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Digital Photography, Clocks, and Watches

Text and photos John Kuraoka, from a presentation to Chapter 59 on April 10, 2004
Last modified: September 1 2012

There are lots of reasons to photograph our clocks and watches. For insurance records, for instance. To show off our latest "find" to our fellow watch and clock collectors. Or, to sell some of our collection on eBay. And, more and more of us are turning to digital photography. Digital photography makes it easy to post photos online, easy to email photos to interested parties, and even easy to archive photos of our collection in a safe place.

Now, most of us start by taking whatever we want to photograph, sticking it on a countertop, and snapping a picture. Like this (click on any photo to see it larger):

What we have above is a photo of a clock, yes, but also a toaster oven, a bunch of cutting boards, and a bottle of wine! Get closer. And, to correct the perspective, photograph your clock at its level, not from above it or below it but head-on:

Now the flash is a problem. The light from the digicam's built-in flash is going straight out from the camera, hitting the glass over the dial, and ricocheting straight back into the lens! The reflected flash is so bright, we can't even see the name on the dial.

There is a cheap and easy solution, and it's this portable outdoor photo studio made from a piece of gray construction paper sitting atop a dining chair.

You can buy construction paper from most office supply stores for about a buck and some change per sheet. You can use any color construction paper you want. I chose gray because it's neutral, not too bright and not too dark. When I take pictures for my eBay auctions, I sometimes use a colored paper that "pops" a bit more, like red or yellow. It's up to you.

The sweeping curve of the paper gives a smoothly gradated background. And, because now you're outdoors, in the sunlight, you don't need to use your flash! Nothing else changes - all the photos on this page were made using the digital camera's fully automatic mode. The result looks like this (remember, click on the photo to see it bigger):

Direct sunlight, as shown, gives you plenty of light to reveal good detail. But, it's probably not the best choice of lighting. Ideal lighting conditions would be bright overcast ... with no rain predicted! That would give you beautiful, even, almost shadowless lighting.

Now, for smaller objects, your digital camera probably has a setting marked by a symbol that looks like a little flower. That's the "macro mode," and it allows the camera to focus on objects that are close up. For instance, here's a wristwatch. I chose a stainless steel watch with a satin silver dial just to make things difficult:

Wait a second! What's that big black area along the right side? That's the shadow of the camera! See, in "macro mode," you may be very, very close to whatever it is you're taking a picture of. So, you have to watch those shadows. The great thing about the portable photo studio, is that you simply rotate the whole shebang until your shadow falls outside the picture area. Like this:

If your camera has a zoom lens, you can also try moving farther away and zooming in for the shot.

Now let's look at a pocket watch movement. And, at the same time, let's debunk megapixels just a bit.

Coming up are two photos of a Hampden 16-size pocket watch movement. The movement itself is a hair under 1-5/8" in diameter, or about 41mm. One photo was made with a 1.3 megapixel fixed-focus digital camera that I bought (new) for under $200 back in 2000. The other photograph was made with a 3.2 megapixel autofocus digital camera that sold for around $280 in 2004. Both photos were shot in fully automatic mode, and neither photo has been manipulated in any way other than sizing. Each camera's automatic exposure program made slightly different "choices" in balancing brightness and contrast on this very bright, very contrasty subject, as evident in the background. But, go ahead and click on the photos to enlarge them. In terms of sharpness, can you tell the difference?

It's harder than you'd think, considering that one image started out with more than twice the resolution of the other. Here's why: for online photos, the limiting factor in sharpness isn't the resolution of your camera – it's the resolution of the average computer monitor. These images are just 640 x 480 pixels high. That's a bit on the small side nowadays; even so, all you need for the web is an image size of about 800 pixels wide by 600 pixels high, like the ones you'll see later. Either size is comfortably large on most monitors. The thumbnail images you see above are a mere 180x135.

The other "dimension" to consider is that of data volume. These images are each 120-130KB. Image size, in this sense, is important because each bit of data takes time to be transmitted. Here in San Diego, more than half of us have broadband Internet access. That's unusual. About half the world still uses dial-up. Big image files take a loooong time to load.

So, 800x600 or 900x720 are a good all-purpose maximum image sizes. At maximum, if you need to show super-fine detail, most new monitors these days can display an 1440x900 image full-screen. If you make your image file any bigger than that, it'll just take longer to load and may be too big to be viewed all at once on older computers.

The 1.3 megapixel camera gives a maximum image size of 1280x960 pixels. So, even with that "obsolete" camera, for web use, I'm throwing away half the pixels at 640x480! With the 3.2 megapixel camera, I'm dumping even more to get down to that 640x480 image size.

I had 4x6" and 6x8" prints made of each of these images, at full resolution (1280x960 for the 1.3 megapixel image, and 2048x1536 for the 3.2 megapixel image). The automated printing process made its own adjustments to the brightness and contrast, with the result that the prints were even more similar than these web images! I could hardly tell the 4x6" prints apart without peeking at the backs of the prints to see which camera the images came from. Even with 6x8" prints, I had to work to tell the difference at first. By the way, the photo on the left was shot with my nearly-antique Fuji MX-1200 1.3 megapixel digicam. The photo on the right was shot with my Canon Powershot A70 3.2 megapixel digicam.

CAMERA UPDATE, June 2007: The roughly equivalent current Canon model is the Powershot A510, a 3.2-megapixel model which is hard to find and generally sells for about $200. The 4-megapixel Canon Powershot A520 and 6-megapixel Powershot A540 are widely available and therefore cheaper; you can often find them for under $200. For just over $200, you can get the newer Canon A570IS, a new 7.1-megapixel model with image stabilization. The 5-megapixel Canon Powershot A610 and 7.2-megapixel Powershot 620 use a 58mm adapter and accessories. The Canon A530, A550, and A560 do not accept close-up adapters and are therefore not recommended for watch and clock photography.

Here are the watch movement photos again at 640x480:

And here, for those with a serious interest in seeing the differences between images, are the same images at larger sizes. The bigger the image size, the bigger the differences will appear, and the longer the image will take to load. You know, it was a very bright day when I shot these, and they look a bit glare-y to me. I could go back indoors, but the flash problems actually get worse:

Not only is the flash too "hot," but, because I'm very close to my photo subject, the camera lens itself blocks some of the light from the flash! Well, thankfully, my "studio" is just a chair and a piece of paper. I can move it under the patio cover, into some nice, even shade. And now I get this:

Now, all I need is to get a bit closer ...

Oops! Too close! At some point, you simply exceed the camera's ability to focus closer. Now we're into the realm of photographic accessories, in particular a device called a close-up lens. Some digicams accept proprietary close-up adapters (which are lenses), while others accept standard threaded lenses. A close-up lens is really just a magnifying glass. You can see that in this shot, in which I am simply hand-holding a close-up lens over the watch movement:

Part of the reason I chose the Canon A70, was that, with an accessory adapter, I could use all of the 52mm filters that I already have, including polarizers (which help dampen reflections at certain angles) and close-up lenses.

So now, I can get closer. In fact, I can even stack all the lenses in a close-up lens set together, strongest one first. Here are a couple photographs, sized to 800x600 to show examples of the largest image size you'd want to use on the web. Remember, you can click on the image to see it full-size. First up is a Hampden 16-size pocket watch movement:

And, here's a wristwatch:

I've always loved macro photography for the sense of discovery – it's like exploring a whole world of details in the tiniest object. And, that sense of discovery continues with digital media. You know, I never noticed that this wristwatch has a gold-tone ring under the crystal until I saw this photo!

  • Getting in close. Be aware that the "macro mode" on digital cameras is as much a function of marketing as engineering. Some cameras can focus quite close without designating the capability as a "macro mode." Here's a "rule of thumb" that may help you when shopping: if the camera can't focus on your thumbnail, it probably doesn't focus close enough.
  • Many cameras with zoom lenses only focus close at certain zoom settings. Compare actual minimum focus distance at equivalent zoom settings. Most digital cameras focus close on the wide angle end of the zoom, which is less-useful for watch or clock photography. The wide angle perspective can make a flat part appear convex or concave at more-typical viewing distances. Look instead for a tele-macro capability, which lets you focus close at the longest zoom setting, for more working distance.
  • Speaking of zooms, a "digital zoom" is essentially an in-camera crop. You sacrifice image quality by "zooming" digitally. Ideally what you want, is an "optical zoom." However, many cameras have resolution to spare, depending on your intended use. Big poster-sized prints - no. A digital slide presentation at your chapter meeting - maybe. Web use - probably.
  • Get a digital camera that accepts close-up adapters, and buy the adapter when you buy the camera. No matter how close the camera focuses, you'll eventually want to get closer. Details like click springs, escapements, and case markings are very small, and once your camera model is a couple years old you may find it hard to buy accessories.
  • Other important accessories. Get a digital media reader, matched to whatever type of media your digicam uses. A reader plugs into your computer's USB port, and lets you access your digital photos directly from your memory card, as if it were a floppy drive! It makes transferring photos from the camera to the computer a breeze. Digital media readers cost between $10 and $25.
  • As far as digital media cards go, I recommend having two smaller cards instead of one big one. For instance, two 2GB cards instead of one 4GB card. That gives you a back-up for when one card is at the photo store having prints made. Also, it prevents you from storing so many photos on one card, that it's overwhelming to deal with. Mark the cards "A" and "B" in permanent ink. Might as well put your last name and phone number on each card, too.
  • Batteries. Because I use my digital camera for family outings and travels, I still prefer one that uses rechargeable AA batteries. However, those new dedicated battery packs are very long-lived, albeit expensive if you want a spare.
  • When shopping for rechargeable AAs, the higher the milliAmp-hour (mAh) rating, the longer the battery will provide power. Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries rated at about 2,000 mAh seem to be a good standard. Such batteries cost $2-3 apiece, and you can recharge and re-use them 500-1,000 times.
  • Some people who know a lot more about it than I do say rapid chargers aren't a good idea, as they limit the life of the batteries. They tell me that overnight chargers are the best. Depending on features, you can spend $10 to $50+ on a charger.
  • Light modification. A piece of white foam core (sold at most office supply stores for a couple bucks a piece) makes a dandy reflector. Use it to bounce sunlight into the shadowy recesses of a deeply carved wooden case or a multiple-bridge movement.
  • Don't have foam core? A white paper plate makes an excellent reflector for small objects. For larger objects, try setting up your "portable photo studio" next to a well-lit wall, using the wall itself to bounce the light. If your wall has a strong color cast to it, simply tape up something white - an old T-shirt or a piece of paper.
  • I black-out the front of my digital camera with black gaffer's tape or permanent marker. That dampens oddball reflections in close-ups, especially important when photographing highly reflective surfaces like clock faces, watch crystals, and movements. A digital camera is not like one of your fine timepieces - it will not increase in value over time. There's little to be gained by keeping it in mint condition.
John Kuraoka is a member of NAWCC Chapter 59 San Diego. He is a long-time enthusiast of both photography and horology.
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