Photo Tips for Metalsmiths (updated 4/8/2001)
© 2001 Cynthia Eid



I am a jeweler/metalsmith who has worked at being able to produce good photographs of my work. I wrote this handout for workshops, and hope to be helpful to more artists through this publication.


...With non-reflective work, you may simply tape a large piece of paper to a wall behind the table where you plan to photograph so that there is a seamless background.

...If your work is reflective it's well worth your time to make a box using shiny white foam core for the back, bottom and sides. The top can be covered with frosted acetate, acrylic, or white cloth for the light to be diffused through. This way, the work reflects white, which, in effect, looks like no reflection. (For most jewelry, a box 22" wide, 18" high, and 24" deep is likely to be adequate. Since my work ranges from diamond rings to a 3' tall copper eternal light, I use a box 33" wide, 30" tall, 40" deep, usually.) With this set up, the only remaining reflection problem is the camera lens itself. White cloth draped at the front at the front of the box can be pinned or clipped around the camera lens to minimize its reflection and yet make it easy to change the camera's position. These "curtains" can act as diffusers, for the lights to shine through. They can be partially opened so that the light stays "punchy" and doesn't get too flat.

...Here is another simple set up for a reflective piece of jewelry. Form a piece of tracing paper or translucent plastic into a tube or cone. Cut a piece of paper to fit so that it makes a seamless background, covering one end of the tube and extending under the object. The camera is placed at the other end of the tube. Let the light shine through this paper, diffusing and softening the light and minimizing reflections. This can be used to shoot horizontally, or vertically. If the piece is highly reflective, it can be helpful to make a cone that fits tightly around the lens, and flares so that the edges are out of the photograph.

...A similar idea, discussed in an article by Steve Meltzer in Craft Report magazine, is to make a light "tent" out of translucent light panels. These are available at lumberyards, etc. for a few dollars, and make a sturdier, more permanent set-up. He suggests that one cut a piece, bend it into an arch, and hot-glue it to a back and bottom. These will diffuse the light, and minimize reflections. White cloth or tracing paper at the front of the box should cover all but the camera's lens.

...In a hurry? Some folks have reported good results by going outside, and throwing a white sheet over themselves and the whole set-up.


...The work and the purpose of the slide (advertising? postcard? documentation? entry to shows?) must be matched carefully with the background. When in doubt, keep it simple show off the work. Consider how the texture will look if it is magnified in a close-up.

...The current trend, which looks great and has reliably good results, is a "graduated" background (a gradual fade from black to white, or blue to white, etc.). The easiest way to produce this look is with graduated paper. Unfortunately, graduated paper can be expensive (about $8 for a 21" x 15" sheet or $20 per 31" x 43" sheet) and easy to scratch. I find that I can use a good, soft eraser to get rid of some of the marks metal can leave, but I try to prevent such marks by lifting rather than sliding the work when re-positioning. It can be helpful to put felt under a piece to protect the paper. (The box sizes I suggest above fit the standard graduated background paper sizes.)

...Less expensive ways to achieve this graduated effect:

1. Put black paper on the back wall of the set-up, and white paper on the floor. Pin frosted acetate to the top of the back wall, draping it to the front bottom edge of the box, so that it shows a gradation of gray as it curves away from the back corner.

2. A pale, monochrome background can be darkened by placement of lights. This effect may be heightened by using cardboard across the back of the top of the box to block the light from the back portion of the photo set-up. (Pros do this, but I find it pretty tricky, myself. The deeper the box, the easier it is to do it this way.)

3. Airbrush or spray paint your own paper or plastic background.

...A black background is very dramatic, but can be difficult to work with---it absorbs so much light that you need stronger or more lights, or longer shutter speed, or larger aperture. Black or colors can also be a problem if they reflect onto shiny objects. If this happens, it can be helpful to cover the background selectively with bits of white paper (outside the view of the camera), where it is reflecting onto the work.

...Other materials such as handmade paper, plexiglas, and slate can make wonderful backgrounds. Be sensitive to the associations that different materials have. For advertisements, an eye-catching background can be helpful. For art publications or for entering juried shows, a very simple background should be used to keep the focus on the metalwork.


...Should not show in photo (unless they contribute to the photo artistically).

..."Paper Tac" or sticky sculptor's wax are helpful for standing up a ring, but they can melt in the heat of the lights, and can discolor metal if left in contact too long (e.g. overnight). Try to use the same spot every time, since it leaves a mark on the paper.

...If possible, get the object off the table for a more dynamic photo. A "floating" quality can be great. The shadow around the object can help visually separate it from the background. The film can lid under the piece can work well.

...A trick I learned from Robert Liu of Ornament magazine is to poke a "third hand" (yes, I mean the thing we use for soldering set-ups) through a hole in the background. This can hold a brooch from behind and give that floating in the air look.


...Should have the capacity to be operated manually. Learn how to use it. Study the manual.


...Use a high quality lens; the lens is the most important part of the camera.

...For greater depth of field (work in focus all the way into the background) choose a lens with as high an f-stop as possible--at least a 16 or 22. (The bigger the number, the smaller the aperture, and the greater the depth of field.) Remember, the aperture is the opening in the camera lens. If you squint your eyes, you can see better in the distance; it's the same principle here.

...The standard 50 mm lens can be adapted for close-up work with extension tubes or close-up lenses. However, a macro lens gives better image quality. The extra expense of a macro can be offset by purchasing a 55 mm macro lens with the camera body instead of the usual 50 mm lens. (It can be used as a general-purpose lens as well.)

...A 100 mm macro lets you get a bigger image without getting so close to the subject. Another benefit is that the reflection of the camera on the object is smaller (because the camera is further from the object). 100 mm macros cost more, though, and have less general-purpose use.

...Note: Some zoom lenses say macro, but most are not really macro lenses. Make sure that the close-focus capacity listed is in inches, not feet. The image quality is slightly less than that of a fixed-focal-length lens. They generally can get closer than a regular zoom, but are not as good as a regular macro lens.

...Less expensive alternatives to a macro lens:

...Extension rings go between the camera body and the lens, bringing the lens closer to the subject, which enlarges the image. They are relatively inexpensive ($50-75). A disadvantage is that they cut down the light, making it harder to get good depth of field. However, the quality of the lens and image are not compromised with the use of an extension ring.

...Auxiliary close-up lenses cost $25-40 for a set of three screw-on lenses of different magnifications. Advantages are the low cost and the fact that they do not have the loss-of-light problem of macros and extensions rings. The disadvantage is loss of image quality. Do not use more than two close-up lenses at once. Put the higher-powered lens closest to the camera's lens, and the weaker one on top.

...A reversing ring turns around a standard 50 mm lens or wide angle lens and makes it capable of better close-up shots.

...A tele-converter (a.k..a. tele-extender) mounts between the camera body and the lens. If you attach a 2X tele-converter to a 50 mm lens, it makes a 100 mm lens at less cost, with nearly the same image quality.

Cable Release

...Reduces jiggling of camera. Alternatively, the camera's self-timer can be used.


...Essential for high quality photos. I prefer quick-release types of mechanisms; try to avoid cranks that need to be wound up and down. I like short levers--- long knobs always seem to end up in my neck. Try not to extend the center column very far; take advantage of the stability or the three legs, and extend them, instead, when possible.


Light comes in different colors, which are described in color temperatures. E.g. daylight is 5500 degrees. Most tungsten light bulbs and quartz lights are 3200 degrees. It is important to match the film and light source. Otherwise, your photos may have a bluish or yellowish cast. Filters can be used to compensate for a miss-match if necessary, but this is not preferable.
 Basic types (arranged in approximate order of expense):

...Daylight: Some people feel that natural light is best for color accuracy. I dislike being limited to daytime for photography and worrying about the weather. Daylight is usually not bright enough to allow use of a low ASA, fine-grained film in a close-up macro shot of jewelry. It can be difficult to get good depth of field. The price is right–free.

...Flash attachment on camera: This is generally inadequate for a good photo of artwork. However, I worked in a custom jewelry store/gallery where the owner had built a box out of white foam core and figured out the optimal settings for the flash and camera in this situation. This set up was always in place, ready to go. Every new design made in the shop was popped into the box and photographed before delivery to the client. These photos weren't art, but they fit the requirement: records and sales tools.

...Tungsten bulbs look like ordinary household light bulbs and screw into "regular" light sockets. They are used with reflectors (aluminum "bells") generally on light stands, also in clip-on style. This is usually the least expensive way to get started. Make sure you use the correct bulb for the film for accurate colors. (E.g. 3200K for Kodak 64T) The color changes slightly as the bulb ages. Tungsten bulbs are short-lived at 6-8 hours, so turn them off whenever possible. They get very hot, so one needs to be careful not to melt or burn backgrounds, set-ups, and props. They come in both 250 and 500 watts; I use 500. Be sure the socket is rated for the wattage of the bulb; look for ceramic sockets, rather than plastic.

...Quartz light bulbs are the size of a night light bulb, with a special socket. They are longer lasting than tungsten bulbs and the color doesn't shift as the bulb ages, but they more expensive, and require more expensive and specialized sockets. Like tungsten lights, they get extremely hot, and need to be worked with carefully.

...Strobe is considered to be the ultimate lighting source by the pros. It is a flash, so quartz "modeling light" is used to set up the shot, then turned off to use the strobe. It matches the daylight films for color. It is not as hot to work with as quartz or tungsten.

NOTE: If you choose to use tungsten or quartz lights, it is important to block all other light sources (windows, ceiling light fixtures, etc) so that they don't affect the colors in your photos. Similarly, if using a strobe or daylight, be sure there isn't a florescent or tungsten light in the area.
A generally useful arrangement is two lights --- both on one side of the camera, one higher, and one lower. This usually creates more dramatic light than one light on each side. Start with this, and then experiment. The position and number of lights determine the shadows and highlights. Shadows and highlights add drama to a photo, and help us understand the object's dimensionality. There is no hard and fast rule that shadows are good or bad. Sometimes shadows are a distraction; in other photos, a shadow adds pictorial interest. Shadows can help the viewer "read" the object in 3-D--if the lighting is too overall, it can make the object look flat. A matte-finished piece especially benefits from a well-placed highlight(s) and shadow(s). Sometimes I take a tip from Charles Lewton-Brain and place a mirror(s) or foil so that it aims a strategically placed bright beam of light. Recently, I acquired a 250 watt quartz light meant for portrait photography. Since my space is already crowded with the camera tripod and 2 light stands (I use 500 watt quartz lights), I find myself aiming the smaller light "by hand" as a spot light on a focal point of the object. It adds an extra spark of life to the photos.

Reflections–Some Methods for Minimizing

...Take the time to experiment with different angles and arrangements to eliminate or reduce the reflection. At the least, one can usually place the reflection in a spot that is minimally distracting. Try shooting from different angles, so that the reflection is in a shadow, or in a less critical area.

...One can diffuse light by shining it through frosted acetate or translucent plexiglas or white fabric. This helps soften reflections.

...Try aiming the light at the white wall of the photo box rather than directly at the work. (However, with a matte piece, where reflections are not a problem, direct light often makes a more dynamic photo with exciting highlights.)

...Photograph polished pieces after tripoli, but before rouge.

...A polarizing lens can adjust glare and re-position highlights. Essential if you have to photograph something through glass (e,g.display case or window).

...Dulling spray helps reduce reflections. Take care not to overdo, though; there should be enough shine evident to be sure the metal looks like metal.

...Try putting the object in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes. The condensation on the surface acts like a dulling spray.

...Cotton gloves help avoid fingerprints.

...If the front corners of the box are reflecting as bothersome lines, try curving a large white paper inside the front half of the box (make a hole for the lens). Or try making your own cone or cylinder light tent out of tracing paper or translucent plastic.

...When possible, choose a white room to photograph in, and wear white clothes.

...Buy the (less expensive, usually) chrome finish camera, tripod, stands, etc. rather than black.

Gray Card

Hold a "gray card" (available in stores and catalogs) in front of the object so that it completely fills the viewfinder, and is parallel to the lens. Adjust the f-stop to the highest number possible---for the greatest depth of field---and set the shutter speed as the meter indicates. Remove the card and use this setting as your "best bet."


Cover your bets by bracketing. This means taking extra shots that are lighter and darker than your "best bet". When bracketing, try to keep the f-stop as high as possible (for maximum depth of field), and do the bracketing primarily with the shutter speed.

Focus on a point one-third from the front of the object, because depth of field is greater behind the actual point of focus than in front. Use the depth of field preview button on your camera to check the focus. When in doubt, do a set of shots with a different focal point.


...Three-quarter views can often describe the object in one view, as well as be more dynamic.

...Look through the lens to compose the photo. Try to see only the 2-D image the camera sees. (Pros often shoot a Polaroid. If you have a digital camera, use that first. Look at the LCD screen &/or your computer screen)

...Let the image fill the frame. Make it as big as possible, but not crowded. Ideally, it should cover about 75% of the rectangle.

Before Pressing the Cable Release

...Take your time to check everything before pressing the cable release. An accomplished jeweler/photographer once showed me his latest postcard shot and told me he spent two days on it.

...Check the focus

...Check the edges of the picture for intrusions from fingers, and edge of the background showing, etc.

...Check for dust--keep a blower/brush handy. (I prefer these to canned air. They never run out, never accidentally spray chemical on your set up, and are ecologically sound.)

...Look to see that reflections are at a minimum, yet there is still a gleam or sparkle, or small reflections, so that the object "reads" as metal.

...As your photo set-up ages, monitor it for yellowing. (A few years ago, my silver work began to take on a "golden glow," as the foam core box and the cloth I used for diffusion aged and yellowed.)
Taking a Photo-Step by Step

1. Choose a background. Is it appropriate to the work? and the purpose of the photo?

2. If the piece is reflective, you probably need to use a light box.

3. Set up, using props, if necessary, the piece.

4. Set up the camera and tripod

5. Focus and frame the work in the camera's view

6. Play with light(s) arrangement(s)

7. If reflections are troublesome, use "curtains" at front of box (or paper with a hole for lens)

8. Set f-stop at highest number (smallest aperture for greatest depth of field)

9. Use gray card to determine "best bet" shutter speed

10. Check: centered? Focused? Right size for frame? Any extraneous dust or fluff? Or corners of background showing? Are the highlights and shadows in descriptive places?

11. Shoot. Bracket up and down, using faster and slower shutter speeds

12. Change views, and start again at step # 4.


In general, the lower the ASA, the finer-grained the photo. Also, each film is made to be used with a specific type of light. Be sure to match your film and light source.

Slide Films:

- Film that is too new can be pink-ish. Old film, or film that has been stored at too high a temperature, gets a green tinge. Check the expiration date. Store film in the refrigerator. (Allow it to warm up before photography.)

- Kodak 64T - Its cool tones make it my favorite film to use for silver. Colors tend to stay true when duped, as duping films are usually also a Kodak Ektachrome. Use with 3200K bulbs (no filter needed). Fine-grained

- Fuji 64T - My favorite to use for gold, brass, and copper, as it is warmer than Kodak 64T. Use with 3200K bulbs (no filter needed). Fine grained.

- Kodak l60 - I do not recommend this film, due to coarser grain and less saturated colors. The colors seem less intense to me, but it's easier to shoot with because of the higher ASA---greater depth of field, and easier to get enough light. Use with 3200 bulbs (no filter needed).

- Fuji Velvia - ASA is 50, so it's fine-grained. Robert Liu, editor of Ornament (he does most of their photography, too), swears by it. It's a daylight film. Robert Liu uses a strobe with a power pack (about $300-$800 new). Personally, I prefer not to have to count on the sun. I don't have a strobe, and am not ready to make the investment. I tried daylight bulbs and 3200 and 3400 bulbs with compensating filters, with disappointing results. Colors may shift when slides are duplicated.

- Kodak Ektachrome E100S prof. - another good daylight-balanced film, recommended by Steve Meltzer, who writes columns for the Craft Report.
Print Films

If you have access to a "large format" camera that takes 120 film, the prints will be crisper because of the larger negative (but don't worry, most of us use 35 mm: it's fine).

Color Print Films

Most are daylight-balanced. I have not found a tungsten-balanced print film in 35 mm. This means that for best results, you need to shoot outside or with a strobe light. I've had good results by taking my light box outside. If you want or need to shoot inside, use a flash attachment, strobe, blue "daylight" bulbs, or a filter (#80A is the one to use with 3200 bulbs). A few good color print films that are daylight-balanced, fine grained, with high contrast: Fujicolor Reala - ISO 100; Kodak Royal Gold 100; Agfa Triade Ultra 50 Professional. If necessary, prints can be made from slides. There are many processes. The quality and price tend to be related.

Black & White Films

...My favorites: TMax 100 by Kodak -I usually use this, and shoot at ASA 50 for fine grain. (Be sure to tell the developer, so that it is processed correctly.) Ilford PanF - ASA 50 - fine grain. Can be harder to have processed because it takes less commonly used chemicals.

...You can have a black and white negative (and print) made from a color slide. Though it is rarely as crisp, this can be a lifesaver if the piece is not available to re-shoot with black and white film, or if you don't have time to re-shoot with black and white film. To see how the slide will translate to black and white, try to look at the slide in terms of value, ignoring color.

...A black and white print can be made from a color negative simply by printing on paper made for black and white prints.

... The proportions of 35 mm film are different from 8" x 10", so an "8 by 10" will be cropped, not the full 35 mm image. Sometimes the framing looks better if you ask for a "full frame print," which means that the image will be 7" x 10" on 8 by 10 paper, with wider borders and no cropping of the image.


Slides and Color Print Processing

If you have the time and patience, mailers can be a good price, and you can count on Kodak and Fuji to do a good job on slides. For faster slide service, and for prints, pick a good, professional lab. Some people avoid the first batch of the week when the chemicals are new and the last batch on Friday, when they are old. Q Labs are required by Kodak to test the chemicals on a regular schedule, making them a good bet. Steve Meltzer, of the Craft Report, says mid-afternoon seems best to him.

Black and White Processing

With black and white photos, 50% of the result is with the job that the developer/printer does. Use a pro, and explain clearly what you want (high contrast, crisp, clear, and clean.) It often helps to say that it's for publication.

After You Get Slides Back From Processing

...Project them to check them.

...Choose master slides. I am satisfied if I get one or two good slides from a shoot of a piece. Label these as masters, and with your name and address. Let these out of your hands only to have duplicates made. Store in an archival quality box or sleeves in a clean, dry place ideally, a fireproof safe or safe deposit box.


- The object should fill the frame, but not look crowded.
- The photo should be neither overexposed (too light) nor underexposed (too dark)
- Is it in focus?
- Is the color accurate? e.g. Silver should look like silver, not gold.
- The background: Does it enhance the work without being distracting? Does it contrast with the object enough? Is it too busy?


...Take notes as you photograph. Refer to these as you project your slides and the next time you shoot. Keep track of what works best.

...It can take a second shooting session, with a different viewpoint, background, focal point, film, or processor to get it right.

...Show your photographs to other people--we need their perspective. Have a session with friends.


What to do when the photograph is disappointing?

...Re-shoot. (Leave the set up in place for a few hours while the slides are being processed.)

...Take it to a good photo processor and have your slide or print reproduced lighter or darker, or ask if they can shift the colors a bit. Prints can be customized (explain what's wrong) for a price, it may be fixable.

...Scan it and work on it digitally–do it yourself, or have it done by a professional (expensive). Downside is cost, time, and loss of detail from being copied. Upside is being able to make it better. Re-shooting is preferable when possible. It is always best to shoot in the format that will be used. Whenever a copy is made into a different format, detail is lost (think of Xeroxes of Xeroxes). So, for instance, if you know you need a black and white, as well as a slide, shoot the work twice, once with each film.

Label Slides & Photos

...Artist info: Name, address, phone, fax, e-mail

...Object info: Title, date, dimensions, materials

...Slides---I have my name imprinted on the plastic slide sleeve. I make labels for each piece on my computer using the Avery labeling program. I put these on the slide holder or on the back of the photo. On the other hand, labels can come off. If you have neat printing, it may be best to write the info on with a permanent photo marker. Be sure to mark an up arrow in the top right corner, and/or a red dot in the lower left corner.

...Prints–Always label photos behind the border if possible. Otherwise, do it behind the darkest area, so that it doesn't show through. Use pencil or permanent marker that won't smear. (Be sure to use a light touch so that the photo does not get "embossed.") Labels are more convenient, but can come off, and may yellow the photo. Post-its are probably the most "benign" but least permanent.

...I always send photos and slides in archival plastic sleeves for protection.

...Provide a SASE for return of photos.

Sources for Film & Equipment

...It can be good to buy locally, for service, advice, and warrantees, but the mail order prices are often irresistible.

...Mail Order-my favorites:

...Calumet has graduated and other fancy backgrounds, cameras, lights, films, archival storage, supplies, equipment, and more. They are not the cheapest, but they have everything and are pleasant and knowledgeable on the phone. This is a good source of 31" x 43" graduated background paper. Calumet carries a brand called Tintfoto; you have to ask for it; it's not in the catalog. Calumet's catalog is very descriptive and easy to use. 800/225-8638, 890 Supreme Drive, Bensenville, IL 60106,

...Superior Specialties' graduated paper is called Veritone. For smaller work, the 21" wide, 15" tall from is good. It is available 31" x 43" and larger as well. Check their Web site, for authorized dealers. I've ordered from Barbizon Light, in Woburn, MA, 781/935-3920.

...B & H Photo-Video has everything--films, archival slide pages, archival binders and boxes, new and used camera and light equipment, and more–at good prices. 800-947-9970, 119 West 17th St., New York, NY 10011,

...Check the back of photography magazines and local publications for used equipment ads and other sources.

For More Information

...Craft Report magazine runs a monthly column on craft photography by Steve Meltzer.

...Metalsmith's Fall 81 and Summer 82 editions - articles by Leslie Brown, who got me started on photographing my work. He wrote a very good series of articles, which were published in Metalsmith's Fall 81 and Summer 82 editions. I highly recommend them. The film recommendations are out of date–his current favorite for photographing his gold jewelry is Fuji 64T with a strobe.

...Photographing your Artwork by Russell Hart

...Photographing Your Craftwork by Steve Meltzer

...Small Scale Photography by Charles Lewton-Brain.

...The Orchid discussion group on the web has an archive of e-mail discussions about photographing jewelry.

Digital Photography

The technology keeps getting better, the prices keep going down, and everyone's using the web more and more. Deciding whether or not to go digital depends on how your photos are used. If your work is primarily on the Internet, shooting digitally makes sense. For most artists though, the color slide is still the primary type of photograph used. I now shoot everything in both slide and digital formats. I use the same set-ups with my digital camera and my 35 mm. Slides and prints can be scanned into a digital format for Internet use. These digital files can be altered using Photo Shop or the equivalent, and made back into a slide, color print, or black and white, but the results are far from optimal. It is best to take your time to set up the shot optimally, rather than count on fixing it digitally.

Digital Cameras–Some Thoughts

Inexpensive digital cameras are only good for work to be seen on the web. A high resolution (more expensive) camera is needed for good prints and slides. In contrast, a cheap "instamatic" film camera can use the same quality film as an expensive 35 mm film camera, so there is always a chance of a great shot, no matter the price of the camera.

Digital cameras don't create as much waste, because you can delete bad images. You can experiment, and take lots of shots without spending any money for processing.

There's no waiting for photos to be processed; you can save time.

You can change light sources (indoor to outdoor to tungsten to strobes) without worrying about changing films or using filters, because you can just change the white balance on the camera.

Digital "film" is unaffected by airport x-rays. Digital image storage is more compact than film canisters. With archival inks and papers digital prints can be quite permanent, probably lasting longer than slides.

Digital cameras have an LCD screen to view the image which is bigger than a viewfinder. Not only is it easier to look at, it also helps you "see the image as 2-D."

Some things to look for in a digital camera for photographing your jewelry and metalwork:

...High resolution (3 megabites)

...Manual controls for focus and exposure

...Ability to adjust white balance for different light sources

...High quality optical lens (Made by a camera maker rather than an electronics co.)

...Optical zoom, rather than just digital zoom, for sharp prints.

...Avoid "preset" focusing; it sounds like auto-focusing, but it really means no focusing at all.

...USB connection to computer for quick and easy downloading

...Nikon Cool Pix 990 seems the current best choice under $1,000

Camera Review Sites


I am a professional metalsmith, not a professional photographer. If you are applying to craft shows, such as ACC, Rosen, JA, etc., it may well be worthwhile to hire a pro to do your 5 slides. It does not always save money to do your own slides. What you do get is control, especially of timing (e.g. "Yipes! It's 2 in the morning and it needs to be photographed and then at the post office at 8:00 am!").

Some of my work can be seen on my Web site:

© Cynthia Eid

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