How To Shoot Macro Photos

by John Holbrook

Macro product photography can be extremely challenging, but also very rewarding. Commercial opportunities for high quality product close ups are strong and growing, both in print and online. In the following pages, I’m going to illustrate the techniques I’ve learned over the past several years doing commercial macro photography of wrist watches. Once you’ve mastered the challenges of photographing a wrist watch, you’ll be well prepared to do all manner of macro product photography.

The Equipment

I’ve tried several different camera and lens combinations, but currently I use a Canon f/2.8 EF 100mm macro lens, mated to my Canon 40D for nearly all my watch photography. This combination is the best I’ve tried for the work I do. In particular, using the EF 100mm lens has really made for a quantum improvement in my photographs. It’s an ultra sharp lens that allows me to capture incredible close ups, while at the same time providing an excellent working distance away from the subject.

I recommend that you use a timed shutter release, as depressing the shutter release manually can also produce unwanted blur to a macro photo. Some dust particles will invariably appear no matter what you do and can be easily fixed with the healing brush in Photoshop

Working distance is an important consideration due to the reflective nature of watches. If you’re too close, the camera or even the photographer shows up reflected on the watch. Thanks to the resolution provided by the Canon 40D’s 10.1-megapixel image sensor, combined with the sharpness of the EF 100mm, I’m able to crop and magnify incredible images which are suitable for print. But to produce top quality watch photographs, the camera and lens are just the beginning of the equipment you’ll need. (fig.1)

In addition to the camera and lens, you’ll definitely need to use a tripod when doing macro work as the slightest camera movement will produce discernable blur in a macro photograph. To further reduce incidence of blurred photos, I recommend that you use a timed shutter release, as depressing the shutter release manually can also produce unwanted blur to a macro photo. Using a timed shutter release will also give you the advantage of having both hands free while you shoot which, as I will illustrate shortly, will come in very handy.

Professional looking watch and product photos also necessitate the use of a light box. A light box, or light defusing box, allows you to have maximum illumination of your subject, while at the same time minimizing harsh, direct light which can cause reflections and “hot spots.” You can purchase several different pre-made light boxes or light tent solutions from specialty suppliers or simply construct one yourself. I use a translucent storage bin (the common sort which can be purchased at any hardware store), and tape pieces of velum paper along the interior for additional light diffusion. Along the exterior of the box, I use a variety of incandescent and halogen light sources to illuminate the interior staging area.

The key here is to surround the light box with several different light sources to provide both adequate and balanced light. Relying on a single, powerful light source may provide adequate light levels, but will also likely bring harsh highlights and reflections. Distributing several light sources around the light box reduces unwanted hot spots and reflections and produces a much more pleasing photograph.

The final items you’ll want to make sure you have at your disposal are white cards (also called reflector cards). Once you’ve activated the timed shutter release (you’ll be pleased you have both hands free at this point) you can use your white card (I often use a plain sheet of paper or poster board) to reflect additional light onto the dial of the watch. You can also position a white card to further defuse light if necessary and chase away “hot spots” of harsh light. The properties of most watch crystals tend to create lots of shadows, reflections and other unwanted aberrations which can ruin an otherwise clean photograph. In some cases, these problems can be reduced or eliminated in post photo editing, but skillful use of a reflector card will save you hours of maddening work in Photoshop. You’ll also want to be careful of what you wear while you shoot – wearing a white shirt is recommended as watches are highly reflective and a colored shirt will show up in the photo on the case or crystal.

The Prep Work

Before I begin a watch shoot, the first order of business is to clean the watch. Under the extreme magnification of macro photography, even the slightest hint of dust, fuzz and fingerprints become glaringly obvious and can ruin and otherwise good photo. Here’s an example of a photo that’s marred by the presences of dust particles on the watch crystal and case. You can also see an example of a “hot spot” around the 3 and 4 o’clock position, on the out ring of the watch bezel. Finally, you can make out skin tone reflections in the watch lugs, on either side of the crown of the watch. (fig.2)

Again, some dust particles will invariably appear no matter what you do and can be easily fixed with the healing brush in Photoshop. But some front end cleaning work will save a great deal of time and frustration later. The same goes for hot spots and reflections, with time consuming work in Photoshop, reflections can be painted over and hot spots can be repaired. But skillful, front end work can eliminate these problems well before you load the file to Photoshop and save you hours of editing time. While setting up the watch on the staging area, I generally wear cloth jeweler’s gloves (to avoid finger prints) and I will also give the watch a couple of blasts from a can of compressed air to blow away any random dust particles from both the watch and the stage.

Setting the Stage

When setting up your shot, you’ll want to give some consideration as to the background the watch is placed upon. I find that marble flooring tiles make excellent backgrounds for watch photography. Marble tiles of a variety of sizes and colors can be purchased inexpensively at many home improvement or specialty flooring outlets. In this photo, I’m using a black marble tile behind the watch to create a simple “catalog style” photograph of the watch. (fig.3)

In this next photo I’m getting more creative and stylish by using marble tile with a colored pattern running through it to coordinate with the colors of the dials on the watches. (fig.4)

In this next photo, you’ll see I’m using the reflective qualities of the black marble tile to create a dramatic reflection. (fig.5)

The warmer qualities of wood can also be very appealing for watch photography. In this photo, I’ve placed the watches on top of a wood jewelry box that had very rich color and texture. (fig.6)

In this photo, the textured leather box in which the watch was packaged proved to be an excellent background on which to place the watch. (fig.7)

Notice in the last two photos, I used some watch accessory items in the photographs to further enhance the photographs. The use of props in watch photography is another area which allows for a great deal of creativity and enhances aesthetic appeal. In these two photos, I’m making good use of a watch stand as well as some sea shells for added variety and visual differentiation in the photographs. (fig.8)

Creative use of a variety of backgrounds and props can turn an otherwise boring photograph into a work of art. Pens, keys and pocketknives, are just a few of the props that can be used to enhance a watch photograph.

Editing In Photoshop

By using the previous mentioned techniques along with plenty of practice and patience, you should be able to produce some pretty sharp macro photographs. Now you’re ready to enhance your photographs using some simple techniques I’ve learned over the years in Photoshop.

Typically the dial of the watch will require the most correction and enhancement. My first step will be to use the Healing Brush to eliminate any smudges or dust particles which appear on the watch. Next, using the magnetic lasso tool, select the dial area of the watch, then feather your selection (Select>Feather) – I typically use a feather radius of 15 pixels. In some cases, the pre-edited watch dial can have a washed out appearance due to the light levels required to adequately capture the watch. Conversely, in some instances, a dark colored dial will sometimes appears murky as compared to the rest of the watch. In either case, simple curve adjustments (Image>Adjustments>Curves) can greatly correct and enhance the dial appearance. In most cases, my next step will be to enhance the contrast between the dial, markers and hands (Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast). Boosting the contrast setting by 10 to 15 units is generally sufficient. My final step will be add some minor sharpening of the watch dial (Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mark) Subtlety is best with the Unsharp Mask – I usually set the Amount slide rule to 250 percent and the radius slide rule somewhere between 0.3 and 1 pixel radius, with the Threshold slide set to 0.

After I’ve cleaned up the watch dial, I’ll use these same techniques on the watch bezel, bracelet or any other location that might require some touch up or enhancement.

Here’s an example of a watch photograph in its essentially unedited form – I’ve simply corrected for exposure and color levels in the RAW file editor. I’ve intentionally taken a “poor” photo, to accentuate and magnify the kinds of problems that can come up. (fig.9)

Now here’s the same photograph after applying the above techniques to the dial, bezel and bracelet. As you can see, the Photoshop corrections and enhancements have greatly improved the photograph. (fig.10)

My final advice to those venturing into macro product photography is to be patient and practice. It may take several attempts with any of the above techniques to gain full mastery. Use the instant feedback advantage of digital photography to your advantage – set up a shot and then take several variations of the photograph, each time changing a controllable variable. Increase or reduce lighting, move the position of the light sources, change the position of your reflector cards – with each individual change, check the result in Photoshop, then combine the optimal changes for the final shoot. Good luck!


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