Numismatic and History Discussions > Coin Photography, Conservation and Storage

What is "true to life" in a coin photo?

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This thread was stimulated by some comments in another thread, "Your advice needed for cutting and cropping coins", to the effect that some people prefer an unedited photo because it better represents the coin as it is in the hand, in real life.

Some people might prefer an idealised image, that gives the best possible view of their coin.  Some might even go further and fix up blemishes, but for this thread I will leave alone that ignoble concept.

But what is an unedited image?  Even the purists must make many choices to get any image onto  a screen.  Things that will affect how the photo looks include:

- Choice of camera
- Choice of background and setting
- Choice of lighting type and position.
- Choice whether to use flash.
- Choice of exposure time, focus setting, aperture, white balance, simulated film speed.
- Choice of file type: JPEG, RAW, or other.
- Choice of quality in a JPEG.
- Many choices when converting a RAW image.
- Choice of software to display the image.

And the condition and type of the coin also makes a big difference.  All this is before any thought is given to editing. 

My own view is that an unretouched photo does not usuallly represent a coin at its best.  By its best, I mean showing all the flaws and blemishes, all the details of tone and patina, every good and bad point about it.  I do not think that the beauty of a coin is in artificial perfection, but in its real self.  I will happily:

- edit highlights so that the coin surface can be seen instead of a white glare.
- Similarly edit black areas with no visible detail.  I will still aim to preserve a full tonal range of white to black if possible.
- Apply levels gradients to compensate for one-sided lighting.
- Sharpen enough (using "unsharp masking") to compensate for the inherent softness of digital images.
- Adjust saturation levels to compensate for odd camera effects.
- Allow the final image to be lighter than the coin seen under normal lighting conditions, such as a room's incandescent bulbs, so that detail is made apparent.  The coin looks like that under very bright light anyway.

If I think I have made the result too artificial, I will scrap it and start again, using less bold changes.

Here's one example.  The first photo is the one I saw when I bought the coin.  The second is the unretouched flash images of the obverse and reverse, pasted together and shrunk for this display, but otherwise unchanged.  The final one (next message) will be the version I ended up with.

OK .. here is my final version.

Now, I do not think this image is untrue to the coin.  No-one can say it artificially eliminates flaws, for example.  In fact I think it is more true to the essence of the coin in my hand than either of the two previous images.

Any comments?  .....


It depends on the camera you are using. A great digital camera will not make soft images thus no need to sharpen...I have never had to use sharpen filter on any coin.

Lighting if set up right will not leave areas that are dark or very bright thus there should be little need for selective adjustment, maybe a bump in the levels or a bump on brightness and contrast at the most.

I started taking photos of coins and using all the above listed techniques to adjust and fix what I was lacking in correct camera settings or poor lighting.

I spent quite some time messing with shutter speed, lighting placement, light filtering and finally found a setting that produces about as close to the original coin color, detail, lighting, I think is possible.

All these coins came out almost as perfect as can be. I did not use any form of PS adjustment, not even a bump on the levels...optio5i digital with a down light (about 2 feet florescent at a bit of an angle)

I guess when I said that I wanted to do as little in editing as possible is that IMO most good cameras (digital or otherwise) are perfectly able to capture an image almost life like in most aspects if the settings are just right (which takes a lot of time and testing) thus eliminating the need for further editing. Unless its just a bump here or there on a slider.

Also I cant stress enough the difference the angle of the light makes...I was going to post a comparison of a coin that drastically showed the effect the angle of light makes. It was a rather flat Constantine coin with the right angle it can help bring out the edges with a little shadow (like you would do if it were in hand) and in the case of this coin, it caused the back figure to look DRASTICLLY different in relation to what side the light is coming from. One way made the figure look almost like a skeleton....the other angle brought out the details much more and was a dead perfect reproduction of the figure as it is in real life, filled out the face and the cloth on the body...

What I am mainly looking to achieve is the clearest possble detail, the best possible match in color, without lighting glare (as if holding it well away from a light that makes a heavy shine) in the original photo itself doing as little post adjustment in PS.

Since migrating to a digital camera I have been struggling with getting a setup that gives the sort of images that reflected reality of my coins.
I can only concur that finding a lighting setup that you are happy with is challenging.
My collection contains silver, silvered (ranging from fully silvered through partially silvered to slight silvering remaining) and bronze coins, with their associated range of toning range. I have worked towards a setup that produces images that I am happy with that reasonably closely represent the coin in hand when seen on the screen of my laptop.
I try to work with a minimum of software effort since I have too many coins to photograph to be able to spend time in software.
I take my photographs at a high resolution and then reduce them for general use, whilst keeping the high resolution images for the records.

The following is an example of the image that I am now getting. Whilst I am not 100% happy yet I will keep tinkering util I have it about right.

And the picture below is an example of the detail from the full size image,


I have fussed a great deal over this question, and I have no bone to pick with any of the above.  Defining what is True / vrai / vero / treu / alĂȘthos or gnĂȘsios in a coin photo is almost impossible; words won't hack it (consider how Keats couldn't really evoke a neo-Attic marble urn...).  I got to thinking that the negative approach is more useful.  Can't be exhaustive, but, for example, a true photo of a denarius doesn't look like cookie dough; a true photo of a stripped orichalcum sestertius doesn't look like gold, and gold is not at all lemon-colored; metal does not look like plasticine or plaster or plastic.  Though allowance for dim monitors must be made, out of consideration for one's fellow members who haven't been able to replace the things, no image of a coin ought to look like a photo through milk glass (or like an image taken through a puddle of molasses, either).  Do you agree?  There are as many true ways of seeing, so of photographing, as there are local and regional light situations, personal eyes and visual processing in the brain, and so on: no one is truer than the other.  But the false ones are false to practically everyone.  Right?  Pat L.
P. S. Your Probus breastplate has true probity (couldn't resist putting it that way), and it is also a great advertisement for digital cameras.
P.P.S.  I sometimes, considering the reflectivity of shiny silver, hold one of the red boxes I used to get Saflips in opposite the lamp, to obtain some warm highlights (choose your own color, but red cannot be mistaken for the local color of the coin); I did so on a very clean denarius I got the other day (attached)--maybe a bit much, but the neutral gray of the ground glass is unretouched.


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