A Guide to Photographing Watches: Anatomy of one image
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  1. #1
    Member ASRSPR's Avatar
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    Picture A Guide to Photographing Watches: Anatomy of one image

    I recently showcased a few images of my new Seiko 5D88 Direct Drive Moonphase watch over on the Seiko forums. That post marks just over a year of taking pictures of watches, though I have been taking pictures of other subjects for longer. I thought that I should mark the occasion by documenting the process of creating this single image in order to demonstrate my photography workflow and try to teach by example.



    I don't have any professional practice in product photography and I'm certainly not the best photographer on these forums; I don't know that I'm qualified to really offer such advice. I do hope that sharing my thought and work processes might be of some use to others. The very basics won't be covered - aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, all of that. There are plenty of introductory photography tutorials that can convey those concepts much better than I can.

    The image that I've chosen to document is purposefully a little complicated. The Seiko SRX003P1, with its variety of dial textures, high polish finishes, and multitude of hands is not at all the easiest watch to photograph (that honor might go to the Mk II Paradive, which was very simple to shoot). The angle and framing isn't the easiest either. I think that the final image is maybe not the best or interesting image I've shot, perhaps not even of this particular watch. But it's certainly a decent shot and I hope that these challenges will bring forward the issues and hurdles and self-criticism that will be most useful in this sort of article.

    Contents:

    1. A few words about gear
    2. Pre-shoot
    3. Shooting
    4. Post-production
    5. Conclusion
    Last edited by ASRSPR; January 3rd, 2011 at 10:49.
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  2. #2
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    1. A few words about gear

    The old adage about the photographer being more more important than the camera is true, but it leaves out the fact that good gear does make things easier. I have no doubt that any random selection of, say, Gary Winogrand's work, taken with his now 40 year-old Leica M4, will still be multitudes better than any of my photographs, shot with a modern digital SLR. But I know that my pictures are better with that DSLR than with my pocketable P&S. There is an objective quantification to these things - if you want to get in close without compromising image quality, you need a macro lens. If you want shallow depth of field, you need an SLR and a large aperture. If you want low noise, you need a good sensor or else lights. These things generally come at a cost - macro lenses are usually a bit expensive, SLRs are more expensive than point-and-shoots, and bigger sensors are non-linearly more expensive than smaller sensors.

    Nowadays, there any many excellent "pro" point-and-shoot cameras, but I can only address digital SLR systems here since these are what I have experience in. My setup is pretty solidly mid-range in most respects and probably more costly than most people would want to spend. However, as with watches, there are shortcuts that can be taken. They might not offer 100% solutions, but a 80% solution at 10% the cost is often a good compromise.



    I used a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 macro lens for this image, as I do with basically all my watch photography. It's a 1x magnification macro with impressive sharpness that retails for roughly what a typical Seiko SARB or Marathon TSAR costs. This is a pretty common price point for a standard macro (or Micro, if you're shooting Nikon) lens on most mount system. Good, low cost alternatives are extension tubes and lens reversal or a combination of the two. These techniques will allow a substantial reduction of the minimum focus distance of any non-macro lens at the cost of some image quality degradation, brightness, and/or maximum focus distance. Best of all, since these parts do not contain optics, it's no big deal to go with cheap overseas parts that cost in the ten-dollar range.



    My main camera body is a Canon 5D Mark II, a dependable and popular mid-range, full-frame DSLR that's about 2 years old at this point. It's roughly comparable to the Nikon D700 and Sony A900 lines. However, I don't think full frame is generally an important issue for watch photography. You can keep noise down by shooting at a lower exposure index ("film" speed or "ISO"); with the same lens, APS-C sensors offer seemingly larger images through the crop effect since minmum focus length is the same (actual magnification remains constant as well). An APS-C body will also allow the use of crop body lenses (like Canon's EF-S series), which are oftentimes cheaper. A second-hand entry-level DSLR from two or three generations back is a great way to get into the game; it costs less than a bleeding edge fancy point and shoot, and probably produces better pictures (at least in these contexts).



    Tripods are useful. Since watches don't move around, setting a camera on a tripod allows you to wait tirelessly for hands to move into exactly the right position. You can take multiple shots with the exact same angle at different exposures and combine them into a single image. Good tripods and tripod heads are expensive (a good quality ball head can cost more than an entry-level DSLR), so luckily this is one piece of kit that you can go cheap. You don't have to carry the tripod up a mountain, ensure that it doesn't tip over in a thunderstorm, quickly shift angles and lock to capture fast-moving objects, or support a giant 500mm telephoto lens. For some at-home watch photography, a delicate plastic thing with a built-in head will work fine with a bit of patience.



    For lights, I used two external flashes, a reflector, a lightbox, and a shoot-through umbrella. Multiple lights offer flexibility, useful for producing different types of light on different parts of the image. The typical "ebay auction" lighting - a simple lamp shining through a white light tent - produces a diffuse, uniform light that's better than a bare bulb or a pop-up flash, but still kind of boring. Multiple lights, modifiers, flags (to block lights), and gobos (to modify them) all help put light only where you want it and in the right amounts. Going cheap on lighting might mean using lamps with cool or daylight bulbs, natural light, or cheap flashes. It's probably best not to mix different types of lights, since differing color temperatures will likely make post-production a nightmare. A simple folding reflector, propped against a chair or even held in one hand, can act as an easy-to-use second light source adjustable in position and intensity (via distance) and can be very inexpensive. They're versatile no matter how simple or complex the rest of the lighting setup is.

    So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that while you can spend the price of a new Omega Speedmaster on photography kit, you can get most of the way there with some creativity and a budget more suited for an Omega Speedmaster bracelet.
    Last edited by ASRSPR; January 4th, 2011 at 07:24.

  3. #3
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    2. Pre-shoot



    In starting to think of how I might want to photograph the watch, I first decided on a general lighting theme. The watch dial, bezel, and case are all various finishes of silver or polished steel. I thought that a dark base might serve well. I had purchased an old square-foot sample of smooth, flecked black tile from a hardware store to stage pictures of my custom silver-dialed Speedmaster a few months ago. I like its color and the fact that while it will offer a reflection, it's a speckled, worn reflection that gives contrast to clean, polished dress watches. The Seiko's alligator-pattern band was black, so I thought that this time I should opt for greater contrast and try for more dramatic and dynamic backlighting.



    I decided that I wanted at least two main shots of the watch. One (this one) would be framed tightly to show off the detailing of the dial, which I thought was the main attraction, and one widely to display the whole watch. I wanted to start off with the tighter shot because I suspected that I could keep the lights more or less the same for both shots. It would be easier to see the flaws in lighting in the tight shot and fix them before moving to the easier, less critical wide shot.

    Oftentimes, I have to mount watches on stands or place them as to lean on props in or out of the frame. Occasionally, I have to actually tape the back of the watch down. With the Seiko, I found that, because of the curved strap, it could balance by itself on lug, crown, and strap. On this watch, the traditional 10:10 was a good position for the hands, so I set the time back about an hour earlier to give me time to set everything else up. After setting the moon to a more attractive phase and cleaning the watch thoroughly with a microfiber cloth, I was ready to start shooting.
    Last edited by ASRSPR; January 3rd, 2011 at 11:00.

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    3. Shooting

    A common technique from portrait photography, but useful here too, is three-point lighting: a backlight to highlight the subject's contours and illuminate the backdrop, a key light to illuminate the principle details, and a fill light to soften the contrasts and produce softer shadows. Often, photographers will start by adjusting the exposure to the key light, then adding back and fill light in particular ratios as needed. This can be done with a light meter to figure out precise light ratios, but trial and error is fine too for a watch (models, unlike watches, tend to get fatigued during long shoots).

    I thought that a more dramatic back lighting could be achieved by using a Porta-trace lightbox (used for reviewing film negatives and slides) for the backlight. The light box was more uniform and had sharper lines than than a shoot-through flash modifier. I could position it at an angle to the camera vector as to produce a dramatic boundary of light fall-off or else at least have it act as a white backdrop. I'd used it just a few days ago to produce such an effect for a profile shot of another Seiko, my custom "Sea Monster" diver.

    Since the light box was much dimmer than what my flashes were capable of and not adjustable for brightness, I started by adjusting my camera exposure for that first, intending to adjust the other lights to match. Since I was going to be close in, I knew I had to use a reasonably small aperture to make the depth of field wide enough to cover the whole face of the watch.



    I started with f/11 and that seemed a good compromise between depth of field and shutter speed. Because the watch ticked at 1hz, I knew that I had to keep it a bit below a 1s shutter speed if I wanted to avoid a ghost second hand. A fair exposure at f/11 necesitated a 1/4s exposure at ISO 800, so I was good. I didn't care too much about composition at this point, I just wanted to get the exposure close. Here's the first shot:



    Remember, we're just getting the backlight looking right; it works out pretty much as I wanted it to. The right side is nicely in the light while the left side is dark. The dial is pretty dim because it's faced away from the back light. This will be solved when we add the key light. For this image, the key light was provided by an old Nikon SB-26 flashgun behind a shoot-through umbrella.



    But as it happens, I planned poorly and there wasn't enough room in my apartment to place the flash on the right side fo the frame. Instead, I put the flash high on the left and bounced it off of a reflector on the right toward the watch dial for a similar effect.



    With both key and back lights in place and after moving the watch around a bit, we start to have some pretty decent light. There's a band of light on the top-left corner, but that's easy enough to fix with a flag or else in post-production.



    Time to start thinking about composition. This picture is no good. Only the watch dial and case are in focus, but they occupy a scant quarter of the frame. There's wasted space I can't use to the right; the brand and clasp on the left are outside of the depth of field and messy-looking. This won't do at all. We're not close enough. I meant to highlight the dial and that's even slanted away. So we'll move closer, turn the camera over 90°, and move the tripod so that the dial axis is closer to the lens axis. Things look better with the move:



    Of course, the stuff about having a more dynamic backlight sort of goes out the window because the left side is no longer in the frame. Oh well; at least the reflection at the bottom is still nice and dark. We have another problem here though. There's some reflection on the crystal. I traced the vector from the lens onto the crystal and back out and realized that it's just the edge of the tile. Moving the watch and camera further away from the edge and readjusting the light box, flash, and reflector fixed the issue.



    Other reflections can be traced the same way. The polished case has been catching reflections from around the room. These reflections are removed through a variety of means. Simply turning off the ambient lights in the room does away with many of them. Placing inconspicuous objects in between the watch and the reflections eliminates the rest (the black box on the tile in the setup shot above was for this purpose). Little bits of pink appear on the watch too - these are cameo appearances by my arms and face. Ducking out of the way (in this case, under the table and using a remote trigger to activate the shutter) is useful here.

    Without a fill light, the contrast is a bit sharp. These can be made a bit softer. Instead of another reflector, I just added a flash to the camera hot shoe (I set the other flash behind the umbrella to trigger off of this one) and pointed it straight up to bounce off my modestly tall ceiling. This makes for a nice diffuse light that's just about right for the job.

    I'm still shooting at the same exposure as the very first shot. But since the dial is now facing more toward the camera, I can open up the aperture a stop and bring the camera down to ISO 400. The final settings are f8.0, ISO 800, and 1/4s. The shutter speed is slow enough that I'm worried about mirror and trigger vibrations. These are alleviated by using a remote trigger and either mirror lockup or live view mode. So, finally, after more than a few trial shots, we end up with the final keeper.



    Of course, things aren't quit over yet. There's still a fair bit of post-production left to go.
    Last edited by ASRSPR; January 4th, 2011 at 09:20.
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    4. Post-production

    Post-production starts with a bit of a slog. There's always alot of dust around. Though I made sure to wipe the watch down at the start of the shoot and then routinely blow off new dust with a squeeze blower made for camera lenses, there's always going to be some left. It's not so bad when the watch is brand new, but wear it for even a day and grime will start to accumulate. It might not be noticeable on the wrist, but under a good macro lens at f/16, everything looks horrid. Especially crowns. So, there's alot of tedious work with the clone stamp tool, digitally cleaning things up. I also cheated a bit and removed a reflection I missed earlier.

    Here's our out-of-camera shot again for comparison:


    And the cleaned up version:


    It's about a half-stop underexposed. With digital, it's better to bring up shadows than to bring down highlights, so underexposed is better than overexposed. We'll just globally pull up the midtones on the curves a bit:



    The case looks good enough, but we need to tweak just the dial exposure a bit, so we'll apply a few adjustments to the dial, the hands, and the moon:



    Almost there. Color temperature's off, so let's cool down the red channel a bit and do some selective desaturation while we're at it (I forgot to remove the blue sticker on the caseback and the clasp has caught a reflection off of it).



    Okay, that looks pretty good. But the bottom half is just a little busy. Let's lower the exposure of the reflections a bit, crop about 5% for tighter framing, and then sharpen the whole thing for web publication. Done!

    Here's what all the layers look like in the end:



    It's probably a fair argument that I wouldn't have needed to put so much effort in editing if I were more patient with or just better at photography. But not being those thing, I guess it's good that I know my way around an image editor.
    Last edited by ASRSPR; January 3rd, 2011 at 10:35.

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    5. Conclusion

    The final image again:



    Detail:



    The lighting setup was pretty robust. I moved the camera down a bit and used pretty much the same light for the wide shot:



    It's not always this much work. This wide shot was much easier, in shooting and in post; it was just a much less demanding shot.

    So, I guess that's about it. If I made a mistake anywhere, please be sure to point it out so I can make revisions. I hope this has been useful.
    Last edited by ASRSPR; February 27th, 2011 at 01:19.
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    Re: 5. Conclusion

    Thank you for such a detailed and fascinating thread.
    Your pics are fantastic but I'm afraid I lack the equipment or patience to create anything similar so will probably stick to going out in the garden with my cellphone.
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    Re: 5. Conclusion

    Thanks for the thread. I'm experimenting with a similar setup, but with two $5 clip lights on each side of my light tent. For my vintage watches it's pretty good, but I'm getting too much blow-out with the saphire crystal and highly-polished case of my Hamilton king scuba. Yes, it takes quite a while to get the lighting levels correct and kill the reflections - and I'm getting closer.
    This is essentially commercial product photography. I do have a greater appreciation for those watch magazine shots now!
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    Re: 5. Conclusion

    Thanks for indulging the photographer in us. Good shots, btw!

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    Re: 5. Conclusion

    Excellent article! Thank you for taking the time to write and post it. I really need to start saving money for macro lens.

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