Even if you don't build a website for yourself, it is a must to take high quality photos of your coins in your collection. As your collection keeps growing, it become more important to have an inventory. It might frighten you to take high quality photos in the beginning. And you might think that the most important element is the camera. But actually, the key lies in the lighting. I was photographing my collection with the set-up below and I was keep asking myself how can I take better photos of my coins.
Fujifilm E550 camera with halogen lamp (80 watts).
I have two DSLR cameras, a Nikon D40 and Nikon D70s, that's why I wanted to use them to take photos but I didn't want to spend so much money to buy a good macro lens. For example, Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR G would be fantastic but as of October 2017, it costs around 900$. Since I had build a darkroom at home last year, I bought the lens below to use with my enlarger (it costs around 25-40$ in the second hand market). It turned out that it is a very sharp lens (I wouldn't expect that). While I was wondering how I can make a setup with what I already have, I realised that this lens would be a perfect choice.
Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 80 mm f/5.6
It is a prime lens, meaning that it has a fixed focus lenght, so that you cannot attach it to your camera and take a photo of your coin. For that matter, there are extension tubes or if you are considering to use more than one lens with this set-up you will need a bellow. As I know that one lens will not be enough for me, I bought a second hand bellow for around 40$. The bellow I bought has a M42 type connections at both ends. So I used a M39/M42 convertor (around 3$) to connect to the lens and another connector M42/F-bayonet (around 4$) to connect the bellow to the camera.
Nikon PB-6 bellow.
As I said in the beginning, those were the small details. You can also build a set-up with more cheaper options. In contrast to common knowledge, mega pixel size of a camera becomes important only if you are going to get large size prints. And of course if you like to zoom in to details a lot. But for the matter of your website or for your inventory, maximum of a 6 MP camera will do the job for you. And actually both D40 and D70s I have has 6 MP sensors and I got pretty satisfaying results.
I tried to setup a compact system which do not attract attention if it is not used as I wanted to keep my setup steady in the corner of the room at all times. Because of this and because I was not very happy with my current lightings, I had my way to beloved IKEA. I found a clamp lamp called JANSJO. As I said before, lighting is the key. Coin should be lit equally from all sides. You can use a single light source, it should be located 90 degrees to the coin but then you will not be able to create contrast on the coin and the results will be a very shallow image. To get a better image, you need at least two light source located opposite to each other. So I came back home with to lamps. This IKEA lamp contains one led which provide a strong ray of light with the help of magnifying glass in front. So it makes a very strong light for the photography which results in data loss in the most lit areas. Instead of buying small softboxes, I cut pieces from baking paper and fixed them on the lamps with a scotch tape and so I soften the lights.
IKEA JANSJO spot lamp.
Here is the end result of my setup which I think I will get better images:
My numismatic photography set-up :)
By the way, bellow should be fixed to a steady place. Even the vibrations during you shoot a shot would effect the image. So the ideal solution would be the use of stereo microscope stands. But I prefer to fix it on the shelves. As I said, vibrations from the hand, even from the movement of the mirror system in the camera would affect the quality of the image. Since you cannot prevent the mirror system vibrations (as long as you won't buy a mirrorless camera for your setup), you can use remote controllers to eliminate the human factor.
Photos taken by the old (above) and new (below) set-up.
Another advantage of the use of bellow is to allow the usage of different lenses. I am taking coin photos with 80 mm lens while Schneider Componon-S 50 mm f2.0 allow me to take details. In the picture below, you can see the image I got from the 50 mm lens is comparable to the image taken by USB microscope. Not bad for the first trial.
Detail images with the new setup.
Now, what are the other details and tips for numismatic photography? What are my ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings? The most important thing to me is not to use any setting in auto mode. Technology facilitates most things but as it becomes easier, result becomes more "average". Anyways, when you connect your camera to a such set-up, you have to adjust settings by yourself (because shutter speed and aperture cannot be adjusted automatically by the camera in this setup).
I take photos in RAW without using any manipulation/optimization (N-normal mode) on the camera. You might prefer JPEG over RAW but RAW files enables the maniplation of each setting during post-processing as all the data kept in different layers in RAW. This brings great advantage in the post-processing.
Basic settings on my Nikon D40 .
I prefer to set
white balance according to the light temperature I use instead of using auto or predefined settings. You can take a photo of the blank white space with the same light setting that you will use to take the actual coin picture. Then, you can use this image in the white balance menu in the PRE option. Even if you are not very happy with the result, you can post-process the white balance too.
ISO setting is analogous to the film speed (200 ASA, 800 ASA etc) in the old technology. It means that it defines the amount of light that sensor can detect. As the ISO value increases, it is more likely to get a picture in low light setting. But of course it has some drawbacks. As the ISO value increase, you start to loose the image quality and photos become more grainy (see the example below). If you want to get high quality images, ISO value should be kept as low as possible (ISO 200 for D40). In the camera settings, I am keeping the noise reduction off of course.
Image quality in different ISO settings.
After the basic settings are set, we need to decide which
shutter speed and
aperture we should use. Aperture, determines the amount of light that passes through the lens by the help of leaves inside the lens. You can see numbers such as f/ 5.6-8-11-16-22 on a lens. As these f-numbers (i.e. aperture) get smaller, aperture increases and thus more light can pass through. However, the small f-numbers are not always best. Because as the f-number decreases, depth of field also becomes shallower. Especially for the ancient coins having high reliefs, higher f-numbers should be used to have entire coin in focus. I am using f/8.0 in my system. You can also find the best aperture for your system with trial and error.
Shutter speed determines the how fast the curtain in front of the sensor open and close. For instance, shutter speed 1/125 means that the curtain will open and close in 1/125 of a second. It means that as the x in 1/x becomes bigger, speed of curtain increases (or the amount of time that sensor can get light decrases). By looking at different shutter speeds at constant aperture, we can see that the ideal speed is in between 1/80 and 1/160 and the best image obtained when the shutter speed is 1/125. All the details should be visible and clear in a well-exposed image.
Finding correct exposure with different shutter speeds at constant aperture.
After taking the photo at correct aperture and shutter speed, we can start post-processing in a computer. Adobe Photoshop CC 2016 is an advanced software altough it has free alternatives such as picasa and gimp. When you open .nef files in photoshop you can adjust settings like contrast, brightness, clarity etc as in the following image. It is better to play with only the basic settings to have the final image as close as possible to the original coin. After you are happy with your settings, you can save these to apply to other coin images that you are going to process. In this way all of your photos in your workflow will have the same appareance. Of course silver and copper coins will have different needs. So you can keep settings for different metals seperately.
RAW image processing settings in Adobe Photoshop CC 2016.
Lastly, remove the coin image from the background and put the obverse and reverse side by side. It is better not to use compression while saving. Compression reduces the quality heavily. You can save the final image in jpeg with highest quality possible!