Coin Photography

IN A NUTSHELL: Taking a good photo of a coin is tricky business. Sometimes you get it right the first time. Other times you need to try different options.




















Two photos of the same Julian II AE-29, an ancient Roman bronze coin struck c. 360-363 AD, the top imaged well, the bottom not





















Coin photography is a fun and interesting area. Quality coin images depend far more on technique than equipment.

More serious collectors opt for a digital camera rather than a scanner. The former gives you greater control and leads to better images but takes more time.

Any digital camera with at least 3 megapixels of resolution and a macro mode will let you take quality photos of most coins for the Web. More pixels let you take quality photos of very small coins, home in on very small areas of any coin, or take better quality photos for print.

How you configure the lighting is the most important factor in producing a quality coin photo. I took both photos, but with the second, which has been at one of my Web sites for a while, I didn't take as much care with adjusting to the optimal distance and angles the two goose-neck desk lamps I had been using at the time, and the coin looks about a grade poorer than it is in actuality.





















Two photos of the same Julian II AE-24 imitative, a coin mintred in ancient times by a tribal people in imitation of a Roman bronze coin struck c. 360-363 AD, the top imaged poorly, the bottom well





















No matter how good a photographer you are, doing post processing with an image editor such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, or Corel Paint Shop Pro is often need if you want to make the image on screen look as close as possible to the coin in hand.

Some sellers photoshop coins to make them appear better in the photo than they are in hand. Methods used include eliminating scratches and roughness, bumping up the contrast beyond reality, and making the saturation really pop out. Ironically, some people, in trying to make a coin photo look at good as it can, actually make it look worse. The above coin is such an example.

The photos above show the negative unexpected results that can happen when you overprocess a coin photo in an image editing program. The top photo was used by a prestigious auction firm to sell the coin. It appears that the photographer lightened the image, increased the contrast, boosted the saturation, and sharpened it ... beyond reality. But instead of improving the coin's appearance, the postprocessing made the coin's surfaces appear unattractively mottled and porous. Using Photoshop, I edited the image, resulting in the bottom photo, which much more closely approximates what the coin looks like in hand.














Two photos of the same Alexander the Great lifetime gold stater, a coin minted in Abydos, Troas, Asia Minor, c. 328-323 BC, the top a mediocre image, the bottom a better one













Even the work of very good photographers can sometimes be improved. The top photo was taken by a professional at one of the world's top auction houses. It's a good photo but far from perfect.

The most glaring problem was caused by, well, glare. Athena on the obverse has a very faint scuff mark on the obverse on Athena's helmet. It's visible only when tilting the coin in hand so that the mark hits the light at a certain angle. The coin was unwittingly photographed with the light hitting the helmet at just that angle, which makes the scuff mark a lot more pronounced than it is in hand. In the bottom photo, I used Photoshop to make the helmet look as close to possible to how it looks with the coin in hand. This illustrates how Photoshop and other image editing programs can not only be used deceptively in coin photography to hide scratches, flatness, and wear and to impart artificial color, luster, and relief, but also to lessen the appearance of minor defects to make the coin look at closely as possible to how it looks in hand.

The reverse of this coin also appears worse in the photo, with a slight crease on Nike's cheek appearing as a dark line. In hand this crease is visible also only when the light hits the coin at a certain angle.

This touches upon only the very basic of basics. There are a number of Web sites out there that go into the required detail, and a simple Google search for "coin photography" will return some good ones. Ultimately, though, you have to experiment with what works best for you.




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Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.