Look at the liquid-silver sheen radiating off of one of Jim Lawson’s photographs, and you can almost feel the cool weight of metal resting on your skin. His stones and gems appear lit from within, luminous and breathing like aurora borealis in miniature.
More than a static image, each piece that Lawson shoots becomes alive under the careful gaze of his camera lens. And the longer you look, the more your eye discovers. These aren’t just photographs—they’re practically animated films! How does Lawson manage to pick up these kinetic qualities with his camera?
“When I photograph a piece, I pay a great deal of attention to how the light flows across the piece,” Lawson tells The Studio. “And I also pay a great deal of attention to the tonality in the background in the shadows that are cast upon it. How you treat the background is just as important as how you treat the piece.”
Another important element of Lawson’s work is that he uses a digital camera instead of traditional film.
“Putting myself in the place of a jewelry artist, I can’t imagine wanting to shoot film, given how good digital has become,” he says. After the shoot is over, photo-editing software takes digital images to the next level. “For me, Photoshop is a very integral part of the process, especially with the gems,” he says.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lawson has been at it for 35 years, photographing and teaching art professionally while racking up covers on Jewelry Artist/Lapidary Journal and Step by Step Wire magazines.
For jewelry artists, stepping behind a camera to document a finished piece can be disorienting. And talk about pressure! Without a quality image, even the most creative and well-finished piece will look, well, lackluster.
“There are several things that make shooting jewelry difficult,” Lawson concedes. “First is the small size. Second, you can have a piece that has a multiplicity of different reflective surfaces, which all require different treatments for lighting. And there are some pieces that require styling and that can get to be very tedious and time-consuming.”
But with the proper equipment and attitude, even a novice photographer can capture the opulent beauty of gemstones and jewelry. “One of the things that I emphasize to the artists in my workshop is having the right equipment so that you can work quickly,” he says. “You want to be able to spend your time making jewelry and using a minimum amount of time to do quality photographic work.”
Jim Lawson’s Top 10 Tips for Photographing Jewelry
Lawson taught a sold-out class on Photography Basics for Jewelry Artists as part of Rio’s 2014 Summer Workshop Series.
“I really enjoy teaching photography. And I really enjoy teaching it to jewelry artists,” Lawson says. “Many of them can’t justify hiring someone to do their photography for them, so I do my best to give them the tools they need to do their own photography.”
If you weren’t one of the lucky people sitting in the room this July, you can still benefit from Lawson’s wisdom. He agreed to share some of his favorite pieces of advice right here with The Studio.
“Obviously, photography has become more and more important to the jewelry artist,” he says, “so I try and teach things that will make the process go as quickly as possible and get high-quality results.”
- Take a (Three-legged) Stand
“Invest in a good tripod. It’s very difficult to shoot good photos of jewelry without one.”
- Style with Care
“Pay very close attention to how you style and layout a piece. This is where the tripod comes in. It’s much easier to style a difficult piece if the camera is in place and on a tripod.”
- Start Clean
“Make sure that your backgrounds and jewelry are clean. It’s much easier to clean the jewelry and background before you start shooting them.”
- Be Insensitive
“Use the lowest ISO [light sensitivity] setting your camera has. That way you get the most quality your camera is capable of.”
- Shoot in the Raw
“Shoot raw files if your camera will allow. It will give you more flexibility and ultimately a higher-quality image in post-production.”
- Max Out on Quality
“Choose the highest image quality your camera will allow, whether you are shooting raw files or JPEGs. You can’t go back and make things larger after you have moved on to the next photo. But you can always make things smaller. Always keep the original file intact.”
- Kill the Vibe
“Use a remote release or the self-timer on your camera when making exposures. Vibration is the enemy of sharpness.”
- Stick with the Kit Lens…for Now
“If you buy a new camera, start out with the kit lens that comes with it first. It will probably do most everything that you need. Then you can decide if you need an additional macro lens or two.”
- Pick with Precision
“Keep a dental pick or some other similar small device handy to move gangly parts of the jewelry around.”
- Just Breathe
Explore Jim Lawson’s catalog of eye-popping photography at his website, Jim Lawson Photography. Get more personal insights and information on upcoming workshops on his blog, Jim Lawson Jewelry Photography.
Learn all about Rio’s Workshop Series on the workshop page of Rio Grande’s website.