Capturing Better Images of Your Jewelry – Part One: The Basics

For the past few years, I’ve been writing articles on Jewelry Photography for Metal Clay Today, an e-magazine, while teaching the subject at San Diego Continuing Education‘s West Point Loma campus.  Recently, I’ve begun refining and updating this body of information into a series of posts that will be published here on a regular basis.  This is the first in that series.  …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Capturing sharp, well-lit and dramatic photos of your jewelry is critical to selling your work, getting it published, and doing well in juried competitions.

This series of articles is designed to give you the tools to learn camera basics, studio requirements, lighting techniques, artful display and basic digital editing techniques to present your work in its very best light.

While we’ll dip our big toe into the shallow end of photographic theory, this series really will be a guide to the practices and techniques that have worked for me over the years.

We’ll talk about:

  • The best equipment to use on a limited budget
  • Camera controls such as Shutter Speed, Aperture Opening (f/stop), White Balance & ISO
  • The different types of image files required for web and print uses
  • The most efficient ways to set-up your shooting studio
  • Lighting techniques that work for different types of jewelry
  • The digital tools I use most frequently to enhance images
  • The rules and conventions regarding digital photo editing for magazines and competitions

Choosing the Right Camera
Film vs. Digital.  While there are still some old school photographers around who decry digital photography as the death of quality, I’m not one of them.  An old friend said to me a few years ago that “there’s an elusive quality of light that can only be attained with silver halide film and paper, and just can’t be captured with digital cameras and inkjet printing.”

My response:  Bull-dinkies!

About eight years ago, I began the task of converting 40+ years of film negatives into digital files using a flatbed scanner at VERY high-resolution (generally, 2,400 to 3,000 dpi, depending on the size of the negatives — more on this later).  I then began printing many of these images using an inkjet printer.  I’ve got a pretty good eye, and couldn’t discern any appreciable difference in the quality of images processed in the darkroom versus those printed digitally.

Before I give camera recommendations, a proviso:  my assumption here is that you are buying a camera specifically dedicated to shooting jewelry.  If you want an all-around camera that you can use while hiking in the Alps or shooting your kid’s little league game, my suggestions would be different.  That said, here’s my best advice regarding the choice of a camera:

1. Try to get a good quality DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera.  DSLR’s use mirrors and a special prism to direct light from the lens to the viewfinder on the back of the camera, without inverting or flipping the image.  In English…with a DSLR, you view your subject directly through the lens.

I mention a DSLR first, because, in most cases, these cameras allow for interchangeable lenses, whereas ‘point & shoot’ digital cameras almost always incorporate zoom lenses.  More on zoom vs. fixed or ‘prime’ lenses in a moment.

( I’m sure it’s obvious, but generally speaking, decent cameras with better optics will yield better photos.)

I won’t recommend brands here.  I happen to shoot with a Nikon.  Many professionals and serious amateurs shoot with Canon.  Or Minolta.  Or Leica.  Or Olympus.  Or any of a number of other excellent brands. Most have different (read: proprietary) lens mounting systems.  So if you already own a camera  brand and have lenses that fit, I’d stay with that brand.

2. Choose a camera that allows you to override shutter speed, aperture opening (or f/stop), white balance and ISO.  We’ll discuss all of these functions and settings in the next installment.  For now, just know that getting the best shots in the studio is mostly about controlling the light on the subject and the light in the camera.

I rely on a single camera and lens in my studio.  In terms of the camera, there’s no need to ‘break the bank’ here.  My camera store buddies don’t like it when I say this, but I tend to use cameras that are a full step down from ‘state of the art.’  Three reasons:

–      I’m cheap.  As you can imagine, prices on last year’s model are substantially less expensive than this year’s version.  This is especially applicable if your primary publication medium will be the internet.  Because keeping website loading times short is critical for keeping visitors at your site, image sizes must be small, both in terms of physical dimensions and ppi (pixels per inch).  So the latest camera with 18-megapixel resolution can be both expensive and unnecessary.

–      Given the limited requirements of this type of work (you’re not shooting hockey games at 25 frames per second or undersea coral reefs), a solid, dependable camera will often get you farther than an armload of bells and whistles.  And it will probably be easier to operate as well.  Even a good used camera can be more than adequate for your purposes, especially if you have a reputable, unbiased camera repair shop in town.  (Here in San Diego, we have Kurt’s Camera Repair, which checks out all of my used camera purchases for me, before I finalize the sale).

–      I’d rather spend my money on an excellent lens than a feature-laden camera body.

Choosing the right lens
Fixed (or prime) lenses vs. zoom lenses.

One of the consistent themes you’ll note throughout this series is that there are often trade-offs in photography.  The question of fixed vs. zoom lenses is an example.  Those of us who owned an SLR camera during the ‘film’ era (most especially in the 60s through the 80s) probably remember that the 55mm lens was as ubiquitous then as a wide angle-to-telephoto zoom lens is today.

Zooms are great ‘walking around’ lenses. Take them to the zoo.  Shoot elephants fifty yards away and they’ll look like you’re standing in the enclosure with them;  kneel down and shoot a close-up of a flower in bloom; then turn and shoot a portrait of your honey.   All can be accomplished without changing lenses.  And all will look good.  But here’s the trade off…a zoom lens, built for convenience and a wide variety of situations, will never be quite as sharp as a fixed lens.  And when you’re shooting jewelry, sharpness is critical.  So my primary lens for shooting jewelry is a 60mm macro (that means it’s a close-up lens). The detail this lens can render is exquisite.  There are other macro lenses available as well.  Canon, Nikon, Sigma and others all make high-quality 105mm macro lenses, although, for long necklaces and larger pieces, 105mm can be a little too long.  (You have to get very far back from the object to get it all into the frame.)  So, if you can only afford one lens, (and good ‘glass”is not inexpensive), I’d recommend a 50 or 60mm macro for the best all-around jewelry work.

One last note on the subject of lenses. If finance dictates that you use your camera in both the field and studio, and a zoom is your only option, then try to shoot towards the middle of the zoom range (this is subjective, but for an 18mm to 200 mm lens, you’ll typically get the best quality and sharpness when shooting between, say, 24mm and 180mm).  Lenses are composed of complex arrangements of elements, and are designed for optimal performance towards the middle of their range.

In the next article, I’ll cover camera controls, as well as the relationship between shutter speed, aperture opening (f/stop) and depth of field.  I’ll also touch on White Balance (color temperature) and ISO.
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And because I’m genetically incapable of writing a post and NOT including a photo or two, here’s some new work, recently shot:

Jonna Faulkner -  Compass Points Necklace. Jewelry Photography by Steve Rossman

This first piece by Jonna Faulkner, titled ‘Compass Points necklace’ is comprised of fine silver and pearls.  It was shot in my Escondido studio with a Nikon D300 camera and Nikkor 60mm macro lens.

Jonna Faulkner - Black and Gold choker.  Photographed in Escondido CA by Steve Rossman Photo+Marketing

And this Black and Gold choker, also by Jonna Faulkner, incorporates fine silver, lava beads and 24K gold overlay.  It, too, was shot in my Escondido studio with a Nikon D300 camera and Nikkor 60mm macro lens.  This piece was shot sitting on a white acrylic light-box.

This entry was posted in Information, Teaching & Techniques, Jewelry. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Capturing Better Images of Your Jewelry – Part One: The Basics

  1. lesley says:

    Interesting indeed, I have a Nikon DSLR and am looking forward to the next instalment 🙂

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