"Wow...the Coin is Better Looking in Hand!"

At least once a week we hear from a client who calls excitedly or emails us immediately, pleased with their most recent purchase. And they always say the same thing, "You know, I loved the photos, but this coin looks even better in person!" So that begs the question - why do I not show you exactly what you can expect when you open a package from DWN?

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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.

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?