Thursday, January 11, 2007

Simple Coin Photography For Beginners

Simple Coin Photography

I am sharing some basic design elements for getting you jump started to successful coin photography. I assume you have a digital camera and know how to operate it. If not, you need to become familiar with your camera.

First, please allow me to share a few design elements and how they are relative to you and your photography. Texture. We have what we call real or actual texture. An example is the surface of a brick. That is real. We can feel the texture. Next, we have illusionary texture. An example would be a photograph of a brick we can see the texture in the photograph but we cannot feel it. In coin photography we want to avoid a heavy texture and I would go so far as to say we are better off without either of the textures or like textures I have mentioned above. We want a smooth texture as in the smooth texture of a sheet of non-glossy paper. Color. We have cool colors and we have warm colors. Cool colors are the blues and greens with variations of values and intensities. Next, we have warm colors. Warm colors are on the yellow and red side of our spectrum.

In any composition or design, warm colors advance and cool colors recede. I think we should never use warm colors as a background. Advancing or warm colors compete with the coin we are photographing. Receding or cool colors and neutrals are the colors we will use. They will not be as dominant and will allow the viewer to focus on the central object, which in our case is the coin. We want to use cool colors or neutrals. For our benefit we will allude to neutrals as black and white. White is not a color but is the presence of all color. Black is not a color and is the absence of all color.

There are two other elements we will deal with. These are Value and Intensity. Intensity is the chromatic quality or strength of a color. Value is how light or how dark the color is. If we think of a fire engine red then we think of a bright red. Again that is how bright or intense the color is. We can choose the same red and allude to how light or how dark the color is. Thus we are alluding to the value. The naturally darkest color on the color wheel is violet (many people use the term purple.) The naturally lightest color on the wheel is yellow. We can easily observe that yellow is more brilliant that violet.

The final two elements with which we will deal are Negative and Positive space. I will use a coin photograph as an illustration. In a coin photograph the coin is the positive element and that is where the viewer’s eye focuses. All the area that surrounds the coin is the negative space. The coin is the positive element we are focused on because that is what the photograph is about. The coin and not the negative (background) is our focus. You have just completed Jerry’s Color Theory 101 and if you will send five bucks, I will send your certificate! : ) We are about to move to the actual photographing of the coin.


Photographing the Coin

Before we get into the actual photography I need to mention a few items you will need. For our purposes the best negative (background) elements I know of are “fall outs”. What is a fall out? Whenever a picture framer cuts a mat for a picture the part that falls out when the opening is cut is called precisely that, a fall out. Most framers give the smaller fall outs away. Often the framers will give pieces to schools or to anyone who asks for them. Check with your local picture framer and ask if he/she will give you some for free. Tell him/her that Jerry sent you : ) Please don’t be picky. Take all they will give you. You may need to share with your brothers and sisters. The size is of little consequence if a couple inches larger than a coin. I think a 4 X 5 inch piece is fine but again the size does not matter that much. For example, I have some fall outs that measure 4 X 5 and I have some as large as 8 X 10 inches.

You also need dowel material so they can be cut to length. I use 3/8" diameter dowel material but the point is you need the diameter to be smaller than the coin you are shooting. I will explain later. Next, you need “available light”. God had given us the natural light of day so we have an endless supply. Now for the dowels. Have someone with a nice chop saw or table saw cut the dowels into the following lengths. Be sure the dowels are cut at right angles. In other words the dowels need to be level so they will stand on end. Have the dowels cut into the following lengths. You will need only one length of each. 3/4", 1", 2", 3" and 4 inches. I will get back to the dowels momentarily.

You need a well-lit area in which to work. Be SURE all the lights are off and you are shooting the coin in a naturally illuminated area. NO LIGHTS! I shoot with a copy stand I made but a tripod will work. Remember, you will be shooing down on the coin so the really tiny (6"-12" ) tripods do not work well. Some individuals can hold the camera still enough to keep the picture from blurring. You will need some kind of board on which to place the coin and mat board. I think my base is 10" x 10". I/2 to 3/4-inch thick plywood is perfect. Please pick up a spray can of WalMart .99-cent flat primer gray paint and spray the base well with the primer gray. Again, I must assume you know the settings on your camera. You need be near a window or on the deck to get the full effect of the natural light. Remember, you do not have to be in direct sunlight but it must be bright. DO NOT use your flash. It will not work for what we want.

I hope you have the following colors amongst your mat board. Black, white, medium gray, light gray, medium blue and a light blue. Please place your baseboard or copy stand on a tabletop so as to make it very sturdy. You do not want movement. Place the mat board on the base and now we need the dowels. Please begin with the 2" dowel and place the dowel on end (vertically) in such a way as to enable you to have the dowel centered in the picture plane. You may prefer the term “picture area”. Next place the obverse of the coin on top of the dowel. You now have a coin on top of a 3/8" inch dowel on top of a piece of mat board in the picture area of your camera. The reason for placing the coin on the dowel is to elevate the coin, which will result in the background being slightly out of focus. This will give the coin a slight “floating effect.” If you have cross hairs in your camera then you want the coin perfectly centered. Remember, you can gently shift the piece of mat board to help center the coin. Snap and see what you have. Repeat for the reverse of the coin. Very same process. You will need a macro setting on your camera to get close to the coin. My camera, in macro mode, will remain in focus to about 2 and ½ inches of an object. However, I shoot a few inches higher than that distance. I think 4 to 12 inches is close enough at this point. Try to avoid casting your shadows onto the coin. Now, please shoot the coins on different colors but cool colors only. No need to waste your time with the warm colors. I have explained the best and most simple way I know to get started shooting coins. You should be able to shoot the way I have just explained in a normal outdoor mode. You will need to become familiar with your white balance at some point. I will explain the easiest way to use artificial lighting at a future date. I am sure I have left out some things I will add and I am sure to have typos but you have great information to get you started. One quick thought. Often, windowpanes and door panes have UV filtering and may play havoc with your picture results. Try your porch, deck or a raised window if your panes have filtering that distorts the colors of your coins. Good Luck and God Bless.. Jerry.. PS: If you would like to see my coin photos please visit my coin site at the following URL: I am busy replacing the bad photos with good ones..

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