenced are shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focal length (sometimes referred to as “zoom.”) If you leave your settings on “auto” you might never need to worry about these settings, but they are still good to at least be familiar with.

SPEED

Shutter speed is a number expressed in hundredths of a second that the camera sensor is exposed to and recording, the image projected on it through the lens. 

FAST shutter speed

A shutter speed of ¼ (or one-quarter of a second) is much slower than 1/8000 and will allow the camera sensor to be exposed to the scene for longer. 

APERTURE

Aperture is literally that, an adjustable aperture in the lens assembly that controls how much light the image sensor is exposed to, but more importantly, it controls an important aspect known as Depth of Field, or the depth from the image sensor in which correct focus can be achieved. 

This is indicated in f-stop numbers, which are also backward. F1.8 is a very wide aperture, and f22 is a very narrow one. 

(Top) f2.8 (Bottom) f.22, both unedited.
f2.8 with some post-production editing

Different lenses have different aperture ranges, and some lower-end zoom lenses will change aperture settings throughout their total zoom range, so be aware. 

SENSITIVITY TO LIGHT (ISO)

ISO is representative of how sensitive the image sensor is to light. An ISO setting of 50 is not very sensitive, so you’ll have to either have a substantial amount of light (think shooting mid-day in the desert) or shoot with a wide aperture and slow shutter speed to compensate. 

On the flip side, an ISO setting of 12,000 is several orders of magnitude more sensitive, so you can shoot at faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures without worry. 

Lots of natural outdoor light, using a low ISO to shoot

Worth noting that the higher the ISO number, the more grain, or “noise,” you’ll get in the image. This can be used to your advantage, so long as the image depicts a grungy feel. 

Not all of these settings can be accessed through a smartphone, their lenses are small and lack adjustable apertures. However, they have some software workarounds that are sometimes brilliant, and sometimes leaning more on the Keith Richards side of things. 

ZOOM

Focal Length or “zoom” on camera lenses is typically referred to in millimeters. A 14mm lens would be on the wide-angle side of the spectrum, whereas a 200mm lens has more “zoom” in it, but a narrower field of view and will fall into the “telephoto” category. 

Typically lenses in the 50mm region relate to humans because it most closely matches what our eyes tend to see. It’s important to note that wide lenses can produce a “fisheye” effect on the subject, where straight lines will become curved, but they also allow you to shoot much closer to your subject. 

A telephoto lens will do a better job of accurately depicting the subject proportions but need more environmental space around you and your subject to work with, and will not properly focus at close distances. 

Both have their places, but for a beginner, my recommendation would be to work with something in the 50mm or 135mm range. 

COMPOSITION

Alright, enough of the technical jargon, it’s time to get to the fun stuff and pull out some guns. 

First thing is first: unload, and safety check your firearms. Nobody needs to be a statistic in this process. 

Next is setting, we need to find or build an environment that highlights the gun you’re trying to show off, and this is where 99% of the picture-taking, gun-toting public falls short. 

A garage floor with a little even lighting can run circles around the dining room table for obvious reasons, even a black curtain can make the difference when the alternative is that sweet early ’90s linoleum on the kitchen floor. 

Garage floor, overhead lighting. Not bad, but we can do better.

The point here is that you often don’t need to go far to find somewhere worth using, look around a little bit, and if you’re able to curb your excitement for a second and really think it through, you’ll be able to find something. 

Another thing to consider is the type of firearm you’re photographing and how it should be framed. Handguns will be easier to fill in the frame than your favorite over-under because they aren’t these long, thin objects that need the camera to be 6ft away from. 

Don’t lock yourself into the idea that every gun can only be photographed at a perfectly perpendicular angle to the camera. 

This is kind of boring.
Add a couple of objects, edit the lighting a little, and BAM

Experiment and use different angles to see what immediately stands out as more creative. Maybe open the action on that over-under so that it fills more of the frame, and close the slide on that 1911 because we can all agree that most 1911s look rather funky with the slide locked to the rear. 

Angle a long gun, so it fills the frame at a diagonal instead of having a bunch of empty space. If there is going to be empty space, what can we put in it to tell a story? The right knife always seems to be a good choice, maybe a few stray rounds or a little of that aging gunpowder you were never going to use anyways. 

Some filler objects go a long way

Some broken clay target fragments should be easy to come by and would add something to the shot. Just make sure that the clay target is one you’ve actually hit, not just broken apart on the ground beforehand.

In photography, lighting can be everything, especially when you consider that what you’re essentially attempting to do is capture a moment of light in time. But just like your favorite 40oz of King Cobra, there IS such a thing as too much. 

I recommend against using your phone or on-camera flash, as you’ll most likely find that they introduce too much light in a manner that’s too harsh and can leave blinding bright spots on polished or shiny surfaces. 

The best tips for lighting are to watch where your shadows are going to be, make sure your lighting is giving you definitive edges of the subject, and, if needed, go ahead and move your subject away from its background to help isolate and highlight what it is. 

Natural light through a window

If you can’t move away from your background for some reason, contrasting colors keep your gun as an isolated subject, especially if you’re forced to use a “busy” background for some reason. 

You may not always have the amount of light you need, so don’t be afraid to kick up that ISO setting and embrace the grain or shoot with a wide aperture (represented by a low f-number) to allow more light, just be aware of your depth of focus/composition combination. 

Low lighting, but a high ISO

This is digital photography, try whatever you want and delete the bad ones later like they never happened. 

EXPLORE

It’s all well and good, taking pictures in your garage of guns you hold near and dear to you. But as the discerning, modern gun owners that we are, we think it’s safe to assume that these guns occasionally leave the home and maybe even get fired at the range from time to time. 

Bring your camera with you to the range and expand your creative horizons a bit. Instead of working to create artificial environments that complement the firearms, use the environments that do so naturally. 

Trap shotguns do not look any more at home than they do in piles of broken clays, precision rifles looking over hundreds of yards of open land just works, and your favorite pistol with a backdrop of hammered steel targets or a collection of A-zone hits puts a smile on your face. 

Overcast natural lighting, get your knees dirty!

And the best part of using the range? We can be reasonably certain that they’re gun-friendly zones, and sympathetic to what you’re up to. 

Exploring can mean more than the range. Open your eyes and observe your surroundings, and ask permission from property/business owners. You’d be amazed at the places you’ll be allowed to use. 

Worth noting that these spaces often have interesting lighting you can play with. Slivers of light coming through cracks in the building can be used to show off specific features of a gun.

Slow shutter speed to make up for a lack of light made for an awesome picture

Sometimes the shot you want will be in an area with extremely low light, remember some of the technical jargon we went over earlier, and make sure to do whatever is needed to keep the camera steady during longer exposures to prevent blur. A tripod can help a lot in those situations.

Sometimes when exploring, it’s better to look into the small details instead of the big picture. 

What is it about this firearm that captures your attention? Is it a red extractor against a black action/bolt? Is it engraving? Machining marks (or lack thereof)? Make sure to find ways to draw attention to the things that drew you to the gun in the first place, they may not be as immediately noticeable to others unless you show them. 

Natural lighting through some cracks used to highlight the colors and contracts of the rifle

Explore your angles and body positioning. One of the best pieces of advice ever published about photography is, “when the shoot is over, if you don’t have some dirt on your knees, then you did it wrong.”  

One of the most common mistakes made is to ruin an otherwise good shot by not taking the time to kneel down and get the camera low. Tilt the camera slightly and let the subject fill the frame diagonally, use angles to give the subject a commanding presence. 

Explore guns in action. Use your friends to shoot while you snap away and experiment with timing, focal planes, and compositions. Go to events and take photos of the preparation, action, and wins or defeats. Try different camera settings, play with shooting extremely high shutter speeds combined with a high ISO. Try to get some of that sweet “frozen in air” brass action. 

FAST shutter speed and high ISO to capture movement frozen in space

This is the time to have fun when you have the guns and environment served to you on a platter, and you can focus on the technical side of the equation. 

EDITING

These days access to modern photo editing software is trivial, and you no longer need to know how to fully utilize something as daunting as Photoshop to make a serious impact on your images. 

Adobe Lightroom is free as a cell phone app and cheap enough for a desktop to consider. Simple slider adjustments can make all the difference in the world, and “cropping” an image can help to draw attention to a specific detail without needing to invest in expensive macro lenses (provided your camera is taking high-quality images in the first place). 

This is an unedited picture.
The same picture but after cropping and some editing.

Looking for a desaturated, extremely sharp image? Something with punchy, distinct color? Got an image that came out a little on the dark side and needs a little extra exposure? Play with the settings, do some research, and watch tutorials on how to get the results you want. 

This is the modern digital era of photography. Nothing is permanent, storage space is cheap, and the sky is the limit. Take your time to have fun with it, and don’t let poor results get you discouraged. 

Instead, take a hard look at your work and determine what you’d like to fix about it moving forward. Talk to fellow photographers about how they do their thing. Think before you take the shot and think, “is this picture I’m about to take also something I’d like to see?” 

If nothing else, this will help justify more gear purchases this year by pretending that you’ll use the equipment to document the family vacations!

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