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How to Photograph Coins - Advice, Hints, Tips & More.
Coins can be difficult to photograph, but we are happy to share our experience. We recommend the best value digital SLR camera for the job. Benefit from our 8 years of experience. Some of our advice may be obvious to keen amateur photographers, but we will try to give advice which will help everybody. We also mentions scanners.
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Most Stolen Coin Image
This is the single most "stolen" coin image. If you see it in eBay actions or other websites not operated by Chard, it used being used in breach or our copyright!
Coins present several problems for most photographers,
They are small and highly reflective. Many professional photographers would struggle to take good quality photographs of coins. It has taken us eight years of hard work, trial and error to get where we are now.
Digital SLR Camera
In our opinion, the best way to get great photographs is to invest in a good camera. Many of the modern digital cameras have very high specifications and are good value, but for best results you should look at an SLR camera. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and this type of camera normally has interchangeable lenses. Ten years ago, a digital SLR camera would have cost you about £10,000! You can now buy something better for under £500.
The advantage with an interchangeable lens is that you can get the best lens for the job, and to get good images, you need to be able to focus up close, and to be able to fill the frame with the image. Some general purpose lenses will allow you to focus close to the subject, and these may be perfectly acceptable for occasional use, but for best results you need a macro lens.
A macro lens is one which will allow you to obtain a 1:1 image size, that is the size of the image to capture will be the same as the object you are trying to photograph. A macro lens is specially designed, and its optics computed, to give excellent performance at close focus distances.
We have used a Ricoh, Fuji S1, Nikon D100, and Canon EOS 350D, but have read and researched most other digital SLR cameras.
Many years ago, we used to take coin and jewellery photographs using an Olympus OM1 SLR camera. It was slow and expensive because we had to wait to get the films developed, before finding out the 99% of our photos were unusable, and taking them again. Digital is just incredible in comparison.
Our first Digital was a cheap Ricoh which could focus within 6 inches, and we got some OK results from it, but not great.
Fuji S1 Pro
Our second camera was a Fuji S1, which we have used since about 1999 / 2000, shortly after it was introduced. It took us some time, about 2 or 3 months before we started to be happy with the quality of images we were getting, but we have been using this camera until 2006, and many of the images we have taken with it are the most copied coin photographs in the internet and on eBay. We have also licensed a number of our photographs to national newspapers and magazines.It cost us £1,800 and we also bought lighting equipment, and other accessories which took our investment up to about £6,000.
We bought a Nikon speedlight ringflash, and a Tamron 90mm macro lens, and this combination is what we have used to take over 5,000 coin photographs. You can see the results on our numerous websites ( we are not allowed to advertise them here).
Probably the worst thing about the Fuji was the build quality, The battery latch failed after about 2 years, and we were told that it would be only need to be away for 3 or 4 weeks for repair. As we use our camera almost daily, we bought a spare body (another camera), and because Fuji use Nikon lens mounting, we bought a Nikon D100. We have shown a picture of the newer S3 camera, which looks very similar to the S1, and costs about £1,000.
When we bought the Fuji, it was a close decision whether to get a Nikon D1, but this was almost £1,000 more expensive, and we were advised that the Fuji was probably better for our purposes. Bearing in mind that Nikon's reputation for cameras is similar to that of Rolex for watches, we got a Nikon. As the price of the D1 had gone up rather than down, we decided on a cheaper model. The incredible and unexpected problem with the Nikon was that it was not compatible with the Nikon ringflash! We asked about the cost of replacing our existing ringflash with a newer compatible model, and were dumbfounded to learn that Nikon did not make a ringflash which was compatible with any of its digital SLR cameras. Very disappointing for a market leading brand name. What we did learn at this point it that we should have done more research. A camera review published in 2001 informed us that the only major digital camera manufacturer with a fully compatible macro system, including ringflash, was Canon.
Canon EOS 350D (Rebel)
Canon cameras are a similar price to Nikon, and the two brands vie with each other among top photographers for the top spot as far as SLR's go. Sure there are medium and large format cameras, such as Mamiya, and Hasselblad, but these are very expensive.
From what we have learnt, Canon are probably more highly regarded than Nikon for many applications. Nikon seem to be used by press photographers and paparazzi because they are quite durable, but Canon make a number of excellent quality lenses, and are used by wildlife photographers and other specialists.
The top Canon model is an EOS 1D Mark
2, and will cost about £4,000 for the body only. The 350D is probably the best value digital SLR on the market today. You can buy one with a moderate quality zoom lens for under £500, but as we have already said, you also need a macro lens,
Canon Macro Lens
The lens we use is the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM. it is similar to, but far better than the Tamron 90mm macro which we already own, but which had a Nikon lens mount, so will not fit on the Canon. It will cost about £400, but is absolutely superb.
The ringflash we use is the Canon EX14 ringlite. It sounds quite expensive at about £300, but will complete your "professional coin photographer" set up.
Other Equipment & Goodies
You will also find it handy to buy a copy stand or good tripod, although you can hand hold the camera for occasional use.
Most cameras come complete with some image editing software, and it is necessary if you want to get the best results, because all cameras have to interpret what they see depending on the lighting source and conditions.
The Fuji and Nikon came with a copy of Adobe Photoshop SE, a cut-down version of the market-leading image software, used by most graphic professionals and printers.
The Canon came with two software packages, both of which are useful.
Paint Shop Pro
The image manipulation package we find easiest to use is Paint Shop Pro by JASC software. Our copy cost about £27 online, compared with about £500 for a full version of Adobe.
We will give a quick rundown of our photo production process.
We have a tripod set up permanently, and attach the Canon to it. The Canon 100mm macro lens also lives on the camera, as does the Canon ringlite.
The background we use is a clean sheet of white paper. We set the camera to manual exposure (M), with the smallest aperture, ASA equivalent sensitivity 100, and we set "White Balance" to auto, we use high quality large jpg setting, although we could also capture "Raw". To help ensure the camera is in a parallel plane to the coin, we use two cheap spirit levels.
We either adjust the tripod to get the coin to full the frame, or else stack a few books under the coin to adjust the height (the lens is a "prime" lens not a zoom). Generally all we need is one photo of each side of the coin, and we do not need to "bracket" our shots, although we do occasionally have to re-shoot for some reason or another.
After loading the images onto a computer, we first rename them with a suitable name such as 1974krugerrandrev. Next step is to use Photoshop to "adjust levels". We start with "auto", save as, then repeat using adjust to "18% grey", sometimes to "white". If you do not understand this bit, you will need to get a copy of Photoshop and try it. We rename and "save as" at each stage, then we can always backtrack or re-use a previous image.It also gives us a kind of audit trail in cases where somebody "borrowing" our images disputes our authorship!
We then switch to Paint Shop Pro (PSP) for the rest of our processing. First we rotate, then we crop, saving at highest quality and lowest compression at each stage. Next we resize, and save as again, this time using the pixel width e.g. 240 as the final characters of the name, apart from the jpg filename extension.
The last stage is to apply a Digimarc watermark, which again makes it easier to prove our ownership, and a final save as, using 15% compression. This loses a small amount of quality, but reduces the file size by a factor of about 2 or 3. We upload to our server, and then treat ourselves to a well-earned coffee break.
A real professional would probably tell you that you need side lighting rather than a ringflash, however our setup helps us sell about £10 million worth of coins per annum, so it's probably adequate for most eBayers.
Bigger Coins & Smaller Coins
Coins over about 40mm in diameter are slightly more difficult as the angle of the lighting from the ringflash is too close to 90°, giving too much reflection and burnout of the flat fields of the coin. For these, switch to a general purpose zoom lens, but most coins are below this size. Very small coins, under about 12mms do not fill the frame, and a close-up filter which attaches to the front of the lens will help get closer.
Years ago, when they were much more expensive, we bought quite a good a scanner, as we thought it would work well for coins. It was useless for coins. Some scanners are undoubtedly better than others for this purpose. We intend to test a new scanner for coin images, and will add our comments here when we have done so.
We also use our cameras to photograph jewellery, which is usually harder to get good results. Here is our best photo to date of a pink diamond. We used the setup we have already described but added 3 close-up filters, of 2,3, and 4 diopters. These allow closer focusing. The diamond shown is only about 3mm long.
We found an excellent website, photonotes (dot) org, written by N.K. Guy with an amazing amount of helpful infromation about choosing a camera, and about Canaon cameras and lenses. Worth visiting!
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