Lights, Camera . . . Gemstones: Lighting Tips for Gem and Jewelry Photography
by Merle White, Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist
Shoot–it's hard to shoot gemstones! Everything that makes them so interesting to look at also makes them challenging to photograph.
Each of these stones alone has its own photography needs, so shooting them all together in polished and textured metals is quite a feat. Marilyn Mack's silver and gold pendant features faceted, cabbed, and natural-surface gems, with single and multiple colors: serpentine, drusy rainbow pyrite, amethyst, peridot, citrine, sterling, and 14K. Photo by Jim Lawson.
To a jewelry wearer, gems are a wonderful fashion accessory, but to a gem cutter, jeweler, or photographer, a gem is also a compact optical powerhouse. The colors can be delicious but so hard to capture. Highly polished facets produce mirror-like reflections that give life to a stone but tend to create all kinds of blur in a photo. Those lovely "sparks" that diamonds and other gems throw as the gem disperses white light into its spectral colors can look more like overwrought finger painting than a rainbow. And then there are the special effects: certain types of gems and certain types of gem cuts that can be downright ornery about showing up in an image–opals, moonstones, cat's-eyes, or star stones, for instance, or gem designs where the lapidary combines faceting with cabbing or other techniques to create the illusion of color or carving where it isn't.
Not that any of this is news to me, exactly, only for a long time this was theoretical knowledge, not practical experience. I've been in awe of the images of gems we've published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist over the years; photographers who specialize in jewelry and gems are a rare breed. I've also been so spoiled by having access to great images and so intimidated at the thought of doing it myself that I hardly ever bothered . . . until recently.
Very recently, in fact. Apart from the occasional shot I've taken followed by "Gack! What was I thinking?" when I saw the result, I never really tried to get a decent gemstone photo until last month when I'd backed myself into a corner and was blogging about a favorite gem for Jewelry Making Daily ("My Favorite Gemstone . . . at the Moment: Cutting a Spinner Quartz," November 30, 2011). Suddenly I needed a photo of that stone–not one like it, but that very one–and I needed it right away.
The cat's-eye effect in this purple obsidian cabochon makes this an interesting photography challenge. Gem cut by Bob Rush. Photo by Jim Lawson.
So I gave it a whirl. After trying a few lame things on my own with predictably unacceptable results, I dove into my collection of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist back issues and found some useful insights. With my time crunch, there wasn't much I could do about equipment, but just about every discussion of gem or jewelry photography started with lighting, and at least I had some choice about that.
"Catching Opal's Fire" (May, 2004) by noted opal dealer, authority, cutter, and photographer Paul Downing is a fabulous resource for shooting that notoriously camera-shy gem. If you're trying opal or another colorful gem, consider waiting for a bright sunny day and shooting outside in the middle of it. You'll get full-spectrum light to show off opal's dazzling spectral colors, says Paul, and less of a hot spot or surface reflection than with a bulb, although he says he does use a bulb on occasion, too, to fill in shadows.
But it wasn't very sunny that day, it was already late afternoon, and the stone I had to shoot was mercifully easier than opal, so I kept rummaging around. "Expert Photo Advice" on the cover of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist June, 2005, sounded promising, so I opened up the issue to find "Cameras & Computers" about shooting digital. It covers the gamut from cameras on the market to cleaning up with Photoshop, including a useful tip on lighting.
If you do it yourself, I read, "[Tino] Hammid recommends Pensar lamps, little quartz halogen lamps with a small spot bulb that 'are very portable but have to be used with a diffuser.'" As it happens, my main desk lamp is a halogen, has a piece of glass below its spot bulb that acts as a diffuser, and though the lamp is not portable, its swing arm makes for pretty easy positioning. The diffuser is especially important for faceted stones, whose back or pavilion facets need a lot of light, but also tend to produce glare because they are so reflective. So I tried my halogen, and finally I could see what was going on in my favorite stone! I was also able to hang a pendant from part of that arm and shoot the stone suspended in midair.
A lot goes into nailing the facets on a stone like this triangular prasiolite, but good lighting is one of the most important. Gem courtesy of Stuller, Inc. Photo by Jim Lawson.
"Keep It Light" (Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist August 2005) turned out to be a detailed description of types of light and how they can affect the objects they illuminate–not only useful for photography but also studio and display lighting at shows or in a gallery. One of the most enlightening parts of all, so to speak, was the sidebar "Understanding Your Light Bulb Box."
Did you know that a lumen is the light generated by a standard candle and that a 40-watt bulb emits 450 lumens, or that energy efficiency is often measured in lumens per watts? I've always known that warmer colors are more flattering to people, but I didn't realize that the reason those harsher, cooler lights make task work easier is that they are better for illuminating detail. And if you care about how the colors of your gemstones appear, look for the CRI (color rendering index) to learn how accurately a light bulb you're considering will show the color of an object "in person."
I will still gladly, gratefully continue to deal with the pros when it comes to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, but I did make some progress as an amateur shooter, and now I can easily find that information again for the next occasion. I don't even regret the time I spent searching, either, because I rediscovered some other great material that will come in handy another time, such as how to facet curves, unusual artisan jewelry designs with pearls, how to make a mixed-metal cuff with undulating curves and fantastic texture, chain making by hand and machine, enamels, and the coolest iridescent garnets you could ever hope to encounter–yet another gemstone challenge for a shooter!
Get all of these issues and more in the Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist 2003-2005 collection DVD, featuring 36 complete gemstone and jewelry tip- and technique-filled issues in one convenient package. It's the perfect gift for a gemstone and jewelry enthusiast–or yourself!
P.S. What's your best tip for shooting gemstones? Or the coolest gem you've ever encountered? Share it with us in the comments below!