Photography Tips: A Gem’s Best Face Forward


This andalusite from Minas Gerais, Brazil weighs 2.87 ct. This image (left) shows direct lighting, which is not ideal for bringing out the transparent gemstone's rich pleochroic colours. Instead, the direct lighting seems to darken the stone and creates "hot spots" along some of the facets. Diffused lighting for the gem helps bring out the andalusite's pleochroic colours (right). Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA

Everyone would agree that exposure and focus are the most critical aspects to consider when photographing gems or jewellery. But there are two other practices that take this kind of photography even further: lighting and positioning of the gem or jewel. The first component ensures a successful photograph. The second makes a picture interesting – or even compelling.

Lighting

  • Direct lighting works best for ornamental materials, and occasionally to provoke dispersion in a transparent gem. It is also sometimes used to bring out gemstone phenomena such as asterism (a star effect) or chatoyancy (a cat’s eye effect).
  • To show off a gemstone’s best colour, lighting should be diffused rather than direct. This can be achieved by placing translucent white glass, plastic or cloth between the light source and the gem.
  • A mix of direct and diffused lighting can add drama to a photograph by adding some sparkle or dispersion to a transparent gem, while also bringing out its finest colours.
  • When photographing highly polished metal, the shiny surfaces can be challenging, especially with direct lighting. Diffused lighting often works well to exhibit soft tonal gradients in the metals, and highlight the designed metalwork.
This blue topaz, briolette sapphire and diamond ring looks good in all directions. The human eye likes symmetry, so the "straight-on" look works (left). But a more elevated and angled view of the ring (right) shows more of the centre stone, accentuates the unusual double-shank design, and gives the viewer a more holistic view of it.
Positioning
  • Gemstones are cut and fashioned to show their best colours when looking straight down at them, perpendicular to the table of the gem. If the gems are cut as cabochons (a gem with a rounded, unfaceted, polished surface) and have asterism (a six-rayed star created when light hits inclusions in the gemstone), it is best to light them in a way that centres the star in the middle of the stone. With carved materials, there is much more latitude with the direction in which a piece can be photographed, but even then it is important to discern what the artist’s principal objective is. Talking to the cutter or designer is important.
  • When positioning jewellery, it is important to consider the jewel’s salient characteristics: is a diamond or a coloured gemstone the centrepiece? Can you observe the designer’s intentions through the way you position the jewel, and the camera relative to it?
  • The camera angle may also be used as a tool: photographing “straight on” is important for documentary-style photographs. To captivate a viewer’s imagination, the subject may be turned, or the camera angle skewed, to obtain dramatic results.

Robert Weldon, manager of photography and visual communications at GIA in Carlsbad, provided his insight and expertise for the writing of this article.