how-to tips

Quick photography: 5 tips

So, you’re in a shop or a souk, surrounded by jewellery, and you’d love to make a few reference snaps? Or sitting at home, staring at your collection and wondering where on earth to begin…? Here are 5 tips to make photos with your smartphone just that tiny bit better, whether it be if you plan on documenting your collection or to add a few reference images to your photo library!

1) This is a no-brainer: use a plain, neutral background. Choose a clean and uncluttered background that won’t distract from the jewellery itself. A plain white or black background often works well, but actually any dark, deep colour works, as long as it allows the jewellery to stand out. How to do that on the go? This is where your trusty scarf comes in (a useful accessory, anyway!): it does not matter much if it is wrinkled, enough contrast will allow editing programs like Canva to remove the background. It will have to be a plain scarf though, a busy paisley-print is not what you’re looking for.

Bonus tip: a black, plain scarf also works miracles in museums, to block the reflection of lighting on the showcase. For this, you will need a travel companion to hold up the scarf behind you as you photograph the showcase. Be prepared to meet with more than a few puzzled glances, but it works!

2) Use natural light or soft lighting. Natural light is ideal for capturing the true colors and details of the jewellery. Position your setup near a window or use diffused artificial lighting to avoid harsh shadows and reflections. Obviously, there is only so much you can do in a shop, but asking to see a piece near the door or a window will already improve the light.

3) Use a tripod if you can. To ensure sharp and clear images, use a tripod to stabilize your phone. There are nifty tripods for smartphones available that fit into your handbag. If you don’t own one of these, create an improvised setup with whatever is at hand: I have placed my phone on top of larger bracelets, coffee tables, or a stack of books. Anything that allows you to keep the phone steady does the trick.

4) Don’t forget to take close-up shots. Jewellery is often intricate, so it’s important to get close-up shots that highlight the details, like hallmarks, filigree, enamel, or perhaps even cracks and dents. For this, you’ll need a tripod or other form of stabilizor.

Bonus tip: photograph the backside, too. Even if it is plain and boring. You’ll never know when it may come in handy – I have had to fly out to Vienna to check the reverse side of jewellery items because someone forgot to photograph them…

5) Use an indicator of scale. This can be a proper scale, of course, or a simple ruler. If you find yourself without such a useful device (they fit in your wallet), take something else of a known size: your businesscard, a coin, your lipstick… Place it close enough to relate to the jewel you’re photographing, but leave some space to edit it out if you’d like to use your photos later.

Remember to always ask permission first before whipping out your phone to photograph. Some shops may have restrictions or guidelines in place for photography, so make sure to respect their policies. That also goes for exhibitors at a jewellery fair or other pop-up location. I usually also specify what I want to use the photos for: ‘study purposes’ is something else than ‘I’ll be sharing your jewellery with nearly 20,000 people on social media, is that ok?’ (for most it is, if you clearly credit them – but not for everyone!).

All of this is of course very different from professional photography (see more about that here), but with these quick tips you can photograph jewellery on a basic, but absolutely very useful level!

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Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.