How To Photograph Jewelry For Catalogs

As a commercial photographer, I specialize in product, food, and architecture. One of the products we've been shooting a lot of lately is jewelry, specifically jewelry for catalog use. In my opinion, jewelry is one of the hardest things to photograph, and many photographers don't know where to start. Whenever we're tasked with photographing shiny, reflective, spherical objects, our studio sounds like a group of sailors on leave with all the profanity flying around (often times strung together to make complete sentences). We push on, moving through a series of techniques that yield the results we're after and we make mental notes for the next time we're presented with a similar challenge. It's how we better ourselves as photographers, and it's that challenge that gets me out of bed in the morning. In this video, I wanted to share some of the techniques we use to photograph those shiny, reflective, spherical objects for catalog use.

We approach catalog photography a bit differently than "hero" or advertising photography. The images are generally going to be much smaller and need to be consistent with work either from the same batch, or previous shoots. When it comes to catalog photography, the goal is to be efficient. We want to present a clean, uniform look that allows the client to use any of the images interchangeably. We also want to show as much of the product as possible to give the viewer a solid idea of what they're potentially buying. With catalog photography, the attention to detail is typically not as critical as advertising imagery, nor is the retouching as refined (efficiency is key), therefore the budgets are typically smaller per image. Another thing that keeps the cost down is the limited usage, typically licensed for just catalog use, whereas a hero image could be licensed for magazine ads, website, billboards, etc.

We don't use light tents, instead we prefer to build our own sets based on the specific characteristics of the pieces we're photographing. I find that by customizing the set, I get a lot more control and can create a better looking image for my client. We generally shoot like-items in series so we don't have to change the set around as often between pieces (efficiency is key). Working with very shallow DOF, we often use a technique called "focus stacking" to blend multiple expsosures into a single image using Helicon Focus, specialized software designed to find the sharpest portions of a group of images and blend them together.

In this video I'll walk you through the gear we use (who doesn't love a good BTS), some of our easiest techniques to capture simple jewelry images for catalog use, and show you how to fashion some of your own props to assist in those captures.

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james johnson's picture

I've never used Helicon. You say it does a better job in the video. I'm curious in what way?

Tony Roslund's picture

PS does a decent job, but we found that we had to go into each layer and refine the masks a bit on almost every round. Helicon typically nails is first try.

Ishmil Waterman's picture

For one if your shooting with a dslr it can automate the multiple frames. you set up in live view, set the start and end focus points and it does all the work for you :)

Paul Monaghan's picture

what dslr automates focus shifting between shots?

Ishmil Waterman's picture

I imagine any when using helicon, but It works with all of my canon bodies without fault

Justin Haugen's picture

Step 1: Turn down the job!

just kidding lol. Product photography is truly painstaking work. Thanks for sharing your process!

Brian Reese's picture

Sintra or PVC board is awesome stuff. It can be heated (boiling is better) and shaped into a desired result. After shaping you then cool it (the molecules expand then retract tighter), the result is a pretty sturdy, molded shape. Very popular in movie model sets, props and prop replicas and Cos Play.

Spy Black's picture

I freelance in a studio where a fair amount of jewelry is shot. Although they already know the score, you can always still hear the air being sucked out of the room when emeralds and sapphires are converted to CMYK. Rubies hurt when going to sRGB for the web. At the end of the day everyone sucks it in and out goes the job. Never fails to amuse me how they complain about the same thing every time however. :-)

Bert McLendon's picture

Really digging your behind the scenes Tony! I had one quick question about the focus stacking. I have the 120mm Macro and a focus rail but by moving it on the focus rail you're essentially getting closer or getting further away from the subject and changing the size of the subject in the frame. Does Helicon match the scale AND blend focus? If I focus using the focus ring on the lens it adjusts in and out as well so I've never messed with any focus stacking software. Anyway, keep up the great work man!

Tony Roslund's picture

Yes! Helicon will blend size and focus. It's pretty great software. PS does a decent job, but we found that we had to go into each layer and refine the masks a bit on almost every round. Helicon typically nails is first try.

Henry Louey's picture

Maybe its my ignorance at play here as i don't shoot products at all

But wouldn't shooting at a high aperture save you the need to focus stack?

Again apologies if this is a super dumb question

jason armond's picture

when shooting product with a macro lens even with a high aperture the depth of field is still extremely shallow. With jewelry the client wants extreme focus throughout everything. With a macro lens you take a shot and it looks in focus, but when you zoom in part of the diamond is extremely sharp, others parts are sharp, other parts are out of focus.

Spy Black's picture

It doesn't matter if you shoot products or not, it's a photographic technique you may want to consider when shooting macro. Even at your minimum aperture you would still have limited depth of field. More importantly however you would suffer from lens diffraction being closed down to your smallest aperture. You can see an example of both of these in the images below. One was focus-stacked at an optimum aperture, in this case f/8, and the other one is a straight shot taken at the minimum aperture of the lens at f/22 (note, those are two different bills shot).

You can not only see the limited depth of field fully stopped down, but the loss of image sharpness at the focus point from image diffraction. I also, for some reason not clear to me, got some flare in the fully stopped-down shot, but that's beside the point, you can still see the loss of image quality. Of course, you can also see the advantage of focus stacking in the maximum sharpness your lens can give you, as well as essentially unlimited depth of field. Both of these shots were taken with a reversed 20mm f/4 Nikkor Ai on a fully extended bellows attachment.

Hope this clarifies things for you. :-)

Tony Roslund's picture

What he said ^. The sweet spot for this lens is f/12. Stopping down would gain a little DOF, but compromise sharpness.

Michael Comeau's picture

I really like these videos. If I could make a request, it would be to see how the image comes together one light at a time, even if it's not entirely focus-stacked.

I've actually been interested in a macro focusing rail. Is there a lower-priced one that works well? I'd be using a 5D/6D with 100mm macro lens, so I don't know if I need something as hefty as the RRS one. Or is this one of those situations where you end up buying the RRS one anyway because the cheaper one is too compromised?

Tony Roslund's picture

Manfrotto makes one at a fraction of the price. I hear it's good as well, although I've never used it. I have a RRS head and the Arca-Swiss style mount on the RRS rail was a plus.

Tony Roslund's picture

Michael, I'm scheduled to shoot a product photography tutorial in November (including jewelry). Just follow my social media links to stay in the loop.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Great video Tony! Thanks for sharing

Lyanlex Bernales's picture

Thanks for this Tony!

Robert Feliciano's picture

Nice tips. I'll use the clothes pins to board idea. Currently my stylist tapes it to a C-Stand boom arm, this should save a lot of time, she can do a bunch in advance.
For lighting, I continue the sweep on to the table rather than have it come straight down. I have the 3x4 softbox above the jewelry and angle it into the sweep with hole in it, it fills everything in nicely.
I never understood that D4 on a cost perspective, though it is more convenient when adjusting exposure. You can buy 4 Acute 2 1200s for the price of one D4 4800 and still have money left over to buy the lights.
No idea how this focusing rail is so cheap, it has great reviews too:
Fine for DSLR, but I wouldn't put a medium format rig on it.

Tony Roslund's picture

Robert, the big advantage of the D4 is color consistency across the entire power band. You can go from min power on one head to max power on another have have very minor variation (if any) in color temp. This is AWESOME when shooting product and well worth the cost for me. And yes, I used to own Acute packs. The other great thing is that the D4 will power either Acute heads or Pro heads. I have both as I use the Pro packs for shooting splashes because of their fast flash duration.

Aaron Brown's picture

Loving your videos, Tony!

Ishmil Waterman's picture

Really informative. I've used a similar set up in the past, but I found it made the jewellery some what flat. Any suggestions for introducing more dimension?

Tony Roslund's picture

Ish (can I call you Ish), that's the main reason I don't use light tents. They're pretty bland. You can modify this technique by replacing one of the white sintra bounce cards with a silver card. That gridded light from the front also helps add sparkle and make the image less flat.

Ishmil Waterman's picture

Ish is what they call me :)
and I will keep that in mind. I never thought that a silver piece of card would introduce more punch in the metals and stones. Thanks for the advice!

Jason Brietstein's picture

Really enjoyed the walkthrough. Love the trick for necklaces. I was using a bust and tape. What a pain in the ass.

If only my clients' budgets were greater than $20 per finished shot I'd be able to imitate this setup. Instead using cheap led, speedlight, occasional flashlight, ikea products, and no macro lens. However, with focus stacking and cropping down to 450x450 for web catalogs my process "works."

Brandy Yowell's picture

Great article/video Tony! I started shooting jewelry for catalog use a few months back and it is a pain, but I picked up some great tips here that will make my life a little easier. Thanks!

Cagomoc Reed's picture

Really helpful tips thanks..

Lee Morris's picture

Killer tutorial

Avrohom Perl's picture

Fantastic BTS, thank you Tony!

Were do you pick up your PVC board?

Do you find that the mat frame ever causes unwanted reflections/lines in your jewelry? Wouldn't a similar setup with plexi glass be better?

Do we get to see a file of the final image?

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