How to photograph jewelry: Photoshop tips from the pros

Shooting a great image is the first step with digital jewelry photography, as we explained here (the most popular post on this site). It also helps to understand a bit about photographing gems. After that, it’s all about fine-tuning on the computer. As any jewelry photographer will tell you, if you want to create images that sell, you’d better master Photoshop. To shorten your learning curve, masters of that art shared a few secrets.

Six bracelets of ruby, sapphire and green tourmaline set in 18kt gold by Philip Zahm Designs (photo Lee-Carraher)

Photographers who specialize in jewelry tend to have a lot of patience with detail. John Parrish makes a nice living shooting jewelry for glossy magazines and brandname designers but he got his start, he says, “because I was the only apprentice at a large photography studio who was willing to lay out a chain nicely and get all the dust off everything.”

Now he removes the dust on his computer—but it’s multiplied alarmingly. When he started in the business, everything was shot close to actual size on 8×10 film. Now when he opens a digital file on the computer, he’s looking at a 15 x18-inch image. “You have to go over every square inch for dust,” he says. Parrish replaced his photography assistant with a full-time computer operator.

Kimibox jadeite ring (photography Eydis Einarsdottir)

Some jewelry photographers tell me every hour they spend shooting an image means another hour tweaking it on the computer. Eydis Einarsdottir of Studio 80s in Vancouver spent six hours shooting the image above and eight hours retouching it on the computer. She’s so good at this, other photographers often hire her to do their retouching for them.

Many years of practice helped, as did working with Shu Akashi, a commercial photographer who shoots for Vogue and W and uses digital manipulation to transform product photography into an art form. “He takes retouching to an extremely high level, often combining images,” says Einarsdottir.

Not everyone can turn a necklace into a sci-fi fantasy the way Akashi does, but it’s not unusual for pros to combine five or more shots. “I shoot for a certain highlight from every angle, then layer up and layer up and layer up to get the jewelry to look the way you want people to see it – the way it looks in real life,” Einarsdottir says. “When you’re so close to a piece, you can spot every detail, every scratch on the metal – those little things the eyes don’t really see.”

Photoshop tutorials

If you’re doing the tweaking yourself, it pays to know your way around Photoshop – and it helps to have someone demonstrate. On web sites like lynda.com, for $25/month you can do as many tutorials as you make time for. (Disclosure: I became an affiliate of Lynda.com about two years after this was originally posted, which means I get a small commission if you sign up through a link on this site, but I made that recommendation long before.)

Kimibox Lilian jadeite ring (photograph by Eydis Einarsdottir)

Photoshop is one of those things you get good at by doing it all the time. A few tips from the pros:

Use color balance. Einarsdottir processes her images in Photoshop Lightroom, starting off with color balance. “For the most part, color does not need much correcting because I shoot tethered for the most part and do my color balance with a gray card at the start of the shoot,” she says. If not shooting tethered (connected to a computer), she uses Expodisk as well as a gray card, then adjusts exposure, blacks, brightness, and contrast.

Use unsharp mask. Photographer Tino Hammid, who shoots jewelry for Christie’s catalogs, recommends this tool. “It’s something that sets the professional apart from the amateur,” says Hammid. “Sharpening is essential when you want that extra touch.”

In particular, he advises learning how to use the three sliders. “You really have to play with them to figure out ways to overcome problems like graininess,” he says. “You want to sharpen edges that are slightly fuzzy but leave others alone, especially the background which should be smooth.”

Emma Bracfield Juicy Rings (photography Eydis Einarsdottir)

Go easy on the contrast. “You can overuse contrast,” Hammid says. “It’s critical to have enough but not too much. Rule of thumb: There should be something white, at least one tiny area, and one completely black area in a photograph in order to have the full dynamic range.”

Work in layers. Layers provide lots of flexibility. “Every layer increases the size of your file but I can’t begin to list the ways layers can be used,” Hammid says. “One tiny example is that you can make a global (overall) adjustment on a layer without applying it to the entire image, only certain areas. You make the change on one layer but still have a copy of the original and can clone little areas you want to change.”

Spiral-cut citrines by Arthur Anderson (photo Lee-Carraher)

Tinnee Lee of Lee-Carraher Photography agrees that layers are the key to Photoshop because you can manipulate individual parts without changing the entire image. “I can sharpen just the diamonds on a ring without affecting the background,” she says. “The background can stay soft and neutral.”

John Parrish says his finished image is always made up of a number of color correction layers and focus layers. “I try to arrange it so that I can go back if I decide I don’t like something. If you do everything in layers, you can use the ‘history’ option in Photoshop, go back to a specific point and throw away a layer.”

Try the pen tool. To isolate a specific area of an image, Hammid draws a line around it using the pen tool. “This is my favorite tool,” he says. “It’s the most space efficient because a whole selection saves as a channel. The pen tool draws a line around the subject and creates a path. It can be controlled very nicely and creates beautiful curves, even bezier cruves (curves that change size or direction).”

Tinnee Lee uses the pen tool to cut paths, which allows her to dissect an image and work on each part individually. For instance, she’ll draw a line around the diamonds of a ring, another around the colored stones, and another around the shank. This allows her to sharpen the contrast on the diamonds and the shank while keeping the background soft and neutral. She also uses the pen tool to correct the color of a gemstone without affecting the rest of the image.

Experiment with Photoshop actions. If you don’t have hours to spend on retouching, you might try playing around with the “actions” in Photoshop. Photoshop and Illustrator offer batches of predefined tasks that can fix common problems in focus or exposure, soften skin tones, or turn an ordinary shot into an artsy one – like a vintage sepia-toned still life or the bleached effect of a magazine fashion spread. For a taste of what’s possible, here are 80 images using Photoshop actions, including before and after shots using Photoshop actions.

If you shoot product yourself, block out a few hours to play with Photoshop. You don’t have to be a pro to learn your way around the basic tools. If you’re shooting fine jewelry, retouching is crucial. “Jewelry is supposed to be so pretty. That’s the essence of it,” Einarsdottir says. “And it’s very expensive, so the photograph has to have that wow factor. You want to have it really without flaw.”

Eydis Einarsdottir’s equipment:

Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3-megapixel camera

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens

Tino Hammid’s equipment:

Mamiya M645-AFD III medium format camera

Mamiya Leaf Aptus-II 33MP digital back

 Visit my Jewelry Photography store on Amazon for more affordable solutions.

More tips on shooting jewelry

How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros

How to photograph gems: tips from the pros

Related products (Buying via links on this site doesn’t cost you any extra but it does put a couple bucks toward the maintenance of this blog):

13 comments for “How to photograph jewelry: Photoshop tips from the pros

  1. March 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Great article with lots to digest! Thanks so much!

  2. Ketan Gadhia
    October 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    i have canon DG SLR EOS 550D camera with EF-S18-135mm canon lens.
    i want to shoot diamond jewellery. is it perfact lens and camera for that ?

    ketan

  3. Cathleen McCarthy
    October 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Hopefully a pro will weigh in, Ketan, but it sounds like you have a really good prosumer camera with a standard zoom lens. You didn’t mention what you’re using the photos for. My guess is your camera will do fine but you could benefit from a macro lens.

  4. Dax
    December 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Great article! I’m bookmarking this one.

    @Ketan. I concur with Cathleen. I’ve done a fair amount of jewelry retouching. A standard macro lens or a zoom lens with a macro mode is best. Fill the frame as much as possible to maximize the pixels you have to work with in post. 18MP should be enough for most applications.

  5. Doug
    December 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Great article. I apply many of these techniques to how I work on jewelry. Now I know I’m not crazy when I can take anywhere from 2-3 hours retouching a piece of jewelry…when my photographer thinks I can push a button and it’s done in 15 minutes.

  6. Jamie
    March 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Hi there. great article. I’m venturing into the world of jewelry photography and wondered if you know of any resources that specifically and extensively explore jewelry retouching techniques and examples for one to learn from?
    preferably in photoshop. These can be free online resources (preferable) or paid structures.

    many thnx

  7. Cathleen McCarthy
    March 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Jamie, Tino Hammid recommended the Lynda workshops for that. Click on the banner (for Photoshop video tutorials) above the model shot above and it will take you there.

  8. July 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Hi, Cathleen

    gr8 article, i was retouching few images for a jewelry store and it took me more than half hour to make the images look suitable for the web. I like the emphasis that pro’s put on the actual photoshot but few plugins too help.
    I used a photoshop plugin to regain the glitter for a diamond piece and it work just perfect.

    Thnks

  9. August 1, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Hi there,
    Great article, helped me improve allot. I’m an amateur in photoshop. Alto depending on the product it can take sometimes over an hour to finish an item.
    Cheers

  10. August 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting article though I do think there is an argument to get it right in camera you will spend less time in photoshop. For most of us, except the full page glossy adverts, you want to retain something that is believable and real.

    In answer to Ketan, buy a light tent and some powerful daylight lamps, such as the multi-bulb low wattage lights. You can find these on eBay for $100-200. you’ll then have all the kit you need to produce great results.

    Also, look into tethered shooting. Using EOS tools that came with your camera, you can control everything, focus, aperture, white balance on your computer screen.

    Rule No. 1 – Think lighting.

    Thanks, Kiff

  11. Olga Minkevich
    December 18, 2015 at 12:25 am

    This article is kind of useless, because unless you go to photo school or assist pro jewelry shooters, you’ll never learn how to shoot jewelry right and Photoshop will never save your ass. Btw, it’s not about Photoshop!!! It’s about knowing how to get it 80% right in camera first!

  12. May 12, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Very helpful article. Thank you very much for sharing.

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