Four Ways To Level Up Your Watch Photography — And No, You Don’t Need A Fancy Camera
There’s something instinctual about wanting to take photos of watches. Photography, after all, is all about storytelling. And I’ll be damned if timepieces weren’t rich with stories. Today, through the power of modern smartphones, taking and sharing photos of watches is easier than ever before. And yet, taking good watch photos is seemingly just as hard as it’s ever been.
Layer on the nuance of reflective crystals, polished steel, and tiny details, and suddenly, the task of sharing our horological anecdotes becomes a little more daunting. Turns out, though, that while mastering the craft of watch photography takes years of practice, getting your foot in the metaphorical door can be distilled down to some super-simple and approachable techniques. Today, I’m going to cover four of them to help you level up your watch photos.
How to get started with watch photography
Here are the bare minimum ingredients to get things going:
- Your watch
- Any camera (you’re encouraged to start with your phone’s camera!)
- A flat surface to place your watch on
- A window
I’ll prompt you to add a few props later on, but for now, this list is a great place to start.
To practice this tutorial’s techniques, we’ll be shooting a simple flatlay. Flatlays are photos shot top-down at a composition typically laid out on a tabletop. They’re not only one of the most popular and visually-enticing styles of watch photography, but they’re also pretty easy to get started with.
Now let’s dive into the techniques!
1. Lighting is everything
If given the choice between a state-of-the-art camera and good lighting, I will choose good lighting every single time. Lighting is one of the most common differentiators between good photos and bad photos. Best of all, you don’t have to give up an arm and a leg for expensive lighting equipment just to nail the shot. Here are some simple ways to find and create good lighting.
Turn off all your indoor lights
Most lightbulbs used inside homes have a warm yellow tint to them. And unless you use the exact same bulb for every light in the room, each bulb is likely to vary in temperature and intensity. This can cast a mixed bag of unwanted colors on your shot which can be unattractive.
The example above shows my setup in the middle of my living room with ceiling lights and lamps turned on. The resulting shot (taken with my iPhone 12 Pro) has an uneven mix of temperatures and colors cast all over the watch. Let’s work on improving that, shall we?
Use window light
Let’s set up your shot next to or close to a window and let daylight light your shot. This gives you the best chance of getting clean and colorless light, which is always best for photography. In the example above, I’ve moved my set-up near a window and the impact on the shot should be obvious.
Avoid direct and intense light
One thing to look out for when shooting with natural light is direct sunlight. Ideally, the sun shouldn’t be blasting through your window directly at your shot. That level of intensity can cause unappealing harsh shadows (see the example above for proof).
To avoid this, you can draw some sheer curtains to help diffuse and soften the light. Let’s say you don’t have sheer curtains, but you are feeling crafty. In that case, you can stretch a T-shirt or a thin cloth over your shot to diffuse the light. Soft artsy light rays are optional but totally welcome!
With lighting under control, let’s talk about how to compose a shot!
2. Compose for balance
Composing a shot effectively is all about finding the right visual balance. A well-composed shot should seamlessly draw the eyes toward the focal point (in this case, the watch) while minimizing any distractions. Even if your shot only contains your watch, placing the watch in an awkward manner can still create visual tension and take attention away from the focus.
Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines you can follow to help you steer clear of any compositional faux pas.
Choose your orientation
The first decision worth making is which orientation you’d like to shoot in — horizontal or vertical. Knowing how you’ll use the photo can help drive that decision (vertically orientated photos are better for Instagram, for example), but you can also make the decision based on what suits your intended photo best. Choosing your orientation before you take the shot helps you visualize your finished product better and optimize your canvas more effectively.
Start with the rule of thirds
The most traditional compositional guideline is to use the rule of thirds. That is, by dividing your frame into a 3×3 grid, you can create the most optimal compositions by placing your subjects on any of the grid lines. Most cameras, including your phone’s camera, offer the ability to overlay a grid so you can compose your shot effectively while shooting.
Centering your subject is okay too
Placing the watch in the center of your frame intensifies the focus and articulates more dramatically what the photo is about. With watches, just make sure you take into account the watch’s entire visible shape when centering it, rather than just centering only the dial.
There are many other techniques and considerations when it comes to creating effective compositions, but these simple steps should give you a solid head start. Now onto staging!
3. Stage a fuller story
Photography is all about storytelling, and every good story needs a solid supporting cast. In the case of watch photography, you can enhance your photo’s visual tale by adding related objects and elements (aka props) into the frame. Here are a few pointers to help you stage your shot like a pro.
Start with watch accessories! The easiest way to start staging with props is to use items related to your watch. Time to grab those watch rolls, tools, straps, and books you have lying around! If you want to take it a step further, bring in other items that you associate with the lifestyle of being a watch lover. These could be coffee, clothing, or other collectibles.
Vary the size of your props
Using different-sized objects not only adds visual interest to your shot but also helps a viewer digest it more efficiently and find the focal point more easily. So make sure to use a mix of items that are different sizes, heights, and even shapes to complement your watch.
Trace a diamond around the watch
Once you have your props gathered, start laying them down around the watch for your flat lay. A simple trick I often use is to lay the props down to form a diamond shape around the watch. This keeps the layout feeling balanced but not rigid.
If you want to learn more about shooting flat lay watch photography, check out my tutorial on the creative science behind building beautiful and effective arrangements.
4. Edit for style
By now, you’ve nailed the lighting, composition, and staging of your watch shot. A final touch to accelerate your shot into photographic fame is to apply some editing. Post-processing, as people sometimes call it, is a craft all its own. And like the rest of the photography process, deciding what is “enough” is subjective to the creator. My best advice is to lead with your eyes, going with what looks and feels right to you.
Editing can help you add stylistic polish to the photos that come straight out of your camera. With more advanced techniques, editing can also enhance your photo’s focus and composition while addressing any blemishes you might have missed during the shooting process.
To get started with editing though, I always recommend some good ol’ trial and error. Jump into a free editing app (see below for some recommendations), drag some sliders left and right, and just explore what every setting can do for your shot. I’ll definitely do a deeper dive into editing basics in a future post. For now, though, here’s a list of free mobile editing apps that you can use to get your feet wet.
Native photo apps
Both Android and iOS have built-in photo editors that have come a long way! What better way to get started with an editing app than by using an app you already have?
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that many of your watch photos will find their way onto Instagram. If that’s the case, you’ll appreciate the filters and editing tools that are baked right into the app’s posting workflow. Choose a look or customize one of your own before getting to that intimidating caption box.
For the brave souls ready to tackle some more advanced editing, there are some fantastic third-party photo editing apps out there. Snapseed, Darkroom, and Lightroom, to name a few, are fully armed to give your shots the treatment they deserve while being friendly to your wallet.
You’re ready for the big leagues
Whether you’re shooting for the ‘gram, yourself, or anything in between, putting these fundamental techniques into action is sure to help you level up your watch photo game. This and lots of practice, of course.
And if you’re ready for another creative leap forward, you may enjoy my free collection of tutorials on watch photography. You can also find me at @watchstudies on Instagram where I post daily tips and inspiration, and on my Patreon page where I offer exclusive behind-the-scenes content, downloads, discounts, and other perks for Watch Studies members who want to take their watch photography even further.
About the author
Hi, I’m Verne, the creator behind Watch Studies! I create photography tutorials for people who love watches. You can find me at @watchstudies on Instagram and the full collection of tutorials, Lightroom presets, and other resources at watchstudies.co.