Tutorial: Photographing Sterling Silver

Recently I got a tutorial request on how to photograph sterling silver from the Etsy community:

Shazzabeth Creations said…

My biggest problem is finding the right background for my silver pieces, some chainmaillers, for example, have great black backgrounds on reflective surfaces that really make the silver pop, but my silver just glares!

So I decided that it was time to figure out how to photograph sterling!

Things you will need for this tutorial:

-Your camera
-Your manual (just in case)
-Jewelry (or handmade product of your choice)
-Background (again of your choice – it’s nice to begin with grey!)
-Something to distract your children or pets (my kitten desperately needed the distraction…)

The first thing that I would suggest is to sit down with your camera and your manual and find the section in manual called “photometry,” which refers to the science of the measurement of light, in terms of its perceived brightness to the human eye – or in this case your camera’s light metering mechanism. Follow me? If not, that’s ok. It basically just refers to how your camera is deciding on the correct exposure. There are different ways your camera can meter: Matrix, Partial, Spot, and Center-Evaluative.

canon eos metering types
Matrix (Evaluative) Metering: On a number of cameras this is the default metering setting. Here the camera measures the light intensity in several points in the scene, and then combines the results to find the settings for the best exposure. How they are combined/calculated deviates from camera to camera. The actual number of zonesused varies, from several to over a thousand.

Partial metering: Partial metering is found mostly on Canon cameras, so if you don’t own a Canon then just ignore this section! This mode meters a larger area than spot metering (around 10-15% of the entire frame), and is generally used when very bright or very dark areas on the edges of the frame would otherwise influence the metering unduly. Like spot metering, some cameras can use variable points to take readings from, (in general the auto focus points), or have a fixed point in the center of the viewfinder.

Spot Metering: Your camera will only measure a very small area of the scene (between 1-5% of the viewfinder area). This will typically be the very center of the scene – although some cameras allow for multiple spots. In general this is probably the setting you want to use for product photography!

Center-weighted average Metering: In this system, the meter concentrates 60 to 80 percent of the light sensitivity around the central part of the viewfinder. The balance is then “feathered” out towards the edges. One advantage of this method is that it is less influenced by small areas that vary greatly in brightness at the edges of the viewfinder.

Ok so here is where you manual comes in. Find out how to change the photometry; again unless you own a Canon, your best bet is to switch to Spot Metering.

Next set up your scene with the type of lighting that you prefer. My suggestion is that natural light on an overcast day is going to be your best bet for even lighting. For this tutorial I used my window and a sheer white curtain to diffuse the strongish sunlight.

So here is image number one. Basically this is a straight shot with the camera on Macro setting and the white balance set for “Sunny.” I wasn’t using anything to diffuse the light, so first notice how strong the shadows are in this image. It may be a personal aesthetic kind of thing, but I don’t like that. It makes the image more of a study or a still life than an image advertising a product.

So from here I did a couple of things. The first thing I did was to change the photometry. In my camera I hit “Menu” while in shooting mode and the option to change photometry was readily available.
This is where I changed to spot metering – refer to the image with the metering icons to see what that should look like in your camera.

These steps yielded the very next image:

Note how much brighter everything is. Basically what happened was the camera said “Oh, there is less light being reflected than before.” Thus the camera compensated (I was shooting in *aperture priority mode* by the by) and slowed my shutter speed down to take in more of the available light .

So the yield is a brighter image overall. You experience may differ if you started out with a dark background or a black background. But if you were using a white or a lighter toned background then you should have a similar experience in terms of overall image brightness when you change the way the camera meters.

Ok so last step here is just to throw that sheer curtain up to diffuse the light a bit. Depending on how thick your material is it may mean that your image will be a bit darker – play a little bit and see what you like and what you don’t like. Obviously if you are shooting on a nice cloudy day (I know, seems like an oxymoron) then you can forgo the whole curtain deal.

Here is a quick idea of what a difference that curtain makes with the shadows and the distribution of light on the silver itself:

dscf2168
Also, note the color change! By throwing a white curtain up it changed the temperature of the light. It made the temperature cooler, which makes for warmer tones. Don’t worry, I will have a in depth tutorial on all of that later! But if you don’t like what has happened to your color, check and see if changing to “Cloudy” helps at all.

Ok so now we’re going to move onto a black background, which can be one of the most difficult backgrounds to shoot on if you don’t know how to change your camera’s metering settings. As soon as you know, it should be almost as easy as pie…depending on the kind of pie.

Now this picture was taken with default metering and a curtain to diffuse the light. It is very washed out and we are getting a lot of glare from our silver. Take a look at that locket. You can barely see the details on it.

The reason this is happening is that your camera takes one look at the black background and says “Oh no, there isn’t enough light here! Must compensate!” So if you are, like me, shooting in aperture priority then it is going to slow your shutter speed WAY down. In my case to about a 30th of a second to let enough light in. Unless you have a really steady hand and brace yourself, your image will be slightly blurry.

Essentially your camera likes to look at the world as though everything were in black and white – and it tries to turn everything to medium grey.
So this image is the camera’s best estimation of a “medium grey” world.

Alright so here is our final image.

Photographing Sterling Silver Tutorial

We have changed the metering to spot metering and have diffused our light. Overall this is a much better image and our silver really stands out.

If you don’t like the glare you are getting – for example the top of the locket – then try diffusing that light a little more.

Maybe try a thicker white material.

Or try a white canvas or mat board on the other side to create more even light.

You camera will take that into account and will adjust accordingly.

The best way to photograph sterling would be in a light box, (which you can DIY you know!) that way you will get very even distribution and diffusion of your light. It will help a ton with glare management.

But this is where we had to end this week’s tutorial because my darling kitten decided it was time to go mad on the jewelry and scatter it to the nether most regions of my house. I am still on the hunt. Wish me luck!

Any questions or comments? Suggestions for a future tutorial? Let me know in the comments below!

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