Photographing silver jewelry can be extremely difficult, but it can be done on a budget. Let me start out by saying that when I say “on a budget” I do mean about £700. You can spend far less, but in my recent experience it will reduce the quality of your images. In the grand scheme of things, £700 is still cheaper than outsourcing the work and if you are selling items it’s an investment you need to make. Let me start by explaining what I have tried to give you an idea of the experience I have had.
I started out with an 8MP digital compact camera—nothing fancy just an £80 family camera. I mounted it on a £5 tripod and purchased a very cheap light box tent from eBay. The kit was £30 and came with a couple of lamps. The resulting images were okay but nothing spectacular. They were visibly amateur. I could have stopped at this point and used Photoshop to edit the images but the site I was working on demanded quality. I needed to get a much better result. After weeks of research and a lot of trial and error I managed to get some fantastic results. Let me explain how!
Your camera is an important choice; I decided to buy a £500 Nikon D3100 DSLR camera. It was an indulgent purchase for an amateur but the results exceed expectations. I am not going to go into the huge range of camera choices, but it came down to a Canon or a Nikon. I decided to buy the Nikon because the price was right—no other reason. There’s not much difference between the entry level DSLR cameras at this level.
Photographing silver jewellery close up is called macro photography (the photography of items up close). The D3100 has a guide mode that allows me to select macro mode and avoid all the jargon around shutter speeds, aperture settings, and all the other technical things. I did spend a lot of time learning about the various camera settings and then experimented with the various options but personally found using the camera’s macro mode with the flash disabled was perfect. The only tweak I made was the image size; I selected the highest quality which results in the largest file size, but it will pay dividends when you’re editing the images later.
My next problem was that I needed a pure white background; I quickly established that the best way to achieve this was with a light tent. I purchased one for £150 with two studio lights and an acrylic riser to place the jewelry on. The lights were 500k fluorescent daylight bulbs. Lighting is key here, and these bulbs really did the trick. The acrylic is a nice extra, as it creates some reflection when you need it.
The tents are usually supplied with some backgrounds in solid colors. I had to iron the white background by placing a towel over it and ironing it on a low heat, and I also made sure it was dust free, as even the smallest marks will show up. I set the tent up on a box to give it some height so that I could position my tripod correctly in front and then set the lights up on either side of the tent. The key to the lighting is to ensure you don’t swamp the tent with too much light by having the lights directly on top of the tent. Experiment with the distance a bit, but you are looking for an equal distribution of white light without too much glare; silver is very reflective! I had some images where the silver appeared almost gold because the lights were too close.
The tents I purchased came with a cord attache to hang items, but it was a thin white chord which was difficult to remove in Photoshop. So I improvised with cotton. The amount of movement made it impossible to get a decent shot, and in the end I used some thin guitar strings (the ‘e’ string for all you guitar players) and found it was perfect. The movement was minimal and it provided a great stable way to hang earrings. I actually used the acrylic riser to photograph the necklaces by standing it on its side. Then I used some sticky tape behind to secure the chains. Bracelets were photographed flat on top of the riser which provided some great reflections adding depth to the images.
When I was working on an individual piece of jewelry I would experiment with distance, angle, and height to make sure I had a selection of images to work with later on my computer. I also had to change the position of the lights a lot. Some of my pendants contained Swarovski crystals and I found by moving the lights to point at an angle so some light was leaking into the front of the tent I was able to create sparkle on the crystals. Bluetack also played its part. During the day, I used tiny pieces to secure pendants in the positions I wanted. Some people suggest beads of wax work just as well here, but I used what I had on hand.
The only other issue I had was reflection. The tent I purchased had a front flap that you could pull down so that the camera was just poking in but you will be surprised how much the silver can pick up! To reduce the reflection on pure silver items, use the tent’s front flap and really ensure the light distribution is equal. You might have to work on some of the images a little later in Photoshop.
After an entire day of taking photographs I took hundreds of images up to my PC to review. The first thing that struck me was that the background was far from pure white; it was actually grey. This is a combination of factors, but lighting is key reason. The way to really make the backgrounds white is to jump into Photoshop. Select Image > Adjustments > Levels and move the slider on the right across to the left. The image will fade, but the background will whiten. If you get the balance just right you can take to the image with an eraser tool and trim the remaining grey out leaving you with a white background. There are no shortcuts here. It takes a lot of tweaking to get it just right. Make sure you use the eraser with the soft edges rather than the solid ones; it’s easier to get in closer to remove the grey.
The other trick I found was to ensure that I used Photoshop to sharpen the chains on my necklaces. I did this by cutting the chains off, placing them on a layer on their own, then using the sharpen option. This is to avoid making the actual pendants distort. The final thing was to use the burn tool to add some of the color back that I lost with the level adjustments. But go easy or it will make the silver look dull; just a gentle brushing over with the burn tool will do the trick.
The end results are not as good as a professional photographer would achieve but were perfectly fine for the 640 x 640 maximum image requirements I had for my website. I am sure you will find a lot of advice about compact cameras or scanners which will be fine for second hand jewelry pictures you are selling on eBay, but if you are trying to sell silver jewelry then you need to step up the pace as I have found after weeks of experimenting and playing!
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