How to Photograph a Gold Watch

It sounds like such a basic task: photograph a gold watch. But if it sounds simple to you, then you’ve never done it the way Phillip McCordall does. Light can reflect off the gold, creating glares, flares, and major wash-outs of detail. So, how do you expose for a still life that’s throwing your studio light right back at the camera lens? You work with the reflection by controlling it:

Photographic Gold, in a nutshell:

  • Position the light overhead, and place the watch on a small white background. Since the subject of the shot is rather small—just the face and a bit of the band—keeping the background small prevents unnecessary flares of light back into the camera.
  • Adjust the watch’s hands so that the time reads 1:51 or 10:09—in both cases the minute and second hand will act as a frame for the watch’s brand name. The second hand should be in the bottom helf of the watch, preferably around the 28 second mark (McCordall’s watch in the video had dead batteries, so he was stuck at :22).
  • Set up white and gray cards around the watch to further control the light and how it will reflect off your subject.

photograph gold watch jewelry lighting

  • Turn off all the lights in your studio (except the ones lighting your subject) and keep ambient light out, as well. It’s important to have total control over the lighting of this scene, and any light you can’t control has to go. You can then begin to start moving your overhead light around to get the effect you want. McCordall says he spent an hour getting it just right, which meant having just a small portion of the watch reflecting the overhead, and with most of the face cast in shadow.
  • The camera is set up on a tripod just outside the jumble of sheets and white cards, and pointing down at the watch. McCordall used a 135mm lens and a flash, and set his white balance accordingly.
Left: How McCordall lit the shot.  Right: The finished product.

Left: How McCordall lit the shot. Right: The finished product.

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