Welcome back - Photographing Pearls!
Recently, I had the pleasure of photographing a couple of very special strands of pearls for an amazing company called Pearl Paradise. Here’s their own written background on how this came about:
One of our newest clients, who has bitten the pearl bug, wrote us asking the very, very interesting question:
"Instead of spending $Y at (top name $$$$ jewelry brand), what could Pearl Paradise do with $X?"
BUT. That doesn't mean we do not have the contacts and relationships to source amazing, luxe, and ultra-luxe pearls. In fact, as pearl aficionados, those are the inquiries we love. It's a lot of fun trying to fly in strands from all over the world and seeing just how beautiful pearls can get.
The photos you are looking at were taken by none other than...... a Mr. Andrew Moline. They are natural white akoya strands. Can you believe the luster and color on these strands are not treated?”
That Mr. Andrew would be me! I wanted to share a little more from the photography side on how this came to be, how the photos were set up, take you all through the thought process, and finally share some of the images with everybody.
I had the chance to do these photos in a sort of “live action” demonstration with a group of photography students at our local college, which was especially fun.
Since I am a CPAA (Cultured Pearl association of America) Certified Cultured Pearl Expert as well as (obviously) a professional photographer, I was in a unique position to look at this project from both perspectives – showing the jewelry at its best – making the luster and orient of the pearls pop, and also making a flattering image.
I knew that I wanted to have as many options available to me in terms of light modifiers, setups, etc. so I knew I would want my full broncolor lighting kit available to me. More specifically, I started with the broncolor Scoro 3200S power pack, and from it I was using my Para 133 modifier – usually, a para would not be the first choice for a jewelry shot, but I thought the ring light effect might be interesting on something circular like a pearl.
Jewelry (and especially pearls), is often photographed on white, so I took a piece of white foam board as a good place to start for my “table.” I didn’t even use the flash at first, as I wanted to see what the modeling light might give me.
Before I took my first shot, I set up two lights: the para off to the left, and a P70 even further left and much higher. I wanted to mix the harsh specular light with the para light – to give the feeling of the pearls being out in the sun, but without being so harsh that they got washed out.
So, with not much more than making sure my exposure was correct, I took this first shot, which came straight out of the camera like so: (*Note*: I shot everything on a tripod. Occasionally, I changed my composition)
My first reaction was that I was on to the right track, but not terribly overwhelmed at this point. I had a few issues with this image:
So, I decided to attack the shadow problem first, which would also help with the first. I simply put another piece of $5 white foam board off to the side to fill in some of the shadows and make the pearls brighten up a bit:
Definitely better! This was a better look for these pearls.
I still had the issue of some shadows, though they were certainly improved.
I also remembered some internet photos of pearls that I had seen from other jewelry companies – typically, it was easy to see that pearls were shot with one large softbox, almost directly above. The soft light is good enough, but I wanted to give a different option.
I wanted to try mixing all three different types of light: soft (my reflector card to the side), medium/specular (the para on the left), and harsh. I needed a harsh source, so I really dialed up the light on the side with the standard P70 reflector.
This didn’t actually didn’t help my shadow problem, no matter how high I got my light, but it did give me another interesting effect. The tops of the pearls were almost given a halo, and the harsh light with more juice in it really made the amazing, metallic luster of these pearls pop, and really forced out the orient (the soap bubble look). I knew that the folks at Pearl Paradise would like that. At this point, I also decided to remove one of the strands so as to not over complicate things.
Knucklehead (that’s me) got curious for a moment and thought “I wonder what a more textured background would look like!” and I didn’t have much on hand because Knucklehead left the important stuff elsewhere. All I really had on hand was the tissue paper that the pearls came packed with, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I crumpled some up…
Yuck! It looked awful, and without forcing your poor eyes to look at more shots, no matter what I did the paper still looked waxy and unflattering, so away it went.
(There’s a really good lesson in here, too: First, experiment! Second, everyone shoots junk; it’s just that normally only the final image gets seen. I am a professional photographer – an “expert,” though I would understand why the last image would lead you not to believe this… I have done tons of product shots, and I am still experimenting, and I still shoot junk.)
Back to the foam board I went…
At this point, I decided to move the P70 light around on the other side of the Para, lower it a bit and still leave it on a high power (though I won’t lie, at this point the shadows were very much frustrating me and also my friend George, who is another professional photographer helping me out with this shoot).
But, moving that P70 light made me realize something. Getting it more forward made the orient REALLY pop (woo!) and I actually didn’t mind the harsh point of light as much as I thought.
I tried to look at the positives here!
This is also when I came to a realization about how I was filling the shadows in with my foam reflector card – it simply wasn’t cutting it. Not enough filling power for what I needed, which was those shadows gone.
Enter light number 3, aka “Mr. Mongo.” Now, Mr. Mongo does not enjoy his name, but I have no other appropriate terms for the 6x4’ (yes, foot) softbox.
Essentially, I wanted the same effect as the foam reflector card, just with more oomph.
So, after wrestling Mr. Mongo onto a light stand, I took a shot:
You can immediately see the difference in the reflection of the pearls. This soft window light effect was what I was looking for, but contrary to the problem I was actually trying to solve I actually now had a double shadow (lol).
I had the shadow I was trying to get rid of (cast from the P70 behind me) and a new, softer shadow on the underside left of the pearls.
This one didn’t bother me so much, so now it was simply a decision of “A” or “B” for the shadows.
Time to feed the very hungry Mr. Mongo lots more light. – Huge softboxes eat light for breakfast (but fortunately the broncolor Scoro 3200S burns with the power of a thousand suns). So in a very well thought out professional decision of “NEEDS MORE POWAH” I pumped a lot more light through the big softbox:
Yeah! NOW we’re talkin’! – I got rid of the nasty harsh shadow, and all I had left was the softer, more subtle shadow on the other end, and this didn’t bother me.
Also, if you notice at this point, I’m still not actually doing anything with the pearls. They aren’t really arranged in any special way. I just have them sitting out on the table. My contact at Pearl Paradise had told me that they wanted a specific, generic table shot, so that’s where I wanted to start; at the same time, Pearl Paradise has their own generic lighting setup for website photos, - and they don’t need me to do the same thing they can do for themselves, so I had to think of what I would do differently.
At this point, I’m pretty satisfied with both the placement, type, and power of my light setup. I can always tweak later, but it’s important I am happy with how things are looking in general and the general direction for the rest of the shoot before I get crazy (George would tell me that I can’t “get” what I already am – touché.)
So, I have one final light related thing to do so as to make sure I’m double, triple checking everything. It’s the same thing you’d do in a portrait to see what all your lights are contributing to the image, but this time the subject is pearls.
Essentially, what I do is take a shot with only ONE light on at a time, until I have done a single shot with only one light, for all the lights in the setup, and then I will take a shot with them all together again.
Light 1 (Key) – this is now my large softbox, since it’s the most powerful and brightest contributor:
Light 2 (Fill) – This is the P70 reflector. Notice how both the main and fill contribute to removing the other’s harsh shadows:
Light 3 (technically, you could call this a backlight, but we’ll call it the cool accent light). Para133. Gives an interesting catchlight to the pearls
All 3 working together:
I was pretty satisfied with how this looked, so I knew at this point it was mostly just tweaking some color and artistically arranging the pearls to look interesting.
This is the relax point of shooting because now you can just play around, have fun, and see what else you can come up with!
I introduced the other strand again and arranged them in different ways, on top of each other, next to, etc. – Pearl Paradise was very generous in giving me loose guidelines for shooting, so it was a lot of fun to just play with things.
A medium detail shot, which lets customers see both the high quality detail as well as an overview look:
More generic but still interesting table-top style shot:
Pulled back tabletop:
And, lastly, my most favorite image from the whole set… a hank, waiting to be strung, but in the meantime, all curled up together in beautiful symmetry, much like the amazing oysters who make the gems possible:
It is a tough but exciting assignment – to photograph precious jewels.
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