how to photograph diamond jewelry
2010.02 (updated : 2010.08.28)
This is my tutorial on producing images like the ones below, which are intended for use in a retail jewelry website. This tutorial involves both a modest studio setup and some exacting photoshop work.
The main trick in photographing jewelry is to get larger-than-life images that splash the jewelry across the computer screen. These images, to be compelling, must be low-enough in contrast to:
- illustrate the ring from every angle
- show the luster of the setting's surface
- bring out the shape of the ring as well as the details in the ring's mounting
At the same time, the images must:
- eliminate blown-out highlights without introducing any shadows
- flatter the gem stone(s) with bright light, high contrast and great clarity
- eliminate reflections in the shiny surface of the jewelry
- eliminate unsightly dirt, fibres and surface crud
- be free of unsightly things like wax and supports
Putting these requirements together, we see a near-impossible task. How can the setting be low-contrast while the diamond is high-contrast? How do we avoid shadows and highlights? How do we make a larger-than-life image that hides tiny bits of grit and grime that are far too small to see? How do we ensure that the surface is lustrous yet shows no reflections of nearby items? How do we bring out the shape of a piece of jewelry that is effectively one continuous surface of shiny white metal? How can we possibly photograph a piece of jewelry from every angle without using wax or some sort of support to hold it in place?
The answers to these questions took me months to sort out. Happily I had the advice of Richard Thompson, a Toronto-area illustrator and photographer who helped me get my head around many of the largest concepts. Then there was constant research—I studied the work that some really competent people were doing. In the end, it came down to smoke and mirrors: tricky product positioning; the use of strobes and diffusers; and plenty of software manipulation.
cleaning the jewelry
This technique rests on the use of clean jewelry that's free of scratches, lint, fibres (these jam in the prongs), and surface crud. Nothing is worse than spending hours in software fighting with countless microscopic pieces of junk on the surface of a diamond ring. It's far easier to produce decent photographs of jewelry if you've cleaned the jewelry before taking the photo. No amount of post-processing with software can come close to the look of jewelry that was clean to start with. Happily, producing clean jewelry is simple.
The trick in really cleaning jewelry lies in house-hold ammonia cleaner, the type that you usually find with a blue color in a spray bottle with brand names (in North America) like Windex. Simply put a bit of it into a small container and set the diamond jewelry into the cleaning fluid. There's no need to dilute the fluid, nor can the fluid damage the jewelry in any way.
Put each piece into some cleaner for an hour or so, then clean it carefully with something like a cotton-tip cleaner of the variety made for photo equipment; not the household type made for cleaning your ears! When it is clean to your satisfaction (use a loupe or you look at it through your camera's viewfinder) put the piece back in its container to keep it free of dust. Be sure that both the surface of the ring and the surface of the diamond are free of spots.
Loose dust will settle on the ring no matter what you do (the diamond in the photo above appeared clean to the eye). Have a blower on hand to get rid of this stuff, and use it frequently. You will not see all of the dust that settles on the ring, it is far too small for you to see without magnification. House dust is largely made of human skin, so some of the dust will leave oily residue. If this has become apparent in your photos, get the piece back into the ammonia cleaner for another soak.
Handle all of your jewelry while wearing rubber gloves. These gloves don't leave finger prints or oil stains, and allow you to get a good grip on these small pieces.
Do not get ammonia cleaner on wood surfaces like tables—it can eat into finished wood and leave a permanently damaged surface, as I unfortunately learned the hard way.
Do not use a soft, fibrous cloth to clean diamond jewelry. It may do an okay job of cleaning the surface of the setting, but it will leave many tiny fibres in the mounting. These can be difficult and even impossible to remove.
Do not use cloth gloves, they will also leave fibres everywhere.
some advice on cleaning gem stones
The following setup was assembled on a fairly tight budget. Photography equipment can be expensive, but it's possible to get pretty close to what you need with a fair bit of used and re-purposed gear.
lighting & display equipment
You'll need a variety of lighting equipment. If you're new to strobe photography—as I was at the outset of this adventure—there is some cash outlay required here. Also a fair bit of trial and error. But then again, when do those two conditions not apply?
I cut corners here and there by re-using equipment I already had wherever possible. The star of the show is a simple roll of card-stock paper, so you know I wasn't doing anything fancy!
My list looks like this:
- primary strobe (here I used two strobes with a guide number of 20, but recommend something more powerful)
- secondary strobe (again, I used a small strobe with a guide number of 20)
- soft box
- reflecting umbrella (these aren't cheap)
- cabling for the flash units and a one-to-four cable adapter
- flash triggers that can mount on a tripod
- umbrella stand (I useed a cheap plastic tripod) and light stands (more cheap tripods)
- roll of heavy card-stock paper
Additionally, I used an old plastic drinking container of frosted white to diffuse the light from the secondary flash. In my case, an aging bottle that I'm sure contains the dreaded bisphenol-A!
I use both digital and film cameras for my photography hobby but this work demands digital equipment because there's simply too great a need to check your work as you go. You can't wait for a review of developed film before deciding what works and what doesn't!
Happily, the type of equipment needed for this type of work is minimal if you are producing photos for the Internet. I used this setup:
- aging 6MP digital SLR camera (Pentax *istDS)
- manual-focus 50mm lens (Pentax SMC 50mm/1.4, 75mm-equivalent due to camera crop factor)
- macro adjuster (I used the smallest and least powerful adapter from the set I've got)
This gear, though humble, is more than enough for this sort of work.
I also found it necessary to occasionally use the following items:
- wax to hold the jewelry in place (very small amounts)
- a blower and a soft brush
- rubber gloves (kitchen variety)
- scotch tape
- thin, oblong black shapes to set next to the ring to create black reflections
arranging the equipment
The first step is to get the jewelry onto a piece of white card-stock paper. This is heavy paper that has no surface texture at all. It's thicker than construction paper for instance, and is much stronger. In most cases, you won't need anything to hold the jewelry in place, as you'll simply be setting the jewelry upon this paper. The photos below, while interesting, show a piece of jewelry simply sitting on the floor of the soft box with no paper: unusable due to textured reflections in the ring's surface.
This piece of paper is first placed into a soft box, which is deployed to diffuse the light from your sources and to eliminate reflections. I used a length of 20cm wide paper that was about 60cm long in a softbox that was 45cm x 45cm x 45cm. Allow the paper to curl up under the camera lens, and to rest on the rear wall of the soft box. This will eliminate foreground reflections and give a nice neutral background for the shot.
Since the soft box cuts out a lot of light, you'll need strobes (bright lights that flash for a brief period; I used cheap flash units) to provide an intense flash of white light. Strobe light tends to be pretty harsh, though, even through a soft box. This causes shadows and blown-out highlights. So a further diffusion is necessary, and I used a photography umbrella (a reflector shaped like an umbrella) to do this. The trick here is to provide a light source that's larger than the jewelry piece being photographed.
I set the primary strobe (in my case, two flash units mounted on a tripod) above the right edge of the soft box and pointing up at the reflective umbrella. This created the large light source I needed, and resulted in shadow-free, low-contrast images.
The secondary light source was about a metre from the left side of the soft box, aiming at the softbox and tucked inside the frosted drinking vessel. This strobe created a highlight in the front-left side of the jewelry.
I then placed the jewelry in the three positions that I'll explain below. It's important to note that in each case I had something small and black close to the jewelry so that a black reflection appeared on the jewelry. This controlled reflection causes the dark lines you see in the photos above. They help define the shape of the jewelry rather than yielding a continuous grey surface.
In this case I connected an adapter to the hot shoe on my camera and strung a PC cable from that to the one-to-four splitter. From the splitter I then strung more PC cables to my three flash units. Cabling and fiddly adapters are always fun to deal with, but in this case simple twist-ties are enough to get these lightweight things out of the way.
positioning the jewelry
The view below is essentially impossible to create without some very finicky work with wax or some kind of supporting structure. I went through days and even weeks of experiments and all I got was waxy-looking photos with strange lumps of wax hanging around the jewelry.
It's worth remembering that this ring is about 2.5mm thick, 13–15mm across, and has a stone that's only 30 points. At this size, it doesn't take more than a 1mm x 3mm x 2mm lump of wax to look like an enormous wodge of garbage. Of course, such a tiny piece of wax is also quite useless at keeping a piece of jewelry in place! Below are some examples from early in our experiments. Note the build-up of wax, the drunken lean to the jewelry (and the poor control I had back then over reflections)!
drunken jewelry, visible wax
Upon carefully studying the jewelry photos that I found on the 'net, it became apparent to me that the best work was actually shot with the ring lying down on its side. This was going to be difficult for me to shoot with the equipment I had (for a time, I envisioned hanging the camera into the soft box from above) but then the answer came to me.
I arranged a white business card at a ~30º angle by taping it to a small wooden object. I then used a tiny piece of wax (no more than 1mm on a side at most) and rested the mounting against the wax. The wax prevented the jewelry from moving, and allowed the jewelry to self-centre itself: it was essentially hanging from the wax.
I then positioned the camera to look down at the jewelry at a complementary angle with a resulting 90º view. This allowed me to keep my existing light setup with modest modifications. I also placed some of my son's Brio blocks near the jewelry, taping it to the business cards. This caused the black reflection you see on the left side in the image above. I'll get back to this image in the post-processing write-up below.
The following photos are also tricky to create. The first thing to dismiss is any idea that these can be created with the jewelry piece standing up. Aside from the unholy nightmare of trying to balance tiny pieces of jewelry on vanishingly small pieces of wax, the relationship of jewelry, camera and lights just gets too tricky to deal with. Shooting jewelry from above interferes with the lighting, and I wound up with lots of shadows such as in the photo below. It's also awkward to arrange a camera on a tripod above a soft box.
By the twentieth time you've watched a piece of jewelry fall over or look crooked or pick up lint from the constant handling, you'll swear off that approach for good.
The answer, again, is to simply arrange the angle you want by lying the jewelry on the paper. The first photo at the top of the page was made by lying the ring down on the paper with the stone pointing toward the camera. The second photo was made by lying the ring down and angling it toward the left (and into the light of the secondary strobe).
The camera was placed at a low angle and quite close to the jewelry. Again, I used some black Brio blocks (small cylinders) near the jewelry, taping these in place to give a long black reflection. Following is a raw image showing an early result with this technique. Note that this photo predates the final move to the paper surface as well as the use of strobes.
The rest was done in software. The first step is to rotate the image so that it looks something like this—well on its way to a "standing" appearance.
That's it. Two or three months of daily tinkering, trials and communication with an expert. All boiled down to a twenty minute read! I'd appreciate any feedback and insights into this technique, as well as any questions pertaining to anything that's not clear.