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My thoughts on coin photography

BryceMBryceM Posts: 11,689 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited February 7, 2024 10:29PM in U.S. Coin Forum

A new member here who lives in Europe recently sent me a PM asking about my photography technique. Instead of just responding to his PM, I decided to share my thoughts here, hopefully to be of use to more than just one person.

If I have stumbled upon something that works for me, it was due in part to trial and error, but more importantly by paying attention to what others are doing. There have been many masters of this craft here on this forum over the years. @robec, @messydesk, @mgoodm3, Phil Arnold, @lkeigwin, @spacehayduke, and I'm certain I'm forgetting a few.

The thing that created the most significant improvement in my work was reading and trying to understand the excellent book by Mark Goodman @mgoodm3.

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It is now in at least its 2nd edition. It's contains 152 pages of instruction with excellent photos and examples.

My first photography attempts many years ago started with rather disappointing results. These are by no means the worst. I didn't even save them. This is after a couple of months playing around with a DLSR camera:

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Now, some 12 years later, here are a couple of my more recent photos:

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What's the difference? Well, I started buying nicer coins, for one, but that's only a small part of it. ;)

As I view this now, I'd rank these key concepts in order of importance:

Experience. A master with a cheapo camera will outdo an idiot with a $10,000 camera setup every day of the week. I cannot stress this enough. You can learn and study, but nothing beats actual time behind the lens (and computer).

A Stable Platform. A close second. The best lighting and best equipment in the world will accomplish almost nothing if the camera is not STEADY. Lack of sharp focus is the biggest (but not the only) problem with the first photos in this post. The single best purchase I've made was a copy stand. Number two was a "tethered" connection to my PC, so that I can lock the mirror up, preview the coin on the screen, and then take the photo. Anything to reduce motion is enormously helpful. Nothing will overcome a blurry source image.

A Quality lens. This is the workhorse of the actual camera. A photo simply can't be better than the lens. A quality macro lens is absolutely crucial. The algorithms and equipment used by newer cell phones are closing the gap, but there are actual physical limitations of small phone lenses that limit what can be done. I use a Canon EF 100mm 1:2.8 USM macro lens. This is easily the most expensive part of the setup.

Light. Lots of it, and of the correct spectrum and distribution. Mark covers this well in his book. I've had the best luck with rather large Halogens, placed as close to the lens as I can get them. At least this works well for uncirculated silver coins. Different lighting angles, diffusion, and similar techniques work well with certain other coin surfaces. Halogens have the advantage of tremendous illumination, but the disadvantages of a slightly reddish cast (can be corrected with software), tremendous heat (I forgot about a coin and melted the slab gasket once), and their size. Others have had luck with LEDs, regular old incandescent bulbs, and a variety of fluorescents. Whatever you choose, it's important to white balance the image, either on the camera, or with software.

Software. I use the regular Canon software that comes with the camera (or can be easily downloaded) to preview the image, set ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and to actually trigger the camera. Even with all of this, I usually take a dozen images of each side of the coin with a variety of lighting techniques. Using a tethered connection allows me to zoom in on a very small area to manually adjust the focus with great precision. For slabbed coins, the autofocus feature will almost always focus on the slab, not the coin. For post-processing, I use Photoshop elements. For most photos I do a circle crop, add a VERY small touch of color saturation (only to match what my eye sees), and a SMALL dose of sharpening. Overdoing this looks rather un-natural.

The actual camera. All of the photos I've posted here have been taken with a very old second-hand Canon EOS Rebel XSi that I bought for somewhere around $300. A newer camera (with a more precise and more dense photosensor) would probably help, but I've never pursued it.

Tricks. I've picked up a few along the way. Each coin has a personality. Each has certain attributes and flaws. I try to take accurate, consistent photos that show the coin as my eye sees it. Even so, I've learned that by using dodging (using a hand or card to block small regions of the light), I can avoid "hot-spots" or overexposure in certain areas. I haven't seen anyone else describe this technique. Sometimes a slab needs to be shimmed a bit to compensate for a coin that isn't aligned perfectly. Almost always, it's necessary to hand-polish away scratches and imperfections in the slab. If a coin is worth buying, it's worth seeing correctly!

Luck. Some coins are just photogenic, and sometimes it just all comes together. This is a rather simple and inexpensive coin, but the photo is pretty darn cool if you ask me. About 5% of the coin's surface is over-exposed, and about 5% a bit under-exposed. Usually, this means contrast is about right. Your brain fills in the rest, and it's easy to interpret what the coin might actually look like in-hand:

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Thoughts? Comments?

Comments

  • ToreyTorey Posts: 116 ✭✭✭

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge Bryce. I am going to soak up as much of this as I can.

  • Dave99BDave99B Posts: 8,315 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Great post, and a nice summary of key areas of Mark's book. Well done.

    Dave

    Always looking for original, better date VF20-VF35 Barber quarters and halves, and a quality beer.
  • jesbrokenjesbroken Posts: 9,031 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thanks Bryce. Very informative post. Well thought out and very well written. I have spent a small fortune on the equiment along with Mark's book right after he published it and it appears I'm just not camera savvy. So I go back to my old powershot sx530hs and take fair photos, thanks only to my accessories. I have so many light fixtures, I can't store them. So I sit and only wish I were better at it.
    Again thank you for your post, I am sure many will benefit from it.
    Jim


    When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken or cease to be honest....Abraham Lincoln

    Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.....Mark Twain
  • BryceMBryceM Posts: 11,689 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited February 7, 2024 10:31PM

    @messydesk. All excellent points. A wireless remote would also work perfectly well. I've never played with one.

    As far as light, well, understanding how it works is the very foundation of all photography, and vision itself for that matter. I have no problem switching the two around..... but I can make a bunch of different lights to do the job (assuming I know how to use them). Without a good lens, there is a significant ceiling to the quality of my photos. It's splitting hairs, really. Probably we're saying about the same thing.

  • 1northcoin1northcoin Posts: 3,722 ✭✭✭✭✭

    This thread merits being locked at the top. Thanks to the OP for sharing and for the added tips from the other experts.

  • GoldFinger1969GoldFinger1969 Posts: 1,165 ✭✭✭✭
    edited February 7, 2024 11:23PM

    It's amazing just how angle and lighting (forget about deliberate software manipulation) can change how a coin looks in photos. On FB or IG some years back I saw before-and-after pics of a coin that looked super-nice with standard lighting but when it was changed it looked horrendous.

    I was sure they had been altered in Adobe or Paint or something like that, but the poster assured me he only changed the angle of the coins and the lighting. It really was eye-opening. Can't remember if it was a silver, gold, or copper coin -- might have to try and track it down. Should have saved the pics ! :o

  • thanks for the info!

  • MFeldMFeld Posts: 11,730 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Bryce, thank you for another excellent post.

    Mark Feld* of Heritage Auctions*Unless otherwise noted, my posts here represent my personal opinions.

  • bolivarshagnastybolivarshagnasty Posts: 7,348 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Spot on Bryce! Thanks for sharing.

  • Morgan13Morgan13 Posts: 722 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited February 8, 2024 10:17AM

    @BryceM thank you for your post. The more information I can soak up into this thick head the better.
    I for one really appreciate your write up.
    It's going to take alot of practice and accumulation of the necessary equipment before I am taking images like you and others who have mastered photography of coins.
    I recently purchased a few camera lens that should get me going in the right direction.
    Believe it or not I started out looking for just a single lens and ended up buying a camera with 3 different lens for pennies. They should be here soon and I can't wait to try them out. Hopefully they will be a good fit.
    With the help of several forum members I was able to max out what my 55mm could do so I am feeling confident.
    Thanks again for your well written write up.

    Student of numismatics and collector of Morgan dollars

  • nwcoastnwcoast Posts: 2,816 ✭✭✭✭✭

    This is all great information!
    Thank you for sharing your techniques for achieving your really outstanding photos.
    I’m surprised that you use halogen lights. I have a few from my video days,before digital and I never use them anymore. As you mentioned, they are incredibly hot! Maybe I’ll fire them up again for some coin photos. Hopefully this post will inspire me start shooting coin photos again as my system is still scattered all over the place following our move, and now major remodeling.
    Great work there Bryce! Really inspiring.
    And, fantastic contributions by the other participants.

    Happy, humble, honored and proud recipient of the “You Suck” award 10/22/2014

  • messydeskmessydesk Posts: 19,600 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @BryceM said:

    @FlyingAl said:

    Your photos are excellent. Here are my photos, taken a couple years ago. Subtle differences. I think both show the fabric of this extraordinarily cool coin very nicely. :)

    image

    I'm going to nitpick here to illustrate the composition a bit. The lighting on the reverses is too symmetrical. As a result, each light is filling in the other's shadows, causing you to lose depth of the wing feathers and definition of the lines in the shield. This becomes even more pronounced if you are using 10 and 2 for lights on Mercury dimes and the vertical sticks of the fasces disappear.

  • tcollectstcollects Posts: 734 ✭✭✭✭

    I had good luck simply buying one of @rmpsrpms setups. They're relatively affordable and cut the learning time. For example, I got this result on a dime size coin on my first or second day...

  • scubafuelscubafuel Posts: 1,716 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I’m not sure I can see that @messydesk although I’m sure it’s there. What I like about Bryce’s photos vs FlyingAl (though both are very good) is the lack of very dark spots on the coin particularly on the obverse. In hand with that coin I bet I’d see the additional colors shown in Bryce’s photo.

  • FlyingAlFlyingAl Posts: 2,756 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @scubafuel said:
    I’m not sure I can see that @messydesk although I’m sure it’s there. What I like about Bryce’s photos vs FlyingAl (though both are very good) is the lack of very dark spots on the coin particularly on the obverse. In hand with that coin I bet I’d see the additional colors shown in Bryce’s photo.

    That’s one of the wonderful things about photography. Both can be accurate. If you look at the coin under my light, you’ll see it as it looks in my photo. If you look under Bryce’s light, you’ll see how the coin looks in his photo. Photographers will also emphasize different elements of coins - I’m known for emphasizing luster and showing that aspect of a coin. Phil Arnold is great for colorful coins. Bryce may be a nice mix of the two. It comes down to personal preference at a certain level.

  • ProofCollectionProofCollection Posts: 5,250 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited February 8, 2024 10:09AM

    The part I struggle most with is the lighting. It just seems impossible to eliminate the glare from a light off of the slab. This leads to lighting from an angle which then leads to shadows. But everyone says to put the light next to the lens but no tips on how to eliminate the resulting glare.

  • Morgan13Morgan13 Posts: 722 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @ProofCollection said:
    The part I struggle most with is the lighting. It just seems impossible to eliminate the glare from a light off of the slab. This leads to lighting from an angle which then leads to shadows. But everyone says to put the light next to the lens but no tips on how to eliminate the resulting glare.

    A few things I have learned just recently-
    I like to use 3 lights I find it lights the coin up nice.
    Adjusting white balance is key.
    I use LED's with the same amount of light.
    This was taken in a slab and was the best I could do with my 55mm lens.

    Student of numismatics and collector of Morgan dollars

  • lkeneficlkenefic Posts: 7,621 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Excellent write-up!! Thanks for taking the time to do this. I opted for the same lens... Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens... I took a chance and bought it off ebay from someone that looked more like an semi-professional photographer (based on his sporadic offerings of various equipment and the higher end stuff he was bidding on). I got lucky with mine and the lens looked almost new. I've had zero issues with it. I also bought a used Canon T2i... it was about half of what I spent on the lens.

    Collecting: Dansco 7070; Middle Date Large Cents (VF-AU); Box of 20;

    Successful BST transactions with: SilverEagles92; Ahrensdad; Smitty; GregHansen; Lablade; Mercury10c; copperflopper; whatsup; KISHU1; scrapman1077, crispy, canadanz, smallchange, robkool, Mission16, ranshdow, ibzman350, Fallguy, Collectorcoins, SurfinxHI, jwitten, Walkerguy21D, dsessom.
  • The_Dinosaur_ManThe_Dinosaur_Man Posts: 821 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Fantastic write-up. Photography as a discipline has evolved so much and will continue to do so. With the amount of technicalities that go into this specialized field, I personally feel that numismatic photography would be its own college major if our hobby was more widespread.

    Just to add to some of the more descriptive commentary and techniques - capturing the right photo involves understanding four critical aspects of any individual coin: detail, luster, color, and relief.

    Custom album maker and numismatic photographer, see my portfolio here: (http://www.donahuenumismatics.com/).

  • messydeskmessydesk Posts: 19,600 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @robec said:
    ...
    I forgot to add, listen to @messydesk. He’s forgotten more than most of us will ever learn.

    Starting with where I put my white balance card.

  • winestevenwinesteven Posts: 3,987 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I carefully read each post above. It reinforces how specialized this is. I especially liked reading what the various top experts each had to say.

    I’m so glad I can just pay a reasonable fee and have top experts take photos of my coins!

    Steve

    A day without fine wine and working on your coin collection is like a day without sunshine!!!

    My collecting “Pride & Joy” is my PCGS Registry Dansco 7070 Set:
    https://www.pcgs.com/setregistry/type-sets/design-type-sets/complete-dansco-7070-modified-type-set-1796-date/publishedset/213996
  • 2windy2fish2windy2fish Posts: 775 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @BryceM Outstanding post and an interesting read!
    A lot of excellent contributions and commands as well.

    @BryceM Any chance you would be interested in a career move to Southern California?

  • messydeskmessydesk Posts: 19,600 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @winesteven said:
    I carefully read each post above. It reinforces how specialized this is. I especially liked reading what the various top experts each had to say.

    I’m so glad I can just pay a reasonable fee and have top experts take photos of my coins!

    Glad to take photos of your coins. They tend to be quite photogenic.

  • BryceMBryceM Posts: 11,689 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @2windy2fish said:
    @BryceM Outstanding post and an interesting read!
    A lot of excellent contributions and commands as well.

    @BryceM Any chance you would be interested in a career move to Southern California?

    Ha! Wonderful place to visit..... but I'm pretty happy here.

  • NeophyteNumismatistNeophyteNumismatist Posts: 853 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @BryceM - Thanks so much for posting this. I appreciate it.👍👍👍

    I am a newer collector (started April 2020), and I primarily focus on U.S. Half Cents and Type Coins. Early copper is my favorite.

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