Shoot! Are lackluster product photos hindering your sales? Lapidary Journal cover artist Jim Lawson explains how to take photographs that live up to your work.
You’ve been locked in your shop for days, subsisting on tea and handfuls of trail mix as you perfect your latest batch of treasures. Now, at last, they’re finished. It’s time to get these little beauties photographed and entered into the Saul Bell Design Award competition, submitted to a local juried art show, featured in an upcoming magazine article or uploaded to your ecommerce site. But there may be a final snag you can’t go hammer out at the bench. After all of that work, what if the photos you take don’t do your jewelry justice?
It’s one of the most frustrating things a designer can contend with. When you’re used to working with tools, jewels and metals, stepping behind a camera to document a finished piece can be disorienting. And without a quality image, even the most creative and well-finished piece can look dull.
For more than 35 years, Jim Lawson has seen it all—the good, the bad and the ugly—while photographing, teaching art professionally and racking up covers on Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and Step by Step Wire magazines. He’s a seasoned instructor who’s introduced countless jewelers to the basics of photography.
“Obviously, photography has become more and more important to the jewelry artist, so I try and teach things that will make the process go as quickly as possible and get high-quality results,” Jim says. “Many of them can’t justify hiring someone to do their photography for them, so I do my best to give them the tools they need to do their own.”
As it turns out, you’re not crazy. Of all the things you can point a camera at, jewelry has some very particular challenges. “First is the small size,” Jim concedes. “Second, you can have a piece that has a multiplicity of different reflective surfaces, which all require different treatments for lighting. And there are some pieces that require styling and that can get to be very tedious and time-consuming.”
But with the proper equipment and attitude, even novice photographers can capture the opulent beauty of gemstones and jewelry.
“One of the things that I emphasize to the artists in my workshops is having the right equipment so that you can work quickly,” he says. That way, you can get back to what you really love. “You want to be able to spend your time making jewelry and using a minimum amount of time to do quality photographic work.”
Jim is a fan of DSLR cameras, which balance professional features with reasonable pricing. (Read Jim’s “What Camera Should I Buy?” blog post for a thoughtful discussion on figuring out what works best for you.)
After the shoot is over, photo-editing software takes digital images to the next level. “For me, Photoshop is a very integral part of the process, especially with the gems,” he says. Fear not—you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on programs you barely know how to use. Jim recommends the Lightroom/Photoshop package that Adobe offers for just $10 a month. The subscription includes access to instructional videos and support, so you can learn as you go.
Ready to aim? Take a look at Jim’s top-10 pieces of advice before you start shooting.
Jim Lawson’s Tips for Cover-Worthy Jewelry Photography
- Take a (Three-legged) Stand. “Invest in a good tripod. It’s very difficult to shoot good photos of jewelry without one.”
- Style with Care. “Pay very close attention to how you style and lay out a piece. This is where the tripod comes in. It’s much easier to style a difficult piece if the camera is in place and on a tripod.”
- Start Clean. “Make sure that your backgrounds and jewelry are clean. It’s much easier to clean the jewelry and background before you start shooting them.”
- Be Insensitive. “Use the lowest ISO [light sensitivity] setting your camera has. That way you get the most quality your camera is capable of.”
- Shoot in the Raw. “Shoot raw files if your camera will allow. It will give you more flexibility and ultimately a higher-quality image in post-production.”
- Max Out on Quality. “Choose the highest image quality your camera will allow, whether you are shooting raw files or JPEGs. You can’t go back and make things larger after you have moved on to the next photo. But you can always make things smaller. Always keep the original file intact.”
- Kill the Vibe. “Use a remote release or the self-timer on your camera when making exposures. Vibration is the enemy of sharpness.”
- Stick with the Kit Lens. “If you buy a new camera, start out with the kit lens that comes with it first. It will probably do most everything that you need. Then you can decide if you need an additional macro lens or two.”
- Be Picky. “Keep a dental pick or some other similar small device handy to move gangly parts of the jewelry around.”
- Just Breathe. “Be patient.”
Explore Jim Lawson’s catalog of eye-popping photography at his website, Jim Lawson Photography. Get more personal insights and information on upcoming workshops on his blog, Jim Lawson Jewelry Photography. Let us know what you think of Jim's tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Profile: A Walk in the Woods
The intricate, nature-inspired jewelry of Michele Throne and Sidhe Designs
Interview by Nina Cooper
Michele and Dan at a fine art festival in Estes Park, Colorado. They do most of their business at art fairs such as this.
Meet Michele Throne of Sidhe Designs. With her husband, Dan Schaufele, she creates silver jewelry with intricate cutouts. Inspired by the interconnection of humans and nature, her pieces resonate in surprising ways, like small visual poems.
How would you describe your work?
I enjoy communicating how nature can be a reflection of the human experience. One of my first designs, the Windy Tree, shows how we can be flexible and strong like the tree. No matter what kind of weather comes into our lives, we don’t have to be stiff and break in a storm. Humans are part of nature. We like to think we are separate but we aren’t.
So many people write messages into jewelry these days. I love the way your “messages” are conveyed pictorially. How did that evolve?
“Living Among the Order of Chaos.” Hand-fabricated box clasp link bracelet. Sterling silver, fine silver, 18K gold, 24K keum-boo foil, Mandarin garnet, copper and bronze. Photo by Larry Sanders.
After I designed the Windy Tree, I began contemplating all the different types of trees and the many ways a tree can express itself. I also asked myself what I saw in nature that reflected my own experience. On bigger pieces, I hand-engrave titles on the back.
What current projects are you working on?
I am doing more one-of-a-kind pieces. I've always loved creating, even as a kid. I was the kid who skipped class to go to the art room! Because the artistic element of my business is the most important, I like to keep a fresh mind and new palettes. One-of-a-kind pieces are more expensive for the consumer though, so I have to make enough affordable bread-and-butter items to keep the books balanced.
“Story Rings.” Sterling silver, fine silver, 24K gold keum-book foil, 18K gold and bronze.
You have very detailed cut-out work in your pieces. Any advice to jewelers who might want to develop that skill?
Do it over and over and over again! Looking from the correct angle and seeing the lines clearly is important too, so I always wear OptiVISOR. I also use a wooden bench pin that I cut into to give the piece some support while I am sawing. I always tell students, "Let the saw do the work, it’s a relaxed motion, and get the blade tension right." You don’t want the blade too loose or it will chatter; if it’s too tight it will snap. I do it by sound. I pluck it. We use the Knew Concepts saw. It helps to have a lighter saw, and there is a quick-release cam that you can set so you don’t have to sit there and figure out the blade tension every time.
What setup do you use for photography?
Photography is my weakest link. I send jewelry off to be professionally photographed for the festivals. At home I use a light box and bring it outside on a sunny day. I use my phone in the light box. I try to keep it simple. For the website it is important to keep the background as neutral as possible so that it isn’t a distraction.
“Under the Surface” pendant. Sterling silver, fine silver, bronze, copper and 18K gold.
Do you use social media?
I only use Facebook. I can only handle one type of social media at a time. I want to spend my time in the studio, not on a screen. Everything we sell is made by hand, so we are maxed out for time.
Where are you based and how long have you been in business?
This is our seventh year in business. We are based in Colorado, where we make jewelry and work fine art festivals. Each winter, we spend three months in Florida doing the same thing. I design the jewelry line and also create one-of-a-kind pieces. Dan does the finish work, stone-setting, casting and bookkeeping.
“Embrace Life Together” pendant. Sterling silver, fine silver, 18K gold.
Do you sell primarily wholesale or retail?
Retail, primarily. We do 14 fine art shows a year, some special orders and a small amount of web sales. I like the direct contact with people at the shows. People tell me their personal stories about losing a loved one or a pet they cherished. I enjoy having an intimate relationship with the public. We only have one wholesale account and a few consignment galleries.
How did you grow your business?
The first few years were a lot of work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You give up so much to see this thing evolve. There’s good times and hard times and self-doubt. We started with a handful of festivals in Colorado. Then Dan became my full-time partner in the business, which helped enormously. We increased our inventory and expanded our festival appearances to other states. All that work improved our skills, which in turn was rewarded with greater customer support. Further growth came as a result of word of mouth, a few galleries and social media. Someone posted my Facebook page to another page and suddenly we had 500 fans.
“Golden Day” pendant. Sterling silver, fine silver, 24K keum-boo foil, 18K gold bezel holding a garnet.
What do you consider your Big Break?
There was no one event that propelled our business. It was a long, continuous process. My dad is a financial planner and he told me: “If you can make it to three years, you will be OK; if you make it to five years, you are solid.” He was right. At three years we could pay the bills and at five years we had a functioning business that felt sustainable.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you decided to grow your business?
The pricing. Pay attention to everything you do, including travel, emails and paying the bills. Don’t just price your jewelry based on studio time. Also, price your silver correctly. You have to account for fluctuations in metal costs. Mark everything to the current market so that you can afford to replace your inventory.
Nina Cooper is President of Nina Designs. Her company designs jewelry supplies that are manufactured in Asia and sold to over 2,000 professional jewelry designers around the world. After 30 fabulous years in the business, she is eager to share her expertise.
Cooper contributes regularly to jewelry-oriented magazines including Jewelry Artist, Ornament, Beadwork and Stringing. She has also been published in American Cinematographer and Glamour Magazine. Cooper has appeared twice as an expert guest on the PBS show "Beads, Baubles & Jewels."
Tips for Tumble-Finishing Chain
By Judy Hoch
A fused and planished Argentium silver chain by Judy Hoch. She tumble finished it using the formula described here.
This month's Tech Tip is courtesy of Judy Hoch, an award-winning jeweler who literally wrote the book on mass finishing on a small scale. She likes to refer to her beloved tumblers as "employees that work 24 hours a day." For more of her mass-finishing expertise or to learn how to set up a system from start to finish, check out her book, Tumble Finishing for Handmade Jewelry. Our in-house jewelers at Rio refer to this slim volume regularly.
The whole reason I got into mass finishing is chains. A tumbler is great to finish them, to say nothing of saving your fingers. I tell my students: Yes, you can finish chains on a buff, but it's like working under your car with just on a jack—not a good idea, and you can really get hurt. If you have extra fingers, go ahead. Else, tumble.
Here’s my formula for finishing chains in a tumbler. Since all chains are annealed, you should first run them in steel shot for 30 minutes. (Anything annealed will finish better if you surface harden for 30-45 minutes in steel before finishing.) Then run wet in a vibratory tumbler with blue clean-cut media for four to six hours. Then burnish in steel shot for another 45 minutes. Finally, and this is essential for planished chains, run for 24-36 hours in dry media, such as green buff or walnut shell with Simichrome. The buff will remove the haze from the burnishing cycle. I run gold chains in a combination of gray and green cones, 12 hours each, then the steel and buff. Can't tell the difference from hand-finished.
If you are making loop-in-loop Roman chain, tumble all the links prior to assembly. You will have a much brighter result.
Have a tumbling question for Judy? Let us know at email@example.com.
New Arrivals Spotlight
Precise, Affordable Rapid Prototyping with the Ember 3D Printer
Finally! A 3D printer that can build direct-to-cast models directly from designs created using any CAD software and any photosensitive resin—for well under $10,000.
Over the last several years, 3D printing technology has taken the jewelry industry by storm. It's hard to find a conference, online group or tradeshow where it isn't THE hot topic. When first introduced, the high price point used put the technology out of reach of the average jewelry designer. No longer. The new Ember 3D printer from AutoDesk makes rapid-prototyping technology accessible to nearly any jeweler.
The Ember can print up to 120 rings in 24 hours, depending on the design, and accurately reproduce fine details and complex designs involving undercuts and cavities. And because it is open source, it can print designs created using any CAD software with any resin that's available on the market.
With the Ember, you can design, print and cast in-house, eliminating costly outsourcing fees. Or offer bespoke design services with ease, allowing your customers to hold a model of the piece in their hands before it is cast. Engineered for easy use and built in San Jose, California, the Ember puts high-quality production 3D printing within your reach.
Take Advantage of Closeout Discounts on Equipment!
Outfit your shop with the hardworking equipment that will make 2016 a more productive and profitable year. Save up to 60% on Avalon finishers, pulse-arc welders and more! These deals are only good while stock lasts—act fast! Financing options are available.
Learn CAD in a 3Design Class with David Swallow
This three-day class will introduce you to the basics of computer-aided design, or CAD. Instructor David Swallow is a certified trainer and has been making jewelry with CAD for eight years. By the end of this intensive class, you'll have designed your own ring in the program and learned your way around all the basic functions. The class comes with a 30-day license for 3Design and more than five hours of online video tutorials, so you can continue to build on what you learned in the class. CAD software is the perfect partner for the Ember 3D printer highlighted in the New Arrivals Spotlight, above.
Dates: April 13–15, July 20–22 or October 12–14
Location: Rio Grande, Albuquerque, New Mexico
There's still time! Save $50 when you register by April 30.
Register for the 2016 Santa Fe Symposium by April 30, 2016, to take advantage of early-registration pricing! Save even more when multiple people from your business register as a group. Seating is limited so reserve your place now!