professional jewelry photos
To start, check out this page containing lots of examples of my artwork photography. I’m always open to artists calling me with questions. 412-401-8100
The most difficult type of artwork to photograph is jewelry. That’s because of it’s small size and that it can have many reflective surfaces. And because of it’s small size, it’s very difficult to keep the entire piece in focus. Also the jewelry medium is the most competitive. Most art shows receive more jewelry applications than any other medium. That’s why it’s important to have excellent images of jewelry that make the pieces pop when viewed by the jury.
Occasionally I get asked by jewelers about how they can take their own professional photographs. In response, I prepared this overview of what I do and included some equipment suggestions. I’ve also included a few suggestions for photographing larger artwork. This article is based on using a DSLR with a macro lens. A DSLR is a digital single lens reflex that takes interchangeable lenses, like the older film camera bodies. A macro lens is usually the manufacturer’s sharpest most corrected lens. It’s designed for copy work and perfect for photographing art because it doesn’t introduce distortion. I understand that some jewelers are perfectly happy taking pictures with their iphones or older point and shoot cameras and will have a difficult time justifying an investment in a camera, lens and lighting equipment, or even professional photography. But there are still a few tips here that will help them get better images of their jewelry.
I use a 20 inch EZ Cube for photographing jewelry. I prefer the EZ Cube over similar less expensive photo cubes on Amazon because the EZ Cube makes it easy to photograph different types of jewelry from different angles. The front is removable and has a double sided zipper so that you can zipper it around the lens hood to eliminate most reflections from the camera and the rest of the room. But, instead of using the front from the twenty inch cube, I purchased a front from a 40 inch cube so that the camera can be positioned further away from the cube and still minimize reflections, and allow better control of the composition. The top of the EZ Cube opens up and they have a system for suspending objects. They also have white plastic clips that make it easy to connect things and not create harsh reflections. Think of the EZ Cube as a small pop up canopy. If you have large, difficult to photograph art or paintings, consider photographing under your art show canopy. It’s like photographing under a large softbox giving you soft diffused light.
My method of photographing jewelry is in contrast to the “black plexiglass” look where you can see a slight reflection under the pieces. That look can also be achieved by sandwiching black non reflective fabric under a sheet of window glass. The black plexiglass (or black backed window glass) is a highly reflective surface so the entire room needs to be darkened and reflections totally controlled from the position of the camera. To gray down the background slightly, you can reflect white fabric onto the plexiglass from the opposite side of the camera. I wrote an article about shooting on black plexiglass.
For jewelry and other items that will have the background changed, I photograph on a light gray (slate gray) photo paper. I use Varitone #9 graduated photo paper extended in a sweep onto a table for larger non jewelry items. I also use Flotone graduated background, thunder gray (black) to white. The problem using a graduated background to photograph jewelry is that because each piece of jewelry is a different size, the graduation in the background will not match from piece to piece. That’s why I add the background afterwards.
For lighting I use studio strobes. I use an 800 watt strobe system with two lights mounted on heavy duty light stands that roll, making it easy to move things around. I bounce each light into a 45 inch white umbrella starting at a 45 degree angle on each side, moving them slightly while looking through the camera to make sure the reflections and hot spots are controlled. The white umbrellas combined with the white EZ Cube increases the diffusion and makes the artwork (jewelry) look really good. I also have a set of silver umbrellas for times I need more contrast in the lighting. For larger objects that are positioned on a graduated background but not in an EZ Cube, I have 60 inch umbrellas.
I use a 36 megapixel full frame Nikon DSLR camera body with Zeiss and Nikon macro lenses. My most used lens for jewelry is the Zeiss 100mm F2.0 macro lens. That translates to using a 60mm f2.8 macro lens (or 85mm F3.5 macro lens) if you’re using a cropped sensor camera body like a 3000, 5000, or 7000 series Nikons. For small objects like rings, I use a 200mm Nikon macro lens. For larger objects I use a Zeiss 50mm F2.0 macro lens. I have three different sized Gitzo tripods and use ball heads, camera L plates and lens plates from a company called Really Right Stuff. I’ve always tried to use the best available equipment so that any image issues or problems are my fault, not a limitation of my equipment. I use Photoshop, not Elements or Lightroom. I’ve been using Photoshop since version 5 which was released in 1998.
I have redundancy in all the equipment I use. I have multiple lighting components from the same manufacturer. I have an additional Nikon camera body and additional macro lenses. I even have a backup 20 inch EZ Cube.
Camera and lens settings
Opposite from the default settings that favor higher shutter speed sacrificing lens aperture settings which minimizes depth of field, the camera needs to be set fully manually so the lens can be stopped down to achieve enough depth of field to keep the piece in focus. Mounting the camera on a sturdy tripod will allow you to use a long enough shutter speed to work with the lens stopped down to at least F8 or F11. Most of my photographs are taken at F22. The camera should be set to the lowest ISO, which for most cameras is usually ISO 50, ISO 100 or ISO 200. That will minimize getting digital noise in the images. Shutter speed is dependent on what type of lighting you are using. Strobes require the camera to be set at it’s sync speed which is usually 1/125, 1/200 or 1/250 second depending on the camera body. Daylight florescent lights require a shutter speed relative to the F stop and ISO, so it could be very long. The lens needs to be focused manually so you can focus midway through the piece maximizing the chance that the entire piece will be in focus. Auto focus is designed to focus on the closest part of the piece that is in the focus range of the lens, so the back of the piece usually goes out of focus. A technique I use to keep the entire piece in focus is called focus stacking, shooting a series of images that move the point of focus through the entire piece and then using software to combine the images into one sharp image where the entire piece is in focus. I wrote an article about focus stacking.
A caveat. Purchasing and learning how to use professional camera and lighting equipment is no guarantee of success. If you don’t have a feel for the photography aspect of good jury images, no matter how much you spend, it may not make a difference in your image quality or jury success rate. Keeping that in mind, it might be more effective to spend your money having professional photographs taken every year or two. If you still want to learn how to photograph your artwork, experiment knowing you still have a great set of jury images to fall back on while you learn.
Photo paper can be cut to fit inside the EZ Cube in a sweep. The sweep or curved background doesn’t show a horizon line.
Savage #26 Slate Gray is available in three sizes
For small objects, slate gray is also available in 26 inch rolls
26 inches x 12 yards, 53 inches x 12 yards , 107 inches x 12 yards
Varitone #9 black to white graduated background
31×43 inches, 43×63 inches, 21×15 inches
Flotone thunder gray (black) to white graduated background
31×43 inches and 43×67 inches
EZ Cube sells reflectors, softboxes and daylight florescent bulbs
The problem with using continuous lighting is that stopping down the lens and using a low ISO for maximum depth of field and maximum image quality requires a very long shutter speed, and there is a good chance for camera or subject movement during the exposure.
I don’t mean the flash on the camera which you should never use when photographing your artwork. Lighting from Paul C Buff is relatively inexpensive and reliable. Much better than the inexpensive Chinese kits sold on Amazon. Paul C Buff is located in Nashville and sells direct to photographers in order to keep the price down. Their lighting equipment is highly rated on all the photography forums and they have excellent customer service. They have three types of monolights, which are self contained strobes for use on a lightstand. By self contained I mean the 110 volt power supply and flash head are contained in the same unit. All the Paul C Buff lighting is on the same web site.
When choosing strobe lights, the higher the WS (watt seconds) rating the more you’ll be able to stop the lens down to maximize depth of field. You will need at least two lights of matching output and maybe a third light if you need an overhead or rim light to separate the top of the piece from the background. The third light would mostly be used for larger art because for jewelry, the umbrellas can be positioned to light the top of the pieces as well as having light come in from other angles. You should also consider using a wireless transmitter to trigger the strobes from your camera so there is no sync cord to trip over. To connect with a sync cord instead of going wireless, purchase the Nikon AS-15 sinc terminal for your hot shoe. This should work for all DSLR cameras with a hot shoe but without a sync socket, not just Nikon.
I use Dynalite lighting, power packs and heads – much too expensive for me to recommend
Available on the Paul C Buff web site under Accessories
I use Lowel KSA light stands from B&H photo
White or silver umbrellas
I use Photoflex 45 and 60 inch umbrellas, both white and sliver, from B&H Photo
Aluminum is less expensive, a little heavier, and just as sturdy as carbon fiber for indoor use. I use older aluminum Gitzo tripods, but there are a great many choices. Just make sure the tripod you choose is sturdy and can take a ball head. A ball head is much more controllable than a three way pan head. I use a ball head from Really Right Stuff. I won’t recommend Gitzo or Really Right Stuff because I feel that they are too expensive for occasional use. A few tripod and ball head manufacturers to look into are Manfrotto, Slik, Sirui, Mefoto, Induro and Davis & Sanford. Expect a decent inexpensive tripod to start at about $100 and maybe another $100 or so for a ball head. Again, B&H Photo is a great resource.
Scroll down on this page to see lots of examples of my artwork photography.