How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros

December 31, 2009
By

Photography by John Parrish

If you deal with jewelry, you probably tried to photograph it at some point – and came away with a new appreciation for those glossy images in magazines. How do the pros get gems and jewelry to look like that?

The short answer: It ain’t easy. If it were, they wouldn’t be making the big bucks.

As jewelry photographer John Parrish puts it: “Nobody in their right minds would want to shoot jewelry. Everything is so tiny and hard to manipulate. You’re always working in about three or four square inches and trying to create depth and detail. And if the jewelry has gemstones as well as metal, you’re trying to light the inside of the stones, not the outside particularly.”

But even after 25 years, Parrish still gets a thrill photographing the latest treasures from designers like Mark Schneider and AGTA’s Spectrum Award winners. Other pro shooters say the same – including Tino Hammid, who photographs gems and jewelry for Christie’s catalogs, and Tinnee Lee of Lee-Carraher Photography, who shoots for magazines and retailers.

Burmese jade necklace photographed by Tino Hammid (courtesy Christie's Images)

Fortunately for those trying to photograph jewelry on their own, these pros shared a few of their hard-won secrets here.

1. Take time to set up the shot.

“A lot of people think digital photography has made it so easy to point and shoot, but if you come to my studio you’ll find the shot isn’t ready to go until you just about can’t see what we’re doing any more,” says Parrish. “There are so many little mirrors, stands, cards – all sorts of stuff to manipulate and control the light.”

Unless you’re photographing a necklace or bracelet that you can drape over a prop, you’ll need to hold the jewelry in place. Most pros use wax for this. Parrish warns that jewelry wax is very oily. “Be careful how much you use,” he advises. “Touch something else and you get fingerprints all over everything.”

JJ Buckar ring photographed by John Parrish

JJ Buckar ring photographed by John Parrish

Parrish uses soft boxes to create an even, soft light and mirrors of all sizes, from an inch square to a foot and a half wide. He positions the tiny mirrors to cast highlights in particular spots.

 

2. Get the light right.

The most common problem with jewelry photos is poor lighting. (Focus and color issues tie for second.) There are several ways to remedy this. Lee uses strobe lights. Hammid uses tungsten lights. Parrish uses a combination of tungsten, strobe and HMI lights, depending on the shoot. “Tungsten provides a constant light, like HMIs, but the wrong color—yellow,” says Parrish. HMIs produce an intense, daylight-colored light but can set you back $2,000, while a good tungsten light costs less than $500.

Photoshop tutorials

Good news for DIY photographers: Most mid-range consumer cameras come with a light balance which you can set to read tungsten light as white instead of yellow. “This is a great advantage of digital,” Hammid says. “It’s much more forgiving of light sources than film.”

Courtesy Judith Whitehead, © Lee-Carraher Photography

As long as you stick to one light source at a time, you can set your camera to read it as white light. Just don’t mix sources. You can’t use tungsten and fluorescent at the same time, for example, or candlelight and strobe. Even natural daylight can vary, cloudy days producing bluish light and sunny days more yellow.

Many jewelry photographers avoid tungsten lights because they get hot enough to melt the wax used to set their jewelry up.

Hammid recommends a small, portable halogen lamp with a diffuser. A few companies produce light boxes designed specifically for photographing gems and jewelry. Check out the ones at Sharp and MK Digital.

3. Build your own light box – or shoot outside.

Michael Dyber‘s wife, Sena, photographs his gem carvings using a lampshade with holes cut in it to diffuse the light. You can do the same with a Rubbermaid box or a sheet draped over part of a box.

Ametrine cut by Michael Dyber, photography Sena Dyber

The most inexpensive – and some would say the best – light source is Mother Nature. “Ideally, if you can shoot jewelry outside in the daylight, all you need is the camera,” says Parrish. “But if you want to control the light and look at specific things in a stone, the set-up can get too complicated for that.”

Setting up a jewelry shoot outdoors has its drawbacks but if you choose the right time of day, you can get an even, flattering light. Lee recommends shooting at 7:30 am, 7:30 pm, or on a slightly overcast day. (She lives in San Francisco so has plenty of these.)

 

4. Use props for contrast and texture.

For an excellent example of do-it-yourself outdoor shots, see designer Carolyn Tyler’s web site. Tyler shot most of the images there with a manual Nikon 35mm using her Balinese garden as background and folk carvings as props. The misty, golden Balinese light helps, as does Tyler’s eye for composition and color. Note the pleasing contrast of yellow gold and colored stones against carved wood and leaves.

Sherry Truitt used color, curve and grain to set off her vintage map hairpins (Etsy.com)

Fine jewelry is usually photographed against a plain white or black background but don’t be afraid to play around, particularly if you’re dealing with lower-end jewelry or simple metal pieces. Colored stones can make plain silver jewelry pop and river rocks work wonders with polished gold. Norah Pierson used to display her high-karat gold jewelry, to great effect, on rusted car parts at Santa Fe’s Golden Eye Gallery.
With crisp focus, even cheap place mats can create visually pleasing background textures.

Play around until you find what works best for your jewelry – and feel free to share that in the comments.

Tino Hammid’s equipment (updated for 2012):

Mamiya M645-AFD III medium format camera – $3,990

Mamiya Leaf Aptus-II 33MP digital back – $14,990

Related posts:

How to photograph jewelry: Photoshop tips from the pros

How to photography gems: tips from the pros

Deals on essential camera gear

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


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13 Responses to How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros

  1. Mary Phillips on December 31, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I’m going to try the mirror trick – never heard that one before.

  2. Cathleen McCarthy on December 31, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Interesting, isn’t it? If you look closely at John’s images, you can see where he does this.

  3. Sarah E. Ludwig on January 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Such beautiful photographs! I love to take pictures, though not typically of jewelry. Still, there are some great tips here that would probably apply to other items as well.

    Great post!

  4. Sue M. on September 22, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Hi! Some great pics and advice. I’m a freelance jewellery stylist. I have a shoot coming up where I have to shoot jewellery sets-necklace,Earrings, rings and bracelets as an A4 for each set. Any suggestions on props and backgrounds I can use? Its an indian jewellery shoot but any ideas are welcome. Thanks!!! :)

  5. Cathleen McCarthy on September 22, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Hi Sue! If you need some inspiration, I recommend looking through the photo galleries of the photographers featured here (red links) and on my other posts about photography. Carolyn Tyler (mentioned above) shoots gold with colored stones against greenery, wood and bronze statuary. That’s a great combo.

  6. Mark Gilvey on September 26, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Hello,

    I enjoyed this article a great deal and I trumpet your opinions. About 8 years ago I worked for a design firm that had it’s own in-house photographer, me. We used to photograph estate jewelry for a jeweler in Washington DC. I had a fulltime product stylist clean, remove tags and set up pieces for me so I could then come in with the camera and frame it up and post process using Dicomed software/camera back. Photographing jewelry certainly does give your back a workout!

    Anyway, I wanted to add that the pieces I was shooting were all destined for either a catalog or the web. We didn’t have the time or budget to make every piece a “beauty” shot so everything was shot on white. I worked it out so that I recorded what angle the camera back was at for rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings so when they were arranged on a page each group would have been shot at a specific angle making it consistent. I had 4 to 6 speedo-tron heads pointing from several sides of a custom tent I designed and our receptionist stitched together. But for getting the angles correct, I used something called an Angle Finder (http://www.harborfreight.com/dial-gauge-angle-finder-34214.html) and placed it in the same location on the back of the digital back and adjusted it depending on what I was shooting. This meant that we would generally want to shoot all rings at once, all bracelets together etc.

    Fast-forward 8 years and I don’t have any more big toys. Just my home gear which would be considered prosumer level. My wife decides one day that she’s going to start making bead jewelry. “OMG I thought, more jewelry!” So, it’s a good thing I had all that practice. Anyway, not having any expensive studio strobes I had to figure out how I was going to get soft light.

    At the time we started, I used a flash that I could tether to my hotshoe or PC outlet and just bounced it off the ceiling. I place the jewelry on a 53″ white seamless (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/45607-REG/Savage_1_1253_Widetone_Seamless_Background_Paper.html) and maybe added a sheet or two of copier paper because it was brighter than the seamless and shot.

    Since I’m not doing a lot of shooting now, I’ve opted for some more affordable lighting solutions; Alien Bees. I have one head in a 3×4″ softbox now on a boom and it seems to work. I use that with my other Flash head in it’s own smaller softbox and things work out well.

    One thing that hasn’t changed is I still haven’t done any “beauty” shots. The jewelry I’m photographing is one of a kind and sells for less than $50. If I wasn’t married to my wife, it would cost her more to hire me to shoot this stuff than she gets in return. I also work on her website.

    I have seen a lot of people photograph jewelry on assorted backgrounds. I have not decided if this will help my wife’s product or not. Generally, I shoot everything on white so there is not visual interference and so the color can come through in it’s true vibrance without taking on any of the surrounding color contamination from a background…but like I said, I’m thinking about changing that.

    Leaving it on white makes is very clean but still hard to sell on line. Jewelry is just one of those things that has to be held in your hand I think. That or better marketing.

    Visit my wifes website and go to the Jewelry page for the lastest and greatest and you’ll see images that were shot with only 2 lights. I forgot to mention, I’m an advanced Photoshop user as well. Been trying to use only Lightroom for post processing this stuff so I can move it through as quickly as possible.

    I’ll be quiet now.

    Mark

  7. Sue M. on October 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Thanks so much Cathleen! :)

  8. Cross-Cultural Creations on July 10, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Great tips! I usually try to take the pictures outside, but it is hard to get the light right!
    Taking pictures can be very frustrating. Thanks for the help!

  9. alan on August 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

    thanks for your input mark! very detailed and indeed very useful! i just wish you could post your wife’s website up there, so we can all get a look at your work :)

  10. Cathleen McCarthy on August 23, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Alan, if you click on Mark’s name (at the top of his comment), you’ll see his website.

  11. Goldeneye jewerly | Cartographix on February 5, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    [...] How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros | the jewelry loupeDec 31, 2009 … Norah Pierson used to display her high-karat gold jewelry, to great effect, on rusted car parts at Santa Fe’s Golden Eye Gallery. With crisp focus … [...]

  12. [...] Take a wonderful picture of it! For tips on how to photograph your jewelry, check out one of these sites: Table Top Studios  |    Home Jewelry Business Guide  |  The Jewelry Loupe [...]

  13. Jewels of the vineyard on January 13, 2014 at 2:25 am

    I like to photograph my jewelry with natural light outside. Sometimes I’ll drape a bracelet over a piece of rough wood or place a blingy one on top of a cut crystal bowl or even a diffused mirror. Lightroom helps adjust the color and balance of the final photo. Takes time but they come out very nice.

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