A Photo is Worth 1,000 Words (Except When It's Not Enough)

A Guest Blog from Jenna Van Valen, photographer here at DWN. We've all heard the numismatic mantra, "Buy the coin, not the holder." But what about those times we can't view the coin in person? Surely we can't all attend every convention, every auction, visit every dealer and view their inventory. We rely on dealers we trust, we rely on their descriptions, and we hope that the photo tells enough of a story that we can make an informed opinion on the coin without actually holding it in our own hands. We need to count on the dealer to be our eyes, because no two photos of the same coin will look the same. Why?

It's quite simple, really. When we hold a coin, we can tilt it, put it under different lighting conditions, get a feel for the overall look of the piece. But when I photograph a coin, I have to give you a quality representation of all the aspects of a coin under various conditions in one image. I can neither deceptively hide the flaws, nor do I really want to highlight them unless they're dreadfully apparent in hand. It's a balancing act, not so much science as intuition from nearly two decades as a professional photographer (eek, when did I start pushing 40?), and taking into account the literally tens of thousands of coins I've photographed and handled in the last decade+ in numismatics. It's entirely, completely, and sometimes woefully, subjective.

To prove my point, I spent a few extra minutes photographing a coin we purchased for inventory, using different lighting conditions, and different post-processing techniques. I will explain each set of images in non-photo-nerd terms.

The first example is my standard photograph, this is what I would post on our website as an inventory photo. I won't go into proprietary details, but I use a copy stand, an electronic cable release, some lamps, a fantastic lens, and an average (but older) DSLR body. I currently use Photoshop CS5 for my post-processing (though for years I used CS3), and have a predetermined white balance and set of techniques I use on every image to ensure consistency.

1875-CC NGC MS61 with "standard" lighting and processing

But wait - here is the same exact photo. I'm not kidding--it's the same photo, with different processing applied. But I used the same exact image files to produce this result. I could email the original files to 10 different Photoshop nerds, and you'd get back 10 different results, all based on our own intuition, experience, and techniques.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, same files, different processing

And it is so very, very simple to take the same exact coin, on the same exact copy stand and lens, and without even moving my lights or adjusting exposure, completely change the end result. I took these three obverse photos at all the same settings, processed them identically, and yet we have three wildly different results. Why? I simply rotated the coin so that it faced my light source at a different angle/rotation. It was literally just a slight turn to the left, dead center, and then to the right. Same coin, same distance, same lights, same processing, different rotations.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, three different rotations

And lastly, so I don't bore you with images and technical minutiae, here is the same coin, photographed in the same way, with different lighting applied. Diffused lighting can be magical, and can help make the fields of a proof coin light up (and it's the light I prefer to take portraits of people in). But different amounts of diffusion produce different results on the same exact coin.

1875-CC $20.00 NGC MS61, diffused lighting conditions

The same coin has many faces, but which is correct? None? All? Some? My point is that every one of these photos is accurate in some way. The camera can never, ever reproduce the range our (miraculous) human eyes and brains can. The best any of us can do is represent the coin accurately, according to our own values and experiences. Again, this is a subjective process. This is where a trusted dealer can really make or break your collection.

When you're looking at an auction catalogue, or an online inventory like ours, you can hope the image is a fair representation, but what if the rotation of the coin hides something in the fields that would make you cringe in person, under different lighting? What if the color is off? What if the image is too soft? Too contrasty? You won't ever know until you're holding the coin, and you may be in for a rude surprise. If you're trying to build a collection on your own, based on photographs, you are at a serious disadvantage. You are bidding against dealers and other buyers who have seen the coin in person. If you don't have a relationship with a dealer, you can't pick up your phone and ask if the coin is going to be a good fit for your set.

This is why Doug offers auction representation, this is why when we list new inventory on our site you can call him directly and get his opinion over the phone. I am an award-winning, published, successful photographer (even outside of numismatics) - but I can only show you one interpretation of the coin on my desk.

I strongly encourage collectors to remember this, and remember it well: A photo can be worth 1,000 words, but is it the right story?