Watch Photography – How To Photograph A Watch Part 1 by Rob baggs
Watch Photography – How To Photograph A watch Part 1
Where once dream watches were gazed at through a window of an affluent jeweller after they paused a commute, they now pause a finger’s relentless scrolling. It’s a shame in many ways but empowering in many others. Never have brands of all sizes and horological abilities had such unfathomable reach, and so, it’s more important than ever to ensure these beautiful creations have the best imagery possible.
I’ve been obsessed with watches since childhood. I can’t imagine there were many children who went to school with a pocket watch, but it was the first item in my blazer. I didn’t have much money growing up, and so the highlight of my year was buying replicas of my favourite timepieces from Spanish markets that would promptly turn my little wrist green. If only I could have known that only a decade or so later, I’d be photographing the very watches I yearned for.
Photography started independently to my love for watches, but they converged in a moment of clarity. I had spent a long time learning macro photography so I could take images of tiny insects and capture all of their detail and splendour that can go unseen. I suddenly could plainly see how transferable those skills were, and I began reaching out to watch brands; everything from cheap Chinese imports with a printed logo, to titans of horology with limited edition pieces worth more than my house. My aim was the same as when I would capture images of those insects: show the detail and the beauty that can be so easily missed.
I’ve now built a portfolio of thousands of images for myriad brands, with results ranging from editorials for print and billboards in Times Square, New York, through to first-person perspective shots for regular Instagram content. A veteran Vogue award-winning photographer I work with once said he’s never worked with a photographer who understands camera better than I do, which was a polite way of telling me I’m boring. Well, in this article I am going to share with you some boring advice on what you ought to be considering when having your pieces photographed, or even photographing them yourself. You’re a part of The Watchmakers Club because you care about your creations and it’s imperative that after all that time you spent scrutinising the details, you do both yourself and your watches justice by capturing their beauty and depth, properly.
To set a steady foundation, let’s look at the broad separations of watch shots you’re likely to see and want. I break down my images into three main categories when shooting: Wrist shots, styled product shots, and macro stacking shots. Each of these has sub-categories, but for the most part, they’re separated into these groups because of lighting and shooting style. Let’s look at some examples:
The wrist shot is — generally speaking — the king of social media. I work closely with a number of PR agencies who are kind enough to let me know what does well both in terms of analytics, and as paid adverts and sponsored posts. Time and time again, the wrist shots do well. These can be shot both from a first-person perspective like above or on a model’s wrist. The former is tricky and requires some practice and the right camera and lens combination. The latter is far easier and gives you a lot of flexibility with how you shoot. My first-person shots tend to do better than when shot on someone else’s wrist, and I believe this is due to it giving a real sense of how the piece would look on your own wrist.
Styled Product Shot:
If the watch isn’t on-the-model, then it’s often in a styled setting. This sort of image has been the most common over the years, particularly in publications where if the watch isn’t being awkwardly held by a celebrity, it is submerged into a scene fitting to the design’s motif. A lot of brands and agencies prefer these shots over wrist shots for when they launch a new piece and want to generate intrigue. They take more work and finesse than it might appear, particularly if you’re hoping for the editorial feel of the above image. Everything in the frame must be considered carefully; what colour the props are, how bright they will look, whether they’ll distract from the watch, and so on. For example, the above image for Visser has no colours in the blue family, which was a calculated move. The primary objective with staged images like these is to generate a theme within the scene while keeping a strong focus on the watch.
Macro Stacking Shot:
This is my favourite image type and is my speciality. They are technically the most difficult and they take far longer than any other composition. Unless you are an experienced photographer, this may not be possible, but I will explain what goes into making this brand of image. I use a dedicated macro lens for these shots and the camera will be so close to the watch that only a sliver will be in focus; we’re talking a matter of millimetres. I will focus on the brand’s logo first and experiment with lighting until it’s right, and then I will focus on the furthest point I want in focus. With the above image, that was the top left corner where the strap is visible. I will then take a frame and readjust the focus by a millimetre or so and take another shot. Once I have a shot where every fraction of the watch is in focus in at least one shot, I use software to “stack” these images together creating one final, fully focused file ready for retouching. Some images are stacks of only 30 or 40 individual frames, whereas some — like the image above — are taken at such a close proximity to the lens that it’s closer to 150 individual frames. Any slight movement of the camera, watch, or scene, any alteration in setting or lighting, or any minor mistake and hours of work will be wasted. It’s a technique of fine margins but the results are grandiose and beautiful with an unparalleled sense of detail and craftsmanship.
As Editor at Fstoppers, I’ve written, edited, and read an enormous amount of information on the use of light. Sadly, a misconception that’s often peddled without any evidence is that you somehow need expensive studio lighting to capture anything well. Firstly, light is light. Profoto B1 studio lights worth thousands of pounds do not somehow expel a different kind of light to those cheap flash guns off Amazon. Secondly, natural light is incredibly powerful when harnessed correctly, so you don’t even really need flashguns for a lot of shots. A caveat to this that’s worth offering is that the macro stacking images I’m so fond of do — for the most part at least — require powerful studio lights and a comprehensive understanding of how they interact with your camera, so I will focus on the other types of watch image.
Wrist shots, in particular, can be shot with entirely natural light. While it’s true I will sometimes use strobes for them, it’s often not needed to create a great image. The best weather for taking these images is a cloudy, overcast day. While counterintuitive, strong sunshine strips you of a lot of control, whereas the diffused light through a dull day’s clouds allows for an even distribution of soft light. One important detail when shooting natural light wrist shots is that the angle the face of the watch with regards to the camera’s lens is paramount. Experiment with how much you tilt your wrist towards the camera until you have no ugly reflections encroaching on the watch’s details, logo, or hands. That said, I will often allow the light to reflect on the edges of the glass for a pleasing catchlight. Here are some examples of natural light wrist shots:
Styled product shots can be shot using natural light too, either outside under similar conditions, or using a large window. While all the tips for a natural light wrist shot still apply, one perk of the styled product shot is that you can utilise your camera’s long exposure function (there are a plethora of guides on how to use this on Google). This allows you to capture a great image in low light and can facilitate more creative shots. For example, for a brand that has a design motif of the British Navy, I partially submerged their watch on a rock on a shoreline and took a long exposure while the waves lapped at it. This created a soft, interesting, and watery result:
If you’re not confident with long exposures, however, styled product shots can be achieved almost anywhere. Just make sure to experiment with the position of the face to the camera and ensure the whole watch is in focus, while the background is attractive without being distracting. What you blur out of an image is almost as important as what you keep in focus when creating a balanced composition.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on Rob@acufocal.com — I am always happy to discuss both watches and photography, and advise where necessary.