Photographing Your Work: Learn from Professional Jim Lawson

Get professional tips on photographing your jewelry pieces from industry expert photographer and teacher Jim Lawson in this article from Rio Grande.

Last edited: 7/5/2019
Jim Lawson photographsa pair of earrings on a beautifully lighted table
Jim Larson photographs a pair of earring set up on a light table.

You’ve been locked in your shop for days, subsisting on tea and handfuls of trail mix as you perfect your latest batch of treasures. Now, at last, they’re finished. It’s time to get these little beauties photographed and entered into the Saul Bell Design Award competition, submitted to a local juried art show, featured in an upcoming magazine article or uploaded to your ecommerce site. But there may be a final snag you can’t go hammer out at the bench. After all of that work, what if the photos you take don’t do your jewelry justice?

It’s one of the most frustrating things a designer can contend with. When you’re used to working with tools, jewels and metals, stepping behind a camera to document a finished piece can be disorienting. And without a quality image, even the most creative and well-finished piece can look dull.

For more than 35 years, Jim Lawson has seen it all—the good, the bad and the ugly—while photographing, teaching art professionally and racking up covers on Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and Step by Step Wire magazines. He’s a seasoned instructor who’s introduced countless jewelers to the basics of photography.

“Obviously, photography has become more and more important to the jewelry artist, so I try and teach things that will make the process go as quickly as possible and get high–quality results,” Jim says. “Many of them can’t justify hiring someone to do their photography for them, so I do my best to give them the tools they need to do their own.”

As it turns out, you’re not crazy. Of all the things you can point a camera at, jewelry has some very particular challenges. “First is the small size,” Jim concedes. “Second, you can have a piece that has a multiplicity of different reflective surfaces, which all require different treatments for lighting. And there are some pieces that require styling and that can get to be very tedious and time-consuming.”

But with the proper equipment and attitude, even novice photographers can capture the opulent beauty of gemstones and jewelry.

“One of the things that I emphasize to the artists in my workshops is having the right equipment so that you can work quickly,” he says. That way, you can get back to what you really love. “You want to be able to spend your time making jewelry and using a minimum amount of time to do quality photographic work.”

Jim is a fan of DSLR cameras, which balance professional features with reasonable pricing. (Read Jim’s “What Camera Should I Buy?” blog post for a thoughtful discussion on figuring out what works best for you.)

After the shoot is over, photo-editing software takes digital images to the next level. “For me, Photoshop is a very integral part of the process, especially with the gems,” he says. Fear not—you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on programs you barely know how to use. Jim recommends the Lightroom/Photoshop package that Adobe offers for just $10 a month. The subscription includes access to instructional videos and support, so you can learn as you go.

Ready to aim? Take a look at Jim’s top–10 pieces of advice before you start shooting.

Jim Lawson’s Tips for Cover-Worthy Jewelry Photography

  1. Take a (Three-legged) Stand. “Invest in a good tripod. It’s very difficult to shoot good photos of jewelry without one.”
  2. Style with Care. “Pay very close attention to how you style and lay out a piece. This is where the tripod comes in. It’s much easier to style a difficult piece if the camera is in place and on a tripod.”
  3. Start Clean. “Make sure that your backgrounds and jewelry are clean. It’s much easier to clean the jewelry and background before you start shooting them.”
  4. Be Insensitive. “Use the lowest ISO [light sensitivity] setting your camera has. That way you get the most quality your camera is capable of.”
  5. Shoot in the Raw. “Shoot raw files if your camera will allow. It will give you more flexibility and ultimately a higher-quality image in post-production.”
  6. Max Out on Quality. “Choose the highest image quality your camera will allow, whether you are shooting raw files or JPEGs. You can’t go back and make things larger after you have moved on to the next photo. But you can always make things smaller. Always keep the original file intact.”
  7. Kill the Vibe. “Use a remote release or the self-timer on your camera when making exposures. Vibration is the enemy of sharpness.”
  8. Stick with the Kit Lens. “If you buy a new camera, start out with the kit lens that comes with it first. It will probably do most everything that you need. Then you can decide if you need an additional macro lens or two.”
  9. Be Picky. “Keep a dental pick or some other similar small device handy to move gangly parts of the jewelry around.”
  10. Just Breathe. “Be patient.”

Explore Jim Lawson’s catalog of eye-popping photography at his website, Jim Lawson Photography. Get more personal insights and information on upcoming workshops on his blog, Jim Lawson Jewelry Photography. Let us know what you think of Jim's tips at [email protected]