Photography of shiny objects
- for those who want high quality photographs of enamel work as well as of silver or gold jewelry, or who want to improve on their results.
- who are prepared to develop insight into photographic techniques and to hone their skills in this respect;
- and who own a photocamera which allows the user to at least control exposure and diaphragm.
Do keep the following in mind :
- If you are satisfied with photographs that need not meet very high standards, such as obtained with a point-and-shoot camera, then you are likely to find that the subject matter is specialist knowledge which you will find difficult to grasp. If this applies to you, no problem, but you may want to look at suggestions how others can help to produce good photographs.
- If you own a 'flat bed' scanner, do read how this can often be used to produce digital photographs of flat enamel pieces.
What is the issue? - Often photographs of enamel work and jewelry are unsatisfactory. This is usually due to the fact that one overlooks that shiny objects reflect their environment. Anything in front, and in the case of three-dimensional objects next to it, is reflected by the object. Not only are our eye and brain capable of coping with greater contrasts than can be reproduced in a photograph, we also look at the scene with a focussed interest and unconsciously filter what is presented to us (we observe what we want or expect to see), whereas a photo camera simply records the scene.
Therefore see to it that the reflections contribute positively to the picture.
This simple observation is in fact the clue to the solution and the prevention of potential problems:
- Become a good observer by learning to see what the camera is going to record, seeing to it that what is reflected contributes positively to the quality of the picture.
- A dark or a bright environment will be reflected as dark or bright. In flat enameled objects the latter often leads to a bothering reflection.
- If the environment is quite dark, then the lack of any bright reflection can make the object appear quite dull. Thus silver reflecting a dark or greyish environment appears quite dull, as if the object is made of zinc or lead.
The most important factors are:
- The lighting of the object, a decisive factor in how it will be depicted.
- The exposure of the light sensitive material to light, a decisive factor in properly recording light intensity and colours. The exposure settings determine the amount of light that reaches the light sensitive material (film emulsion or electronic components) through a combination of diaphragm (lens aperture) and exposure time.
- Photographic equipment.
Bear in mind that someone who is poor at drawing or painting does not become a great artist by using a different pencil, a different paint or a different canvas. The same applies to photography: equipment can never substitute for lack of talent. Thus it does not matter whether one uses for example a conventional or a digital camera. In the end it is solely up to the photographer to optimally present and light the object, and to determine the exposure settings, so as to make a good photograph; the photo camera is an instrument that merely records a scene and thus testifies to the photographer's talents or lack thereof.
If you are after optimal results, consider the following:
- Preferably use a single lens reflex (often abbreviated as SLR, or DSLR for a digital specimen) camera:
- It should preferably be possible to turn off or manipulate automatic exposure, allowing one to take full control of the exposure settings. This is because in non-standard situations it is necessary to have full manual control over exposure settings, i.e. the combination of diaphragm and exposure.
- If the camera has an integrated flash unit, it is mandatory that this can be switched off. If the flash unit cannot be switched off, the camera is unsuitable for our purposes.
- Preferably choose a camera body with a complete system of lenses availabe, so that you can make the object fill the frame, and that you can use a macro lens when photographing small objects (such as rings). Should you use a video camera then never use digital zoom: with digital zoom the number of pixels is artificially increased by interpolation, increasing the size of the image at the expense of sharpness and colour quality.
- You should preferably be able to use a spotmeter, which allows you to accurately assess the exposure time of a precise area and control correct exposure of highlights; it is also very useful for assessing the contrast in the scene, and adjusting it if necessary. This can also be accomplished using a separate handheld exposure meter.
- In ‘difficult’ situations it may be useful to use a handheld exposure meter. If this is equipped with a diffuser it allows to meter the incident light (see ). In non-standard situations it may occasionally be useful to measure the amount of reflected light using a neutral test card with 18% reflectance .
- In general it is best to shoot every frame with the camera firmly mounted on a tripod; when using a light tent it is even difficult to imagine how to shoot without the use of a tripod.
- Preferably two sources of light, preferably mounted in a reflector. Standard light bulbs emit yellowish light, therefore choose a source of light that emits (nearly) white light . The colour of flash light is ideal, but do not ever use the flash unit integrated into the camera, because you can be certain that this will produce a blinding reflection. When using external flashlights you often need two, one igniting the other one e.g. via a 'slave' unit or via a cable; in such circumstances a flash exposure meter and full manual control over the exposure settings on your camera are a great help. However, the higher end cameras also have facilities for through the lens metering of flashlight. Read more about this . One of the advantages of a studio flash unit is that a modeling light allows previewing the lighting conditions.
- Reflection screens, bought from a camera shop. Alternatively they can be home made from silver foil or bright white paper, or from Styropor® polystyrene sheets which can be easily cut to size; starting from the raw material it is even possible to shape your own reflective objects . Some reflectors can also be used to transmit diffuse light. Reflector screens can replace an extra light source.
Note: If you run into problems with the photographic terminology, consult the Dictionary of Film and Digital Photography.
Also, if you can get hold of it, I recommend that you read:
Fil Hunter & Paul Fuqua: Light - Science and Magic. An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. Focal Press, Boston-London, 1990. ISBN 0-240-51796-2.