Coin stand-off for shadowless photos

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by jb_depew, Mar 20, 2022.

  1. jb_depew

    jb_depew Well-Known Member

    Here's a simple and cheap photography setup that allows me to take shadowless coin photos quickly with my cell phone. I will occasionally use my DSLR camera and flash (a Nikon Speedlight) to photograph coins, but more often than not I'm feeling lazy and simply use what I have in my pocket. Its quick and usually produces good enough results for the amount of effort I want to spend.

    Here are the components:

    An 18% gray card. These are cheap plastic cards that can be bought on Amazon or at a photography supply store. They are made to be an exact shade of gray, and are used by photographers to get consistent image exposure and color balance. My camera usually gives me a reasonably good and accurate photo when I use a gray card as my background. If I edit my photos in Photoshop, the gray can also be a reference point for the software to make automatic color corrections. Cost: $8

    Coin standoff. I use a small metal rod with hard green wax formed on the ends to create both a "base" and a "table." It's called dop wax, and I use it for my other pursuit (lapidary and jewelry making). I form the wax while it's molten and it hardens within 30 seconds of the heat source being removed. It's good to ensure that wax fully covers the end of the rod so there's zero chance it will scratch the coin.

    Dental wax - this is the same kind of wax that kids put on the sharp metal part of their braces to prevent chafing on the inside of their cheeks. It's malleable, very slightly tacky, yet not so much that sticks to the coin (so long as I seat the coin to the wax with light pressure). It does a great job of securing the coin to the standoff, and the standoff to the background. It cost me a dollar or two I think. If it did get stuck to the coin, it'll usually wipe off. One could also put the coin in very hot water for a second and it will make the wax disappear.

    Sheet of paper. This is folded in half, stood on end, and serves as a reflector, returning bounced light to the side of the coin opposite the light source. Reflected light fills the shadows that are caused by the main light. I can move it closer to the coin to increase the amount of "fill" light.

    A light source. I use an LED light panel I bought on Amazon for $50. This model was discontinued but there are other products like it. It's basically a glorified square flashlight. It produces much better results than using an on-camera light source, like a cell phone flash. To get natural looking light and shadows you have to move the light off of the device taking the photo (off the axis of the lens). Being a handheld light, I can move this all over the place to get different shadow and lighting effects.
    Tip: shining a light through white fabric softens/diffuses the light (optional).

    My favorite free photo editing app that I use on my phone is Snapseed. It has a ton of features and I recommend it.

    Here are some photos of the set up and a resulting shadowless coin photo I took. I spent only a minute or two, and no image editing was needed beyond cropping.


    I hope this post helps anyone who wants to improve their coin photography on the cheap.

    Last edited: Mar 20, 2022
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  3. nerosmyfavorite68

    nerosmyfavorite68 Well-Known Member

    Thanks! I'm struggling with coin photography.
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  4. The Meat man

    The Meat man Supporter! Supporter

    Great tips. Thanks!
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  5. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    Great pictures. I have a light box but I haven't been able to figure out the best way to use it. I take all my pictures with the natural light from my front window and using my cellphone currently. I wish I could get good light box pictures.
    Cheech9712 likes this.
  6. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    Instead of using a rod, I rest the coin on an inexpensive glass picture frame supported above the white background.
    Kasia likes this.
  7. Kaleun96

    Kaleun96 Well-Known Member

    Good tips! I recently wrote up a guide on inexpensive coin photography that uses some similar ideas as well, though aimed at those who only have cellphone cameras. If anyone is interested you can find it here.

    One thing to mention upfront is that it recommends a particular lighting technique to help make the coin "pop" by using a small ring-light that is placed between the camera and coin that creates a lot of contrast without shadows. This method is at the other end of the spectrum to what jb_depew is using here (i.e. a large diffused light source). It's mostly a matter of taste, or the coin you're photographing, which you might prefer but I think both are worth experimenting with as the lighting, more than anything else, really makes or breaks a photo.

    A quick note on the gray card, I would probably recommend you don't buy one of these cheap ones. The example in my photo below is a bit extreme but these cheap gray card sets are typically way off true white, black, and 18% gray. I often found they were just more hassle than they're worth and I'd have to manually correct the white balance anyway. A piece of white A4 paper actually worked just as well in the end.

    As you note, the gray cards are also typically used for exposure correction and while they can be used for white balance correction, it's better to use a white card for this (after ensuring the exposure is correct so the white isn't blown out).
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  8. Kasia

    Kasia Got my learning hat on

    nice to see these tips.
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2022
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  9. jb_depew

    jb_depew Well-Known Member

    Thanks for sharing your article! These are all good points - one should definitely pay attention to product reviews since the quality of just about anything can vary from brand to brand. My phone's camera app doesn't have a white balance control so I don't typically use the white card as one might if using an SLR with WB adjustment, but you are correct that this is the right card to use for exact WB calibration. I should have been more clear in saying that my phone camera just seems to do a good job of automatically choosing image settings (including color balance) when a gray card is used as a background, versus other background colors I've tried.
    Kaleun96 likes this.
  10. dlts

    dlts Well-Known Member

    That worked really well for you, and you gave me some ideas. Thank you!
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  11. Mickey in PDX

    Mickey in PDX Active Member

    My compliments on your write-up and contribution to the topic of coin photos.
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  12. Mr.Q

    Mr.Q Well-Known Member

    Very interesting great information thank you.
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  13. Cheech9712

    Cheech9712 Every thing is a guess

    Thanks for the cellphone tips. We all can use them for sure
    Kaleun96 and jb_depew like this.
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