Case Study: Watches

Here at Photography Firm we’re often contacted to shoot watches. A nicely photographed watch is truly an object of beauty, so we often look forward to such commissions with considerable excitement: shooting everything from just the watch itself in isolation, through to the packaging and shots of the watch worn by a model.

As with jewellery, though, watches are notoriously tricky to photograph. Indeed, while watches make beautiful subjects for luxurious-looking product photography – and the results are invariably very satisfying – they are also among the most challenging of projects that any photographer will have to face during the arc of their career.

Call us masochists though, but this is precisely what we find so stimulating about shooting watches: it no doubt appeals to our MacGyverish problem-solving instincts.

Some of the challenges you are likely to encounter when shooting watches have strictly photographic solutions that will be evident to most experienced professional photographers. Others are more specific to this particular photographic niche and might not occur to even well-seasoned photography pros. For this reason, we’ve put together a short guide to photographing watches in the hope that it will enable you to avoid some of the more elementary mistakes: somewhat levelling out the usually quite steep learning curve associated with this advanced area of product photography.

Preparation

Clean the Watch

Even a brand-new, fresh-out-the-box watch may come with some dust or greasy marks on it. While such imperfections might not be all that offensive to the naked eye, if there are any even slightly perceptible marks, you can be sure that they will show up like a sore thumb once the watch has been lit and photographed.

A few minutes spent cleaning the watch before you shoot will likely save you ten times that in tedious retouching work after the shoot, so don’t skimp on this task. In any case, a quick wipe down with a lens cloth and a blast of compressed air is likely all any watch will need.

Position the Watch

How you position the watch makes an enormous difference to the final result. Sometimes it can be enough just to place the watch on a flat surface, but more often you’ll also likely want to show the watch in a manner closer to how it looks when worn. Aside from shooting the watch being worn by a model, the best way of achieving this is to use a rigid, plastic watch-holder that is placed inside the watch band in order to keep the watch in a more three-dimensional position as you shoot. These can usually be purchased from eBay or Amazon.

Hand Placement

Unlike, say, a ring – an object with a fixed design that you don’t have any say over – a watch comes with moveable parts. Namely the hands. It’s important that these are placed in a suitable position before starting to take photographs.

What’s a suitable position? This will come down to a couple of considerations. Firstly, aesthetics will of course influence your choice of hand position: simply placing them where they look most attractive within your chosen composition. However, it’s important to remember that some important elements of the watch’s design may be located precisely where you might instinctively think to place the hands. Covering these would be a mistake.

For example, it may seem logical to position the minute hand dead-on the hour, but if a logo or brand name is positioned at 12 o’clock, then doing so would obscure this important part of the design. Similarly, the date-window or a chronographic display are often placed at the 3 o’clock position – clearly these should not be covered over by the hands either.

Generally, you’ll find that the best solution is to place the hands at the 2 and 10 o’clock positions on the dial, with the second hand often working best at 7.

Props

Consider adding props to your watch photography. An interesting prop can really help to bring a photo alive and “tell a story” about the product, thus reinforcing the image already created by the design of the watch itself. Let the watch be your guide as to which props would be most suitable. You can also photograph the watch alongside its packaging.

Lighting

The biggest challenge associated with photographing watches is how to avoid the problem of unwanted reflections. Photographing metal is difficult enough in itself, but throw in the watch’s crystal covering, reflective hands and various other shiny and three-dimensional design elements, and you’re looking at a photographic hall of mirrors that would flummox even many of the most experienced and technically accomplished photographers.

The photographing of glass objects is a topic that merits the attention of an entire article in itself, which is indeed precisely what we’ve done with our guide to photographing glass bottles. You may wish to take a look at this guide, as it contains many helpful tips that are just as relevant to photographing watches as they are to any other glass object.

To summarise though, as with any highly reflective surface the principal rule here is not to directly light the watch itself, but rather to light other surfaces which are then reflected in the surface of the watch. In practice then, you will need several stiff white cards, reflectors, or foam boards that you can use to bounce light onto the watch and create specular highlights (i.e. direct reflections of the light source).

Similarly, you might find it useful to have some black flags or other light blocking/absorbing material to hand. These can be used to increase both interest and the definition of the watch by the addition of dark reflections or shadow areas.

Further complicating the lighting of watches is the fact that they are often made from a variety of different materials, all of which behave very differently when lit. For example, even a simple watch design may include several different kinds of metallic surface, a glass covering, plus other parts such as the face and hands made of plastic or resin – all of which, while highly reflective, will likely not reflect light in precisely the same way as each other owing to differences in both finish and shape. Add a light-absorbent matt leather strap into the mix, and it can be hard to know where to even begin setting up the lighting.

In practice, it is often necessary to light (and photograph) each of these elements separately so that they are looking their absolute best, and then combine the results later in Photoshop. However, aside from the extra work involved in lighting the same watch several times in different ways, the risk here is that the final composite image might end up looking decidedly fake if the lighting stage is not handled with great care.

Choice of Lens

Shooting watches of course means getting in close. The average kit lens on a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera will only allow you to focus so near to your subject. Rarely close enough to get the watch very big in the frame. Hence a macro lens is pretty much essential for watch photography, allowing you to get right up to the watch in order to capture it in all its detail (sometimes as close as just 10cm from the end of the lens).

Depth-of-Field

Shallow Depth-of-Field

Shooting with a shallow depth-of-field can be a great solution for photographing watches. The primary advantage of doing this is that the narrow range of focus will throw everything but the watch face (or whichever element you choose to focus upon) into a soft and unobtrusive blur. This allows you to focus the viewer’s attention on certain features of the watch’s design, while drawing the eye away from other perhaps less interesting or less desirable elements.

A very simple example of where this might be useful is when the strap provided with the watch is of a fairly standard and generic kind, or indeed where the strap is included in the shot purely for illustrative purposes but is not in fact part of the merchandise on offer (for example, when selling a used luxury watch at auction).

Aside from this though, there’s something very attractive and classy about a close-up photo with a very shallow depth-of-field. It has a delicate and sensuous quality that is entirely fitting to luxury products, urging the viewer to concentrate on and appreciate the more subtle and tactile facets of an item. As this way of viewing things seems to appeal very much to the senses, you will notice that “food porn” photography almost always employs the technique in order to get the viewer’s tastebuds salivating.

Focus Stacking for a Deeper Depth-of-Field

Having said this, there will be times when a much deeper, sharper depth-of-field will be more appropriate in order to clearly show the entire watch in full detail in a single shot.

Of course the first thing to do in order to achieve a very deep depth-of-field is to shoot with the aperture stopped down as far is it will go: i.e. to f/22 (or beyond, if your lens will allow it). However, one of the drawbacks of the macro lenses that are otherwise so essential for close-up photography is precisely that they tend not to provide a very deep depth-of-field, even when used at the narrowest aperture.

In this case depth-of-field can be further augmented by the use of focus-stacking techniques in order to produce an image that is absolutely pin sharp from background to foreground.

Focus stacking refers to shooting a series of all-but identical images, with the focus shifted slightly each time to a different point on the product – making sure to cover off the entire watch, from the elements positioned nearest to the camera right through to those that are furthest away. You then combine all these images together in post-production to make a single composite shot using only the in-focus parts of each source image.

Be sure to shoot enough separate shots so that every part of the watch is captured absolutely in focus at some point, otherwise you will not have sufficient material for a professional-looking focus-stacked image. If for some reason you skip a section, you run the risk of seeing what is known as “focus breathing”, wherein elements of the watch move from in focus, to out of focus, and then back in focus again. A very unnatural and jarring phenomenon that is a sign of badly done watch photography.

Composition

Classic overhead shots of a watch laid out flat on a white background can look great and will show off most of the watch in a single shot. However, in order to provide a more complete impression of a watch’s design, and give the viewer a clearer idea of how the watch will look like when worn, you will likely need to shoot the watch from many different angles and in a variety of positions.

Indeed, in addition to views from front on, anyone considering purchasing a watch will also want to see how it looks from the side, in profile, or from an angle. You should also provide images that focus on specific details of interest and highlight the watch’s unique design. This might mean taking extreme close-ups or showing the watch with its strap curved as if on a wrist (see the section above on positioning the watch).

Retouching

Any photograph of a watch will require careful retouching if it is to be finished to a professional standard. Unfortunately, as with jewellery photography, the presence of metals and the high risk of reflections and imperfections makes the retouching of watches an especially demanding task. Good watch retouching will bring out the full potential of a watch, showing it off at its very best. But just as equally, sloppily done retouching will ruin a watch, making what might in fact be a very expensive and well made design look cheap and plasticy instead.

The secret to good watch retouching lies in maintaining a careful balance between extensive cleaning and retouching of metal and glass areas while retaining a fully natural look. In short, try to hit that sweet spot where the watch is clean and presentable, but hasn’t been so heavily worked upon that it starts to look more like an illustration or digital rendering than a photograph.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Hopefully we haven’t scared you off having a go at shooting watches, as it can be a hugely rewarding area of product photography. Nonetheless, watch photography is undoubtedly also one of the more technically challenging photographic assignments, so it pays well to be mentally and technically prepared for the task. Hopefully our guide has helped you to achieve just that.

If you’d like to talk to us about a watch shoot you can contact us here.