It’s been a while since I penned a photography blog. Now, I’d really love to talk about the great food I ate in Philly, urban farming and raising exotic poultry, the Indiana Jones style adventure I took in the mountains of Chiapas complete with screaming monkeys and crocodiles on a riverbank, or even rescuing senior dogs – but as a photographer the nerd part of my brain still lights up when I talk shop with curious newcomers to the hobby.
Clients and business associates ask me regularly, “How do you photograph coins?”
I always ask in return what sort of photography experience they have. You see, it’s not just the equipment or the processing that make an image. I’m staring down the big 4-0, and it occurs to me I’ve been working as a photographer in some capacity or another for literally 20 years now. For the past 10 years I’ve been working full time alongside Doug, and for the 8ish years prior to that I worked under one of the great numismatic photographers at a major auction house.
When I’m not photographing coins, I’m photographing weddings, pets, families, and traveling as far away from other tourists as possible to take photos for my own pleasure.
The reason I bring this up isn’t just my own sense of mortality now that I’m middle-aged, it’s that, simply put, I have practice. It is said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a chosen field. I may be considered a professional photographer, but even I am continuing to learn new techniques, I am regularly updating my gear, keeping my Adobe subscription current – I am not done learning.
Just as a world-class chef can make a meal in any kitchen, a photographer doesn’t rely solely on their gear. (I will say advanced gear and techniques can help make my job easier, but I still had to take the time to learn the gear.) This news shouldn’t discourage you – it should encourage you because you too can improve!
You only see my final products; you don’t see the shots I “throw away.” It is okay to take a coin photo, and retake it, and then take it again. I always say one of the benefits of working for Doug with our small inventory is that I have time to work on coin photos. It’s true I have a fairly good workflow and system, but it took years to develop that system.
We should all rejoice that we’re in the digital age, and that “throwing away” shots doesn’t mean film wasted, hours in the darkroom like a mole, and legal pads full of setting notations, frame by frame. I can still recall the smell of the mutagenic chemistry….
The skill-set you need to take a good photo of a coin is the same skill-set you need to have a good eye for coins: hours of practice and appreciation of your specialty. Chances are you can look at two coins, same date and grade and denomination, and know which one catches your eye. And that gut feeling is applicable to a photo. You assess a coin, and you understand what it looks like in hand. You can see that it changes at different angles, under different lights – and you get a feel for the overall appearance of the coin – the “average sum” of all of its angles.
This “average sum” is what I aim for. I don’t try to hide flaws, nor do I try to highlight them. But I’ll always err on the side of “under-promise and over-deliver” – I want our clients to feel confident that the image is going to be reliable, and I’d always rather have them say, “The image was great, but boy, I like it better in hand.” I always hear Doug tell someone, “Oh, that mark isn’t as obvious in-hand as it is in the photo,” but I’d rather have that mark be in the photo so you know, under certain conditions, it’s there. It’s a balancing act, but overall honesty in the image is the goal.
I’m always surprised to learn the how much the aspiring photographer has invested in their setup, and how similar their home-rig is to my office workspace. And I can help you pick your lens or your lamps, I can even talk you through some Photoshop basics, but the rest is really up to you. Don’t compare your photos with mine – compare your images to the photos you took yesterday: are they better? Compare your images to the coin: is it a fair representation?
I wish I could wave a magic wand and give you all the “magical settings” and *poof* you could have my job (I’d gladly move to Mexico sooner than later…don’t tell DW). And I’m still happy to answer questions about f-stops, or how to fight with scratched up slabs (and win) – but I’m largely writing to remind you that patience, practice, a smidge of intuition, and a light hand in post-processing are the only cure for an average photographer.