Camera Choices

Camera Choices for Jewelry Photography

 When the subject of jewelry photography comes up, the most frequent question is always the same: “What’s the best camera?”

There is no right or wrong answer to that question, but I suggest it is the wrong question, and here’s why….

There are many ways to light an object; some ways will emphasize form, other perhaps color, or texture. Creating the image that YOU want is about creating the correct lighting environment. Once that is done, the camera is used simply as a recording tool to capture the scene as it existed.

If you get the lighting right, you’ll have a good image. If the lighting is done poorly, the finest camera on Earth is of no help.

I firmly believe that good tools are a joy in life, and you should not scrimp. Investment in a functional and efficient tool will pay you back many times, not just in results, but in ease of use. Not only do we get a better end product, but we get it more quickly. Good tools make difficult work easy and time is money! As jewelers, we invest in expensive inventory and equipment all the time with the expectation of profit. I can guarantee you that a nominal investment in good photographic equipment and the education to use them well will pay you back handsomely.

The choice of camera is not trivial, but I want to emphasize it is not the camera that makes a “good” or “poor” image, it is the lighting environment. Just like a setting bur, torch tip or polishing buff, a camera should be chosen for the task at hand. A camera well suited to the task is a joy to use. It makes the job easy and the results predictable.

The camera that is fine for everyday snapshots may be the one you wish to press into service here, but for the demanding tasks we are engaging, it may disappoint, frustrate and not produce the desired results. Get the right tool, it’s worth it.

And remember, it is important to match the tool to the job.  In this article, I’ll be talking about choosing a camera for making very nice images, suitable for publication.  Future articles will discuss camera solutions for repair documentation or simple inventory images.

Camera Considerations

 For photographing jewelry and other small objects, if maximum image quality is the goal, here are the options a camera should have:

1. The camera must have the ability to focus close enough so that the image in the viewfinder screen is at least one-half the height of the viewing screen. If it cannot focus that close, you MAY have a problem getting enough pixels in your final image to make a decent image.  IOW, if you only start with a tiny image on the viewing screen because your camera can’t focus close enough, it won’t work well.

Additionally, it must do so without getting so close to the object that light from the camera direction is blocked. Generally, the lens needs to be at least 6-8 inches away from the subject to avoid serious lighting problems. Many “point and shoots”  are capable of focusing down to a couple mm, but that will block frontal light essential for good imaging AND it will insure a big black reflection of the camera in your image.  Not good.

3. The camera must have the ability to function in a fully manual mode, i.e., you should be able to independently adjust the aperture and the shutter speed. This is a necessity, as AUTO functions of any sort  will just get in the way of good imagery.

4. The camera must allow a choice of white balance options or have the ability to take images in RAW format. White balancing is one of those necessary chores we often avoid, with unhappy result. A camera capable of recording images in RAW format makes worrying about white balance a thing of the past. White balancing is not necessary in RAW mode; we can use any light source and not have to concern ourselves with setting white balance. In addition, use of RAW mode opens up the possibility of much nicer images ESPECIALLY if you are going to print. RAW capture is becoming a common feature, look for it. It’s not necessary, but will save time and produce a better result.

5. The camera should have either a self-timer for delayed exposure or be able to accept a manual or remote shutter release device. Any of those features are a real help when it comes to vibration-free images. No matter how gentle you may think you are, it is nearly impossible to use your finger to release the shutter without introducing some form of camera movement. This slight movement may not be noticeable in informal snapshots, but in close-up photography it is painfully obvious. Using the self-timer to release the shutter is often the best and easiest choice. And a REAL GOOD tripod is a necessity….the heavier, the better, you won’t be carrying it much!

Many cameras and/or lenses offer Image Stabilization.  Because cameras are used on tripods for jewelry photography, these features are not necessary, but they add greatly to the cost of a camera body or lens. I suggest you look for a lens that does NOT have Image Stabilization built in to save money, or at least be able to turn it off.

Complete non-biased reviews of almost all cameras and related equipment can be found at www.steves-digicams.com or http://www.dpreview.com/products/cameras. Just about every digital camera ever available is fully described at those sites. In addition, you will find discussion groups and a great number of links to other photography-related sites, both equipment and technique related.

I very strongly recommend that you consider purchasing a D-SLR. The ability to use a true macro lens or extension tubes with a normal or zoom lens is a tremendous aid to getting better images. Not only are the lenses optically excellent, but these cameras allow a comfortable working distance between the lens and the subject, which is an aid to proper lighting.

Also, the digital sensors used in the SLR style of camera are considerably larger than the sensors in the smaller, fixed lens models. The larger sensor provides a finer image although the difference may not always be noticeable until we get to the printing stage.

Currently, when I teach classes, if the student has no camera, I recommend the Canon Rebel line with either a Sigma 105 mm macro lens or a Tamron 90 mm macro lens. The Rebel series remains the best selling entry-level D-SLR in the world and provides amazing “bang for the buck”.  Canon upgrades these models every year or two, but an older (2-3 years) model is certainly adequate and will save money.

Right now I am recommending the Canon Rebel T3i to my students who wish to spend the least money for a great product. Although the T5i is the current model in the Rebel line, I do not feel it offers any advantages over the T3i for jewelry photography.

Copyright Wayne Emery, 2013, all rights reserved