Today’s photoessay-on-assignment-report hybrid comes courtesy of a regular client who both makes their own and OEM watches for other companies. They’re not a big name – you’ve probably never seen the brand outside Asia, if at all – and they’re certainly not competing at the high end, but they do have mass-market volume; it’s a very different sort of assignment to the kind I normally undertake in Switzerland. It doesn’t require much skill to make an exceptional watch made with no consideration for price look exceptional; the challenge there is making it look extraordinary – otherwise your photography has not added any value or even done the object justice. My job here is very different: how does one make a $200-retail watch look like a $2,000++ one?
Early on in this relationship, I was hired because of my expertise and experience with other brands; our first shoots were styled along the lines of safe, conventional catalogs produced by others. Since then, the relationship has progressed to their designer taking care of the styling in-house, to a collaborative relationship between us after realising that I’d shot a good number of the other ads they were using as a reference: why not go a bit further if you’re already at the source?
The product of this year’s campaign shoot is quite significantly different to my previous work with watches; partially because concentrating solely on the watch and its details is no longer something unique or novel, and partially because the watches themselves lack the detail to support this kind of photography; remember: they are produced to a $200 price point, not a $2,000 or $20,000 one like the pieces I typically shoot. Though there are a significant amount of diminishing returns involved, there are some basic truths; you’re not going to get a nicely decorated in-house movement, for example. Similarly, the sheer volume of models – over 100, by my count – the nature of the clientele and the size of the operation mean that variety is almost certainly a better business strategy than refinement. Still, in the time I’ve been working with them, I’ve seen quality improve significantly – with almost no movement in the price point. This is commendable because it’s almost unheard of in the rest of the industry.
My equipment and setup for these images was no different to any other watch shoot: perspex panels, a large quantity of diffuser cards, colored papers, mount boards, clips and duct tape to hold the whole thing together; (this early article on watch photography may be of interest) light stands, putty for posing watches, cleaning supplies, and an air blower. Hardware-wise, here’s a quick rundown of the critical items:
- Nikon D800E, x2 with spare batteries
- Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro
- Nikon SB900 – I normally use two, or at most three, but I bring four or five just in case
- Nikon SU800 – to fire and control the SB900s wirelessly
- Gitzo G5562LTS tripod
- Arca-Swiss C1 Cube head
- A recent addition – a pair of Novoflex Castel-Q macro rails for precise positioning in two more axes, for a total of geared movements in five axes – pan, tilt, rise (on the geared tripod column), shift and fore/aft. The only one that isn’t geared is yaw; for whatever reason Arca-Swiss decided not to gear their pan heads, unlike the Manfrotto 410/405.
There are a couple of reasons to use props: firstly, to provide context/ feel and suggest association, but also to fill an empty space and actually reduce focus on the watch; this allows us to hide areas that might not be as interesting or as well finished. This isn’t always the case, of course, and you will notice quite a few images here that feature solely the watch and nothing else. I believe that choosing the right props is very much an art in itself: they have to be visually and texturally interesting without being distracting; inexpensive without looking cheap; relevant without being overly kitsch; and on top of that, willing to stay in place and often support a watch without giving way or making it slide off. Failing all of that, there’s of course depth of field and worst case, retouching, to hide a multitude of surface flaws, too.
After shooting literally hundreds of watches – quite possibly even thousands, I’ve never stopped to count – I find that I tend to settle into a routine workflow:
- Agree on concept with client/ agency/ creative/ designer/ self etc.
- Mockup props and setup
- Clean props and setup, arrange
- Clean watch: meticulously; every single bit of dust will have to be retouched out later. And it’s much faster to clean it in person than digitally.
- Clean watch again. Final check of props.
- Pose watch, use putty to hold in place if necessary.
- Put diffuser over the top of the whole setup.
- Set camera magnification to scene size, position camera and move tripod into place.
- Adjust tilt and rotation of lens, focus, exposure, aperture etc. Use live view.
- Fine tune camera position for edges.
- Start with primary light: always on the watch. A rough guess of position of the first speed light, modelling light pops to fine tune, and lock down in place with stands or clamps.
- Add secondary fill lights as necessary using the same procedure.
- Set exposure manually on speedlights for both primary-secondary balance and consistency.
- Shoot, check critical focus.
- Shoot a backup.
- Approve shot and move on.
This process can take anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours, depending on the number of elements one has to coordinate and clean. Some props and watches are particularly stubborn and require several cleanings, applications of compressed air and Rodico (watchmaker’s cleaning putty) to remove stubborn grease and dust from crevices; I find black chrome and gold to be particularly problematic surfaces to keep spotless because they seem to be very attractive to fingerprints and fine hairline scratches respectively.
Retouching and postprocessing for these images is limited to a few things: primarily, removing dust – 36MP resolves a lot of dust you can’t even see with your naked eyes; and occasionally compositing for focus stacking (on higher magnification images, or those which are required to be totally pan-focal) or certain dials. There’s also the matter of correcting handling damage or parts that are below final production quality because you’re often photographing prototypes that were rushed for the shoot. Mother of pearl is one of those surfaces that requires strong, directly incident light to reflect its full range of colours; there’s simply no way to achieve this with diffuse light. This is of course at odds with reflective polished cases, which require a constructed reflection to have any shape at all; there is therefore no choice but to shoot the two separately and combine them afterwards.
Whilst I’m very pleased with the outcome of these images, I still judge commercial image success by client happiness. And that’s ultimately driven by commercial impact and sales; being informed that their sales have significantly increased year on year as a consequence of product presentation and advertising is most encouraging indeed. MT
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