When the subject of jewelry photography comes up, the most frequently asked question is always the same: “What’s the best camera?”
There is no right or wrong answer to that question, but I suggest it is the wrong question, and here’s why….
There are many ways to light an object; some ways will emphasize form, other perhaps color, or texture. Creating the image that YOU want is about creating the correct lighting environment. Once that is done, the camera is used simply as a recording tool to capture the scene as it existed. If you get the lighting right, you’ll have a good image. If the lighting is done poorly, the finest camera on Earth is of no help.
The goal of this guide is to help you create images of your jewelry that you can be proud of, whether for simple record keeping purposes, for appraisal work or for advertising locally or on the Internet. Buried in here is a guide to a simple setup that works, and it works every time. It’s buried because I want you to read a little to uncover it; you’ll be learning on the way.
I also hope to help you in your camera choices. I firmly believe that good tools are a joy in life, and you should not scrimp. Investment in a functional and efficient tool will pay you back many times, not just in results, but in ease of use. Not only do we get a better end product, but we get it more quickly. Good tools make difficult work easy and time is money! As jewelers, we invest in expensive inventory and equipment all the time with the expectation of profit. I can guarantee you that a nominal investment in good photographic equipment and the education to use them well will pay you back handsomely.
The choice of camera is not trivial, but I want to emphasize it is not the camera that makes a “good” or “poor” image, it is the lighting environment. Just like a setting bur, torch tip or polishing buff, a camera should be chosen for the task at hand. A camera well suited to the task is a joy to use. It makes the job easy and the results predictable. Often, the camera that is fine for everyday snapshots may be the one you wish to press into service here, but for the demanding tasks we are engaging, it may disappoint, frustrate and not produce the desired results. Get the right tool, it’s worth it.
For photographing jewelry and other small objects, here are the options a camera should have:
- The camera must have the ability to focus close enough so that the image in the viewfinder screen is at least one-half of the screen height. Additionally, it must do so without getting so close to the object that light from the camera direction is blocked. Generally, we will need to be at least 6-8 inches away from the subject to avoid serious lighting problems.
- The camera must have the ability to function in a fully manual mode, i.e., you should be able to independently adjust the aperture and the shutter speed. Many digital cameras in the less expensive range lack this feature, although many also include it.
- The camera must allow a choice of white balance options or have the ability to take images in RAW mode. White balancing is one of those necessary chores we often avoid, with unhappy result.White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. Proper camera white balance has to take into account the “color temperature” of a light source, which refers to the relative “warmth” or “coolness” of light. Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources. However, digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance (AWB). An incorrect WB can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts. Most digital cameras provide a choice of white balance settings, but choosing the correct one can be a matter of experimentation.A camera capable of recording images in RAW format makes worrying about white balance a thing of the past. White balancing is not necessary in RAW mode; we can use any light source and not have to concern ourselves with setting white balance. In addition, use of RAW mode opens up the possibility of much nicer processed images. RAW capture is becoming a common feature, look for it. It’s not necessary, but nice.
- The camera should have either a self-timer for delayed exposure or be able to accept a manual or remote shutter release device. Any of those features are a real help when it comes to vibration-free images. No matter how gentle you may think you are, it is nearly impossible to use your finger to release the shutter without introducing some form of camera movement. This slight movement may not be noticeable in informal snapshots, but in close-up or macro photography it is painfully obvious. Using the self-timer to release the shutter is often the best and easiest choice.
- Although not an absolute prerequisite, a mirror lock-up feature is very useful. This feature eliminates the possibility of vibration from “mirror-slap” causing blurring in your images at certain slow shutter speeds. Vibration from mirror slap can be a problem at shutter speeds in the range of 1/15th to 1/2 second.
A camera capable of producing a 3-4 megapixel image is more than adequate for full frame prints up to 5×7 inches or for images that will be used on the web. More pixels help if you are cropping the image substantially or need very high quality prints. The standard today seems to be about 6-10 megapixels, easily sufficient for our needs.
There are many fine camera choices at any given time. Complete non-biased reviews of almost all cameras and related equipment can be found at steves-digicams.com or dpreview.com as well. Just about every digital camera ever available is fully described at those sites. In addition, you will find discussion groups and a great number of links to other photography-related sites, both equipment and technique related.
I very strongly recommend that you consider purchasing a D-SLR, which is a digital camera with interchangeable lenses. The ability to use a true macro lens or extension tubes with a normal or zoom lens is a tremendous aid to getting better images. Not only are the lenses optically excellent, but these cameras allow a comfortable working distance between the lens and the subject, something that can make like much easier in close-up photography. Also, the digital sensors used in the SLR style of camera are considerably larger than the sensors in the smaller, fixed lens models. The larger sensor provides a finer image although the difference may not always be noticeable until we get to the printing stage. Even though a particular point-and-shoot camera may have the ability to produce, say, an eight megapixel image, that image will not be as fine as the same sized image produced by one of the D-SLR cameras because of the difference in sensor quality.
The field is always changing, but cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Samsung, Fuji, and Olympus are all solid pieces of equipment.
D-SLR’s operate very similarly to 35 mm cameras and even the simplest ones today offer a very impressive range of features for the money. If you are considering creating finer images for magazine advertising, or glossy brochures or flyers, the range of features of the D-SLR’s should really be considered. A camera like the excellent and top-selling Canon Rebel xSi with a very fine Sigma 105 mm macro lens, ideal for jewelry (and portrait) work is available for about $1200 as of this writing (January, 2009).
I have no connection with any camera or lens manufacturer and receive no reward or remuneration from anyone for my recommendations here, but I have been using the Canon Rebel xT for over three years and I am very impressed with the features/price ratio. It has now been replaced by the XSi, which offers higher resolution, an improved sensor and a self-cleaning feature that eliminates any problems resulting from dust on the sensor.
Additionally, and significantly, the XSi shows a large Live View, real-time image that can be magnified up to 1 0x for fine focusing, a great help in photographing jewelry. This Live
View image is also available when the camera is hooked directly to the computer. The Canon 100mm macro lens is also a fine choice for close-up work as an alternative to the Sigma 105. Professionals who have used both the Canon and the Sigma, myself included, feel there is no practical difference between the images these lenses produce. Both lenses are considered to be the finest of their kind, although there are some differences in the mechanical aspect of the lenses.
The front of the Sigma moves in and out while changing focus but the Canon does not, as it focuses internally. This would be a consideration if you plan to spend a lot of time photographing skittish insects, but for jewelry, it is of no consequence. Also, the front element of the Sigma lens is quite recessed, while the Canon’s front element is more exposed. Some feel the Sigma provides more protection for the lens. A rubber lens hood might make everything equal. If price is a consideration, the Canon usually costs significantly more than the Sigma. Whatever your choice, make sure your purchase is accompanied by a US warranty. Gray market items abound, but if you buy a camera or lens with a non-US warranty, you will not be able to have it serviced at an authorized facility.
Other items you may find helpful are:
- A lens hood to block unwanted light from entering the lens and causing flare. Rubber ones are preferred over metal or plastic, only because they help cushion the lens a little when it is inevitably bumped. The Sigma 105 mm macro lens comes with a good metal lens hood at no cost. The Canon Macro lenses do not include a lens hood.
- A GOOD tripod or other means of providing firm support for the camera, the heavier, the better. A good tripod and head can be expensive, and most of the lightweight ones are a waste of money. Many pros opt for a sandbag when doing close-up work. A double layer of garbage bag with about 3-4 quarts of aquarium gravel or pea gravel makes a very stable platform for the camera and lens, and it is much easier for the novice to manipulate the sandbag/camera combination than it is to fiddle with a heavy tripod. I often use a sandbag when photographing small jewelry items. I find that placing the sandbag on top of 3-5 thick telephone books provides a stable platform of the height I like. Sand really does a good job of absorbing the vibrations you might not think about, like those from passing traffic.
- A cable release or electronic remote shutter release is a real necessity if your camera does not have a self-timer. Fortunately, most cameras, including the XSi do have a self-timer feature.
- Obviously, a light source is necessary. The in-camera flash is useless for close-up photographs. Other options include tungsten or halogen (light bulbs), off-camera flash or fluorescent lights.
Each light source has its advantages and disadvantages:
- Higher initial cost, but long life making it economical in the long run.
- Excellent color balance, stable through time
- High output, allowing great depth of field and hand-held camera operation.
- No continuous heat
- Durable, sturdy, reliable
- Color output fades through time
- Lots of heat output, be cautious!
- Relatively short life, during which the color shifts.
- Inexpensive only if not used much
- Low output; need higher wattages to be really useful over a range of situations
- Must be correct color (Ott or Dazor lights are excellent, especially the triple-tube lamps).
- So called “Daylight” fluorescent tubes are widely marketed, but most simply simulate daylight and are not spectrally accurate. You need to use one that has a Color Rendering Index of 90 or more. Most manufacturers will not display their CRI and there is a reason for that. If the manufacturer does not display a CRI of 90 or above, don’t buy it.
- Halogen lighting is very inexpensive, even for high wattages. But they can get VERY hot, enough to melt things and start fires. I know!
- The color can be a little “off” sometimes, because the color actually shifts as the lamps age, but if you work in RAW format, this is no problem.
If you have the room, my first choice would be electronic flash. There are many solid units available, but what I suggest is one of the units from Alien Bees (alienbees.com). These units have a long history of reliability in the workplace and are among the most reasonable in price for the features included. Specifically, I suggest their B800 or B1600 flash units. The B1600 provides slightly more flexibility, but the B800 is certainly adequate for our work. To support the flash unit and the accessories we will be using I strongly suggest their LS3900 Heavy Duty Light Stand.
Alternatively, I can recommend the Calumet Travelite 750 which can be found at calumetphoto.com. This is a heavier duty unit designed for location work.
Any good studio strobe will work as long as the power is continuously variable. This single function is mandatory in my opinion because it will make creating the proper exposure very easy.
Alternatively, the Dazor three-tube fluorescent lamp is acceptable. It is available from most jewelry supply houses with a long articulated arm on a base which screws into a desktop or as a model with a shorter articulated arm and a heavy but portable base. The Dazor can double as an excellent diamond or colored stone grading light. I prefer the one with the heavy base because it is portable.
It is much easier to work with high levels of light than to have to struggle with low light output sources. The three tubes of the Dazor not only provide very good levels of light (lumens), but the broad area of the three tubes acts as a much more diffuse source than a single tube or the small screw-in fluorescent bulbs. While the screw-in type of fluorescent lights can work, they act more like a point-source light and are much more difficult to diffuse properly for photographing jewelry. Obviously, I feel strongly about the Dazor product if fluorescent lighting is your choice.
Before you opt for the fluorescent lighting, be aware that the general light levels cannot match the flash units, meaning we will be working with relatively long exposures, perhaps in the 1 to 2 second range. There is nothing wrong with that except that we must remain very aware that long exposure times require an absolutely rigid and vibration free setup. With flash, we will be working with exposures around 1/125th to 1/250th second most of the time, where vibration will be irrelevant.