Coin Photography: Where to Start?

Jenna again, with another photography blog. I want to tell you all how to be successful in coin photography: you need to start at the beginning, and practice.

When I started shooting film seriously, things were not so simple. I had a composition notebook I carried, I had to neurotically jot down the settings of every frame I took; my f-stop, my shutter speed, the time of day, was my subject backlit? Then I would process my own film, create a contact sheet, and eventually my own prints, and I would make copious notes about my negatives in comparison to my settings, all in the pursuit of learning.

Now of course we have the luxury (and those who can recall the smell of chemicals know what I mean) of digital processing. Why is this a luxury? It’s simple: instant gratification. You know the moment you press your shutter if you have what you need. You can review your display, your histogram, your computer monitor, and know immediately that you’ve gotten what you wanted. If it’s not, you can make on-the-fly adjustments and try again, within seconds.

When you’re starting out with any sort of photography, the best thing you can do for yourself is practice. You cannot compare your work to the work of others – photography is a personal journey. You can only compare your work to the work you did yesterday, or last month, or two years ago.  (I suppose this is also a bit of a life lesson, too.)

Do not be afraid to experiment; digital memory is cheap now, unlike “wasting film,” and you can delete and throw away anything that’s not good. Once I’ve gone through my photos and flagged the ones I’m keeping, it feels pretty gratifying to dump everything else into the trash and forget about it. No one cares about your blurry photos, your underexposed images, and chances are you will never get around to “fixing” them in post-processing. Keep the good stuff, and move on. (There are caveats to this rule in photographing people or events, as sometimes the moment is more important than getting the shot 100% spot on, but we’re talking coins today.)

How do you find the good stuff? Trial and error, of course. Experiment with your settings, your light sources, the angle of the coin, the rotation of the coin. You’re going to see changes from frame to frame with every adjustment you make. The great news is that coins make excellent subjects: they never get bored, they never whine, never complain about arm fat (I'm looking at you, Seated Liberty) or a second chin, and they never blink!

Do not get hung up on advanced processing techniques such as combining images, or having the “best” lens or the “best” camera body – find out first how to maximize what you’re working with, and then decide later if you want to add to your gear, or even continue coin photography at all.

What is your goal? Do you want to simply have a visual representation of your personal collection? Are you going to make money out of this venture, or is this for your personal enjoyment? You don’t want to dive head-first into what can be an expensive hobby only to be frustrated by the complicated settings you don’t understand.

No one becomes a great photographer purely by accident! (Some people have an innate eye for art and composition and light and color, but...)

Take whatever camera it is you’re using, and learn to use it the best way you can. If you’re comparing your point and shoot results with the photos I post, you’re going to be disappointed. Don’t give up. What you need to do first is make accurate images using the tools at your disposal. The only way to do this is to repeatedly try new settings, lights, angles, until you find one that works for you. It may not be what works for anyone else – but if you can achieve consistent results with relative ease, you’re on your way.

Once you’ve nailed your chosen subject, say a dime from your pocket, see if you can replicate those results with a different coin. Different size coins, different finishes, different compositions. Each coin you pick up and try to photograph is going to present new challenges. But if you have a basic understanding of your equipment, if you have mastered the settings on your camera, if you have taken the time to learn the basics of photography, it will be increasingly easier to make the required adjustments for each coin you attempt to document.

What’s fun about digital photography is how quickly you can move from crawling to jogging; you don’t have to wait to process film, you merely have to look at your files. And if it’s wrong, keep trying until it looks right. Don’t know how to make it look right? Learn what your settings are. Learn how to adjust your white balance. Learn photography 101, because you can’t start in the middle of something.

There are many excellent resources available online when you’re learning photography of any sort, and many are free. There are the blogs of AdoramaPix, there are tutorials on every camera you could imagine on YouTube, there are groups dedicated to specific cameras and lenses and interests on photo sharing sites like Flickr.

There are probably photography meet ups or clubs in your area, where nerds like me love to talk about gear and technique. Chances are there’s a geek like me at your local camera shop (bonus points if they sell old film cameras), and if you catch them on a not-so-busy day they can show you, hands-on, how to use the settings on your camera.

As for coin photography, I highly recommend Mark Goodman’s book as a reference if you don’t already have it. The PCGS message boards can be overwhelming to a photo-newbie, as many people there have been shooting for years, and many are professionals, but don’t be discouraged; some people there have a lot of skill and talent for this and offer their candid advice regularly.

I’d love to tell you to take X number of steps, set up A camera, and B lens, and use C and D lights, to achieve results E-H. But photography, even product photography, is a little more involved if you want nuanced, accurate results that are consistent from coin to coin. But don’t be put off by the challenge, as photography should be fun. And don’t be defeatist because we all start somewhere. I suggest the beginning.