Simplified Coin Photography - Part Two

If you missed it, part one of this discussion is here.

The first part of my discussion on easy coin photography tied to make two points. First was that you can take halfway decent coin photos for web use even without buying expensive equipment BUT whether you have that expensive equipment or not, you have to use common sense or the results will suffer. In particular, you need to arrange some way of holding the camera an coin that will allow sharp, vibration free images. If you don't want to build a custom rig out of scrap lumber like I showed, feel free to spend a lot of money on something to do the job but be sure it is solid as a rock. Second, you need good light for photos but the sun is a really nice light for at least part of many days so you can take images without spending anything on a light. If your schedule and the sun's do not work well together, you can do reasonable well with artificial light. This second page will address a few more points regarding lighting of coin photos.

Here is the important rule of coin photography: Use your eyes and the accessory brain located just behind them. Whether you are using the sun or artificial light don't just plop the coin down under the camera (securely mounted camera, of course) but give some thought to a couple points of light quality: Angle and Color.

The image above shows the same coin photographed eight ways. These eight images used the same single LED lamp in a small reflector (the one shown on the first page of this discussion). The difference is in the placement of that lamp. I am not offering rules for light placement but will tell you that this is a time to use those eyes and that brain. Move the light around and observe the changes made in the appearance of the coin. I could tell you that 90% of coins will look best with the light more or less above the head of the coin and fewer than 1% will look at all good with the light coming from below but I won't. Your eyes/brain should do that for you if only you care to look. Of the eight images here, the top row of four used a light from four different directions but all were elevated so the light was very near the camera position. The bottom row also shows four directions but the effects are much more distinct because the light is now coming from a lower position and grazes across the surface of the coin. This high relief denarius suffers more from the low light position than would a low relief modern coin. My point here is that you need to show your eyes/brain options not only from four compass directions but raising and lowering the light so you can see the effect on the individual coin you are shooting. In this case, I prefer the one in the upper right corner which is the result of light coming from a high angle from, more or less, above the head. Your choice of which image is best may differ. That is OK - just make it your choice and not some random accident of how the coin fell when you flopped it down on the table. Not every coin will be exactly the same so use those eyes!

Perhaps you will recall that I said you can use the sun or artificial light. Direct sun is harsh due to the relatively small size of the disk. Even a single artificial lamp used at any reasonable distance is large compared to direct sun. Natural daylight results are better if you work in open shade (on a porch, under a tree or inside by a window) and avoid direct sunshine - especially the very low angles of the early morning or late evening (unless you like the more harsh look they bring). You can always rotate the coin even even if you can't move the sun. I prefer artificial light since it is available at any time and allows repeatable control no matter what the weather.

The above eight photos were all made with the coin parallel to the film plane or sensor. So was our middle left example. The other two are the same coin tipped by propping up on a small piece of plastic foam. Tilting to the top here produces a glare in the fields making the edges of the letters stand out. Tilting to the bottom removes all of the glare and emphases deposits considerably lessening the separation between the devices and fields. You must be especially careful when shooting the reverses of Roman Imperial coins. Their high relief portraits can provide a very uneven support when the reverse is being shot. If you do not like the 'normal' reverse lighting, consider a small prop to return the flat reverse field to a parallel position or control the glare to meet your needs.

'White' light is a mixture of many colors in a balance that strikes our eyes/brain as correct. The problem is that our brains are very skilled at adjusting the report from our eyes so many different balances can look 'white'. Photographs are not so forgiving. It is important to set the camera color balance settings to match the output of the light used for the picture. Most cameras are very good at balancing images taken in daylight but the vast array of artificial light colors require more care in camera settings before the image is taken or adjustment in postprocessing to keep a neutral gray coin looking neutral (right center). Quality results require the balance be shot close to the correct color leaving only minor tweaks for postprocessing. Each camera will vary on the type and degree of adjustments available. If your camera allows, I recommend using 'Manual White Balance' or Image RAW controls. Simple cameras that lack color controls may give better results in natural daylight.

Certainly there are other facors and accessories that will assist in improving coin photos but I consider the ones discussed so far to be the most important. If you have mastered the process of taking sharp photos with a securely mounted camera and lighted by well positioned light of the right color, the remaining factors will seem minor enhancements to already good images. Selecting backgrounds for coin photography is the subject of part three.

Please visit my pBase Gallery:

My pBase Coin Gallery with many new photos and some discussion

Other photo postings:

The following pages were posted to my coin site in years past. Some of them have become a bit dated but there is some value left here and there. All are invited to visit them and any other pages on my coin site.

Coin Photography 2008 update
Coin Photography with a Microscope
Photographing a Nero Dupondius
Coin Photography with the Canon 300D
Coin Photography with the Minolta D7i
Coin Photography with the Minolta D7i (earlier page)
Coin Photography with the Nikon 990
Coin Photography (pre-digital page)

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(c) 2011 Doug Smith