Photoessay: The C3H5N3O9 (Nitro) Experiment ZR012

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Despite being completely unpronounceable, this watch is just plain outright cool. The brainchild of Max Busser (MB&F) and Felix Baumgartner (URWERK), it is the first watch to use an eccentric planetary transmission system for the timekeeping mechanism – i.e. the same geometry as the Wankel engine. (Curiously, there’s only one ratio of inner to outer satellite that actually permits the three distinct chambers to be formed; any other ratio doesn’t seal at all). The minutes are read off the red tips of the upper ‘rotor’, with the hours on the level below. There is no seconds indication, but there is a power reserve on the back of the watch.

I believe these are the first photos outside the official press release, and I was told that the watch is a working production prototype – which means non-final parts and finishing, and some potential tool marks in places as befits an engineering experiment…

Many thanks to Ian Skellern at C3H5N3O9.

This series shot (hastily) with a Nikon D800E and AFS 60/2.8 G Micro. It wasn’t a commercial shoot, so please excuse me if I missed a spot or two. All images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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Photoessay: The Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin Moon

From the horological files. MT

Set shot with a Nikon D800E, several SB900s, the AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and one shot with a Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE via adaptor – see if you can spot which one!

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Photoessay: Bruno Menard at Forlino

I was in Singapore recently to run a few food photography 101 sessions under Leica at the World Gourmet Summit. One of the perks of the job was getting to enjoy the samples. In this case, by 3* Michelin chef Bruno Menard, who formerly ran L’Osier in Tokyo – widely thought to be the best restaurant in Japan at the time. I ran a very basic setup for the participants with a couple of small LED video lights, a Leica D-Lux 5 compact and some modified settings (optimized for food work); I shot tethered and showed the results instantly on a HDTV via HDMI out. There was a little PS work done to the images afterwards (i.e. for this set) but for the most part, the D-Lux 5 makes a surprisingly excellent little food camera – especially when there’s enough light around. MT

Images shot with a Leica D-Lux 5.

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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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POTD: If you thought one watch was bad…

…try dealing with the reflections off two!

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Sarpaneva Korona K3 Northern Stars. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Photographs involving multiple watches require extremely good lighting control, assuming you are not going to be compositing images (and sometimes, you have no choice). What looks great on one watch may not look so good on the other, and vice versa. You also need to be very, very careful with positioning your subject – not least because they may scratch each other! I use a small bit of tape or paper to act as a buffer, tucked neatly out of sight. MT

On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P

We photographers are a strange lot: sometimes we make our lives difficult when there’s absolutely no need to. I recently shot a watch photography assignment using a Leica M9-P, of all things. (This setup has been the subject of another post, here)

You probably know that my usual rig for this is a Nikon with a whole bunch of extension tubes. Why did I do it, you might ask? See the end of the post for the answer.

Let’s start back-to-front, with a few highlights from the results:

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Deep Sea Chronograph.

I would conservatively say that this was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done, and the only one that required the services of an assistant – normally, I find they just get in the way and it’s much faster for me to do what needs to be done rather than have to explain it. Firstly, this rig is one which does not focus to infinity, is entirely manual, and is both heavy and unwieldy. Put one finger wrong and you’re liable to make a hole in the bellows, which being the better part of half a century old, is extremely fragile. (The mechanical parts are still in amazingly good condition though, and operate very smoothly.) You need to set magnification first – also restrictive, between about 2.5:1 to 1:2 only (with the Visoflex and 90/4 only) – then move the entire rig to frame – and because it’s unwieldy, you can’t do this handheld. I made a kind of gimbal head out of a Manfrotto 468RC0 Hydrostat head tilted at 90 degrees, to which was vertically mounted a Manfrotto geared focusing rail, with the rail on the Bellows II attached at right angles to that – which allowed me tilt and yaw motion, and precise front/back and up/down movements. Slow going – there were ten adjustment points on support system alone, to say nothing of photographic controls – but accurate.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

Secondly, the Visoflex prism obviously blocks the M9-P’s hotshoe, ruling out the use of flashes – at least by any conventional means. With a custom-fabricated cable (read: a hotshoe cover with holes made in it to thread through speaker wire, which was then soldered to the contact points of a donor slave – in this case, a Nikon SB700), it was possible. The slave flash would fire at minimum power and trigger the other flashes in SU4 optical slave mode. Optical slave mode is a polite way of saying 100% manual – so it’s either light meter (which I don’t have) or experience (which I do have, from shooting the same thing with slide film). My assistant would run from flash to flash poking buttons and turning wheels in response to cryptic instructions like “top, up one; back, thirty-two and fifty millimeters, up ten degrees; kill the right one.”

[Translation: Top flash, increase power by one stop. Back flash, change power to 1/32 and zoom head to 50mm, tilt the head up ten degrees. Turn off the right flash.]

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Amvox World Chronograph

It was a near thing. The entire job relied on a single critical part: that sync cable. At one point, there was an internal short somewhere which either kept the flash firing frequently enough to trigger epilepsy, or not firing at all. And to compound things, I suspect the trigger voltage of the hotshoe and flash didn’t agree, which would occasionally cause the M9-P to not fire its shutter at all. And then the Visoflex jammed…let’s just say the Victorinox earned its keep on that day.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

It took me just over nine hours to make a final cut of 80 photographs – which is excruciatingly slow, considering I’ll normally do three times that number in two thirds of the time. Most of the delay was due to moving and setting the camera, or fine-tuning the flashes.

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Duometre a Spherotourbillon

However, I think this conclusively proves that the Leica M system is a lot more versatile than most people think. Now, if only Leica would produce modern versions of these accessories – and perhaps something to trigger a flash. I don’t think most people have any idea how difficult it is to find a Bellows II-screwmount to Leica M adaptor until you look…

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Master Ultra Thin Reserve de Marche

One quick comment on image quality: the 90/4 Macro-Elmar is a superbly sharp lens with great micro contrast, if you use it in the optimal range. At maximum aperture (f4), there is very visible chromatic aberration – both longitudinal and lateral. Stopped down between f5.6 and f11, it’s superb. At f16, diffraction suddenly kicks in – there’s a huge difference between f13 and f16, it’s as though somebody has run a Gaussian filter over the entire image. (I think at this magnification it’s probably closer to f32, though). I wouldn’t even go near f22. I had to pay careful attention to lighting with the M9, for the simple reason that its dynamic range is probably 2-2.5 stops less than the D800 at base ISO. All in all though, I think you’ll agree that the combination is capable of some spectacular results – even more impressive considering that it was never designed for this.

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Because we photographers have a particularly odd fascination with checking out other people’s equipment, I’m going to leave you with some gear shots. I will also say that if anybody is in the market for a tripod head, the Manfrotto Hydrostat series is truly excellent – it’s the only head I’ve ever used that doesn’t exhibit any ‘droop’ when locking down the head, no matter the weight or magnification of the camera and lens combination attached. It’s rock solid.

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Yours truly at work. (You’ll notice I’m not using the tripod here; I put it aside for the further-away shots of whole watches.)

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My exhibition of fine art horology sponsored by Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica will be on display at Starhill Gallery, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur from 3 May onwards – please drop by if you’re in town! If you let me know in advance, I’ll try to give you a personal tour. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Hiding behind the subject

Photographers normally hide behind the camera (though we shouldn’t, because it distances us from what we’re shooting and makes us observers rather than participant-observers, but that’s another story for another time) right? So what’s with hiding behind the subject?

A friend once said this to me about a watch: I’m expecting exceptional photos because it’s an extraordinary subject. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at first, but I do now. How many images are famous because of the content – maybe the rarity of the subject, the famousness of the person, the momentousness of the situation – rather than because the photograph itself is exceptional? Look carefully. For instance, imagine the photo wasn’t of say Obama, but instead an ordinary man. Would it still be a special photograph? Probably not. The examples go on. Some of these images are truly special for their composition etc – but a lot are also well known solely because the photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m not saying that news photographers can’t shoot, but there is a continuum. I often wonder whether I’d be able to produce images as good or better than other people if I was in one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations. The honest answer is, I don’t know.

But I digress; back to the watch.

Supposing you make what is perceived as an ordinary photo of an ordinary subject; that is probably par for the course. If you can make an exceptional photo of an ordinary subject, then the talent lies with you as the photographer rather than the subject for being special. However, if you fail to make a ‘wow’ photo with a very special subject – I dunno, say a Bugatti Veryron for instance – then you’ve both failed to capture the essence of the subject in the photograph, and failed to apply your nascent talent as a photographer.

I bore this in mind as I photographed the watch – a Lange & Sohne Datograph.

The image on the manufacturer’s site looks like this (slightly different to the actual watch shot because this is an updated model):

It’s technically competent, but a very flat, very boring shot that fails to capture any of the magic of the piece. I can’t say I was happy with my first, second or even third try; I too made an ordinary photo out of an exceptional subject (you’ll see why, shortly) or at best, a good photo. Which still didn’t do the subject justice, in my mind.

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Early attempt. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Later attempt, which you’ve probably seen in another article; I use this for illustration purposes. Yes, it’s compositionally and technically much stronger, but also fails in many ways to capture the essence of the subject. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Here’s an interesting attempt to capture the idea of cool precision. I think by throwing out conventional notions of how I’d shoot a watch, I was definitely making progress. I didn’t even use my usual D700 and 60 macro combination with flashes; this was shot with the Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 and continuous LED lights.

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Final attempt. I like this idea because it subtly represents the ‘best of Germany’-teutonic-aesthetic, yet it’s still a little bit imperfect (like anything handmade, especially the subjects) and a bit surreal. The watch was actually resting on the same surface as the lens, but the laws of optics reverse the projection (and in turn required mirror-imaging in photoshop to make the orientation look correct). Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G and a Leica Noctilux 0.95 ASPH.

This philosophy is something I now keep in the back of my mind when I shoot: don’t hide behind your subject. At very least, do it justice. If you can, then make an extraordinary photo. If you can’t, then try, or at least know when it doesn’t come up to scratch. It isn’t easy to do, but I think just one more way to raise your game. MT

Photoessay: Inside the A. Lange & Sohne Datograph

…as you’ve probably never seen it before. This is why a watch like this is magical; it’s very, very difficult to capture in photographs because of the technical challenges. But, it’s a good example of what happens when you get really serious about watch photography – and put all of the previous three articles into practice. MT

Series shot with a Nikon D700 and 60/2.8 G. Nothing less than 2:1 magnification here – no cropping, either!

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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.