Photographing Tools for eBay

Good photos make all the difference

Good photos make all the difference

Good photos and a clear, detailed description make all the difference when you’re buying and selling on eBay. The eBay seller I bought this Stanley Bailey No. 3, Type 14 from provided the photo shown at the top. I have no idea what they were doing to have the photo come out purple, but it sure didn’t make for a very compelling presentation. Looks like some bizarre combination of lighting sources, probably a mix of flash and fluorescent, or perhaps their camera was inadvertently set to some creative “mode.” Additionally, the description was virtually non-existent.  Something like “Old Stanley plane in good condition.” Didn’t really tell me much. Not surprising, the bidding activity was low and I got it for a bargain.

After doing a light restoration on the plane, primarily just cleaning the crud off of it, I took the photo at the bottom using a 12 year old digital camera, cheap tripod, natural daylight, with the plane sitting on my kitchen table. You don’t have to be a professional photographer or have expensive equipment to get good results. You just have to make an effort and think about what you’re doing.

Photography Guidelines

While better equipment can certainly produce superior photographs in the hands of a skilled photographer, even a cell phone or tablet can provide surprisingly good results if you follow a few simple guidelines:

  1. Use Natural Light – Whenever possible, use natural light (daylight) for your light source. Avoid direct sunlight, stay in the shade or better yet, wait for an overcast day. Incandescent and fluorescent lights each produce a very different color balance, resulting in a yellowish cast or bluish cast respectively. While modern cameras usually do a fair job of compensating for this, the photos still look unnatural. If you must use artificial light, stick to either incandescent or fluorescent (don’t mix them) and try to set your camera for that corresponding light. Finally, make sure you turn off any sort of creative effects mode.
  2. Turn off the Flash – Flash photography, especially of stationary objects, is a tricky thing to get right. Flash tends to blast everything in light, flattening details and causing unnatural highlights and shadows. It’s not a good look. Find a place where there is plenty of natural ambient light as described above.
  3. Compose Your Shot – Fill the frame with your subject and think about your platform and background, everything that will be in the photo. Avoid patterned fabrics and anything that might be a distraction. Try to find a spot that is visually appealing, and ideally shows your item in its natural environment. If you’ve ever looked at my auctions, I photograph my tools right on my workbench, because ultimately that’s where they belong. (See photo below) Even then, I remove as much of the clutter as possible so the tool will be the focal point.
  4. Image Size – All modern cameras, even the cameras on phones, produce relatively high resolution images. Make sure that your photos are at least 1600 pixels on one axis (either horizontal or vertical). Square format photos make the most of eBay’s available real estate, but are not always practical for your subject. Again, make sure you fill your frame like I did in the photo below.
  5. Other Equipment – A tripod is nice, but you really only need one if you’re using manual exposure controls with a slow shutter speed (slower than 1/60 sec) , where if the camera were hand held, the photo would be fuzzy from camera shake. A tripod, however, can be advantageous if you need to photograph in low light. You can take very long exposures without camera movement causing a fuzzy photo mess.
  6. Software – This is also optional, but a good photo editor like Photoshop can make a mediocre photo really pop. With a little practice, you can learn to correct color balance and fix minor exposure problems. If nothing else, you will likely need to crop the photo that comes straight from the camera.
275 SB4C Type 10 Post 1

Stanley Bailey No. 4C, Type 10 photographed on my workbench immediately after a few test cuts.

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Condition – The Eye of the Seller

026 SB4-T19 ebay
When it comes to vintage tools, condition, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder… or more specifically, the eye of the seller. So many online tool sellers throw around vague, undefined terms like ‘great condition’, ‘mint condition’ etc., it’s hard to get a good sense of exactly what you’re buying, especially on Ebay. I use such terms sparingly, and only as a complement to a much more specific description of condition and features. That’s why I write my listings using specific descriptives, not subjective adjectives.

Unless they were hermetically sealed soon after they were made, all vintage tools show some degree of age, whether through loss of finish, dents, dings, and scratches from use, transport, and storage, rust damage, or simply darkening from age and environment. It’s also healthy to keep in mind that relatively speaking, these were not precision made tools in the way we think of precision made tools today. Quality control was more subjective, and let’s face it, these were tools of tradesmen who carried them around in wooden boxes on horse drawn carriages. It’s a wonder any of them even survived! Customers of the day were not likely too concerned with cosmetics. They were not the disposable, ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ culture we are today. They used things until they were worn out, then they fixed them up as best they could, and used them some more.

For me, mint condition means brand new, unused, just as it was when it was sold. Anything less is near mint, very fine, fine, good, or user grade. For tools that are 50 to 150 years old to be in mint condition, they would have to not only have never been used, but kept in climate controlled storage so as not to sustain permanent rust or corrosion damage. I’ve seen very few tools that meet this criteria. Near mint to me means the tools was never used or used very lightly. It may well show some evidence of age, but overall looks like something akin to a floor sample. I think far less than 5% of vintage tools fall into this range. The vast majority of tools fall somewhere between Very Fine (maybe 5-10%), Fine (10%), Good and User (45%), and Poor (30%). All of these are, of course, very rough estimates based on my own observations and experience.

I guess the takeaway is, when you’re shopping for vintage tools, whether to use or display, ignore the subjective descriptors and adjectives such as ‘Good’ or ‘Mint’ or ‘Perfect.’ Don’t make assumptions about features, condition, or whether the tool is in working condition. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request additional photos (if the tool is being sold online). And always be wary of tools that have been over-cleaned or ‘restored.’ To some, restored simply means sharpened. To others, it means completely refinished.

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