On Assignment photoessay and challenge: Making a $200 watch look the business

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. Hello Ming,

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and I thoroughly enjoy the insight you provide into your working life as a professional photographer. How does your charging work in an assignment like the above? Do you charge on a per time or per product photographed or per product photo used or combination of that?

    Kind regards,

    • It depends on the number of images, amount of postproduction…no straightforward answer. I’d need a defined scope of work before quoting.

  2. Hi Ming,

    Do you ever offer any product photography workshops? I shoot jewelry would be interested to learn more, as I find it rather hard since it has so many reflective surfaces.

  3. Hi Ming, Do you have a direct email i can get in contact with to learn more about your services for product shoot? I am interested to discuss working with you for our company’s line of clothing.

  4. The one on the gold thread called to me. 🙂

  5. Laxman Mestry says:

    I always check your web site for new photos of watches.
    After long time, I see that lot of work (watch photography) is done by you.
    In many photos, the placement of watch is unique which makes good composition.
    Thanks, keep it up.

  6. Nate Wellum says:

    The pairing of the right props with the watches is impressive. Great ideas. Excellent work!

  7. Michiel953 says:

    Hi Ming,

    I have no way of knowing how these watches look “in the flesh” (and I’m not in the market for yet another expensive watch, ha ha), but these images certainly make them very good and of enviable quality. I admire the preparation you put into making these shots. Thorough preparation and mastery of your tools are the key words I think.

    Also good to see the 800E performing so well; I don’t regret getting one in lieu of my D800, instead of the 810. The improvement over the 800 is noticeable, and the quirks and ergonomics don’t bother me anymore.

    I might have missed it in your accompanying narrative, but how do you manage focusing correctly? LiveView?

    • Thanks – yes, live view.

      • Michiel953 says:

        I sold an expensive watch not so long ago through a local internet marketplace, and photographed it, lazy as I am, outdoors without any preparation with the thing lying on a terrace table in bright though rather diffuse and contre jour light, D800 and 58. Couldn’t get close enough of course, but cropping helped a bit. Not nearly as good as these shots of course, and I’m embarassed to even mention the comparison…

  8. Interesting to note that all your props have been complimentary to the product design which works quite well. What are your thoughts on using contrasting props ? Would they make the product pop out or take the eye away from them? Curious to know. Photos are fantastic.

  9. It’s admittedly irrelevant to the beautiful images, but I’m curious what currency you’re referring to when you usually write of prices/values? You have such an international audience that there seem to be several options 🙂

  10. Really great pictures, as always! You mention focus stacking in your article. Are you doing this with help of software like Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus? Or are you using layer in PS and paint the opacity? Thanks in advance for your answers!

  11. Carlos El Sabio says:

    Nikon should be grateful! Your work with the D800E is by far the best endorsement of the camera I have seen. Incredible work as always. And, like a few others, it was your watch photography that first attracted me to your site. Now, like many others, I am addicted.

    • Thanks. Frankly, Nikon is mostly indifferent as far as I can tel…

      • Big company indifference is evidently par for the course. 😦

        I’ve been negotiating some business recently with a financial concern that appears to me entirely indifferent to a very strong case made that their behavior is contrary to their own financial interests. I’ve seen several similar cases that IMO resulted in financially detrimental outcomes that were both avoidable and plainly foreseeable and carried out detrimentally just the same. The claim has been made that their behavior (which has been borderline offensive in my personal experience) is coldly rational and “all about the money” but in situations like this one I can’t help but wonder if blind systematization or sometimes plain old ego aren’t sometimes the significant forces involved?

      • That is about what I expected. We are talking about Nikon. You are the only photographer/artist I have found on the internet who has, in effect, validated the design and shown the capabilities of the camera. Again, thanks for what you do.

        Hello Thomas. Always good to hear from you.

  12. Beautiful work, congrats. I think that some reader would like a little tutorial on product photograpy – I’ve tried with a lightbox and found an interest in this genre…

  13. Very impressive use of props and lighting. As I think you know, I’ve been a great admirer of your watch photography for at least a decade (I think..how long have you been photographing watches?) and some of the images that I used to see on The Purists used to make me positively drool over the superb detail that you managed to photograph with such outstanding clarity. Said it before, happy to say it again…non plus ultra in this field.
    Managing to make inexpensive items look very enticing, even to a watch “connoisseur” really proves your mastery of the art. Especially the sports models.

  14. plevyadophy says:

    Ah, and old friend has returned; it was your watch photography, particularly your lighting techniques in respect of watches, that upon recommendation by David Hobby, brought me to your site in the beginning.

    And I suspect many of your long time readers found you for the same reasons ( lighting technique, composition, watches).

    It’s been a long, thought provoking, challenging, educational and inspirational journey. So it’s great for me ( and many of us ) to have this refresher on where journey began.


    For me, and maybe it’s coz I live a sheltered life, 🙂 but you’re still, after all this time, the only person who makes me appreciate watches.

    • Thank you! And no, it’s not because you lead a sheltered life – there really is very little rational reason to wear a watch these days. I’d be the first to admit it.

  15. Nice photographs! They are all beautiful!

  16. Beautiful stuff, Ming. It makes me wonder if it’s time to spend a lot less money on watches!

  17. These are truly beautiful, and they are obviously more of a challenge to get “interesting” shots of — which you accomplished nicely. I’d happily buy many of these watches based just on these photos.


  18. As always, fascinated by the insight into the commercial world, and amazed at the imagery you produce for your clients. Would love to be a fly on the wall for one of these shoots (esepcially if you try Jeffreysklan’s approach! ;P)

  19. John weeks says:

    Beautiful set!! Being a rather indulgent watch purchaser myself many of these shots stimulate me to take much more than a second to glance these products, and their details…crowns, push buttons, etc. very nice…two images particularly, the watches on the book writing pages
    and black bits suggesting industrial toughness for the black watch were very catching.

  20. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I like the use of props.

  21. Superb. Thanks for the insight on the photographic process.

  22. Carlos Esteban says:

    As always, very nice, precisely composed and… you’re a tonal master as far as I can judge! Thanks for sharing.

  23. I am really taken by this set. Wow!

  24. Wonderful to see the end results! I am sure they were pleased.

  25. Well done Ming! Wonderful presentations!
    Oliver 2.0

  26. I’m getting a Page Not Found error from flickr whenever I click on any of the images.

  27. As usual an interesting read. I am
    not sure if I full agree with the notion that a 20k watch is easier to shoot because whether the watch costs 200 or 20k, a certain emotionality plays a role. And I think you do an excellent job (again as usual) in making this particular brand look good. Not that I would go and buy one now 😜, but the presentation is good.

  28. Excellent images and interesting insight into the process. The image quality available today never ceases to amaze me. To obtain this level of detail without any sign of grain, used to take a minimum of a 4 X 5 view camera and very slow sheet film. The really juicy product photographs were made with 8 X 10 or larger formats. The finest details could be rendered with almost surreal detail at 8 X 10 and larger. I’m seeing similar resolution with these lovely images. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you. Any more detail than what I have now, and we actually reach the point where the object runs out of detail…and we never finish post processing.

  29. I think the work was well done, and done well. The use of props, particularly with the shells, and the wire thing that looked like a mannequin were quite thought provoking. Certainly worth a second look. Having this years ago, more tha most of your readers, I know how difficult these shoots can be. (I don’t even wear a watch despite having a drawer of them, btw).

    Three decades ago, an watch importer asked me, essentially, the same question: how can we make this $200 dollar watch look like a $1000 dollars? I said get an $800 call girl to wear it, and nothing else. He hired me, despite my impertinence.

    Keep going, MT, there are few things more dull that most jewelry/ watch ads…please turn that ship around. Jeffrey

  30. Gary Morris says:

    Looks good to me… apart from the prices, your photos look exactly like the tourbillion watches in The Rake.

  31. Wow – that’s a lot of work! How many days? The results are fantastic. I esp like the black watch on coal…


  1. […] and restrictions of a small sensor. As for product photography…that’s covered too, in this (and possibly others I forget) On Assignment and this series on lighting […]

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