Timekeeping: How to Take Better Watch Photos
A man dressed in an all brown uniform just dropped off the “grail” watch on your “work” from home day. You feverishly tear the packaging open and hold up the culmination of your hope and dreams as if it were a cub named Simba.
Spending two months of salary on this iconic piece of horological history? How was that even a question? Friends and family don’t understand why this anachronistic trinket costs so much. You turn to the only people who do understand – your Internet forum “friends”. It’s too bad for us that your photos are a terrible blur and a waste of bytes on the Internet. We’ll go over how to fix that no matter what camera you decide to use.
Smartphones can produce surprisingly good results in sunlight. In watch photography, two things hold you back: the amount of available light and the field of view of the lens. The lenses on popular smartphones are fixed at wide-angle views. The iPhone 4 is a tad wide at 28mm and the 4s is a bit narrower at 35mm. In use this means that the closer you get to your watch, the more distorted and fatter it will look. You can see this in action when your girlfriend takes a photo of the two of you at a Bieber concert with her arms extended. It will appear on the Facebook tag that you just gained ten Big Macs because the camera was too close.
You are a judo master; you will use these limitations to your advantage. Take your watch photos outdoors in context to an environment. The wider view and deep depth of field in a camera phone can actually help in these scenes. Use the touch screen to accurately place the focus point on the dial of the watch face. It helps to focus on the logo since that will have enough contrast for your phone to lock on to.
On the iPhone, the + volume button will also act as a shutter (on the earphone remote as well) which will give you less camera shake. For this type of photography, HDR mode isn’t typically recommended as it can cause ghosting if you’re not holding the camera perfectly still. It may also give you exaggerated colors that will make your watch look a bit clownish. If you take the time to position your watch and camera so they get great light, HDR won’t be needed.
Don’t even think about using digital zoom or saving in Instagram. Both will degrade the quality of your original images. If you have to use filters on your photo, do so after you capture the source image in the included camera application. Please use filters sparingly if you must. You’re a grown man, not a hipster sporting a Holga at a farmer’s market.
The important items to remember are to not get the camera too close in order to avoid distortion, focus properly to get a sharp image, and use sunlight to get a clean image. When taking photos indoors, do it by a window. The key is light, you need as much as you can find.
Point and shoot cameras open up a few more possibilities. You will get cleaner images from the bigger sensor and lens. When using a P&S camera, rock the lens out to near the limit of its zoom range. This telephoto mode will eliminate the fattening distortion effect by forcing you to backup. Another nice benefit is that there will be more potential to get background blur. To get this effect, position the watch so that there is a vast space behind the watch and get as close as your focus will allow while the camera zoom is extended.
It may be tempting to use the flash but the flashes on these little cameras are almost as bad as phone flashes. It will produce flash burn on your images and a horrible reflection on the crystal. A select few compacts do have a hot shoe and we’ll go over the use of that in the next section.
Interchangeable Lens Cameras
Liberate the Canon Rebel your girlfriend asked for last Christmas. It deserves better than taking badly exposed pictures of sunsets and yet another close-up of a flower or too small of a dog. The kit 18-55mm lens included in most kits will take fine photos. Again, rack out the lens to near its max zoom. If you want to go all Henri Cartier-Bresson on this adventure, buy a macro lens. A macro lens is optimized for close focus use thereby allowing more magnification and sharper results. If you want to step your photos up to the next level, pick up a flash.
Nerds call them strobes but flashes are the single best way you can improve all of your photography. When you make and shape your own light, your results will improve like the Knicks without Carmelo. The Jeremy Lin special would be to get a set of radio remote triggers and start experimenting with off camera flash.
Never use direct flash on the subject – always bounce or diffuse it. This means to either point the flash at a wall or ceiling or use a light modifier to diffuse the light. A simple piece of Kleenex can do a great job softening harsh direct light. The point is to make it look like a flash wasn’t used and the best way to do that is to make the light “big” by bouncing or diffusion. If you find that you’re picking up too many reflections or can’t get the emphasis you want on the dial, use a polarizer filter on your lens to cut through the crystal and reduce reflections on the case and dial surface.
“Lume” shots are now near mandatory and these shots require a bit more patience as well as a manual mode. Charge up the lume on your watch with a flashlight for about 20 seconds then go to a dark room. Place your camera on a tabletop tripod or other rock stable surface. Set your camera to manual exposure and set your ISO to 200 or it’s base ISO. Now set the shutter speed to 10 or 20 seconds. Adjust the shutter speed and ISO to taste. It will take a number of tries but you will eventually get the right mix.
Pick an interesting background to place your watch on. It can be an old vintage jacket or bag but it should fit the mood or theme of the watch. Placing an aviator’s watch on SCUBA gear may work but a diver’s watch will look much more at home in that setting and you won’t look like an idiot.
Post Production & Hosting
On the Mac, iPhoto is a fine albeit slow tool. Windows users – I would recommend Picasa. Google makes it. It’s free and you can host your pictures without any out of pocket costs. Adobe Lightroom and Aperture are what most professionals use and they produce professional results.
As in all post work, use the sliders sparingly. Some contrast and boosting shadows can enhance an image but too much of any one thing will result in overcooked images that look like post modern abstract art, not watch photos.
Crop carefully and try to position most of the photos with your subject in the 2/3rds section of your frame. If your photo had 5 evenly spaced vertical lines, the subject would be in the middle of the second or fourth line. Straight on in the middle can work but you will have to verify your symmetry to be precise and your angle compelling.
Be sure to have wiped down the watch as much as you can before starting. Blow any excess dust off the watch. It’s much easier to capture your image right than it is to clean up later in software. Nobody likes to see your DNA flecks, fingerprints, and arm hairs covering a watch they’re supposed to covet.
The most important aspect to remember is that your photos are visually interesting. Similar to portraits, a head on watch shot is boring unless perfectly executed with contrasty light. Try to position your watch with the part you want to emphasize facing the camera at a slight angle. Claudia Schiffer preferred to be shot from the upper left. Like a model your watch has certain angles that are more flattering. Take as many shots as needed to find those views that make you smile.
Every great photo conveys an emotion. Sharing with the viewer your impressions and the raw experience of the subject is what separates keepers from throwaway snapshots. Before you post another photo – honestly ask yourself if that shot effectively expresses the life of that watch as you feel it. Don’t be just a documentarian.