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Photographing Jewelry on a Shoestring Budget

Our digital display case app, ViDiC, was originally designed to allow museums to complement their physical displays with incredible close-ups and take their content online with browser publishing. It was, for us, a natural progression. ViDiC was the spiritual successor to the Digital Label System (DLS) we had developed for The Getty. So following the age-old advice that you should make what you know, we ensured ViDiC would have all of the features that The Getty had wanted for the DLS as well as a number of powerful new features like integrating all of the editing tools into the editor.

On the very day that we officially launched, we received an email from the owner of a high-end jeweler who wanted to know if ViDiC would also be suitable for online jewelry retail. The answer, of course, was an overwhelming yes. A display case is, after all, a display case, and it really matters very little whether the case contains a cameo ring featuring Minerva from the first century AD or an 18 karat rose gold diamond engagement ring. Since ViDiC can be embedded into a web page and viewed in just about any browser, it's remarkably simple to embed an incredibly detailed virtual jewelry store on your website.

But since all our recent projects were for clients like the NGA and The Getty, we didn't have any suitable demo materials to show off. The task of filling this gap in our portfolio was quickly assigned to me (as jobs no one else wants often are) and I set about finding some jewelry to photograph. First, I try eBay but the costume jewelry available there is almost entirely secondhand and many items are up for auction. I don't want to wait ten days for an auction to complete, then a week for the seller to send it, another week for it to arrive. I'm looking for something with a "Buy it now" option. Also, the job lots of jewelry, as opposed to single items, are very inconsistent in appearance. Old and new, bright and tarnished, all mixed together. In order to take some nice photos, I need items that will appeal to a magpie. Shiny. Glossy. Ostentatious. Even gaudy. And ideally less than £10 each. Not much to ask, right?

So I try Amazon (UK) instead, as they've never let me down in the past. I've also bought some very impressive-looking (and surprisingly well-made) Chinese watches for about a tenner from them in the past so I hope they might be able to help me out this time as well. Sure enough, they can, and after just a few minutes of browsing, I have eight engagement rings in my basket. (I dare not imagine what this is going to do to the targeted ads Facebook shows me but I digress.) The Amazon listing photos are impressive. Most of the rings have large, brightly-colored stones and very reflective, clean metal rings. I'm not entirely confident that what I receive will end up looking the same, but I'm willing to give it a try. Total spend: £57.17.

Two days later, (it would have been one if I hadn't opted for click & collect) I have the eight rings and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that they look remarkably similar to the photos in the Amazon listings. Surely not enough to persuade a skeptical mother-in-law but more than enough to look pretty in a photograph. Assuming, of course, that I can assemble all of the other ingredients required for a high-quality photograph.

The first thing I need to decide on is the camera. Conventional wisdom on the subject is that SLR cameras are the best for this sort of thing and a DSLR is very suitable if you lean towards digital processing. However, in recent years, the sensors used in high-end (and even mid-price) smartphones have improved dramatically. I myself own a Huawei P20 Pro, which has a very nice 40-megapixel primary sensor and an 8-megapixel optical zoom sensor, both from Leica. The Redmi Note 8 Pro has a 64-megapixel sensor and an additional macro sensor which presumably would make it ideal for photographing very small objects like jewelry.

Now it's important to note that the huge megapixel values on these cameras are not really indicative of the size or quality of the image. Both the P20 Pro and the Note 8 Pro use pixel-binning which essentially trades a low-quality high-resolution image for a higher-quality image a quarter of the size. What this means, in practice, is for a high-quality photo, you really only get a 10-megapixel image from the P20 Pro and a 16-megapixel image from the Note 8 Pro. Even so, if the quality is sufficiently high, that's more than enough for a good photo. You can pay hundreds of pounds for a DSLR and only get maybe 20 or 24 megapixels. Albeit that a DSLR doesn't need to bin pixels.

I seriously consider purchasing an entry-level DSLR. The Canon Rebel T6 and T7 cameras are good quality beginner cameras, by all accounts. They have good image quality and they're not overwhelmingly complicated. They're not cheap but they're good value as DSLRs go. But it's a slippery slope once you start down that path. If you're going to get a DSLR camera, do you also get a macro lens for it? You'd be silly not to, right? What about a tripod to make sure the picture is nice and crisp? Of course. And it all adds up.

If you're serious about photography and if you're mainly interested in taking photos of very small objects or taking extreme close-ups, then I'm sure it's a good investment. But, if you're just an overworked software developer who wants to take some decent jewelry photos, it's a lot of money for something you're probably only going to use once or twice. What's more, you're looking at an investment not only of money but of time as well. Even with a beginner-friendly camera, you're still looking at a steep learning curve if this is all new to you. Yes, aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO speed are relatively simple concepts to understand individually but how much practice do you need before you truly understand how to set all of them in parallel for a specific scenario? Ultimately, I decide it's going to be too much money and way too much time spent learning the tools to go down the DSLR route.

So, we're sticking with my Huawei P20 Pro and we're going to try to get the best quality photos we can out of it. Lighting is important with any kind of photography. Anyone who has ever been near a photographer's studio will be familiar with the huge light stands, light diffusers, canopies, etc that they use to improve their photos. But when photographing jewelry, it must be even more important. We're trying to create something bright and shiny here. Lots of specular highlights. Lots of reflections. Refraction. Light bouncing. If it's not lit properly, that stuff just isn't going to happen. So I go back to Amazon and buy myself a little lightbox. Specifically, I buy this lightbox. There are dozens of them and I honestly can't tell the difference between them. I buy one with decent reviews that didn't cost too much. At the end of the day, it's just a few sheets of plastic and a few LED lights dotted around. I figure it probably isn't worth overthinking this. Total spend: £13.99

I also consider purchasing some kind of tripod, stand, or even a selfie-stick for the camera but ultimately, I decide against it. With plenty of light for the subject, I figure I should be able to set a very low (fast) shutter speed, and that should offer some measure of protection against blurring. Also, since I'm taking a close-up, I should be able to brace myself to help hold the phone steady as I take the shot. So all I really need now is something to actually hold the rings.

Now, if you're looking for a beautiful photo and nothing else, I imagine this part is ridiculously easy. Just get a sheet of white paper curl it up the back of the lightbox and you'll get a perfect backdrop. Just a simple color that lets the ring look its best. Curling it helps to create an even tone throughout. It helps provide plenty of light to the ring and if the stone or the metal reflect my background, it's just more bright white highlights.

But I'm creating images that will ultimately be used in our digital display case app. Which means I'm going to need to be able to remove the background in Photoshop (or whatever) so that my "photo" is just the ring with a transparent background. I figure white is going to be problematic as it's going to be very prone to shadows. Lots of shadows will make it much more difficult to cut the background out later. So, why not just use a green screen then? Even a green piece of paper will work wonders. I can chroma key the green background out very accurately and then strip the green channel out of the image to render any errors almost imperceptible. Sounds good, right?

Well, it would be, if I was taking photos of matte objects. But I'm taking photos of shiny gems and reflective metal. Anything I put in the background is going to heavily influence all of those reflective and refractive surfaces. I'll see green through the "diamonds" and there will be green reflecting in all of the metal surfaces. That's not going to work at all and, logically, it rules out every other color too, for the same reasons. So we're stuck with black. Not ideal, as it may dull down the image a bit but at least it'll provide contrast in my reflections and it won't make it impossible to remove the background later.

So I find a nice diary with a matte black hardback cover. It's important that it's matte because this means the rings (and lights) won't be reflected in the cover of the book. You don't want your background to reflect the rings any more than you want the rings reflecting your background. I set this up and I start exploring the camera settings. The P20 Pro has an "aperture" mode which allows you to take shots with a sharp point of focus and blurred background. I guess it's trying to emulate an effect you might aim for with a macro lens on a regular camera. It creates some interesting effects and it does allow me to zoom in nice and close but ultimately, I find it's blurring too much of the screen to be useful. Yes, I want to make the gem the focal point of the photo but I don't want everything else to be a hideous blurry mess.

So, I try the "Pro" mode which is the only mode on the P20 Pro which lets you use the full 40-megapipxel sensor resolution and the only mode which allows you to save RAW format photos. RAW format allows you much more flexibility in post-processing your photos. JPEG produces a nice looking image now but RAW lets you make all kind of adjustments in post-processing. Given that I'm using a smartphone camera, I feel like post processing is going to be useful. So I try this mode. Without zooming in, the ring is so small in the viewfinder that I'm not really able to see enough detail. As soon as I zoom in, however, the camera automatically reverts to pixel binning (10-megapixels, here we come!) and reverts to JPEG mode instead of RAW. I've lost the benefits of using Pro mode. Sure, I can set the aperture size, shutter speed, ISO speed, and adjust white balance, but I'm not enough of a pro to make the most of those.

So next I try the regular "photo" mode. Since "photo" mode enables pixel-binning and disables RAW images, I may as well enable the zoom here too, and I push the zoom right up to 3x, which is the limit of the optical zoom. Anything beyond 3x uses a digital zoom and that's just going to inject a lot more chroma noise and blur. I can get some pretty nice pictures now but I miss being able to tweak the settings. I decide to take some more time and experiment more in "pro" mode with the optical zoom set to 3x. Sure enough, after some playing around, I can get similar results as "photo" mode but now I can get much better image quality. I put this down to finding a low angle for the camera which enables me to set the ISO-speed at the lowest possible setting of 100.

I take a couple of pictures of each ring and I make sure to keep the settings consistent throughout. I copy the photos over to my PC and check out the images. They're not amazing but considering the budget, my inexperience, and the fact that I'm using a smartphone, they're really not bad at all. But I'm not satisfied yet. I want to take the images into Photoshop and see if I can really make them pop. Before I go on, let's take a look at a few of my unretouched images, straight from the camera.

I'm really happy with them although I will want to do some post-processing in Photoshop. I'm looking to make them really pop so I want to crank everything up to eleven. We'll cover that in the next part of this article. For now, here are a few notes on the settings I used to take these photos.

Coming Next Time

In the second part of this article, I will be doing some post-processing to make these photos really "pop". Then I'll be looking at ways of removing the background from an image, both with traditional image-editing techniques and new AI-based tools. Finally, I'll be looking at a range of AI-based tools for enlarging images to see whether we can get back some of the resolution we sacrificed with pixel-binning. Then, in the third and final part of this article, we'll be bringing all of the processed assets into ViDiC to create a beautiful digital display case that runs on touchscreen devices and in the web browser.

A Note on My Settings

My settings aren't going to be of much use to anyone else because they relate to the environment, the lighting, positioning of the rings, angle of the camera, personal preference, and a whole lot more. But I know how irritating it is when people neglect to include their settings, even for the best of reasons. I had the ISO-speed down to around 100 because the LED lights from the lightbox were making things very bright. I had the shutter speed around 1/60 which was as fast as I could go without losing the brightness and vibrancy of the picture. I disabled autofocus and manually set the focus as near as it can be. Then I just adjusted the position of the camera until the gem was as close to perfectly focused as I could get. I locked my elbows to the table on which the lightbox was set in order to stabilize the camera.

If I had been taking the photo from a higher angle or if I hadn't used a lightbox, I wouldn't have been able to get anything like so much light reflecting so I would have had to increase the ISO-speed considerably. Increasing the ISO-speed reduces the overall image quality, so this is not ideal. Without the lightbox, I found that I needed to set the ISO-speed to 3200 so that sub-£15 lightbox really does make a big difference.

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