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Share your Coin Photography Tips & Tricks!


Kaleun96
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I experiment a lot with coin photography and know a few others here do as well so let's have a thread where we can throw around some ideas or share any tips we've picked up along the way. Whether you are using an old iPhone, a 10 year-old DSLR, or a fancy new mirrorless camera, all ideas and thoughts are welcome. If you're looking for help with improving your photos, I think this can be the place for that too.

I have a lot of info about my own coin photography methods on my website but it's nice to have somewhere to casually share new things I try that may not become a permanent part of my workflow but may be of use to others.

To get things started, I've turned my attention back to finding more efficient ways for background removal and have found that using reflective glass (actually a small mirror in the photo below) with a ring light providing top-down illumination works well. It produces a very bright background without making the edges of the coin bright and I can one-click remove the background with the magic wand tool in Photoshop to get perfect separation. As you can see in the example photos below, the coin even looks great on an artificial black background, you don't see signs of the original white background at all.

 mirror.thumb.jpg.013d54c28df343e34dfa45213855085a.jpg

 

This is what an un-edited photo looks like, the white areas are the mirror reflecting light back while the darker grey areas around the outer parts of the image are just from a diffuser I used to help illuminate the coin's edges a bit.

antony.png.e6cfb351d7e42ad69b051a0796c9d44e.png

2022-05-29-22.55.45 ZS DMap@0.3x_b.jpg

2022-05-29-22.55.45 ZS DMap@0.3x_c.jpg

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Mirror you say? Hmmm....

In my personal catalogue, I keep the original auction house photos, their description (corrected/info added if needed) plus a photo I take.

Something like

image.png.7452ee65362fff0eae4473b0556c1870.png

Because the light in my house is not suitable for photos and my phone was simply not designed for macro photos, for a long time I didn't take pics of my coins at all as the results were very bad.

Last summer, I just gambled and bought a 15 years old digital camera, that wasn't very expensive even when it was launched (Panasonic Lumix DZ7). But the results were much better than I was expecting really.

I use my window sill as a background. Cyan background from a notebook, white paper or a black cloth did not produce good results (but I admit I lack patience and skills for photography). An experienced collector taught me to raise the coin a little as this makes the coin more focused plus an aesthetic effect (imo). 

Never tried your idea with the mirror - will sure try it.

 

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1 hour ago, ambr0zie said:

Never tried your idea with the mirror - will sure try it.

The mirror trick does require a certain lighting method, it's one I describe in this long guide as "axial" lighting. The idea is that the light illuminating the coin comes from directly above, providing great contrast around the devices of the coin while illuminating it evenly and producing specular highlights that bring out toning and luster. When using lighting directly from above with a mirror in the background, the mirror just reflects the light directly back at the camera and thus it appears nearly purely white.

If you try to take a photo of a coin on a mirror with angled lighting, chances are you'll just see a mirror in the background of the photo, similar to the photo I posted above showing the coin above the mirror. You may even see an entirely black background, depending on your camera setup.

But as I show in the guide on my site, even a cheap ring light from Amazon can sometimes be enough to get the "axial lighting" effect to work. The main consideration is that the ring light is not too wide in diameter, otherwise it can't illuminate its centre.

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I  support the phone on a stable base, and use a disc of cork to raise the subject above the background. These are assembled on a rotating base with the lights arranged around and above the whole setup. This has the advantage of keeping the camera perpendicular to the subject at all times and at the optimum distance from the subject. You can then rotate the setup to get the best possible lighting on your object without having to continuously move the lighting. Set the timer to 2 seconds to avoid camera shake. I have used old pieces and old phone in this image just to give you an idea of what it would look like.

 

20220601_082051 (2).jpg

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There have been rumours about a very cool new lens coming to the market for Sony/Nikon/Fuji/etc cameras that has some use for us coin collectors. It's called the AstrHori 85mm f/2.8 TS-E Macro and it is a tilt lens. Some of you may be familiar with tilt-shift lenses that produce the "miniature effect" that makes everything look like a small scale model.

A tilt lens does not have the "shift" capability, so what does it do and how is it useful for us? So let's say you're standing across the road from a building, facing it straight-on, and you focus your camera on the front of the building. The whole front of the building is in focus because it is along the same plane, i.e. perpendicular to the lens. If you then moved to the end of the street and again focussed on the front of the building, you're now viewing the building an angle and only a small part of the building will be in focus.

canon-tilt-shift-lenses-tilt-function_21

source: https://snapshot.canon-asia.com/vn/article/eng/what-you-didnt-know-about-the-tilt-function-on-tilt-shift-lenses

 

A tilt lens helps us with this second perspective. In the diagram below, we are standing at an angle to the face of the building but we want the whole face to be in-focus, not just the parts that are perpendicular to the lens. The "tilt" in the lens allows us to shift that plane of focus so instead of the plane being perpendicular to the lens, the plane is now at an angle running the length of the building face.

 

canon-tilt-shift-lenses-tilt-function_21

source: https://snapshot.canon-asia.com/vn/article/eng/what-you-didnt-know-about-the-tilt-function-on-tilt-shift-lenses

 

Ok so now to get to the part about how this is useful for us photographing coins. Many of you may notice when photographing or holding your coins that they often look better at a slight angle, where they catch the light just right. Holding them at this angle can also show off the relief of the coin and give someone viewing the photo a better idea about how it would look in-hand. The trouble with this though is that if you photograph the coin when it is tilted, only a small portion of it is in-focus because the surface of the coin is not perpendicular to the camera.

A tilt lens would let us shift that plane of focus so it runs across the whole surface of the tilted coin, meaning we can get the whole coin in-focus even when it is titled away from the camera. This is a really cool feature that may seem trivial at first but is really quite handy. On top of that, this particular lens (the AstrHori) can achieve 1x magnification. Most tilt macro lenses on the market only go up to 0.5x and cost a fortune (see Canon's line of tilt macro lenses). I'm not sure how much this one will cost yet but I suspect it will be a lot cheaper.

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22 hours ago, Kaleun96 said:

I experiment a lot with coin photography and know a few others here do as well so let's have a thread where we can throw around some ideas or share any tips we've picked up along the way. Whether you are using an old iPhone, a 10 year-old DSLR, or a fancy new mirrorless camera, all ideas and thoughts are welcome. If you're looking for help with improving your photos, I think this can be the place for that too.

I have a lot of info about my own coin photography methods on my website but it's nice to have somewhere to casually share new things I try that may not become a permanent part of my workflow but may be of use to others.

To get things started, I've turned my attention back to finding more efficient ways for background removal and have found that using reflective glass (actually a small mirror in the photo below) with a ring light providing top-down illumination works well. It produces a very bright background without making the edges of the coin bright and I can one-click remove the background with the magic wand tool in Photoshop to get perfect separation. As you can see in the example photos below, the coin even looks great on an artificial black background, you don't see signs of the original white background at all.

 mirror.thumb.jpg.013d54c28df343e34dfa45213855085a.jpg

 

This is what an un-edited photo looks like, the white areas are the mirror reflecting light back while the darker grey areas around the outer parts of the image are just from a diffuser I used to help illuminate the coin's edges a bit.

antony.png.e6cfb351d7e42ad69b051a0796c9d44e.png

2022-05-29-22.55.45 ZS DMap@0.3x_b.jpg

2022-05-29-22.55.45 ZS DMap@0.3x_c.jpg

 

That is a remarkably clean image straight out of the camera! That would save me a tremendous amount of laborious cropping effort. Thanks for the tip!

 

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1 hour ago, AncientJoe said:

 

That is a remarkably clean image straight out of the camera! That would save me a tremendous amount of laborious cropping effort. Thanks for the tip!

 

No worries! I was surprised myself when I could one-click with the Magic Wand tool and have a near perfect background selection. With previous setups, I would have had to have done some manual tweaking in a few areas on the edge to help Photoshop's selection stick to the coin edge and then probably do some more cleaning up after where the selection is a bit too jagged.

I just pulled the unedited image in to Photoshop again to show how few steps it now takes me. I clicked the magic wand tool in the white area and you can see it has created a selection between the coin's edge and the edge of the diffuser on the outside:

coin_selection.thumb.png.9582a76e808a2404894730abe5fae86e.png

Here's a closer look, the selection is sticking pretty close to the coin edge, so much so it's even hard to make out the "marching ants" of the selection outline (except where it has selected the edge of the diffuser). The very edge of the coin has some tiny pixel-size artefacts and transparency so I just expand the selection by a few pixels to remove those.

coin_selection_zoom.thumb.png.a5d7026ea5d36beabd1b031a3541bd5a.png

This is how it looks after deleting the selected background and applying a quick "inner shadow" effect around the coin's edge to help transition it into the background a bit. For a white background I use the "drop shadow" instead. The grey-ish parts of the diffuser in the background are then trivial to remove.

coin_selection_black.thumb.png.9d14922f786dad6c87032832e3981a26.png

 

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Posted (edited)

On the off chance that it might be useful to others, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the accessories I've made to help with photographing my coins. Most of these accessories I designed and 3D printed myself but there's a lot you can still do without a 3D printer (I only got one last year). Before printing my own accessories, I would try to make them out of all sorts of different things.

There are quite a few photos here of different things so I'll split this up into a couple of posts.

First up, is the assembly I use for holding my coins below the camera (which is mounted vertically). I've attached it to a little base just to make it easier to see, usually it's bolted to an aluminium plate below the camera. The main components are the horizontal and vertical rods, the clamp that connects them, and the platform that supports the coin itself. The rods and clamping adapter are Thorlabs 1/2" post products and not exactly cheap but I had them left over from something else. They give me more degrees of freedom than I really need, namely: vertical, swivel, and tilt. I mainly used it for the tilting ability (see 2nd photo).

The round coin platform is plastic and 3D printed. It has a knob with an 8mm thread to attach itself to the platform and hold the coin. It is threaded so I can use it to rotate the coin independently of the rest of the platform. The platform is backed with black felt to provide a dark background but I've also made an insert more recently to hold a round mirror, which I've been experimenting with earlier in this thread.

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Next up, a few small accessories to give the coins something to sit on and to help illuminate their edges evenly with top-down lighting. I've made four little round adapters of varying diameters that can thread into the 8mm threaded knob mentioned earlier. An o-ring is glued to the top of each to provide some friction to help hold the coins when tilted and also to give room to high relief coins so they're able to lay flat.

I've also printed three white cones with 45 degree angled surfaces to reflect light coming from top-down onto the edge of the coins. I can use the threaded knob to adjust the coin up-and-down relative to these cones so that they don't illuminate any high relief parts of the coin, only the edges.

In the last photo, you can also see me using some white diffusion gel around half of the coin. This diffusion gel slots into a plastic ring that fits inside the rest of the coin platform and lets me easily control how much diffusion I want to use. Sometimes I will use it with an off-axis light to help illuminate certain parts of the coin (e.g. faces of high relief portraits) when my top-down lighting isn't quite doing the job. Though often it works well enough with the top-down lighting to throw a bit more light into the parts I need it to. The diffusion holder rotates freely in the coin platform so it's easy to position it where needed.

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Now on to the lighting. I mostly use two Godox TT350 speedlites that I've made an adapter for that mounts to the front of my lens, making the flashes act more like a ring light with light coming from top-down onto the coin. I've made a couple of these adapters of varying sizes and configurations, experimenting with things like the diameter of the outer and inner holes, ways to help reflect more light down onto the coin, and ways to improve the evenness of light around the whole "ring".

The one attached to the camera is my smaller one suited for denarii and smaller coins. It has an inner diameter of about 33mm and outer diameter of 65mm. The adapter not attached to the camera is a newer version I printed just this weekend. It's larger at 40mm inner diameter and 78mm outer diameter, which provides more light overall but isn't well suited for smaller coins as the inner hole is too wide to illuminate them with direct light. In this version I also added magnets to the side so I can more easily attach a diffuser or polariser when needed.

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Lastly, here's some photos to show you what some of these accessories do.

The first photo is using the top-down light with two flashes and nothing else - no cone around the coin or diffusion of any sort. The contrast is quite high with slight shadows around all the details of the devices but there's not quite enough light on the face, top of the head, or edge of the coin.

The second photo adds one of the white cones around the coin to illuminate the edges. It also lightens some of the relief very slightly, not not quite enough.

The third photo is without the cone but with some diffusion gel around half of the coin. This really brightens parts of the portrait, noticeably the top of the head and the face but the edge is once again mostly in darkness.

The fourth photo combines the white cone and the diffusion gel to get the best of both worlds.

These are all raw photos straight out of the camera and aren't necessarily how I would photograph this coin but I think it illustrates well what some of these accessories can help with.

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What an amazing setup!  My home made doodads look like they were knocked up by the slacker in grade 2 art class, but are largely trying to perform the same functions.

I need to rig up some 45 degree white cones, though I’m not sure how. (Probably work well as white balance reference points too, if they’re in the frame?) My vertical white paper just doesn’t do the job.

Also, I’m surprised how well the gel diffusers work.  I think I’ve been confused about how to diffuse light. I use a ring light plus some more oblique angle LED’s that have diffusers directly over them. Often I skip the ring light entirely, especially when I get too much contrast, even with the lumens dialed down. I wonder if gel diffusers like yours would help with this problem. (It’s especially bad on coins with pitting/corrosion.)

Any tips for AE?  How do you mount tetartemoria?

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2 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

What an amazing setup!  My home made doodads look like they were knocked up by the slacker in grade 2 art class, but are largely trying to perform the same functions.

I need to rig up some 45 degree white cones, though I’m not sure how. (Probably work well as white balance reference points too, if they’re in the frame?) My vertical white paper just doesn’t do the job.

Also, I’m surprised how well the gel diffusers work.  I think I’ve been confused about how to diffuse light. I use a ring light plus some more oblique angle LED’s that have diffusers directly over them. Often I skip the ring light entirely, especially when I get too much contrast, even with the lumens dialed down. I wonder if gel diffusers like yours would help with this problem. (It’s especially bad on coins with pitting/corrosion.)

Any tips for AE?  How do you mount tetartemoria?

Thanks! I suspect I have some similar 2nd grade doodads laying about in a box somewhere as well 😄 3D printers have been quite a revelation for my hobbies in this regard, no more trawling the aisles of hardware stores in search of "something", where you're not sure what that "something" is, just what is needs to do.

You could probably make some 45 degree cones out of diffusion gel or paper card using one of these template generators. I think that would've been my alternative had I not 3D printed them instead. You might be able to find one that lets you specify the angle of the cone but you can also work it out with trigonometry. I think it worked out that for a 45 degree angle, the height of the cone should be equal to half the difference in diameter between the top and bottom openings. So one of my cones has a 55mm diameter opening at the top and a 35mm diameter opening at the bottom and the height of the cone is 10mm, which is half of the 20mm difference in diameters.

Gel diffusers definitely help with the contrast problem, the main trick is to get distance between the light source and diffuser. The further away the diffuser is from the light source, the better it will do at diffusing the light. Though it's easy to have too much diffused light and that can give a bit of a dull and matte look to surfaces of coins. But I find having the diffuser far away is best when I just want a bit of "fill" light to brighten and soften everything up a touch but not too much. If the diffuser was closer to the light, I'd probably get bright spots from the fill light in that 4th image from above, which can be quite distracting.

As for AE, I find I use much more diffused light then I would for silvers. In the photos below, the darker one was taken with a ring light and no fill light, if I recall correctly, which produced this nice dark colour but I ended up not liking it due to it being so contrasty. The brighter photo is the current one I'm using for that coin and I probably used a mix of ring light and fill light -- but with a lot of fill. It really brought out the colours in the patina and brightened the portrait but I would also say it's a bit more distracting to the eye as well. There are some pros and cons to both and I tend to alternate between styles every now and then.

I don't have any tetartemoria yet but I did recently print a 5th coin mount thingy with a diameter of about 7mm, which is suited for diobols and hemidrachms. 

 

XDiY9sC.jpg

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I'll need to sit down and take some photos of my setup, but it's far simpler and IMHO more flexible.

  • To hold the coin, I bought a microscope stand for ~$30 on Amazon. It came with a clamp and I have it grasp a lego wheel axle with a lego piece attached at the end. I place the coin on the top lego piece.
  • For a background, I purchased a piece of black velvet for $10, though my wife pointed out I could have bought it for $2 at a crafts store.
  • I use a reflective board purchased for ~$10 on Amazon. I then lean the board against the lego piece to get the reflection. I use a grip to hold the board in place.
  • The expensive part is the camera + lighting. I use a Canon R5 with an RF 100mm lens and an MT-26EX flash. The flash heads allow me to adjust the lighting angles as necessary.
  • The actual photograph is taken handheld. Unless you're doing photomacrography, a stand isn't really necessary. The flash is what freezes the motion - not the stand. Stands only become necessary at very high magnifications - when you'll need to automate taking photos at different depths and combine them in post-processing - but even for hemi-obols this isn't necessary.

One huge advantage with this approach is I can set it up and pack it up quickly.

The most important things to remember for coin photography are:

  1. Flash freezes motion - not the shutter.
  2. Place the coin a distance above the background for it to be black (or white)

Some results:

1585145845_PrusiasII.thumb.jpg.796b295de9adeb43cfe89cea391d5a32.jpg

1163158193_PtolemyI.thumb.jpg.5e3abfaa705e165bb71a9881878543c0.jpg

Sabakes.thumb.jpg.a61be11aaaa809827036f56274abb742.jpg

 

yehud.thumb.jpg.c381e164e664940a308852b391d0c59f.jpg

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Posted (edited)
47 minutes ago, kirispupis said:

The actual photograph is taken handheld. Unless you're doing photomacrography, a stand isn't really necessary. The flash is what freezes the motion - not the stand. Stands only become necessary at very high magnifications - when you'll need to automate taking photos at different depths and combine them in post-processing - but even for hemi-obols this isn't necessary.

I agree that a flash is a great tool to have but I think a stand is also important beyond just helping freeze motion, mainly for consistency and ensuring the lens is perpendicular to the coin. And as you could still get a decent photo of a coin without focus stacking between 0.5x to 1x, I would couldn't that "very high magnifications" and, depending on the DOF and relief of the coin, you will probably have trouble ensuring you're perfectly in focus while holding the camera, even with the help of focus peaking or focus assist.

I think there's a lot of stands you can make or buy that don't take up much space or are easy to take apart and hide away too. So for me, a stand (or tripod) is one of the first pieces of equipment I would recommend someone buying if they plan on improving their coin photography with a DSLR or mirrorless. Not to say that it can't be done without a stand, as you've clearly shown it can, I just think there are too many benefits to a stand such as consistency, staying perpendicular to the coin, freeing your hands for other things, making it much easier to dial in the focus perfectly, and saving your arms from holding a heavy camera+lens and potentially any camera mounted lighting or flashes. A stand also gives you something to mount flashes, monitors, magic arms, or whatever else to, which helps with setup time and organisation too. A big reason I bought the Thorlabs 66mm optical construction rails is because the dovetails are ARCA-clamp compatible, meaning I can lower the footprint of the stand by clamping things to its structure rather than needing to have them attached to a larger base or take up a bigger footprint on my working surface.

 

Quote

Flash freezes motion - not the shutter

It does depend on the ambient light too, though. If you're correctly exposed for the scene where the coin will be illuminated and the background dark then you should be OK but if you have a lot of ambient light (e.g. a fill light) then it's not going to work as well. And if you don't have a flash, then you do need to use the shutter speed to freeze the motion and most people are probably going to have a hard time lighting the scene with a fast shutter speed and high aperture without going crazy with the ISO.

Edited by Kaleun96
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46 minutes ago, Kaleun96 said:

 And as you could still get a decent photo of a coin without focus stacking between 0.5x to 1x, I would couldn't that "very high magnifications" and, depending on the DOF and relief of the coin, you will probably have trouble ensuring you're perfectly in focus while holding the camera, even with the help of focus peaking or focus assist.

Focus isn't very difficult even handheld. There are two options:

  • For most coins, AF works just fine. The RF + RF 100 have no issues focusing on the vast majority of decently sized coins.
  • For some of the hemi-obols are tough-shape bronzes, manual focus is necessary. Still, the RF provides feedback on the focus and the IS is extremely good on the RF 100 - allowing easy hand held.
46 minutes ago, Kaleun96 said:

 I just think there are too many benefits to a stand such as consistency, staying perpendicular to the coin, freeing your hands for other things, making it much easier to dial in the focus perfectly, and saving your arms from holding a heavy camera+lens and potentially any camera mounted lighting or flashes. 

IMHO there are more drawbacks than benefits. One thing is I've found a perfectly perpendicular view is often not desirable. I very slight angle provides more interesting reflections and contrast. Head on - the images can lack contrast. When shooting hand-held with a mirrorless and model lights on the flash - I can see these changes as I move the camera slightly. To compensate for the slant, I use a high aperture like f16. This will make the image slightly softer, but only if the coin is viewed at 100% - which it never is. 

46 minutes ago, Kaleun96 said:

It does depend on the ambient light too, though. If you're correctly exposed for the scene where the coin will be illuminated and the background dark then you should be OK but if you have a lot of ambient light (e.g. a fill light) then it's not going to work as well. And if you don't have a flash, then you do need to use the shutter speed to freeze the motion and most people are probably going to have a hard time lighting the scene with a fast shutter speed and high aperture without going crazy with the ISO.

If you have a black background behind and are using flash, the ambient light doesn't matter at all. I have the full lights on when I shoot because it doesn't matter. I believe it's one topic that new photographers to macro have the toughest time with. When using flash on small subjects - the flash provides all of the light. Take this image as an example (note I had to search a bit to find something not a spider :))

1420186357_balancingbug.thumb.jpg.b969865fdcdbb5bdd6f5f07546436091.jpg

This springtail didn't have a black background behind it, but due to the flash that was all washed away due to the distance between it and the background. Only at the very bottom, where the surface peeks in, is the background not black.

Usually when I photograph bugs, I strive to avoid this effect since people don't expect insects with black backgrounds. However, for coins it works perfectly.

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Thanks so much @Kaleun96 for the detailed reply to my questions!  The cone template generator looks super helpful, and I look forward to using diffusers properly now.  I usually turn the ring light off entirely for AE but maybe with proper diffusion I can avoid that.  Your top photo of the Hadrian is lovely, and a good example of the sort of coin I find difficult.  AE are definitely harder than AR!  (I rarely take photos of AU and was quite unsuccessful when I did... until I learned to use white balance properly.)

For really tiny coins I currently use a nail head stuck through piece of velvet for support.  Not great but I can make it work.

I still need to re-photograph most of my collection, not sure I'll get round to it.  My oldest photos are crappy iPhone 4 shots when I had no idea what I was doing, the rest are with an ancient low-res digital Rebel using an extension tube... much better but the resolution was definitely limiting.  Finally I got a decent (budget!) used Canon, a 70D, and that has made a big difference.  Unfortunately most of my photography had to be for AMCC 3 rather than my own coins! 😞 Here's the first shot I tried with that new camera and I was pretty pleased with how well it turned out on a tiny 8mm diameter hemiobol.  So much better than my old tiny coin photos:

image.thumb.jpeg.639432893d688afec790a701b181e52e.jpeg

Caria: Kasolaba (400-340 BC), SNG Kayhan 996; SNG Keckman 877

Hopefully I've improved since then, the focus is a bit soft when blown up like that.  I'm useless with Photoshop but so far I find the Canon software to be adequate for my purposes.  

Here's a Sulla denarius I photographed with the "new" camera (not my coin) :

image.thumb.jpeg.ae9f3c0d6ca95e505ccd2749053653cd.jpeg

L. Cornelius Sulla, AR denarius, issued 81 BCE. Uncertain mint, 3.77g, 19.5mm.
Obv: Diademed head of Venus right
Rev: Double cornucopia filled with fruit and flowers, bound with fillet; Q below. 
Crawford 375/2 (fewer than a dozen dies for both obv. and rev.)

Also sold, a few AEs:

image.thumb.jpeg.075877e3fb0ffb501a125f53d184978f.jpeg

MACEDON, Roman Protectorate: Gaius Publilius, quaestor, c. 146-143 BCE, AE23. 11.61g, 23mm.
Obv: Helmeted head of Roma to right
Rev: ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ ΤΑΜΙΟΥ ΓΑΙΟΥ ΠΟΠΛΙΛΙΟΥ in oak wreath
SNG Cop. 1318, MacKay pl. III, 1, HGC 3, 1114

 

image.thumb.jpeg.1491fc501d05bdd2adac59b16258572e.jpeg

GRECO-BAKTRIAN KINGDOM, Demetrios I Aniketos, c. 200-185 BCE, Æ trichalkon. 11.35, 28.5mm.
Obv: Head of elephant right, wearing bell around neck.
Rev: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟΥ; Kerykeion (caduceus); monogram to inner left.
HGC 12, 67var.; Bopearachchi series 5C; Bopearachchi & Rahman –; SNG ANS –.
Rare monogram (according to CNG).

I enjoy photographing Chinese coins for their amazing colours!

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CHINA: Western Han, Emperor Wu Di (140-87 BCE) Wu zhu, issued c. 90 BCE. 2.48g, 24mm.
Obv: Wu zhu, deficient outer rims, no inner rims
Rev: Blank as made
Hartill 8.9

If you have any advice for me based on these examples I'm all ears!!

P.S. I'm enjoying the expert back-and-forth in this thread, @kirispupis!  Though flash hasn't worked for me in the past I might give it another try.

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Edited by Severus Alexander
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10 hours ago, kirispupis said:

Focus isn't very difficult even handheld. There are two options:

  • For most coins, AF works just fine. The RF + RF 100 have no issues focusing on the vast majority of decently sized coins.
  • For some of the hemi-obols are tough-shape bronzes, manual focus is necessary. Still, the RF provides feedback on the focus and the IS is extremely good on the RF 100 - allowing easy hand held.

I try to keep my advice as general as possible so while you can definitely do handheld macro (and I do all the time for insect macrophotography), I also keep in mind that not everyone is going to have the same gear, the same technical experience, or the same abilities. Even just considering the gear alone, there's many factors that will make one camera+lens combination much better at autofocusing for macro subjects than another. Beyond that, I think with some coins you're also going to be operating right at the limits of your DOF and you will need to nail the focus perfectly. Sure you can shoot a bunch of photos and pick the best one but for me it's an inconvenience I'd rather avoid.

But to be clear, I don't think one needs a stand and handheld is perfectly viable, I would just say that in my experience when it comes to coin photography it is likely something you will want to invest in if you want to improve your photography. A stand is of course not required to improve but it takes so many things out of the equation that you no longer have to worry about, allowing you to focus more on the lighting or such.

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IMHO there are more drawbacks than benefits. One thing is I've found a perfectly perpendicular view is often not desirable. I very slight angle provides more interesting reflections and contrast. Head on - the images can lack contrast. When shooting hand-held with a mirrorless and model lights on the flash - I can see these changes as I move the camera slightly. To compensate for the slant, I use a high aperture like f16. This will make the image slightly softer, but only if the coin is viewed at 100% - which it never is.

 

I agree that you often will want to tilt a coin slightly (you can see my device for doing so earlier in this thread) but there are times where that will not be possible due to DOF constraints - unless you're focus stacking. With pseudo-axial lighting setups, having the coin head-on as you describe, will actually produce the highest contrast and tilting the coin will reduce it. It is of course much easier to move a coin than the camera to get the right angle, both of which can done "live" so you can see the changes immediately but having to only move the coin will still likely leave you with a free hand to do other things, such as moving a diffuser while you tilt the coin.

To me, all of those things you mentioned are perfectly possible with a stand setup, and IMO even easier, so I don't see how a stand has drawbacks in this regard. Not meaning to harp on as if stands are the be all, end all, I just disagree that you've mentioned any benefits to handheld that can't be achieved with a stand to the same degree or, in many cases, better.

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If you have a black background behind and are using flash, the ambient light doesn't matter at all. I have the full lights on when I shoot because it doesn't matter. I believe it's one topic that new photographers to macro have the toughest time with. When using flash on small subjects - the flash provides all of the light. Take this image as an example (note I had to search a bit to find something not a spider :))

This springtail didn't have a black background behind it, but due to the flash that was all washed away due to the distance between it and the background. Only at the very bottom, where the surface peeks in, is the background not black.

Usually when I photograph bugs, I strive to avoid this effect since people don't expect insects with black backgrounds. However, for coins it works perfectly.

 

As I mentioned, if you're correctly exposed and have the flash settings dialled in you should be fine, but not everyone here will want to learn all the nuances of photography even if they are shooting coins with a DSLR. IMO a lot of people struggle with controlling flash (or light in general) so to most people starting out, they may have trouble freezing motion with flash while using other lights. It can definitely be done, I'm just thinking about what is the best advice for a general audience and taking into account their likely equipment, knowledge, and will to faff about with lighting.

I probably shouldn't have used ambient light to describe a fill light as they are different but I did mention fill lights and you will have trouble freezing motion while using a fill light and flash. If the fill light does nothing then it's fine as the flash is the only thing exposing the image but then you can just throw away your fill light because it's not needed. However, if you do want your fill light to do something, then it is exposing the image and the flash won't freeze motion on its own. I mentioned fill lights with ambient light because they result in the same problem: if you need a constant light source to help light the scene in addition to the flash, then you can't freeze the motion with flash alone.

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4 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

Thanks so much @Kaleun96 for the detailed reply to my questions!  The cone template generator looks super helpful, and I look forward to using diffusers properly now.  I usually turn the ring light off entirely for AE but maybe with proper diffusion I can avoid that.  Your top photo of the Hadrian is lovely, and a good example of the sort of coin I find difficult.  AE are definitely harder than AR!  (I rarely take photos of AU and was quite unsuccessful when I did... until I learned to use white balance properly.)

For really tiny coins I currently use a nail head stuck through piece of velvet for support.  Not great but I can make it work.

I still need to re-photograph most of my collection, not sure I'll get round to it.  My oldest photos are crappy iPhone 4 shots when I had no idea what I was doing, the rest are with an ancient low-res digital Rebel using an extension tube... much better but the resolution was definitely limiting.  Finally I got a decent (budget!) used Canon, a 70D, and that has made a big difference.  Unfortunately most of my photography had to be for AMCC 3 rather than my own coins! 😞 Here's the first shot I tried with that new camera and I was pretty pleased with how well it turned out on a tiny 8mm diameter hemiobol.  So much better than my old tiny coin photos:

If you have any advice for me based on these examples I'm all ears!!

P.S. I'm enjoying the expert back-and-forth in this thread, @kirispupis!  Though flash hasn't worked for me in the past I might give it another try!

Those photos really turned out nice! I think you've done well with the AE ones too, I get a good sense for how they would be in hand. I don't have any specific advice (as the photos all turned out well) beyond just experimenting. I think playing around with lighting, diffusing, tilting the coin, etc will help you find what works well and what doesn't work well - or even what works well for a particular need (e.g. showing off the relief). If you keep experimenting then you'll hone in on your "style" that illustrates the coin how you want it to look. I think everyone has a style, and it likely changes over time, so playing around with different variables before you start photographing the bulk of your collection is a good way to start IMO.

I'm enjoying the discussion here too! It's sometimes surprisingly difficult to find people who have enough of an interest in coin photography to get into the details of both the art and science of it. Kirispupis has mentioned a few examples of the "science" side of things, e.g. freezing motion and exposing correctly with flash to get totally black backgrounds. And then the "art" side is more subjective and based in personal preference, like what equipment you use or your photographic style when it comes to lighting coins etc. It can be tough to give advice that doesn't encroach on someone else's style so I try to remind myself what advice I can give to solve specific problems without inadvertently pushing someone to adopt my photographic style under the guise of it being the "correct" way to do things.

I went back-and-forth with using flash for coins myself but the past year or two I've been using flash almost exclusively. I would say it's trickier to control flash than a constant light source, and often more expensive too, but in the end you can get more control over your lighting by using flash. As Kirispupis has demonstrated, flash lets you manipulate the scene to your advantage in more ways than constant lighting allows. It does require some experimenting with to get the highlights and the harshness of the shadows under control without over-doing it with diffusion and making everything look soft.

 

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Posted (edited)

I've been the DSLR route, but eventually ended up damaging (over exposing) my camera's image sensor due to using a homemade franken-lens (made from enlarger lens, etc) without any electronics in it. So, for time being I'm back to using my iPhone for coins photos, which actually works pretty well as long as all you want is "web sized" photos.

A few "tricks" that are perhaps most applicable to iPhone photography.

1) As always, regardless of camera, lighting is key, and with a portable iPhone setup you have the benefit of being able to take it outdoors and use natural light. For many coins, sunlight is hard to beat, especially on a bright cloudy day (direct sun, without clouds, may not be very flattering, although it depends on the coin).

2) For macro photography even the slightest movement is going to affect the focus, so it's best to rest your phone on something rather than hand-hold it (I use a 6" high section of plastic milk bottle!), then use timed shutter release so the camera has time to stop shaking after you hit the shutter button.

3) There are many 3rd party camera apps for the iPhone which offer better features for macro photography than Apple's built-in camera app. I use "Halide" which works well, and has a special macro mode.

4) The iPhone's auto while balance does not work very well for macro photography, so you may want/need to correct it after you take the photo. The same may apply for other cameras and lighting setups too. I use the free "GIMP" photo editor/ graphics program for this purpose since I used Linux. GIMP is also available for Windows. In GIMP the white balance can be corrected in the "Levels .." dialog found under the "Colors" menu. If you've taken the photo on a white background, then click on the "set white point" tool, then click on an area of the photo you know should be white. You can also use the "Levels" dialog to correct for washed out looking photos, etc.

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5) This applies to all coin photography, regardless of camera type. If a bright diffused light source such as sunlight is not complementary to your coin, then another type of lighting that works for many situations is a directional light coming in from a very low angle to one side of the coin. I use an IKEA gooseneck "Jansen" LED light for this purpose. This type of directional, low angle, lighting works well for coins with low relief (eg. very worn), pitted surfaces, surfaces with uneven reflectivity (e.g. partial silvering on bronze), and sometimes highly reflective coins since it avoids reflections back to camera.

 

Edited by Heliodromus
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59 minutes ago, Heliodromus said:

I've been the DSLR route, but eventually ended up damaging (over exposing) my camera's image sensor due to using a homemade franken-lens (made from enlarger lens, etc) without any electronics in it. So, for time being I'm back to using my iPhone for coins photos, which actually works pretty well as long as all you want is "web sized" photos.

As someone who has assembled a few franken-lenses myself, I'd love to see this! 😁 How did it damage the sensor, did you magnify light so that it focused it on a small concentrated area of the sensor or something? I don't think I've heard of someone damaging their camera this way so would be curious to know.

Been awhile since I made a franken-lens myself, the most recent one was probably this one below that I used as a fish-eye macro lens.

Screen Shot 2022-06-09 at 17.05.03.png

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Posted (edited)

That's a cool looking setup!

Here's my franken-lens.

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It's basically just the El-Nikkor enlarger lens, focusing helicoid and adaptor to fit my (RIP) Canon DSLR.

The magnification is insane to the extent that my mini copy-stand couldn't get the lens far enough away from the coin.

I'm not sure exactly what went wrong as far as damaging the camera, but I think the basic issue is that the lens has no electronics in it, so the camera wasn't able to control it, and I must have had it wide open at some point. After the image sensor was damaged everything had a deep color tint to it (I forget which color).

Edited by Heliodromus
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1 hour ago, Heliodromus said:

That's a cool looking setup!

Here's my franken-lens.

It's basically just the El-Nikkor enlarger lens, focusing helicoid and adaptor to fit my (RIP) Canon DSLR.

The magnification is insane to the extent that my mini copy-stand couldn't get the lens far enough away from the coin.

I'm not sure exactly what went wrong as far as damaging the camera, but I think the basic issue is that the lens has no electronics in it, so the camera wasn't able to control it, and I must have had it wide open at some point. After the image sensor was damaged everything had a deep color tint to it (I forget which color).

Thanks! Nice setup as well. I've never bought one of those Nikkor enlarger lenses but have a bunch of others (Schneider, Rodenstock, etc). Definitely good value for money though.

For others here that might be interested, enlarger lenses are a great budget option for coin macro photography and combined with a helicoid adapter like the one you have (I think mine might be the same too), you can get variable magnification so it can be useful for coins of all sizes. If anyone here has a DSLR/mirrorless but doesn't want to invest in a macro lens, I'm sure Heliodromus, myself, and others can recommend a good enlarger lens to buy in the $40-$100 range.

If you have an existing lens in the 80mm or higher focal length, a good option can also be the Raynox DCR-250 close-up adapter that attaches to the end of your lens:

https://www.amazon.com/Raynox-DCR-250-Super-Macro-Snap/dp/B000A1SZ2Y

The magnification of these varies with focal length so are well-suited for zoom lenses.

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I remain curious how a lens can damage a sensor especially on a DSLR that covers the sensor with a shutter curtain when not actually taking a picture.  My low end Cannon mirrorless RP does not cover the sensor so pointing it at the sun might seems a problem but I have had no issues and have just under 40,000 images on the body (mostly not coins these days).  In addition to the contactless enlarger lens (mine is a Leitz), I have used a dozen different home mounted/adapted lenses from 8 to 600 mm. I did decide to stop using my Takumar 50mm f/1.4 out of concern that its bring radioactive in the rear elements might not be good for the uncovered sensor.  That may be being overly cautious???

I have avoided commenting on some of the things in this thread that I consider just plain wrong.  I have posted my opinions on photo so many times that I am tired of it.  Do things that work for you.  If a phone shot is good enough for you, fine. I do find it interesting that I have some 3D printed edge enhancing cones almost identical to some shown here but I lost access to a 3D printer when the local library closed their Makerspace due to Covid.  I might not go back because too many people around here are tired of Covid restrictions and doing things that make me not want to be around them. 

I do agree that adding diffusion to a ring light is a good idea but You need to compromise on its size or it gets hard to mix in directional light.  This is a phone shot.  I can't get any photos with my phone that I find all that pleasing but since I own cameras, that is OK. 

 

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