Gem and Jewelry Photography: Professional Tips and Advice for Taking Professional-Quality Jewelry Photos

It’s a shame to spend hours, days, even weeks creating your jewelry masterpieces, only to have a poor presentation in bad jewelry photography. You’ve worked so hard on your pieces–you owe it to yourself to show them in the best possible way in marketing materials, show submission photos, websites and online stores. Here’s some jewelry photography advice from professional gem and jewelry photographer Azur Mele, excerpted from Terri Haag’s article in the July 2015 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Gem and Jewelry Photography: An Interview with Azur Mele McHugh

LJJA: What do you like working with the best?
AZUR: Interesting work makes for interesting photos. If the jewelry or art or gems aren’t good in the first place, the photos have to work really hard to be mediocre. I like shooting jewelry that is engaging and unfamiliar. If I have the chance to experiment and develop an image around the concept of the artist, that makes me happy.

LJJA: Why is the background important?
AZUR: Different materials look awesome or horrible depending on the background. It is also usually the only other element in the photo, so it is going to set the mood and hopefully draw you into the image. You want a background that is interesting but not distracting.

jewelry photography

AZURZ Rocks and Minerals. Feather Azurite Malachite. Photo courtesy of Azur Mele.

LJJA: We always see photographers with those umbrella things and light meters. How important is lighting, really?
AZUR: Lighting is absolutely everything. Not only is it essential to make a technically correct photograph, but lighting is what makes an image compelling. I use both studio lights and natural light, but the type of lighting makes a big difference in the look of the images. Photography is all about manipulating light to create what you want to capture.

LJJA: How do you light objects to get these amazing results?
AZUR: You have to let the object dictate the shot. For instance, when I work with an unfamiliar material, I don’t know how my lighting is going to react with the piece. I have to analyze both the light and the piece. My best advice for lighting is don’t set up three lights when all you need is one. Start slow and add lights or reflectors as needed.

LJJA: How do you make rings stick up like that and not fall over?
AZUR: Dental wax, which you can get at any drugstore, and some Photoshop cleanup.

LJJA: Speaking of which, how much do you do with Photoshop? Is it important to the end result?
AZUR: I use Photoshop on every image. You can take a nice photo, but if there is a little bit of dust on the work or uneven light in the background, it makes the image look careless and messy. A lot of the time, I can’t even see dust until the photos are on the computer. My favorite is when the light catches a dog hair that you swear was not there when you took the picture, but now you have a diamond and fido fur bracelet for sale.

Also, I take a lot of my photos so that they can fit together in Photoshop after the fact. I light the piece in different ways to bring out some elements and push back others, then I light the background, take extra photos of the areas, and combine 20 images into one.

jewelry photography

Enamel Wear by Wei Lah Poh. Photo courtesy of Azur Mele.

LJJA: What is your best advice for the jewelers or dealers who still want to take their own images?
AZUR: Play (happy photographers take the best photos), keep it simple, and invest in a good lens.

LJJA: Can you list some of the most important things you think about when you are taking or Photoshopping your own images?
AZUR: Pay attention to your reflections. Get a good macro lens. It’s important to be able to get close enough to your work. When Photoshopping, be sure to use layers and masks so you can go back if you mess up!

LJJA: Not to seem insensitive, but you seem young to be giving master classes in photography. Doesn’t this take years to . . . well . . . master?
AZUR: It has taken years. I started taking pictures in my very early teens, specialized in photography in high school, meaning four years of classes during which I basically lived in the dark room, then five years of university classes at RISD in photography, plus almost three years of working in the field. But having said that, I’m constantly learning new techniques. Experimentation is everything for me because you can’t learn it all from one place or one person. No one can teach you exactly what to do in a situation that hasn’t even come up yet.

LJJA: If it’s all about experimenting anyway, why should people buy your videos?
AZUR: Before they can start experimenting, all photographers need a basic technical understanding or they are going to have to learn to build their first wheel alone, while the rest of us drive off in very quick cars. So I teach cool professional techniques and tricks and give them permission to experiment. With digital, you can take as many pictures as the camera will hold, find the good ones, and dump the rest. Just remember what you did in that cool photo so you can do it again.

jewelry photography

AZURZ Rocks and Minerals. Amazonite. Photo courtesy of Azur Mele.

LJJA: You are big on natural light. Why?
AZUR: Because it’s alive. Well, not alive, but it changes depending on where you are and time of day, and what you’re shooting. The light on a sunny day in April in Nevada is different than the light on a sunny day in April in the Alps–which are both different on a sunny day in October in the same places. There are so many variables: humidity, elevation, the season, time of day, clouds–which is why pros invest thousands of dollars in studio lights. We need to get exactly the same lighting conditions every time. Pros need complete control. Unfortunately, you can lose the happy accidents that way. The point is that my viewers don’t need studio equipment; they need to be able to make natural light work for them.

LJJA: And live models?
AZUR: Models add a whole level of complexity but, when done right, are worth it. There are things a model tells the viewer about the jewelry that a still life image can’t. All kinds of obvious and subliminal messages are sent and received. If I’m shooting an elegant platinum and diamond collar worth a hundred grand, I don’t want a model in a Boho skirt and tank top. While it’s fun to juxtapose expectations once in a while, generally the company selling hundred grand necklaces isn’t pitching them to Boho girls in Birkenstocks. The people who buy those necklaces have a very different self image. A good photographer needs to enhance the self-image of the buyer. This kind of photography can be arty, but it’s not about art, it’s about selling your or your client’s jewelry. Big difference.

LJJA: Who picks the model, you or the client?
AZUR: Me. Models know how to move for jewelry–which is different than for fashion–know how to showcase the piece, and can keep themselves out of the picture, so to speak. Good models can be costly, but not as costly as shooting a whole campaign, doing all the post-production, launching it, and then having it flop. When I do a serious shoot, I hire a model and a stylist, because I’m not a good stylist. I get some funky idea and run with it and later see it just didn’t work. I used to try to tell the stylist, “Put her in that dress and do this makeup,” and the stylist would say, “No.” And of course she would be right. I had to learn to trust my team.

LJJA: So you explain these concepts in these videos?
AZUR: In the second video, I go through all this so viewers see what I’m doing and why, and then they can apply those techniques to their own work.

LJJA: What do you want your viewers to get out of these videos at the end of the day?
AZUR: Instantly useable techniques, tricks, and ideas, and especially the confidence to take those techniques and tricks and apply them to new situations. But mostly, I want to help them generate great visual and financial results. I want my viewers to make themselves and their products look good, but the best results are better jewelry sales!
–TH

Learn to take better jewelry photography with Azur’s two Jewelry Photography Basics videos, How to Shoot Jewelry and Gemstones in Natural Light and, if you want to learn how to use models in your jewelry photography, How to Photograph Jewelry and Gemstones on Models in Natural Light.

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