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The Trouble with Photos

Posted by Cecile Raley on

One of the criticisms I hear the most regarding my shop is that my pictures, well – suck.  Ok, nobody puts it that way and that’s really nice.  But they could be much better.  Or maybe they couldn’t.  I kind of think they can’t but I’d love to be convinced otherwise!  Comments are welcome.
Let’s start by talking about light.  There are nice daylight lamps on the market, most color gem dealers have them.  You can build a light box (white box, open on top for light, the white then reflects the light all over and increases its power.  The daylight lamps shine in from the top, usually people use at least two, sometimes four or five.  That eliminates any extinction that is caused by the lighting coming from only one direction.

My thing about the daylight lamps is that I just can’t stand the way they change color.  And it is nearly impossible to change that color back to what the gem really looks like by adjusting the color after.  There is a certain vibrance that daylight lends to a gem which daylight lamps can’t imitate (Mandarin garnet suffers from loss of vibrance under daylight lamps).  Also, some gems actually pick up in color (purple sapphire is an example).  Others (blue sapphire) grey out.  I see this happening a lot when I purchase gems in indoor lighting.  Despite really strong daylight bulbs, it is really hard to make out the true color of certain gems.  With sapphire it is the worst (for me).  I have to take every single piece outdoors.  Most dealers that know me know this about me, and many appreciate it because it means you know what you are doing.  And if the gems are nice, taking them outdoors is a compliment to them.

I don’t use daylight lamps for photos.  I use daylight.  But there are drawbacks.  I use my window sill because when you use actual daylight you need a lot of it.  But unless you can get the daylight to come from directly behind you, you get the gems to show extinction.  Direct sunlight doesn’t work, the contrasts are too strong and you end up with strong shadows. Diffused daylight is best, but bright. Ideal lighting, to me, is when you sit in the shade on a bright sunny day.  I can only achieve that effect outdoors, not on my windowsill (and this is a problem in winter, plus I’m on the 4thfloor, I have a roof deck but I don’t like to go out on a cold and windy day).  Rainy days grey out a lot of gems (i.e. sapphire, mint garnet, Ceylon spinel).  Probably they just enhance the grey that is inherent in some of the gems, and so they look more drab.

Even with all this practice and preparation, a lot of times my photos come out too blue (especially my cell phone photos which are otherwise very crisp).  I’ve been told that all cameras, maybe even those in cell phones, can be adjusted for color accuracy in the camera itself.  (Just like a monitor can be adjusted).  In my case I’ve not yet managed.  So I adjust afterwards for color temperature, using my hand shots for reference (I know the color of my hands, which makes it easier). 


Too blue, you can tell from the "white" padded background

The direction of the light is also important.  If the gem is too tilted, the table will look white.  Or it shows tilt window, which almost all colored stones have and which forces you to photograph the gem straight on (hard to do when the light comes from only one direction).

Table is too white


In case you are wondering, I use a Nikon D5100, with the regular lens.  The camera is almost 3 years old now, so I could probably upgrade.  But I don’t know how much that would change things. 


A "good" photo

As you all know, gems thrive in the right light.  Or they “die” on you.  So the correct light, which produces the correct color, is everything.  Some gems also glow more in certain lighting.  Real paraibas show this.  Late daylight is wonderful for them.  Sapphires look better in mid-day in my view.  Morning light is often cooler than evening light, and winter light is different from summer light.  All this can affect what you see.  And – once everyone uses LED lights – say goodbye to the wonderful color change effect that some gems have.  I can see it only in my bathroom and that’s where I take all my color change photos.  :)

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