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WATCH AND JEWELRY PHOTOGRAPHY USING HDR AND MODAHAUS

For a few years now I’ve been using a technique for watch and jewelry photography that can best be described as manual HDR . This year I decided to try out a professional HDR application and settled on Photomatix Pro having read some good reviews on the software.

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THE BRIEF

For many years I’ve been shooting vintage watches and jewelry for an annual printed catalogue I produce for a client located over 500 miles from base which involves flying there with all my kit. The brief revealed, as expected, over the next two days I have 52 watches and a handful of jewelry to shoot. A tight schedule you could say. As I understand, vintage watch collectors don’t want to see fancy creatively composed shots of watches, but want ‘face on’ shots with all features and strap clearly visible. That simplifies things a bit composition wise. What I really like about these watches is the fantastic detail and workmanship that often goes in to the engraved texture of the watch faces so I’ve pre-planned my lighting accordingly.

STUDIO SET UP

Travelling light, my kit comprises the Modahaus Tabletop Studio TS216, one Artograph A920 Lightpad LED lightbox and an A930, small Calumnet light stand and reflector boom arm, Lenser P7 LED Torch, Manfrotto Tripod and ball head, Canon EOS 5D MKII and Canon EF 100mm Macro lens. Here’s a photo of the complete lighting kit which is compact enough for airline hand baggage.

One Lightpad underneath the compact foot print of the TS216 to throw light upwards through the translucent white backdrop support. I then used the opaque white backdrop to form a light tunnel. The effect this set up gives is an even upwards light to help accentuate the texture on the watch faces whilst the close proximity of the inside of the light tunnel bounces light back down to give a softer overall light on the rest of the watch. The inside of the light tunnel also gives us smooth clean reflections in the metallic surfaces of the watches.

The watches were a mixture of stainless steel, white gold, platinum, yellow gold and shades of rose gold so we therefore decided on a neutral graduated background, vignetting from pure white at the bottom to a darker grey at the top. The natural fall off of light coming from below gave us a smooth graduated background from the white translucent backdrop sweeping upwards. The second Lightpad suspended on a compact reflector boom arm and stand gave us an additional light source when required either direct or bounced off a white board reflector.

HDR TECHNIQUES

As I mentioned I’ve effectively been using a manual form of HDR in product photography for years by bracketing images with as many as 6 exposures but generally ranging over +/- 1 stop, loading them in to stacked layers in photoshop and selectively editing in highlights, mid-tones and shadows. I’ll often separately light and shoot a watch just for its face.

I’d been keeping an eye on HDR results for a while and recently I’ve been seeing some very impressive results so this year I’ve taken the HDR plunge with Photomatix Pro and have to say I’ve not regretted it. I can’t profess to be an expert in Photomatix Pro but it generally allowed me to achieve what I intended. It helped me to streamline my workflow and in most cases required little if any further Photoshop work.

As I get to know Photomatix Pro’s behaviour a bit more I’m learning to adjust my exposures to suit. I did find it handled the more monochromatic images much better than the more colourful watches however the colour was never that far out and a simple tweek in Photoshop soon fixed any colour shift.

IMAGE PREPARATION FOR HDR

Photomatix recommend you have images bracketed generally +/- 1 stop to +/- 2 stops which is a bit more than the bracketing I chose which was +/- 1 stop max for most of the shots. Shoot images in RAW and process to TIFF (I saved in 16 bit) straight from RAW with no additional sharpening – you can sharpen later in Photomatix Pro. I decided that three bracketed images would be enough for my watches as I was just starting out with HDR. Photomatix support page gives more detailed advice HERE.

HDR IMAGE PROCESSING WITH PHOTOMATIX PRO

When loading your tiffs to Photomatix you’re presented with a number of options. In image below, window on the left hit ‘Load bracketed images’ and OK, window on right appears > check align sources by matching features (in case you had any slight movement 😉 and I found best to check reduce noise as without, noise crept in even at 100 ISO > hit ‘Preprocess’.

We’re now ready to HDR process. Photomatix presents thumbnail presets which are worth scrolling through to see the different techniques. They fall in to two main categories – Tone Mapping and Exposure Fusion.

For this type of work I found Exposure Fusion was best most of the time and within Exposure Fusion, the Fusion Adjust method from the drop down menu (shown above left) gave more control options. Tone Mapping option does offer more adjustment sliders but I found I could quickly attain the results I was looking for in Exposure Fusion. In both options if you hover your cursor over the various sliders there’s a box (bottom left in image below) which helpfully explains what that slider does. There’s also a Loupe tool that allows you to select a magnified area of the image but this only shows level of detail enhancement and is not intended to show accurate exposure.

RESULTS

Even as a beginner, Photomatix Pro improved my productivity a great deal compared to my usual manual methods and in most cases gave me a better result. Having to shoot that many watches and some jewelry in such little time obviously means there’s not much time for rearranging lighting for each shot which inevitably means much more time spent in post-processing so any time saved at that end is a major bonus. Some of the watches I did two versions in Photomatix – one for the watch face and one for everything else and blended them later in Photoshop. Here’s a few more examples of the watches and the handful of jewelry with some more details on each.

Love these Franck Muller Long Island watches but cursed the curved watch glass more than once! HDR is good for controlling tonal depth in the diamonds. Looking forward to next loose diamond shoot and seeing how Photomatix performs.

I wanted to create a party mood with this Franck Muller cocktail watch and used the translucent coloured backdrops that come bundled with the Modahaus Tabletop Studio Pro TS216.

The beautifully engraved watch face on this Patek Philippe is accentuated with the light coming from beneath and the interior of the Modahaus Light Tunnel gives smooth uncluttered reflections in the upper watch case. Also helps convey the finish of the watch strap. HDR helped even out the high contrast of the single main light source.

 

Vintage ladies gold fob watch with pearls and diamonds and glass enamel case  -HDR seamlessly brought out the best from its many facets.

JEWELRY PHOTOGRAPHY

This is the handful of jewelry we shot and again used HDR. The necklace and earrings were suspended on the back of the Modahaus Tabletop Studio in its upright configuration and with the translucent white backdrop lit from behind with a second light from the front (similar set up shown below). The salmon and blue marlin broaches were also shot this way. Reflections were added in Photoshop.

We shifted the Lightpads here – one slightly behind and one to front left and used the Modahaus translucent blue backdrop on top of translucent red to achieve  the varitone background. A quick two part image blend by any means but double quick in Photomatix HDR software.

An unusual Rolex Tudor Monte Carl watch worth including – We shot many vintage Rolex’s that did benefit from HDR but as they are all very old and rare they are also very grubby so I apologies for not showing them. Incidentally, all these watches are vintage and shot with the intention of showing them as they are so any blemishes you see are left in intentionally.

Appropriately we’ll finish off with the catalogue back cover image showing the inner workings of this fine timepiece. Here we bracketed as before but also introduced a bit of light painting between exposures which meant moving the Lightpad around so we could get light right in to the workings and highlight different edges of the movement. We shot against a plain varitone background which was important to get the right coloured tint in the watch case reflections. We then lifted the light tunnel without moving the set. The silhouette you see on the background was a shadow of a large Patek Philippe shop display piece we projected on to the backdrop using the Lenser LED torch as the hard, focussed light source. Patek Philippe collectors will recognise the symbols! Then a simple blend of watch and background in Photoshop.

As I say, I’m no expert in HDR and Photomatix Pro was my first excursion in to the technique and I’m pleased I chose it. There are a number of other pro HDR software packages that I’ve yet to try and may even be better suited to this task but this one saved me a lot of time and improved the end result in a number of instances so I can safely say it paid for itself on this one assignment. I think there are many other product photography subjects that could benefit from a judicious use of HDR and I’ll certainly be trying out a few of them. If you’re considering HDR for product photography then I’d be happy to answer any questions and I’d much appreciate any feedback and advice on HDR as I’m also very keen to learn more. Cheers, Lex

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