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Lighting setup for wristwatch photography

April 28 2009 at 5:17 PM

Martin Wilmsen  (Select Login wilmsenm)
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Although most people ask about what camera gear I use, I do get e-mails from people wanting to find out the particulars of the lighting setup for photos that I post. I didn't want to post anything too technical at first, because I thought this wasn't the place for it. But considering that so many people ask for information I decided to do it after all. It does feel a bit funny to write a tutorial type of post because I'm just a photography enthusiast and by no means a professional. But I'm happy to share what I've found after quite a bit of experimenting.

This post is about off-camera flash photography, but the same principles apply when you use continuous light. Before I was introduced to off-camera flash I used normal desk lamps and that worked alright too. I did find it much harder to get the white balance right with desk lamps. With flash photography the white balance is always spot on.

The lighting setup to use will vary largely depending on the result that you're after for a particular photo. And it also depends on the type of wristwatch that you're going to photograph. Stainless steel watches are of course very reflective and besides reflecting objects in the room, such watches also reflect the light. That can cause very distracting so called bright spots or hot spots. A setup with low power flash and either diffused or bounced light will get you better results for such a watch. PVD or ceramic watches however require much more light or there will be hardly any detail visible in the dark cases of such watches.

Titanium watches are quite easy to photograph. No reflections in the case and not too dark. And so the lighting setup for this picture of the titanium PAM326 Luminor Chrono Daylight was actually really simple and a good starting point for a "how-to" post. I really like how this picture came out.

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I made the diagram below to show how I took the above picture. The watch in the photo isn't mine so I definitely was very careful with it. I placed the watch on a piece of stone but I used a small piece of cloth underneath the case to prevent scratches. Because of the camera angle (approx. 20cm above the watch and pointing down) you don't see this in the photo.

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As shown in the diagram I positioned one speedlight low and behind the watch on the left of the camera to light the watch from behind and to bring out the structure of the stone. That light is clearly visible in the photo.

I placed a second speedlight at about the same height of the watch and slightly behind it, on the right of the camera. This second speedlight was used to light the dial and crystal of the watch by bouncing the light of a sheet of white glossy cardboard in front of it. I cut a hole in that cardboard for the lens. The watch was positioned in such a manner that only the cardboard was reflecting in the crystal (and not the lens or anything else).

In this case there was no need to shoot the speedlights through a diffuser. Two more pieces of white cardboard were placed on the left and on the right of the watch but I probably could have done without those for this particular photo.

The camera (Nikon D700 + Nikkor 105mm VR) was set at manual and I used an SU-800 to remotely configure and trigger the speedlights. The speedlight behind the watch was fired with a power output setting at 2/3 and the second one at 1/2 power.

Hope this is useful for anyone interested. I'd like to hear your opinions as always.


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