Film diaries: Watches and a Hasselblad

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Digital contact sheet of the negs.

I’ll admit that deep down, from the day I decided to buy the Hasselblad, I’d harboured a deep, masochistic desire to do this. During previous evaluations of medium format for my main commercial subjects, it didn’t really fit the bill: too difficult to achieve the degree of magnification required for watches, and digital medium format wouldn’t give me the width I needed for architectural work. It’d also be overkill for food photography in this country, given the current state of affairs*.

*I recently had a large corporate client ask for a portfolio and quote, then turn around and give the job to another photographer who quoted less and said ‘here, copy’. The results were crude because of harsh lighting and repetitively boring subject placement, but I suppose if they can’t tell the difference…perhaps I’m the one who’s got unrealistic expectations?

But hey, on film, for fun and in the spirit of creative experimentation, why not?

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Photoessay: The Maitres du Temps Chapter 3

This watch was an early production prototype photographed for my client, which is the Manufacture. [Puts on horological hat] It’s an interesting piece because it carries clear DNA from its creator – Kari Voutilainen (the dial) – whilst at the same time retaining the brand’s own DNA (the rollers). It’s a substantial but not oversized watch at about 42mm in diameter; contained inside are time functions, small seconds, date, synodic moon phase indication, day/night indicator and second time zone display. The latter two functions are hidden under panels on the dial at 12 and 6 that retract slightly into the plane of the dial and rotate out of the way, activated by the button concentric to the crown. The button at 9 advances the second time zone display (under the panel at 6). You can see the action of the panels in the final two images. Maitres du Temps is an interesting brand because it collaborates with famous watchmakers to create the various ‘Chapters’ – they do have an in-house execution and assembly facility headed by the noted Andreas Strehler, but each project always lands up different because it carries the DNA of the master watchmaker in charge of the project. Chapter 3 looks nothing like 1 and 2; they were of course designed by completely different watchmakers. Personally, this piece is by far my favorite – I think of it as classical, with a twist. MT

This series shot with a Nikon D800, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and several SB900s. As always, clicking on an image brings you to the Flickr landing page, from which you can view a larger version.

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Photoessay: The Speake-Marin Immortal Dragon

One of the more unusual watches I’ve photographed, the Immortal Dragon is both immaculately finished on the dial and the movement – the watch has both serious horological pedigree (being from the atelier of highly respected independent watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin and some pretty unique aesthetics. The dial was hand-engraved in relief by master engraver Kees Engelberts, and the watch is a piece unique destined for the Asian market in honor of the current lunar year of the dragon. MT

This series shot with a Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon with Leica M-F adaptor and multiple speedlights.

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Watch photography, part three: Getting Serious

The final article in this mini-series assumes the reader has familiarity with photographic technique and terminology, as well as the right equipment. The entry point here is a camera with a dedicated macro lens: DSLRs and ILCs (Micro 4/3s, Sony NEX etc).

Reposted from my original article on Fratellowatches from late 2011.

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All images can be clicked for larger versions. 

I will start by saying one thing: by and large, what camera or lens you use does not really matter, beyond the lens focal length and maximum magnification. Why? Because you will be shooting under conditions where you can almost always extract maximum image quality from the camera, which has been sufficient for the most demanding applications for some time now. Either you will be using a sturdy tripod or flash, in either case, always shooting at base ISO and with good optics. Most macro lenses are extremely good, even the third party ones; it is not difficult to make a slow-ish aperture normal or short telephoto with high resolution.

That said, I have been shooting Nikon for my watch photography work since 2004; not because of the cameras or lenses (both excellent), but because it had the best flash system; most accurate metering and the ability to remotely control multiple flashes using the built in unit on the camera. As I said earlier: lighting control is critical. All of the Micro-Nikkors are excellent; I currently use the AFS 60/2.8 G because it has the lowest lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberration of the current bunch, and enables maximum magnification with the minimum number of extension tubes. I use a D700 most of the time, or a D5100 if I need additional magnification (1:1 magnification means a 24x36mm subject on the D700, or a 18x24mm subject on the D5100.)

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DIY diffuser, made from mount board and tracing paper. Cut a hole in the bottom for a tripod mount.

Let’s talk about lighting. I use a self-built diffuser box with movable panels; it allows me to control very precisely the amount of light and specular highlights seen on the subject inside it. It’s not that big, but big enough to photograph a whole watch without seeing the edges of the diffuser in the frame.

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View from behind the camera.

I also use multiple flashes, controlled by the pop-up unit built into the camera as mentioned earlier. One flash will give strong, directional lighting; it’s nice but sometimes variety is good, and fill is required. It may not be enough if you have to stop down to extreme apertures to get sufficient depth of field, though. Especially if using diffusers. Two flashes are generally enough for all situations; one primary light and one to provide fill, or light your background. Three flashes is overkill unless you want very flat, even lighting; this generally lands up being boring because everything is too evenly lit.

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This is pretty close to my current setup, minus the tripod

Experiment with where you put the flashes, and how you angle the watch; Blu-Tack or plasticine is your friend here. It’s also very useful for removing stubborn dust specks; I will typically spend up to fifteen minutes cleaning and dusting a watch prior to shooting. It’s much easier than having to retouch it after the shot.

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There’s a catch: some things you just don’t retouch, like this vintage Fifty Fathoms.

I don’t use a tripod. I find it restricts the spontaneity of my compositions. If I need precise positioning for high magnification work – with extension tubes, for instance – I will brace my hand against the table. How do I avoid camera shake? Simple – the flashes do the work for me. Set your camera to the maximum sync speed – usually 1/180, 1/200 or 1/250s – and light from the flash will be nearly 100% of the light captured by the camera, especially if you are shooting indoors with the lens stopped down. The actual duration of the flash pulse is even shorter; don’t worry about motion blur.

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Extension tubes give you serious magnification. Patek 5055

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This isn’t a crop – the full frame shows every single perfect (or imperfect) detail. Lange 1815

Two special pieces of equipment I want to mention are extension tubes and tilt-shift lenses. Extension tubes are basically spacers that sit between the lens and camera and allow you more magnification; (you lose infinity focus, but you weren’t using that anyway). They usually have electronic contacts for the camera to communicate with the lens. You will have to switch to manual focus and set magnification on the lens, then move the camera. Depth of field decreases dramatically as magnification increases; even with relatively short focal length lenses like the 60mm, the best autofocus systems simply can’t cope.

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Note interesting depth of field plane: Girard-Perregaux Tourbillon Sous Trois Ponts d’Or, Nikon D2Hs with a PC 85/2.8 tilt-shift macro. Phew, that was a mouthful.

Tilt-shift lenses allow you to use an optical trick known as the Scheimpflug Principle to get more depth of field for a given aperture; effectively you are tilting your plane of focus parallel with your subject plane so that more of your subject is in focus. It can be an effective way of increasing your depth of field, but requires some practice to use effectively. Unfortunately, magnification on these lenses is typically restricted to 1:2 or less, limiting high magnification use (ironically where they would be most useful) due to the unwieldy number of extension tubes required to achieve sufficient magnification.

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Art or too much Photoshop? AP Royal Oak Jumbo

I’d like to conclude by talking about postprocessing. Photoshop used to be a dirty word amongst photographers, with the implications of changing the content and removing or adding things from the frame. Whilst you can use it for that, a better way to think of it is your digital darkroom. The curves tool is especially handy for controlling contrast. Used together with the masking tools, you can very effectively control the contrast across the different parts of your image; for instance, you might want more contrast in the movement, but not in the case or background; you can just mask off the movement and work on the different portions separately. Likewise, it’s important to shoot RAW to get full control over your exposure and color balance; I frequently tweak the color channels of my image using the Hue/Saturation tool once I’m happy with the contrast. Finally, you can deal with the inevitable dust: some photographers may not care, others – like myself, a holdover from my commercial photography days – are militant about every last speck. The healing brush and clone tools are your friend here; but the better a job you do with cleaning the real object, the less you have to deal with afterwards. Pay particular attention to any fingerprints – they are almost impossible to remove digitally.

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No trickery here, just reflections. Glycine Incusore Blackjack

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned film here anywhere. It is still a viable alternative for watch photography, but the main problem is that it is very difficult to visualize the output and make the appropriate adjustments; most metering systems will require tweaking to cope with complex situations like multiple off camera flash + diffusers + little working distance between camera and lens. That said, I have shot commercial grade watch work on a Nikon F2, calculating guide numbers manually and using flash stacking to replicate the effect of multiple flashes.

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Surprise!

Try and introduce an element of surprise into your shot: it gives the viewer something different and memorable. It might take a few tries to get it right, but that’s the beauty of experimentation – you never know what you might get out of it. Lastly, have fun. Unless it’s work, if you’re not having fun, perhaps you’re taking it too seriously and it’s time for a break. MT

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Breguet La Tradition

If you want to get really crazy, you could always try shooting watches with a Leica M system.


Watch photography, part two: Using what you’ve got

Part two. Reposted from my original article on Fratellowatches from late 2011

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1950s GUB Deck Chronometer, Ricoh GR Digital III. Click all images for larger versions.

Don’t think you need to immediately rush out to buy a DSLR, macro lens and lighting setup to capture good images. They help, but good work can still be done with a compact camera that has a macro mode, and some creative lighting and composition. Side note: every image in this article was shot with a compact camera.

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1950s GUB Deck Chronometer, Ricoh GR Digital III. Click all images for larger versions.

There are two major differences between compact cameras and DSLRs/ ILCs (Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX and the like). The first is that almost every compact camera has a macro mode; this tells the camera to allow the lens to focus closer, and in some cases locks the lens to the minimum (i.e. widest) focal length. In every case, closest focus and maximum magnification with a compact will be achieved with the lens at its widest position. Zooming in will usually result in the camera not being able to find focus. Whilst you can typically get within 5cm; and in some cases, 1cm; you are going to have huge perspective distortion. This is a property of wide angle lenses; objects closer to the camera will have a much greater relative share of the frame than those further away. This can be useful in some cases.

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Sinn 756 S UTC. Panasonic LX3.

The second major difference is that depth of field – controlling what is in focus and what isn’t – generally isn’t an issue with a compact camera, as a consequence of the small sensor and requisite optics mean much is in focus all of the time. A larger sensor camera will allow you to selectively focus on objects – and in some cases, even be unable to achieve sufficient depth of field to get the entire watch in focus at an angle without resorting to some trick optics, or stacking software.

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See my review of this watch on Fratellowatches: Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso Grande GMT. Canon IXUS SD780IS.

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Nomos Tangomat GMT-12. Apple iPhone 4.

Recall lesson three from the last article: pay attention to the light. Yes, most cameras have an on-board flash, but at typical watch photography distances, it will be too powerful and result in an extremely overexposed image. Even worse, it’s direct, undiffused and going to show every single scratch and dust spot. Once again, there are exceptions.

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MB&F HM3. Canon IXUS SD780IS, with flash.

The easiest way to take care of lighting is to find a nice, bright location where the light isn’t harsh; for instance, a white room with a large window is good. You want to start away from the window to avoid direct light (and unwanted reflections). If there isn’t enough light, your shutter speed will drop to the point that you will either have to a) increase sensitivity, resulting in digital grain and degradation in image quality; or b) get a tripod and use the self-timer.

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Both shots: Chronoswiss Pathos. Canon IXUS SD780IS, with a handy nearby spotlight.

Once again, pay attention to backgrounds and details – things in the corner of the frame or at the edges can make or break an image. You don’t want to distract the viewer from the main subject. Make sure the watch is properly in focus and exposed; some compacts have a histogram function that will show you if your subject is overexposed – this happens if the histogram is bunched up hard against the right hand side.

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso Grande GMT. Note background. Canon IXUS SD780IS

Remember the on-board flash? It isn’t entirely useless. Get a plain white piece of A3 paper, fold it in half, and cut a hole in it for the lens. You can fold it into a half-pipe and place the watch in the middle, if you wish. Now use the flash. Compare the effect before and after: big difference! What you have effectively made is a diffuser. It helps to even out and soften the light from the flash. The white paper acts as a bonus shield to cut unwanted reflections. You might find the images a little flat, but some contrast adjustment either on the camera or in your favorite image editing software can help.

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See my article on beta testing this watch on Fratellowatches – the Nomos Tangomat GMT-12. Ricoh GR Digital III, with a little photoshop help.

What if you already have a DSLR lying around, but perhaps not a dedicated macro lens? Well, not to worry. You might not be able to get as close as a compact camera, but the kit lenses bundled with the camera generally do a decent job and focus fairly close. Use the maximum focal length (zoom in fully), and find out how close you can go. You might want to switch to manual focus, set the minimum focus distance and move the camera back and forth instead. Closing down the aperture – f number – will help to increase your depth of field. The same rules about lighting apply: find somewhere bright and diffuse, use the paper trick, or get a tripod.

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Sinn 556. Ricoh GXR and 50/2.5 A12 macro.

In both cases, taking a manual white balance reading off a white sheet of paper in the same location as where you intend to photograph the watch will greatly help with your color accuracy (and remove that horrible yellow cast if you have no choice but to shoot under a desk lamp at night, for instance).

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Omega Seamaster. Canon IXUS SD780IS. If all else fails and you can’t get the color right, go black and white.

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Girard-Perregaux Vintage 1945. Canon IXUS SD780IS.

An important thing I haven’t mentioned is that learning to use your camera is quite critical. Familiarity with its functions and controls will make your photography experience much more fluid rather than frustrating. Regular practice is a good way to improve both your composition and familiarity with your tool. Remember, a person who has been shooting the same (now outdated) camera for the last ten years will almost always produce much better images than somebody with a new expensive toy.

Now, go out and practice! MT

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Sinn 756 S UTC. Panasonic LX3. Don’t forget the fun element!

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso Grande GMT. Canon IXUS SD780IS.


Watch photography, part one: Introduction

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Nikon D700 and Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon. This is my watch photography workhorse, though with a different lens. I’ve often been asked why I tape over the logos on my cameras – simple: I don’t want to retouch out a ‘Nikon’ reflection from the watch case! Click on all images for larger versions.

Reposted from my original article on Fratellowatches from late 2011

Trivia: I started taking photography seriously only after I got interested in horology. I wanted to be able to capture the mechanical beauty of timepieces and their movements; all the more so as thanks to the generosity of many forum members and collectors, I was able to see many rare pieces – but of course not own them. Learning to photograph them properly would let me appreciate the craftsmanship and detail long after they went home with their owners.

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Daniel Roth Classique.

That was 2002. Fast forward nearly ten years, and photography has turned into the dominant passion for me. Watches, however, remain a subject that close to my heart.

It’s not uncommon for other people to get into photography the same way – I know more than a good handful of my watch collector friends have also taken up cameras to capture their timepieces. And in some ways, collecting camera equipment can be just as satisfying (and expensive!) if not more so than watches. There is a degree of interactivity and possibility for creative expression from the collector, far more so than even the best grande complication.

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Leica M8, 1,4/21 Summilux-M ASPH, Leica hand grip M, Voigtlander 28/35 mini-finder, ThumbsUp grip. How can this not also appeal to the watch collector? Mind you, this combination is absolutely useless for watch photography.

This will be the first of a series of three articles about the subject. I will start by taking a step back and examining the objectives of photography in general, how other factors will influence your ability as a watch photographer, and how to develop the first skill: composition. The second article can be treated as a primer: how to make the most of what you’ve got. We will finish with an article for those who want to get really serious: I will share the techniques and equipment I use, as well as a note or two about post processing and retouching.

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Panerai Luminor 1950 Flyback

Let us begin.

Why do we take photographs? Usually, to capture something, a moment, a feeling, an image – the image we see in our mind’s eye. This is usually quite different to how it turns out on the camera – but don’t worry, it’s fixable. We need to learn how to see like a camera, and in turn make the camera see like us (i.e. make it do what we want it to do). Part of this is learning to visualize, part of it is learning technical skills and how to operate your camera and what its limitations are, and all of it is discipline and practice.

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Jaquet Droz Grand Date

The human eye sees things in two general ways: our greater field of vision perceives a fairly wide scene, equivalent to somewhere between a 24-28mm lens. When we focus on something, our visual field narrows to something closer to about 50-60mm. The brain corrects for distortion, perspective, color, low light, and extreme highlights and shadows; furthermore, most things are in focus all of the time (unless we go very close to something). There is one further complication: we have two eyes. So our sense of perspective is also affected by depth perception, something we do not have control over with 2D cameras and images.

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Perpetual Skeleton Prototype

Replicating a human perspective is quite tricky, actually. It has its advantages – you can capture something very close to what you saw, which may be what you want; but similarly, there are things you can do with a camera that the naked eye will never be able to achieve – isolation through extremely shallow depth of field, for instance. Or exaggerated or compressed perspectives.

Let’s go back to watches. Think for a moment: what is it about the watch that you find attractive? The whole case? A particular detail on the movement? Or perhaps something else, the way the light reflects off the dial texture? What is the essential quantity, element or detail that represents the watch? For example, this would be the crown locking bridge on a Panerai, or the bezel on a Royal Oak, or perhaps the screwed chatons of a Lange.

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Panerai Luminor Arktos

First lesson: a good photograph always captures the essence of the subject. It should make the viewer think, but its intended subject should always be identifiable.

For most people, watch photography means getting the entire watch in frame, in focus and reasonably well lit. The first two things aren’t always required: look at some of the photoessays I have posted on Fratellowatches, and notice how few shots actually show the entire watch, or have everything in focus!

Beauty can be in form and detail. Don’t afraid to leave things out to only capture the interesting bits. The clichéd saying is ‘less is more’ – it should be restated more accurately as it requires effort to decide what is non-essential to your composition and can be left out.

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Extreme World Alarm

What about popular rules of photography, like the ‘rule of thirds’ (divide your frame into three, horizontally and vertically, and only place subjects at the intersection of those lines) and suchlike? They are there as a guide. While they are generally useful, there are a lot of compositions that defy all of these rules and somehow still manage to be visually arresting. The only rule that I follow is that the frame must be visually balanced: for instance, I generally won’t put the watch at one corner and leave the rest of the frame empty. It might be filled with a shadow, some interesting texture in the background, or the curl of a strap – these elements are deliberately there to provide visual balance. Why do you think watch hands are always set to 10:10, 1:50, 4:40, 8:20 or some other similar time? They provide balance. Similarly, pay attention to things in the corners or at the edges of your frame: they can be distracting and draw your eye away from the main subject.

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Timefactors PRS-2 Dreadnought

Lesson two: Look at the details; balance is important. They define the subject but can also often draw the eye away if they are in the wrong place.

Let’s talk a bit about light. Light is perhaps the most important element for any photograph – without light there is no subject, and this makes even composition secondary. For a subject like watches, beginners will just look at the subject, or perhaps technical elements of the camera or composition. Amateurs will look for good light; professionals will create their own (and through this, manage to realize the shot they are visualizing).

Lesson three: If you are using ambient light, pay attention to how the light falls; reflections, shadows, etc. Diffuse light is flattering, but will not show texture well. Similarly, direct, bright light is great for showing texture – including dust and scratches.

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Blancpain Leman Alarm GMT

Lesson four: Clean and dust your watches before photographing them – the closer you get, the higher resolution your camera, the bigger and more obvious the dust!

Finally, lesson five: spend some time just looking at the watch before you begin. Identify the angles from which it looks best; which details are distinctive; what do you want to capture? MT

The never-ending quest for more magnification

The arrival of some new adaptors gave me an idea. Just how much further could I push the limits of macrophotography before I need to buy a microscope?

Quite far, it seems.

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What you’re looking at in the image above is a mishmash of gear which could mostly be replaced by a single long tube with a mount at either end. From right to left: Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar (I tried the Leica 35 FLE, but there wasn’t enough working distance) mounted on Leica Bellows II, mounted on Visoflex III, mounted on Leica M to Nikon F adaptor, mounted on 72mm of Nikon-fit extension tubes, mounted on Nikon F to M4/3 adaptor, with an Olympus Pen Mini hanging off the end.

The results? See for yourself below. The full frame is slightly less than 2x3mm in most of the photos with the 50mm, and 1.5x2mm with the 35mm. That’s 6:1 or 9:1 on Micro Four Thirds, but more like 12:1 or 18:1 equivalent on FX. I’ve marked on a larger photo of the watch exactly what you’re looking at, for readers intimately familiar with horological architecture. Note that the angle is slightly different in some of the images.

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Does it make sense? No, because we’re clearly a) hitting diffraction limits; b) seeing resolution limits on the lenses used; c) seeing CA, distortions and other artifacts introduced by the sapphire crystal we have to shoot through on the watch and d) very low contrast. And for most watches, there won’t be this level of detail to capture in the first place. Curiously, lighting is actually pretty easy with the 50mm because it has a decent amount of working distance. For all practical purposes, I think 5:1 is pretty much the limit for watch photography. MT

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Balance rim rate/ inertia adjustment screw

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Escape wheel and bearing

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Barrel bearing

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Hairspring and carrier

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Third wheel jewel bearing and bridge end

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Balance stud attachment screw

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Barrel pivot and jewel bearing

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Minute hand tip

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