I am David Bredan, Senior Editor of aBlogtoWatch. During my seven or so years in the watch industry I have had the privilege of taking tens of thousands of pictures of some of the most beautiful and fascinating timepieces produced in Switzerland, Germany, Japan and Hungary, even. Today, I would love to share with you my five watch photography tips that I hope will help make it easier and more efficient for you to capture the beauty, style and finely engineered details of your favorite timepieces. Let us begin!
Tip #1: Know your watches
Watches are extremely complex and refined examples of high-tech engineering. Consequently, over the last few hundred centuries, they have developed several answers and solutions to the same old questions. When photographing watches, you will really need to learn – through experience – what differences some of the key structural elements make. What type of front element does the watch have? Plexi, mineral crystal or sapphire? Does it have anti-reflective coating that tends to create a blue hue at least on some part of the crystal, or does it lack an AR-coating and is the face of the watch covered with sharp reflections of your surroundings? Is the crystal flat or curved? Is the case brushed, polished, or a combination of both? Is it "silver" in color (such as stainless steel, titanium, 18ct white gold or .950 platinum), is it traditional yellow gold, or does it have a special color to it, as do proprietary gold alloys and surface treatments?
These, along with many other factors and, most important, the unique combination of all these elements will ultimately determine what techniques and solutions you should use to get the best result in your watch photography. The Swiss luxury watch industry produces up to 27 million watches in a good year, so there truly is an infinite number of variations to the theme.
In a nutshell, my best advice in this regard – after having shot over 80,000 watch images just over the last four years of using my trusted D810 that's been recently complemented by a Profoto A1 – is to spend as much time taking pictures of as many watches as you can, and to review and post-process your own images yourself. Borrow watches from your family and friends, if need be, just so that you can encounter and capture as many variations in watch design as possible. They'll surely appreciate some neat-looking images of their prized timepieces!
Tip #2: Know your gear
As static objects as most timepieces may be, watch photography can often be a hectic and frantic task. Watch industry trade shows, where most all highly anticipated novelties are available only for a few minutes before they are requested by others, as well as nailing the perfect capture when out and about and photographing a watch with a model will always require the photographer knowing his or her gear to the fullest.
We will look at the importance of controlling light very soon, but in advance of that we can already say that getting your camera's and flash's settings right is an absolute must. Watch photography often requires pushing the shadows and reducing highlights to extreme extents, so shooting RAW is essential. However, even with that settled, you should ensure that you get your exposure right. Pictures that are too dark to begin with will not allow to a high-quality recovery of the dark, but important areas (such as the spaces between the wheels and plates of the movement), whereas over-exposed images will have the nicely polished cases, bezels, hands or certain sapphire crystals display large, extremely bright and ungainly reflections that cannot be recovered.
Traditional in-camera metering systems for all these reasons tend to not make any difference – you need to be able to know and trust your gear and, just as important, adjust your settings to the correct ones in the blink of an eye. The large and tactile wheel on the back of the Profoto A1 has come handy countless of times when, upon quickly reviewing my first shot, I could easily adjust the power of my flash to get the perfect balance between reflections and shadows on the fine watch that I was photographing.
Tip #3: Control your environment
Watches, if done well, are beautiful objects. So beautiful, in fact, that they can stand in stark contrast with their environment. The polished, refined surfaces and delicate components require a high-quality and beautifully lit environment in which they can still stand out, but not quite so much as to create a lack of balance. Controlling your environment includes anything in your surroundings that can create a reflection – because they will –, the details of the room or nearby location if outdoors that will surround the watch and, most importantly... controlling your lights as much as possible. Windows, mirrors, light sources in the ceiling or elsewhere all have a strong tendency of showing up on the watch, leaving you either with a messy-looking timepiece or hours of retouching work. Trust me, unsightly reflections over the complex engraved or printed textures on watch dials, or the hundreds of small movement components are no fun to remove in post. This requires a few more words and so it leads us to point 4.
Tip #4: Control your light
Quality timepieces can reflect and show different hues in millions of different ways, thanks to their elaborately crafted decorations and high quality painted and otherwise modified surfaces.
A powerful flash will allow you to use aggressive settings on your camera, meaning a low ISO, short shutter speed and narrow apertures. Funnily enough, all three are ab ovo required, if you want to make the most of your watch photography. Low ISO you will need to have as much useful dynamic range as possible – for the recovery of shadows and highlights as per the above. The short shutter speed is a pre-requisite if you are using high resolution camera systems – the Nikon D810 at 100% captures lack of sharpness from movement at shutter speeds as low as 1/125th. The small apertures you will need for your macro and other detail-shots as you will find that most macro lenses have an extremely narrow depth of field when shot at or close to wide open. All these leave you with the desperate need for either a tripod or, your better option, a powerful flash.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I had been ever given as a watch photographer was to use a flash. It absolutely revolutionized and totally changed not only the way I shoot, but, crucially, the way my images look. Bouncing the light from soft boxes or white or grey walls makes plenty of powerful, yet very soft light – and watches love soft light. Harsh light creates harsh reflections on all the faceted, polished and otherwise refined surfaces, making for a sight not to be eternally encapsulated by a photograph. A watch lit with soft light, on the other hand, is a sight to behold.
Tip #5: Use an on-camera flash
If all the above were still not quite enough to convince you, the last – and yet another strong – point for the on-camera flash is mobility. Though watches are small, the angle at which they are photographed makes a tremendous difference with regards to the final look of the image. This means that you will want to move around constantly in an effort to discover the best angles for the watch. A heavy tripod and the constraints of a camera mounted on a head can make for beautifully set-up studio images – but for any use scenarios outside of those, your best bet will always be going hand-held, with a powerful and intelligent flash.
Always keep your watches clean from finger prints and lint with a microfibre cloth; and chances are that you will want to set the hour and minute hands to around 10:08 as most dials look their best when the hands are set as such.
I hope that you have enjoyed these tips for watch photography. Nothing beats experimenting and practicing, but bearing the aforementioned conditions and quirks in mind will save you a lot of time moving forward and help you to focus on what really matters: chasing the perfect light, composition, and focus.
Established in 2007, aBlogtoWatch.com publishes watch buying guides, timepiece reviews and horological articles viewed by over one-million people worldwide each month. aBlogtoWatch strives to provide enthusiasts, consumers and watch collectors with the highest calibre of watch related information.