Photographing a watch

Photographing a watch is a meticulous work especially regarding focus and lighting. Because the dial (also called face) must be sharp (probably, depending on the mood you’re going for but for the sake of simplicity, most times it is excellent to go with a dial fully in focus, it is the most significant part to recognize a watch by after all).

The bezel and crown are often made of shiny materials that reflect light creating bright spots you need to control. The glass over the dial needs to be visible as well (maybe tangible is a better word), without obscuring what’s going on underneath it, the dial with numbers, multiple dials even, maybe a moon etc. Nice!

For this blogpost I will dissect the photograph I took of this excellent Seiko Kinetic Perpetual I borrowed from Juwelier Geerling (thanks!!!!).

First to set the mood I put the Seiko around a male mannequin arm I had laying around in my studio and fixed that horizontally in such a position that I could put the Cambo viewcamera above it so as to make it look like the viewer is raising his left arm to look at the time. I then created a relatively even dark background using ashes from our fireplace to make the arm with the watch stand out, and make it easier for any text or logo’s to stand out as well above of below the arm (should it become a print ad &c.).

The setup for photographing the Seiko Kinetic Perpetual watch. Back then I did not have many clamps so I used gaffer tape to fix the arm in place. A large white sheet is used to even the lighting from the beauty dish (I don’t like point-originating lighting for watches, hard to control as well). The pan lid is for a specific reflection on the lower part of the bezel. The bubble wrap is only to tighten the wrist band. The background was filled with charcoal from our fireplace later.

There are two reasons to use a mannequin arm. First of all, I did not have a spare real arm even though I could have enlisted someones arm. But second of all: by using this artificial smooth hairless arm with a few scuff marks the watch itself stands out even more (being less smooth than the surroundings) and the image might stick in your mind better, because there is something ‘wrong’ with it. OMG, the arm is fake!

This is shot from slightly above the camera while photographing the Seiko watch. You can see I use tracing paper to soften the light further, this is to dim the highlights that would otherwise overexpose. The rest of the watch is photographed with the beautydish directly.

I used the live-view capability in Capture One with the Leaf Aptus 22 to align the plane of focus exactly with the watch dial. As I photographed with the lens fully open the depth of field (DOF) was rather thin. Therefore it was imperative to line out the plane of focus perfectly, which is of course only possible with a view camera such as the Cambo Ultima. I love the look a large format lense gives on a large sensor with the aperture wide open. I love especially how you can see the focus fade away already on the bezel compared to the razor sharp dial.


To have every part of the photograph perfectly lit I shot three photographs. One with tracing paper (see above) for the dial and upper part of the bezel. One directly lit with the beauty dish for the case, the crown, wristband and the fake arm. And a third one later with the darker background slightly underexposed also blended with the arm to give that a more round appearance.

I use Photoshop to blend the shots together as well as correct color and contrast. Often I find product photographs, especially watches that are often neutrally tinted (white, black, metal) benefit from converting to black and white and then manually bringing in the correct colors. All in moderation of course. As you can see I manipulated the contrast on the upper left of the dial to make the glass a bit more tangible to the viewer without losing clarity on the numbers and patterns of the dial.

As you can see (in the layers panel to the right) there is a lot of contrast and color correction going on, as well as some cleaning layers (removing spots and dust).

Crops to judge focus

100% crop @840 pixels wide, upper left part of dial.
100% crop @840 pixels wide, lower right part of dial.

With such sharp focus and no anti-alias filter on the fairly large sensor of the Aptus 22 (it’s 36 x 48 mm) these images can be blown up a lot. In a magazine the 4000 pixels width are more than enough to make a spread. These crops are a lot larger than the original watch, which may account for artifacts you see in the printing of letters (these are tiny letters irl!).

The final result: Seiko Kinetic Perpetual

This Seiko Kinetic Perpetual is now my favourite watch. Goes to show the more time you spend with something (someone?), the more you appreciate it. The way marketing works as well.

Bonus: Tissot watch

Photographed my old Tissot watch as well in this series. You can see some scratches on the bezel from years of use. Here also the dial is in perfect focus. I love using the movements of a view camera.

Should you need a watch photographed, don’t hesitate to contact me, I work on assignment as well. Other jewellery or (small) products are also possible. Large products do not fit in my studio so I shoot them on location.

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