Photography of Jewelry—Scanning or Slides?

Q: How can I get good pictures of my jewelry for my website? I can create pretty good digital images just by lying them face down on a scanner, but when I try to shoot slides with a camera, they always come out blue. Is photography worth the hassle?

A: Few photographers will disagree that an actual camera is much better suited to the job of photographing 3D objects than a scanner is. But few have actually learned photography, and many still have a struggle with it. Thus the attraction of easy-to-use scanners.

While it’s true that digital cameras worth having can still be costly for some, and the speed with which one needs images ready for the web can deter people from using conventional cameras which then need film developing and scanning of the slides; there is little excuse for selling work without keeping an image for your files.

Jewelry photography isn’t actually all that complex, but it does take a little time to do. You can build a fine light tent from some scraps of wood or whatever, and a bit of white bed sheet fabric or the like. This will eliminate the harsh highlights from undiffused bulbs (or the sun) reflecting on shiny metal. A couple of lamp holders for two photofloods, with bulbs, shouldn’t cost you very much either, and often can be found used, if you look. You do need a sturdy tripod, a good macro lens, and a decent camera body to attach it to. A used camera is fine, and non-autofocus types, which are fine for still work, are now available used for a pittance sometimes (I like the 100 mm Vivitar macro, which isn’t all that costly). You can also use plain extension tubes on the normal lens that came with the camera to let you focus closer. If you’re really on a budget and watch the classifieds, I’d bet you could set up all you really need for a couple of hundred dollars, maybe a lot less.

Shoot slides. They have a wider contrast range than prints. There are many good films available. You need either a tungsten film or a blue filter to use photofloods with daylight film. The reason for using tungsten-balanced film is partly so you don’t need blue coated bulbs. The blue coating allows the light to mostly match daylight film, but it’s not perfect. A bulb without a filter coating is better, coupled with a film made for its color. The blue coating doesn’t add in the missing blue of the cooler temp bulb; it only reduces the non-blue colors. The result is passable for home photos, but marginal for really accurate color reproduction.

There are two basic types of tungsten photoflood bulb, based on what’s called color temperature. One is 3200 degree and the other is 3400 degree. This refers to the actual temperature of the filament, which determines the color balance of the light radiated by the bulb. Common tungsten-balanced films, like Ektachrome 64T, which you can easily get everywhere, is a 3200 degree balanced film, designed for either 3200 degree photofloods, or ordinary household lamps, which are also mostly that temp. “Professional” tungsten films, such as Kodachrome KPA tungsten film are often balanced for 3400 degrees. The 3400 bulbs are brighter, leading to lower exposure times, and the 3400 films are more closely matched to those bulbs, leading to more accurate colors. But both these bulbs and the professional films are more costly, and the hotter bulbs don’t last as long either. Whether the difference is significant for our use is somewhat debatable in my opinion. I use them simply because I prefer the Kodachrome films for their lower grain and better archival qualities. By the way, when using any photoflood bulbs, take note of the rated life of the bulbs. It is usually printed right on the bulb. Try to keep reasonable records of the time you have the bulbs on. As they are used, the filaments erode, and the bulb in essence gets hotter and bluer. The rated life is not the life before it burns out. It’s the life before the color temp and color balance of the bulb is no longer acceptably within specs. Using bulbs past their rated lives can give you bluish tints.

So once you’ve got good slides, for really good scans, have the best images scanned to Kodak Photo-CD, which may cost a couple of bucks to do, but will give you stunning resolution, which comes in handy for printing out. All told, I generally take about an hour to shoot slides of a couple pieces at a time. I get the slides themselves back in a week or so, but can have them in an hour if I need to, if I’ve used Ektachrome type films which get quick E-6 processing. These don’t last as long as the Kodachrome-type chemistry, but are still fine, and have a wider exposure latitude. Getting the best slides transferred to Photo-CD takes about a week where I go, but can be had faster as well, if you wish. If you need the whole thing fast and cheap, and don’t mind getting only VGA resolution scans on floppy discs, Seattle Filmworks and several other processors can take your film, process it in very short order, and even email you back the scans. This takes only a couple days turn-around, and isn’t bad on price either. These scans aren’t the quality of a good Photo-CD at all, but still, if you did a good job with the camera, you can get fine-looking images.

In all scans, whether Photo-CD, scanner, or Seattle Filmworks types, you can always import the image into an image editor like Photoshop to clean up errors, mistakes, reflections, etc. But the basic info needed has to be in the image. I find it’s a lot easier to take a quick “real” photo, and eliminate some undesired reflection or the like than it is to take a scanner image and try to make it (and the background, for example) look like a decent image.

Enough on the technique for today at least. The bottom line here, people, is that proper photography of your work is an essential jewelry maker’s skill Learn to do it. It’s not actually all that difficult. Steve Meltzer’s book is a fine guide, and not that costly. You don’t need to break the bank on this. But you do need good slides. You can’t, for example, enter competitions or shows with scans from a scanner and expect to get in or win anything. And you don’t want those images in your resume either. They just will mark you as an amateur, no matter how nice the jewelry is. Good slides, once taken, will serve you well. It may be that in another 10 or 20 years, no one will keep the actual slides any more. But today, now, you better believe that you still need them for show applications, competition applications, gallery proposals, resumes, and just the best possible way to keep a record of objects you’ve made which you no longer have access to. If you cut the corners on this with a scanner, you may get the instant and easy (but not so professional-looking) images, and be happy with having something to use. But in the long run, believe me, you’ll regret it.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.