Weekend Photos of VC Pieces, with some commentary on macro work

All --

Had a bit of time to play with photography this weekend, and turned my attention to a couple of VC pieces.

One of the things that I think we all struggle with when doing macro photography is getting the entire piece in focus. I like those shots with the artistic bokeh well enough, but sometimes I want to get it sharp from edge to edge. Given the depth of field of macro lenses, this is not easy! This is especially true if you don't want to view the piece straight on, but rather want to see it at an angle.

For a long time I followed the practice of choking down the aperture to increase DOF and then using a light tent, tripod, and remote shutter release to take really long exposures (as long as 30 seconds). This yielded some good shots, but the small aperture causes diffraction of long-wavelength light, so some of the yellow gold or brass pieces in a movement get reddish.

This led to experimentation with a bounce flash -- which can work well, but which tends to create an artificially bright look and can "blow out" some of the details. There can also be issues with reflections of the flash gun in the bright surfaces of the watch. I spent many hours holding the camera in one hand and a piece of paper over the watch in the other, trying to create an impromptu tent -- this sort of works, but I think would require me to do a lot more practice.

I then started working with a tilt/shift lens -- one of the greatest inventions ever, as it allows you to adjust the lens to get the entire subject in focus by creating a virtual focal plane. Basically your camera thinks that its sensor is parallel to the watch when in fact the piece is at an angle to the body of the camera. This technique still requires a tripod, though, and I usually used a light tent as well. All in all this is probably still the "best" approach that I have found.

Enter computer technology -- I'm up to Photoshop CS5 now, and it has the latest version of auto-align/auto-merge, which to me is a miracle. What this lets you do is to take several photos of the same object, focusing at different depths, and then use Photoshop to pick out the sharp parts from each photo and meld them together into a seamless composition. Basically you start with the near edge of the watch in focus, shoot, focus the lens slightly farther away, shoot, and repeat until you have a last photo of the far edge of the watch in focus. The photomerge process is not 100 perfect, but it is really good -- and lets me photograph pieces in focus from edge to edge by just putting them and my camera on a tabletop and firing away. Using a tripod would be even better (and would let me vary the positions of the watches more) but for weekend fun while on the road this is just fine.  One disadvantage is that the watch has to be stopped -- otherwise the composite image is blurry (and on dial shots Photoshop doesn't seem to know what to make of having the hands in different positions on the different shots, as you might expect).

Enough boring technical stuff! Here are three images taken yesterday and today -- each is actually a merged composite of between 5 and 7 individual photos with different focal points:

Weekend Photos of VC Pieces, with some commentary on macro work

Weekend Photos of VC Pieces, with some commentary on macro work

Weekend Photos of VC Pieces, with some commentary on macro work

Uploading compression doesn't do the sharpness of these images any favors, but I hope that they convey the general idea.

As always, all comments, suggestions, and criticisms welcomed!  I'd also be interested to hear (and see the results of) any tips other would be willing to share on how you grapple with watch photography.  In my case, wrist shots are particularly troublesome, so I'm eager to hear your thoughts!

All the best,

Quick note
02/13/2011 - 05:39
...if you double click on the embedded images, they open up in full size, which gives a better sense of the sharpness of the images. Best, GaryG
Those are some amazing pictures Gary
02/13/2011 - 08:03
I never expected my interest in watches would teach me so much about photography! A few of the things you've described in layman's terms really help me understand, thanks!  I'm a bit embarrassed to say my sister used to work for Adobe and I used to get their SW at a terrific price, but still didn't know how to use it, Now, when I need it, my sister has long since left the company, Timing is everything! BR, Dan
Glad you liked them, Dan
02/13/2011 - 10:03
I've learned a lot about photography from comments that folks have posted in response to my various photo posts over the past few years -- but I still have a very long way to go. Adobe does a great job of extracting profits from customers! Just when I've figured out how to use some of the new features of a given PS version, they come out with a new one that has a couple of gizmos and improvements that I figure I "have to have." That said, post-processing can often take a photo that looks pretty cruddy coming out of the camera and turn it into something special. Makes for good fun! Best, Gary
impressive photography! how does the shift/tilts lense system
02/13/2011 - 11:18
work? I didn't quite understand in your explanation which is excellent
Tilt and shift
02/13/2011 - 12:00
Alex -- Thanks for the kind words. Tilt/Shift is one of those things that could take a book to explain! The part that is useful for macro work is the "tilt" part. Basically, the lens has a hinge in it that lets you swivel part of the lens. As a result, the light sort of "bends" around the corner as it passes through the lens, so the subject (watch) doesn't need to be parallel to the sensor in the camera to appear to be parallel. As a result, it ends up being in focus. The way that you use a tilt lens is to point it straight, then turn the focus ring until the near edge of the watch is in focus (the background will be blurry). You then turn the "tilt" knob on the lens until the rest of the dial or movement comes into focus (sometimes you need to repeat the process a couple of times, as doing the tilt can take the front edge of the watch out of focus a bit). It's pretty magical -- lots of fun seeing something that is not parallel to your camera coming into focus as if it were. The basis for these lenses was in the old "view cameras" -- those huge old ones with the bellows coming out the front. You could just grab the front and physically bend the bellows, pointing the front of the lens at the object. I suspect that this explanation doesn't help any more than the last one -- I'm no technical expert on lens design! Best, Gary
stunning photos especially of the skeleton
02/13/2011 - 11:52
Thanks! I included the OS
02/13/2011 - 12:06
...more to show how you could keep something that oblique in focus by using auto-merge than as a work of art :-). Best, Gary
This one isn't a VC, but...
02/13/2011 - 16:14
...done using the same auto-merge technique and sharp enough even for my fanatical desire for image sharpness! If you're interested, double click on the image to see it at 100 percent size. Best, Gary G
Re: Weekend Photos of VC Pieces, with some commentary on macro work
02/13/2011 - 17:24
May I ask in the last photo, lower righthand side at the edge of the movement..what are those golden numbers? they look like reflection of some kind? Very good photos already, well played with light!
Good eye!
02/14/2011 - 01:22

I used my VC catalogue from SIHH as a prop under the watch -- what you see is the reflection of some of the gold type on the cover of the book -- I think it might be the start of "2011." If I were taking a "serious" photo I would go back and reposition the watch, of course -- when I was taking the picture I didn't notice the reflection! Best, Gary

Fantastic Tips!
02/14/2011 - 17:22
Thanks for sharing these technical photography tips .  Amazing how much traditional photography has changed in a few short years.  Digital cameras and photo software have become the new skill-set for producing marvelous images like your deliciously tactile skeleton .  Makes me want to toss my point-and-shoot for one of those fancy digital SLRs... If I may share another useful tip; I prefer to use direct outdoor light over artifical, which tends to "color" the photo.
Good tip, Dean
02/15/2011 - 12:56
I try to shoot in natural light whenever I can (these photos were taken near a window, with the exception of the OS one) -- getting the white balance wrong (mostly because I left it set incorrectly on my fancy DSLR) is a chronic problem for me. Flash is even worse most of the time, as it bathes everything in a blue light and kills the dynamic range of the image (no nuanced shadows). Agree with you that post-processing is the new photography in some ways -- it certainly has helped me a lot! Best, GaryG
Great photography Gary, very well done!
02/14/2011 - 17:38
The Voutilainen Observatoire is just incredible. The two VC's are quite amazing as well.  Thanks for sharing! Best, Mike
Thanks, Mike
02/15/2011 - 12:59
Even I was surprised at how pin-sharp that Observatoire photo came out -- it is fun looking at one of the photo layers as Photoshop churns through its merging routine -- you're looking at a single layer that is only partially in focus, and then (if the stars are aligned) a really sharp image snaps onto the screen! Best, GaryG
how we perceive objects of our desire .....
02/16/2011 - 10:59
i am a bad and lazy photgrapher, more often my pics are taken from my phone which does not do justice to the subjects. Gary, u have done a great job with your beautiful pics from your various posts i admire.  many a times " a picture tell a thousand words" and more easily digested. though through posession, it can be savoured over and over with heft on our wrist, conforming with our dress with different lighting, falling all over again. through your lenses and setup, i can envisage your passion and love for these watches, please do post more often.
Thanks so much for these remarks
02/16/2011 - 14:22
They really capture the enthusiasm that we feel for these wonderful pieces. I do love them, and greatly admire their creators! I will endeavor to post more -- kind comments like yours motivate me to try new things with photography. All the best, Gary
Gary, allow me to add my grateful thanks.....
02/16/2011 - 21:46
A most interesting insight into the work and commitment required to achieve such wonderful photographs. If that was Part 1  I can't wait for your further despatches. Thank you again for sharing your interest and knowledge. Regards, Tony
You are very kind, Tony
02/17/2011 - 14:22
I appreciate your kind remarks!  I will certainly share more as possible -- would love to have the opportunity at future VC-related gatherings to spend some time photographing some of the wonderful pieces owned by members of this group. Best, GaryG