Putting it mildly, we are living in interesting times. Longstanding habits, including getting out into the world, have been broken for most of us. And while most of the world is now emerging from months of personal isolation, here in the United States it looks as if we might have to get used to enforced loneliness again fairly soon.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t stay busy and even learn a thing or two. From the torrent of really well done watch photos appearing on Instagram and other media these days, it appears as though lots of watch enthusiasts have been spending at least some of their time polishing their macro photography and wrist shooting.
And I’m among them! My photography teacher, pro shooter, and watch company “benevolent dictator” Ming Thein had been bugging me for a while to add the use of flash guns to my macro technique – and with the luxury of time and Ming’s kind guidance, I’ve shot more than 4,600 flash images since late March in the light tent as I’ve begun to learn the ins and outs of flash macro photography.
One quick note: if you are already a practiced flash macro photographer, much of what follows may be painfully obvious to you; but I’m hoping that at least some of it may be useful to some others who, like myself, are early on the flash-shooting journey.
Getting started with flashes
The adventure started with a bit of Ming-guided GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome, a well-known phenomenon among shooters of all abilities) to add a surprisingly affordable set of Godox V1 flashes and accompanying controller to my pile of gear.
After a fairly lengthy video tutorial from Ming, I started simply with a single flash and my Vacheron Constantin Reference 4560, practicing the fundamentals of light placement and intensity and grabbing a variety of shots including the one that starts this article.
I expected to have real difficulties with setting lighting angles compared to how I’d been doing it with my familiar always-on LED panels, but the small modeling lights in the flash heads do allow a rough preview of where shadows and light scatters will fall once the gun is triggered, and that helped a lot.
When in doubt (or starting out), choose an easy target! My next subject was the movement side of the Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire, a caliber whose pronounced textures, scattered shiny bits, and multiple layers make it one of my favorite pieces to shoot.
With a bit of practice, I learned that it was easily possible to throw more light onto the movement and to generate deeper shadows than I typically was able to do with my standing lights. The results were shots that really popped – with strong contrasts but without losing the inner workings of the movement in darkness.
Shining light into the depths
Illuminating the depths of various movements quickly became addictive; and I rapidly turned to another masterpiece of movement design, the Datograph Perpetual from A. Lange & Söhne.
If anything, Caliber L952.1 of the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual is even deeper than the Grönefeld movement, and for visual interest it adds a lovely hue of German silver. Using the flashes, I found it pretty simple (after a bunch of practice, that is) to capture the color variations of the movement without having the gold-colored elements jump out as harshly and overly yellow as I’d so often experienced with standing lights.
The Datograph also did me a favor with its brushed rear bezel, as one tricky part of using flashes is the risk of blowing out polished metal surfaces if you don’t diffuse the light enough.
I’ve always found the movement of A. Lange & Söhne’s Pour le Mérite Tourbillon to be quite difficult to capture correctly, but with flashes I’m starting to get there, I think. And a shot that has long bedeviled me, the movement of my Voutilainen Chronograph II, now seems within reach through the use of the case back interior as a bounce surface for a high-mounted flash.
Thanks to Kari Voutilainen and his case-making operation, I have the pleasure of seeing and photographing Caliber 12-600 AT of my Patek Philippe Reference 2526 whenever I want; the ability to position and pinpoint a flash to get light into the interior without blowing out the case was enormously helpful, and as with all of the movement shots the intensity of the flash really helped to make the jewels shine with a warm red glow.
I was having enough fun that I cloned together two movement shots of the Reference 2526, one taken with the crown to the right and the other with the crown to the left, and then erased the overlapping outer section of the gold rotor in each to yield a view of a “rotorless” movement.
Not all depths are on the backs of watches, either; the front of the Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 1 provided a suitable test bed for some high-contrast shooting as well.
Bringing out details and shedding new light
The ability to modulate the intensity of light over a very wide range, and to use combinations of light that don’t exist in the natural world (for instance, a bright primary light with a dimmer fill light from the same direction), turns out to be very useful in illuminating details that aren’t easily captured with continuous and fairly large panel lights.
A case in point: the dial of the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon, which I’d had trouble in the past capturing as anything other than a blah grey or overly bright white.
With the right flashes, the grainy silver surface of the dial is plainly evident, and at the same time the blued hands are an obvious blue. We can also see the play of light in the diamond endstone of the tourbillon.
The ability to direct light tightly through the “snoot” that comes with the Godox gun helps with subject isolation, as in the shot below of the H. Moser x MB&F Endeavour Cylindrical Tourbillon, in which the tourbillon with its cylindrical spring is emphasized both through spotlighted light and depth of field.
New looks: beyond basic black
Watches bursting out of (or sometimes sinking into) a stark black background are the staple of my watch shooting style, but it doesn’t hurt to branch out. With new tools at hand and the resulting impetus to try new things, I’ve been diversifying a bit.
In an upcoming article, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at a good friend’s Vianney Halter Anniversary Classic. For now, here’s one teaser shot, taken as a single exposure (without stacking) against a light background and on a reflective base.
Next up was an old favorite of mine, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Géographique placed against a brighter background and at a severe angle.
Finally, a shot of the Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 1 using a colored filter on one of the flashes to give a softer effect. As an example of how certain images are better-suited to some media than others, I’ll note that this image looked super when cropped to 2×1 and displayed as a double-wide image on Instagram; you can judge for yourself whether it translates as well here.
Capturing difficult subjects and operating in non-ideal conditions
As noted above, some watches are harder to capture than others. And some types of setups are extremely more challenging than their counterparts.
One good example, and a type of shot that I quite like to attempt, is a multi-watch setup in which two or more pieces are exhibited side by side. Especially with black backgrounds, it’s pretty easy to cheat this kind of shot by taking two separate images and pasting them together. But then again, what’s the fun in that?
Here’s one recent shot from my review of the collaboration pieces of MB&F and H. Moser: the two watches in one image, with the green MB&F dial clearly visible in the crystal of the Moser. It’s a shot that would have been very difficult to capture without being able to fire two flashes with different intensities from two directions simultaneously.
Another two-watch shot from the same article also involved the Project LpX loupe holder. You can see the location of the primary flash gun reflected in the crystals of the two watches; what you can’t see is that this image was shot during the daytime and outside of the light tent, using the ability of bright flashes and very short exposure times to make ambient light irrelevant.
After years of shooting with fixed LED panels and needing to make sure not only that bright ambient light was blocked but also that vibrations were held to an absolute minimum, it’s quite a pleasure to be able to zap a subject at 1/350 of a second, drowning out background considerations.
It’s especially hard to shoot two watches side by side when one has a light dial and the other a dark one. With dark-dialed watches it’s very easy either to lose polished hands and markers into the background or have them appear harsh and blown out.
And if you study photos of watches with moon phase indications, you’ll see that in a great many of them the moon, stars, and sky simply can’t be seen. It took some work (and some improvisation with bounce cards), but here’s a “team photo” of two Patek Philippe perpetual calendars that I think worked out quite well – and that I couldn’t have done with standing continuous lights.
Finally, some watches are just stinkers to shoot!
The new Kurono Anniversary Mori is a prime example with its brushed and highly reflective green dial and shiny, fairly flat hands. Even with flashes I struggled mightily but did get at least one solid look; my reward is that the kind folks at Kurono have included this shot in their book celebrating their first year of existence, so I guess it turned out okay!
I hope you’ll stay tuned for an upcoming “Why I Bought It” on this one.
Coming full circle
Most recently, I’ve come back around to some shooting with favorite subjects, seeing how I can use flash in my traditional chiaroscuro style. I like the moody look, and the great news is that as I get past the novice stage with flash macro work I suspect that it will help me make richer images in that vein as well as continue expanding into higher-key imagery and have more fun with positioning, backgrounds, and props.
I’ll look forward to hearing your own experiences with macro photography – and with trying new tools and methods – in the comments below. In the meantime, happy shooting!
About the Author
GaryG is the resident “collector” for Quill & Pad, a fantastic online magazine on horology. But other than his love for watches, he has also developed a passion and quite a skill in macro photography. you can read more about Gary here; and follow Quill & Pad on Instagram, Facebook, and their YouTube channel. This article was also published here and shared with permission.