July 16, 2013
On a busy week here at PCGS I'll photograph a thousand plus coins, but it's fair to say that over 800 a week is average for me. Typically I follow my own formulas for photographing the wide variety of coins out there, and it has become almost second nature for me. I'll instinctively change lighting and settings from coin to coin. But once in a while I'm thrown a curveball, and something doesn't fit into my established parameters. Something new. Something weird. Case in point: the new Enhanced Uncirculated silver eagle from the US Mint. It's not exactly an uncirculated coin, it's not exactly a proof coin, it's not exactly a reverse proof either. How do I photograph it? What's the best way to depict it on CoinFacts and for TrueView customers?
Let's start with the basics. Without divulging a lot of info about my equipment, I will say I use very bright lights. Why? It allows me to use a very small aperture with a fast exposure. The result is a sharp image with very little-to-no camera shake. Below is a photo of the Enhanced Uncirculated coin with none of my lights on, just the ambient light of the room (exposure time 2.5 seconds). The greenish cast is from the fluorescent office lighting, and on the obverse you can see my reflection in the coin.
If you're using dimmer lights in your coin photography ambient light and reflections can be a serious problem. It's best to shut other lights off, and keep the room dark. I go the extra step of putting electrical tape on parts of the camera and equipment that could cause reflections - logos and markings for instance.
Although the above image is not one I would use, it does not run into the problem I typically face in terms of highlight control and shadows. Everything is low contrast and more evenly lit.
In the second image I have one of my continuous lights on. I never use one light when photographing coins. I wouldn't recommend it for any of you out there either. The image below only seems to be highlighting to hard edges and the deepest frost in the devices. It has none of the luster of the fields, and doesn't really show the glossiness of the polished devices.
Typically I'll play around with three sources of light. Two of these sources are stationary (one up high, one to the side), and the third can be as well; but I tend to use a top-secret, hand-made, hand-held instrument that I can manipulate a bit more.
In our third image, all of these sources are active. The image is OK, but is this the end of the story? Can I pack it in now? Some of those highlights are a little bright, some of the devices might not seem bright enough, maybe it's not lustrous enough.
When you have the basics, what follows starts to become a matter of taste. A matter of style. There are so many ways you can view a coin, so many different angles, so many different desires depending on the collector - might the collector want something that shows the luster the most? The surfaces? The brightness? All of them in the same shot? While in my experience I have a good idea what most people want, when it comes to a new issue like the Enhanced Uncirculated your guess is as good as mine.
In our next image I attempted to show the luster in the fields a bit more. There's heavy frost and no frost in the devices, but the fields are somewhere in between; semi-lustrous and semi reflective. While I think I did achieve more luster, more light is reflected into the glossy devices which need to be controlled (mainly with another secret invention of mine).
This may be what I end up producing for a TrueView but is it right? It's kind of hard to detect the Reverse-Proof areas. But how to depict that? By making them darker or brighter? With some reflective coins like proofs I'll use some different methods like in the following image. Here the fields and devices are doused with light, and while the image looks pleasant it probably isn't good to show the three tones or shades that the Enhanced Uncirculated is known for. This technique may be good for a toned coin, but not an untoned coin like this. What this picture does illustrate is that when you shoot a coin raw (as in out of the holder) there are so many different angles and techniques you can use that would be more of a challenge if inside the plastic.
However, we all perceive things differently. Although the fields on this particular coin are lightly frosted, they are still pretty dark and reflective. Maybe a customer wants to see that contrast. In which case, I would do the opposite of the previous image, angling the coin away from the light rather than towards it.
So, which is the right image? What ought to be the PCGS TrueView standard? What do you want to see in photos of the Enhanced Uncirculated Silver Eagle? Let me know at [email protected]