How to photograph jewelry: tips from the pros | | the jewelry loupe

Posted October 11, 2017

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 is not easy. If it were, they would not be making the big bucks.

The 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 are 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 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 like my studio you'll find the shot is not ready to go until you just can not 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."

JJ Buckar 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 points to the tiny mirrors to cast highlights in particular spots.

2. Get the light right.

The most common problem with jewelry 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 good tungsten light costs less than $ 500.

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

Skyline Theatre students are preparing songs dances and scenes for “Get Hype An Evening With Skyline Theatre.”
Skyline Theatre students are preparing songs dances and scenes for “Get Hype An Evening With Skyline Theatre.”

source at a time, you can set your camera to read it as white light. Just do not mix sources. You can not use tungsten and fluorescent at the same time, for example, or candlelight and strobe.

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 specifically designed for photographing gems and jewelry. MyStudio offers several well-reviewed tabletop kits for product photography (see "related products" below) including one designed specifically for jewelry photography.

Michael Dyber's wife, Seine, 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 the Nikon 35mm manual 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.

Fine jewelry is usually photographed against plain white or black background but is not 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.

Tino Hammid's equipment (professional quality - not for average budgets):