Coin Photography by Budget and Skill

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Nathan B., Oct 15, 2021.

  1. Nathan B.

    Nathan B. Well-Known Member

    Somewhere on Cointalk there is a look at what low, high, and mid-range budgets will get you in terms of coin purchases. I'm hoping something similar can be done for photography, bearing in mind two factors:

    -cost of camera, equipment, and software; and

    -skillset with photo editing software

    I'm definitely at the lower end of both scales. The three coins below are probably about the best I can do, with the first being probably the best:




    My method is as follows:

    -using a tip I learned from a comment a while back by Doug Smit, I balance my phone on a glass--in my case a whisky tumbler. I lay the coin on a piece of paper under a hanging light on the kitchen counter.

    -I use my android phone, with its mediocre camera, to take a picture, with the zoom at 2x, moving the focus to where the coin is (not under my phone directly because there'd be too much shadow). Occasionally, I will use the manual mode on my phone and reduce the exposure.

    -I crop the picture using Google Photos

    -On my computer, I paste the image of each side of the coin into a Word file, and then take a snip of them together to paste here

    I'm hoping that people who know about coin photography--and there are many here--will be able to share some insights at different budgets and skillsets. The goal is that this page can then be a good resource for anyone who wants to learn to improve their coin photography. Thanks in advance to anyone who can share their insights.

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    Last edited: Oct 15, 2021
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  3. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    My method cost me a $4 20x loupe from eBay.

    Put phone camera through loupe. Use the in-phone editor to vignette maximum white - this whitens the background.

    Use MS Paint to put the two together.

    Looks pretty dang good.
    Gallienus RIC Milan 474.JPG
    Sometimes the coin is too shiny or the shadows are too much, so you might get a bit of weird effect in the background.
    Claudius II RIC 266.JPG
  4. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Method falls apart when taking pics of coins 25mm or higher, as the coronal fall-off on the loupe distorts the edges of the coins.
    Gallienus AE29 SNG BnF 574.JPG
  5. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

  6. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    The following is what I would recommend for low, medium, and high setups.

    Low Cost
    1) Buy a piece of white velvet either on Amazon or from your local crafts store. Rough cost is $10-$15.
    2) Get a pair of small flexible lamps. Ikea sells these for $15. You can probably find similar ones for a similar price online.
    3) If your coin is at least denarius-size, take a small lego piece. A white one with four knobs works best.
    4) Place the lego piece on the velvet, and the coin on the lego piece. If the coin is small, then just place it directly on the velvet.
    5) Use the lamps to illuminate your coin as you see fit. You're going to want them hitting it from either side, at an angle.
    6) Using an IPhone or Android, put it in zoom mode and take a photo.
    7) Post process in the phone to increase brightness enough that you can't make out the velvet.

    Medium Cost
    1) Buy an SLR with a macro lens. A 100mm macro works best. The SLR or mirrorless camera doesn't matter much.
    2) Buy a ring light that fits on the end of the macro lens. Even better, buy a dual head flash like this one.
    3) Use either black or white velvet as you wish. Match your lego piece to the color of your choice.
    4) Use something to increase the distance of your coin from the velvet. I use a chemistry stand that I bought for ~$30 on Amazon.
    5) Set camera settings to ISO 100, 1/200 (or whatever your camera says is the flash-sync speed), f16.
    6) Set your flash to manual mode and experiment to see what power illuminates your coin well enough.
    7) Take a photo. If your hands are super-shaky, you may need something to hold the camera, but the flash is what's freezing the image.
    8) Process your photo as necessary.
    9) Optionally, lean a reflection board next to the coin to obtain a reflection. I use this one.

    High Cost/Advanced
    I honestly haven't gotten here yet. What I would expect to do is the following:
    1) Same camera and macro lens, but without the macro flash. For larger coins, a tilt-shift lens such as the Canon TS-E 135 would be great.
    2) Due to the small size of the coin, I expect that multiple speedlights triggered from the camera would be the most flexible. Some reflectors may also help.
    3) I would expect some gobos would be necessary. This book details their use.
    4) A light table would also help, as I expect some lighting from below (if this is a white background) would be nice. I built a small one once from some PVC and plastic sheet from Home Depot for about $40.
    5) A small stand to hold the coin say over a small basin of water could also be intriguing. I wouldn't expect to find one on the market, but would have to 3d print one.

    Here's a few samples from the "medium cost" setup. I'm tempted to try a more advanced setup over the holidays.


  7. 1934 Wreath Crown

    1934 Wreath Crown Well-Known Member

    Nice quality photos with relatively little effort. Must try it out. Thanks
    Nathan B. likes this.
  8. Evan Saltis

    Evan Saltis Student/Collector Supporter

    Here is one with a cheap clip on lens from eBay.

    There are my more recent images using solely my cell phone through slabs. I call this the Un-TrueView© image. splice three images together using a proprietary phone app ;) and here is what I have. I am very happy with it.

    97CDA4FB-31E6-4193-B15B-76E524C92D82.jpeg A1796B66-BFA2-43EF-B6D8-C6C3728B785B.jpeg AE433578-14F5-4D71-9D85-91885FF31B4A.jpeg
  9. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    I got my profile pic with a $2 macro clip on.
  10. Evan Saltis

    Evan Saltis Student/Collector Supporter

    I love that pic.
    hotwheelsearl likes this.
  11. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Me too! Probably the greatest patina I’ve ever seen :D
    Evan Saltis likes this.
  12. Orielensis

    Orielensis Supporter! Supporter

    I tried a similar comparison in a different thread a year ago, see here (including images shot with different methods). To sum the discussion in that thread up: comparing SLR to smartphone pictures is unfair, but you can get acceptable result with a cell phone camera. Post-processing is not a sin but requires skill to achieve good results. Light is important.

    Concerning the question @Nathan B. raised in the initial post: The cost of coin photography greatly depends on how much photography equipment you already have for other purposes.

    If, for example, you own a DSLR or a mirrorless camera and a decent lens to shoot family and vacation pictures, you can easily build around that. A cheap tripod and some macro extension tubes (10 bucks on Amazon) will allow you to transform what you already have into a decent coin photography setup for very little money.

    Yet, if you don`t do or plan to do any other type of photography, you might want to go a completely different path (digital microscope, loupe and smartphone, clip-on lenses, dedicated macro camera etc.).

    Another crucial point is lighting. Whether you want to shoot under daylight conditions, with a ringlight, or with a lighting setup is more a question of personal taste (and available space) than of cost. Whatever you decide on will have a huge impact on your pictures. Pesonally, I prefer daylight.

    Edit: Here is one of my most recent coin pictures. Shot with a Canon EOS Rebel T6s and a Canon EFS 18–135mm lens with a 13mm macro adapter tube mounted on a tripod. Settings: ISO 400, f8, exposure: auto. Daylight conditions next to my window. A tiny bit of post-processing with Apple Photos (some added contrast, a little less exposure and brilliance). You decide whether you like it or not!

    Rom – Postumus, Antoninian, Serapis.png
    Postumus, Gallic Roman Empire, AR antoninian, 266–267 AD, Trier mint. Obv: IMP C POSTVMVS P F AVG; bust of Postumus, radiate, draped, cuirassed, r. Rev: SERAPI COMITI; Serapis standing l., raising arm and holding sceptre. 20mm, 3.52g. Mairat 364, RIC V Postumus 329.
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2021
    galba68, Bing, Etcherman and 4 others like this.
  13. expat

    expat Remember you are unique, just like everyone else Supporter

    Modern cell phone cameras are as good if not better than a budget set-up. There is a built in camera set-up for ISO, white levels and brightness on nearly all phones.
    Try not to use the screen magnifier, instead raise the coin towards the camera lens until you are satisfied with the focus and clarity.
    3 low level (25W) lights, 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock and one at 6 at almost coin level, making sure that no other ambient light intrudes.
    Here are some proofs which are typically hard to image,
    DSC01419.jpg DSC01420.jpg DSC01452.jpg DSC01453.jpg
  14. COOPER12

    COOPER12 Well-Known Member

    What lights do you like ?
  15. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    It's very hard for me to justify spending any money on specialized equipment when I can use a piece of white printer paper, a $4 loupe, and built-in software to get results like this:
    Hui Zong Northern Song 10 Cash.JPG

    Unless you need MEGA pixels to blow up a picture a million times, the resolution is more than adequate for just about any purposes.
  16. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    For most of my macro work, I use the MT-26EX-RT. This is mainly what I use for coins.
    For table top stuff, I generally use a pair of 600EX speedlights. They're triggered by an ST-E2 transmitter.
    For my water drop photography, I use a pair of Einstein strobes along with the above two speedlights. They're all triggered by a Cognisys Stopshot Studio.
    galba68, Nathan B. and COOPER12 like this.
  17. Nathan B.

    Nathan B. Well-Known Member

    kirispupis, your photos are gorgeous! Thanks for taking the time to write, and including very helpful details, too.

    Unfortunately, the "middle" setup is still much too expensive for me because of the ring light. I'll post a few more comments on what I have in my coming reply to Orielensis.
  18. Nathan B.

    Nathan B. Well-Known Member

    Thank you, Orielensis! It turns out that I do have a camera, actually. It's an older one, and not particularly great, but I have taken some nice pictures with it. It's a Panasonic G3, which is a Micro Four Thirds camera. It has only the kit lens, a 3x one.

    If I wanted to use this camera, and if I were to get a macro lens for it (assuming I can find an economical one!), would it be completely necessary for me to buy an expensive ring light? If so, then I'm going to stay at the cell phone level for some time.

    By the way, thanks for the link, too. I will follow it and see what can be found there.
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2021
  19. Nathan B.

    Nathan B. Well-Known Member

    hotwheelsearl, I really like your avatar and your other pictures--especially the cash coin! I think you have hit a sweet spot in terms of achieving good photos at a practically negligible price. Very nice!
    hotwheelsearl likes this.
  20. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Ring light helps direct the light where you want it. You can make do with a few table lamps facing at different angles. The danger of shooting without a ring light is the shadows that are almost guaranteed to pop up.
    Nathan B. likes this.
  21. kirispupis

    kirispupis Supporter! Supporter

    Look up "macro light Panasonic G3" I see several knock-off macro lights for that camera in the $50-$60 range. I can't vouch for any of them, but it may be worth a shot.

    Alternatively, pick up two cheap speedlights and an optical trigger. Ring lights are nice and basic, but twin heads offer far more flexibility.
    Nathan B. likes this.
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