Last year, I was asked to write an article about watch photography for Focus, a Dutch photography magazine. In the article I shed my light over this specialism which has a steep (and still ongoing) learning curve. Most of the things learned over the years also help me during my commercial assignments as a professional freelance photographer as photography is all about light and how you control it.
About Bert Buijsrogge, our in-house photographer.
With an interest in watches for many, many years and powered by my growing interest to know more about mechanical watches I ran into the same forums over and over. After joining several forums, and without knowing it at the time, I also started my photographic journey back in 2008. After posting a terrible blurry photo I made the remark ‘I will look into quality photography’ and so I did. Being an enthusiast hobby photographer at that time, I started experimenting endlessly over the following years. Always critical about the results and looking for improvement. About 5 years later I had made 3 watch calendars, had my images published in several magazines and could proudly show my first cover shot. A lot of people ask me ‘what is the best camera?’, ‘what lens do you use?’ etc. For as far as I can answer these questions, they are nowhere as interesting as the real question: How do you take a photo of a watch? This takes so much more than just a ‘good’ camera and lens(es). Here are ten easy tips to lift your watch photography to a higher level.
1 – Tripod
Always use a tripod to prevent camera shake. The closer you are to any subject you are trying to photograph, the more visible this shake will be. Each minimum movement is disastrous for the sharpness of your photo. As not all tripods are equally solid, sometimes even the mirror flipping up can already cause so much vibration that it is almost impossible to take a sharp photo. In this case it is advisable to use the ‘mup function’ (mirror lock-up) of the camera. With this function turned on the mirror will first flip-up and the camera will take a photo after some delay (or at a second push of the button) thus preventing vibrations of the mirror to effect your photo. Furthermore, make sure that all buttons, knobs and clamps are tight, and preferably photograph with a remote control or the built-in timer. If your center column has a hook, add some extra weight for some extra stability.
If possible I use a tripod for any kind of photography, like this visor ‘selfie’ during our Omega Museum visit.
2 – Accessories
Before you actually start with the photo shoot, you should consider finding one or more accessories (props) to create an overall picture. Depending on the type of watch and the result you are trying to create this can be pretty much anything. Grab something from the kitchen, like sea salt or coffee beans. Old and slightly weathered or raw materials are also perfect as a background and / or surface. Think of a wooden (garden) table or a piece of (slate) stone. Want to go all the way? Try to borrow (part of) some diving equipment to photograph a diving watch. The choice of the background really has one limitation, and that is your own creativity. Sometimes you just want to keep it clean and simple, choosing a minimalist background. In this case try to prevent other elements and/or shades of objects in the picture. (Below a Longines Master Collection Moon Phase watch, for this review)
3 – Cleaning
Try to clean the watch (very!) thoroughly just before you start with your photo shoot. Use a dry lint-free cloth or microfiber cloth. Small edges in the case and hard to reach places are easy to clean with cotton swabs with a little acetone or rubbing alcohol on it. You can buy these at the local drug store for a few dollars. Do make sure that you do not use it on a leather strap! Leather may discolour or damage from contact with these liquids. The narrow space between the case and the strap can be easily cleaned with a paintbrush. Experience learned that it’s almost impossible to get a watch 100 percent clean and dust free, no matter how thoroughly you try to clean it. Residual dust and/or dirt that is still visible, can always be digitally removed. Although this can be a time-consuming task if not cleaned properly. Prevention is better than cure.
No matter how well you clean a watch, you cannot avoid removing dust in the digital process. Screenshot of before and after digital the dust removal process. Click for larger version.
4 – Hands
You see this in almost every commercial photo of a watch, the hands of the watch are approximately at 10 minutes past 10, and the second-hand is at plus or minus 33 seconds. This makes the face of the watch visually symmetrical, and the distance between the hands is equally divided into thirds. If your watch has a hacking movement you can stop it by pulling out the crown when the second-hand is in the correct place and set the hour and minute hands. The crown can later be edited back into place using a photo editing program. Without such software or with a non-hacking movement you set the time a few minutes earlier. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and take the photo at the right time. Do keep in mind that you don’t use slow shutter speeds to prevent motion. With chronograph watches, the extra hands are often pointing up or in a direction that keeps the dial best visible. (Below an example, using an Omega Speedmaster ’57 Caliber 9300)
5 – Composition
Now it’s time to combine the watch and accessories into a composition. To create a frame filling and attractive layout, it is important to look closely at the use of the accessories and the way the watch is placed in or onto them. This really is a matter of trying. Sometimes your composition is spot on right away, most of the time it takes a you at least half an hour. As with the position of the hands you also have a few guidelines here. A closed strap looks the best when it seems as if it is worn around the wrist. This will simulate how a watch actually wears. A leather strap forms more or less naturally in this position. A metal bracelet usually needs some help, especially if it is made with small links. A C-clip from a watch stand is a perfect help. The big advantage over the plastic version is that you can easily adjust the size. When shooting with an opened leather strap is recommended not to rise the strap over the case. So lay down flat, or better yet, fold the strap slightly backwards on both sides. To do this, you simply put something underneath the case so that the ends of the strap can be positioned lower, or you place the watch on its side and fold the ends of the strap slightly back. Most of the metal bracelets have a folding clasp. These can be shaped a bit by hand (and some patience) quite easily with a partially or fully opened clasp. Position the watch in such a way that the text on the dial still (easy) is readable. The guideline is that the text can be rotated up to 90 degrees. In a further rotation, the text will be upside down. Which makes it unnaturally to read in a normal way. On the case back there are often more words or lines of text engraved. In this case, you can either choose to the use the middle to keep as a center, thus make it reasonably easy to read it all. Or choose a composition that makes the watch or the most interesting parts stand out.
For this photo I sourced a Gentex combat pilot helmet and flight suit.
6 – ISO
Set your camera to a low ISO value. Current cameras have increasingly good and high ISO settings. This sounds convenient, but for the sharpness of your pictures this is disastrous. This is where the tripod also helps. If you can stop the movement, the shutter speed not an issue as you are photographing a static set-up. You choose the aperture according to the depth of field that you want to create.
7 – Diffuse daylight
Most watches are easily photographed with diffuse light. Heavily overcast weather is perfect for this. In an outdoor situation, a watch, if not too many obstacles there are around, will be illuminated uniformly – perfectly. Indoors this is another story. A simple but very useful tip is to bounce-off light using a light object. Simplicity is key: use a white object (white or neutral light-grey is best to avoid colour casts). I use this technique very often for a quick picture of just about anything to make it look better. To do so, I literally use what is available, such as an envelope, an empty Chinese food box or the aluminium back of my Macbook display. Just put a watch on a table near a window, place the bounce object on the shady side of the watch and just see what happens. What you basically do is creating a second light source. By moving the reflector towards and away from the watch, you can determine the strength of the fill light. Almost as if you are drawing with light. Conversely, you can also remove light with dark objects and create shade.
Bouncing light with white object.
8 – Artificial light
The next step is the use of artificial light. Depending on how many lights or flash lights you have at your disposal, you can make it as complicated as you want. However, using diffuse light is important. Think of one or more studio flash unit(s) with softbox or a light tent with lamp(s) or flash unit(s). Here you also use extra light reflective or absorbent material to add or omit light. To stay away from unwanted reflections in the watch glass you have to experiment with the position you use for your light source(s). My experience learned me that you have to experiment with the position of the lights to reach the best results. Personally, I started watch photography with a light tent and two cheap desk lamps from that well-known Swedish furniture store. At some point these were replaced by cheap manual camera flashes as I wanted more control over the light. Experimenting with different power settings and lighting set-ups you van vary endlessly. Although more complicated isn’t necessarily better.
Using a studio flash and multiple light bounces.
For events like Baselworld (and SIHH) I have developed our ‘top-secret Baselbox’ as we like to call it. Nothing more than just one single flash combined with some translucent sheets, it allows us to shoot a watch like this Girard-Perregaux Tri-Axial Tourbillon on the edge of a desk in under one minute.
9 – Macro and Close-up
When creating macro photos of watches you can use the same guidelines (apart from the accessories) to create a compelling photo. But now it is more important to have a good look at what you want to capture in a photo, or don’t want to capture. If a particular detail on the edge of your photo only fits in for a fraction of the image, try to completely get out it of the picture – or more visible in the picture. Always make sure that the most important details you want to capture are completely visible. To be able to re-compose the photo afterwards, you shouldn’t frame the photo too narrow. Zoom out or move the camera backwards for the extra margin. Because in macro photography you sometimes get so close to the object, you will find that there is less light available. So make use of an additional light source and/or one or more bounces to direct the available light to the desired location. Personally I like to work with a longer macro lens (100/105 mm) on a full-frame body. When you find that too expensive to experiment with you should consider a set of extension rings. These are available for most popular cameras and reasonably priced. The use of one or more intermediate rings ensures that the minimum focus distance of lens can be shortened. This way your standard lens can suddenly focus much closer that get your subject correspondingly larger.
Expensive hardware is not a must to learn the basics of watch photography. The detail above is made with a standard camera and 50 mm lens. The minimum focusing distance of this lens is shortened to just inches (as you can see below) using extension rings.
10 – Practice makes perfect
Watch photography remains very time-consuming and requires a lot of practice and trying. Add it all up and you are easily working for an hour before you actually need your camera and can start searching for the correct light set-up. Don’t be surprised if you’ve taken 50 photos or so before it starts to look just right. After this step the fine tuning begins where you actually do the same for small details in the photo. By high-lighting certain parts you slowly work your way to the end-result which you are going to optimize digitally. Over time you will notice that you run into limitations and want to go to the next level. That’s when things like focus stacking (sharpness) and combining multiple photos into one come into play.
Sample of stacked photo, the Grönefeld One Hertz Nocturne.
Sample of a photo that was created from several separate photos merged in digital photo editing software.
See more of my photography work on: www.bertbuijsrogge.com
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