Testing the MK Gem eBox

If, like me, you consider yourself a successful photographer, you may be skeptical about products on the market that promise to improve your jewelry photos. I had a recent opportunity to review one such product, the MK Gem eBox, a light box designed to aid in the process of digitally photographing jewelry, by MK Digital Direct in San Diego. Since I always jury-rig my stage, I was prepared to dismiss the Gem eBox as technological overkill—an expensive alternative to the bed sheet tenting I have always done.


Gem ebox: Photo by Gary Dawson

Despite my prior mindset, my first impression upon opening the shipping container was that the Gem eBox is well-engineered. It is built with daylight-balanced 6,500K fluorescent wrap-around lighting and two 3,200K halogen spotlights. The design of the light box piqued my curiosity. But the true test remained: Could this lighting system outsmart those nasty hot spots?

Picture Perfect?

The reflectivity inherent in most jewelry objects is the nemesis of the photographer trying to capture images of those objects. Arguably the worst is a hot spot, an area of intense reflected light that is so bright that much or all of the visual information is lost in that area. When the information simply isn’t there, either digitally or recorded on film, it cannot be retrieved in later digital manipulation of the photo. Hot spots in jewelry photography are usually created by the reflection of the non-diffuse, highly directional light of the electronic flash or other light source.

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Underexposure, if not extreme, is ultimately less problematic; there is often visual information that can be revealed by manipulation. Shadowing of the light source can create these areas of relative underexposure. As long as the information is there, “burning” or extended spot exposure in a traditional lab can brighten these areas, and they can also be brightened digitally in most photo software.

Finally, the reflection of the surrounding environment can create distraction in jewelry photography. Seeing a tiny you reflected on the surface of that $10,000 ring just doesn’t cut it.

Creating a visually sterile environment around the object and using a diffuse light source to light the object can address all three of these problems. Traditionally, jewelry photographers accomplish this by “tenting” objects—screening the light source through a translucent white material that is tented over the object—or using fabric diffusion boxes to isolate the object and diffuse the light falling on it.

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But get this—the highly diffuse lighting needed to make a shiny metal object look great tends to visually kill most gem materials. Opaque gems may not be so adversely affected, but any gem that reflects light as brilliance, such as diamond, sapphire, ruby, and emerald, will go dead in a diffuse light environment. Reflective gems look best with directional light sources. This dilemma often leaves jewelry photographers caught between a rock and a hard place: Do you want the metal or the gemstone to look good? It’s very difficult to do both.

Pros and Cons

Lighting

The engineering of the Gem eBox provides a sturdy way to address all of the potential problems inherent to photographing jewelry. The interior is designed as a visually sterile environment, eliminating most, if not all, potentially annoying reflections. It is designed as a truncated triangle, with daylight balanced fluorescent lights handily diffused behind white Plexiglas in the floor and the two slanting upper walls of the stage. This setup provides shadow-free lighting of the most detailed object without creating hot spots. However, the kicker in the Gem eBox design is the two halogen lights recessed into the upper part of each slanted wall. These halogen lights add back into the Gem eBox environment just enough warmer, non-diffuse light to bring reflective gems back into a very realistic balance.

A master switch provides power to cooling fans (prolonging the life of all the lights,) and two secondary switches control the fluorescent and halogen lights separately. When using the Gem eBox, I wished for a rheostat on the halogen lights, which would allow me to tune that light source, adding flexibility to my lighting options.

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Shooting

The Gem eBox is designed so that most shooting can be done through a round hole at the top of the box. An adjustable L-shaped bracket is provided to position and support your camera for shooting in this position. I found that the bracket can hold many but not all camera body types for shooting from this angle. I had five camera bodies on hand to try: two digitals, an Olympus C-3040 and a Nikon D-100, and three older film cameras, a Nikon F3HP, a Nikon 8008S, and a Pentax 645.

Since the Gem eBox was primarily designed with newer digital cameras in mind, I wasn’t surprised that it did not accommodate the large, older Pentax medium-format camera with macro lens. However, I was surprised and disappointed that the bracket didn’t accommodate my new Nikon D-100 with a 60 mm macro lens, a great combination for digital close-up photography. It did support the other two Nikons with the same 60 mm lens, and I think it would accommodate any of the smaller footprint digital cameras (similar to my Olympus) now on the market.

Portability

Measuring just 15 inches wide by 10.5 inches high by 7.5 inches deep (38 cm by 27 cm by 30 cm), the Gem eBox allows for very easy storage and portability, but does limit the size of the stage. This device is best suited for taking photos of single items or very small groups of items.

Despite my initial skepticism, I rate the Gem eBox highly as a useful tool for the aspiring jewelry photographer. While the instruction booklet provided with the Gem eBox is helpful in the process of learning to use the product, some familiarity with digital photography, or a willingness to learn, is probably necessary to optimize results. Manual mode shooting to maximize depth-of-field and the adjustment of white balance on the camera are essential to achieving good images.

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At $495, the Gem eBox may be a steep investment for someone who wants to capture tiny details and has the time to laboriously set up for each shot. But for a professional in the jewelry industry with limited time and the need for exemplary photos, the Gem eBox could be a wise investment.

Supplier’s Note

The Gem eBox, which retails at $495, was designed for those on a low budget who want to take quality, professional digital photos of jewelry. As Mr. Dawson says, the Gem eBox is not compatible with all types of cameras; it is compatible with most common digital cameras currently on the market. However, for those who require a lighting system that supports all types of cameras, has a wider round opening for taking pictures, and has a larger stage size, MK Digital Direct offers the Photo eBox, which retails for $949 and includes all the benefits of the Gem eBox and more.

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The award-winning Journal is published monthly by MJSA, the trade association for professional jewelry makers, designers, and related suppliers. It offers design ideas, fabrication and production techniques, bench tips, business and marketing insights, and trend and technology updates—the information crucial for business success. "More than other publications, MJSA Journal is oriented toward people like me: those trying to earn a living by designing and making jewelry," says Jim Binnion of James Binnion Metal Arts.
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