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Secret is in the lighting
Tips for digitally photographing your coins  

By Beth Deisher
The secret of realistic and pleasing likenesses of your prized coins lies not in the camera, but rather in the lighting. Thus lighting and lighting techniques will be our focus.

(If you have a film-based camera with a macro lens, take heart. You do not need to rush out to buy a digital camera. The statement about lighting applies, whether your camera is digital or film-based. The digital camera is just more economical for many 21st century coin hobbyists.)


REFLECTORS ARE USED to spread and diffuse the light. Shown is a white reflector above the camera being used to even the light across the raised design devices of the Proof Kennedy half dollar.

Our discussion of lighting will explore two basic techniques. (The lighting is the same whether you use a tripod or copy stand.)

The first lighting technique discussed in this article is called directional or "side lighting."

Some copy stands are equipped with lights. Whether the light source is attached to the stand or whether you are using an unattached light source, position two lights directly across from each other, aimed at the coin and at the same height as the coin. They light up the shiny surface of the coin and provide "dark field" illumination. That is, the flat surfaces - typically the fields of the coin - appear dark, while the elevations and depressions - typically the design devices - appear light.


SIDE LIGHTING of the Proof Kennedy half dollar before adding the reflector is depicted in the image to the left. Cameo portrayal of the same Proof coin, right, is achieved using side lighting and reflector above the camera.

Side lighting is most often used for highly reflective Proof silver coins, when the desire is to highlight the coin's design devices rather than to inspect the field for possible contact marks or hairline scratches. It can also be used for Uncirculated or circulated coins. In general, side lighting does not portray Uncirculated silver and clad coins with highly reflective fields in a pleasing manner. It is more popularly used for circulated coins, especially copper and gold coins, which absorb light more readily than highly reflective silver-colored coins.

Axial lighting


TWO PHOTOFLEX Silver Dome softboxes containing Starlite 3200 lights provide a cool, safe lighting environment. The lights, the same height as the tabletop, provide side lighting. The same lighting can be achieved with various light bulbs housed in metal reflectors, which because of heat from the lights, require careful use by the photographer.

The second lighting technique is called "axial lighting." For this you need one light, a glass plate and a dark panel to prevent the reflection of unwanted light. Sometimes this technique is termed "frontal" lighting. It is called "axial lighting" because the light actually emanates from the axis of the camera's lens. To achieve it, you interpose a clear optical glass at a 45-degree angle between the lens and the coin and laterally position the light source even with the coin. The glass plate reflects the light from its source onto the surface of the coin. The light then returns from the coin through the glass to the lens. The dark panel stationed behind the glass prevents the reflection of unwanted light from the glass to the lens.


DIRECTIONAL OR "side lighting" produces a dark field for the business strike (Uncirculated) coin, left, and Proof version, right.

Axial lighting provides bright field illumination and renders crisp detail of the relief surfaces of a coin. Flat areas show as light tones and depressions and contours show as dark (shadow) tones. Coin collectors like images of coins that have been photographed using this technique because it captures more closely the appearance of the coin as if it were being seen with the human eye.

A variety of lights can be used with either lighting technique. A limited survey of hobbyists and professional photographers who consistently produce excellent digital images revealed a wide choice in the kind and size of lightbulbs used. The sizes range from 75- to 100- to 250- to 500-watt bulbs and spotlights. The type of lights ranged from incandescent or household lightbulbs (which tend to give a red-orange cast to the image) to halogen spotlights to daylight photofloods (blue bulbs) for digital cameras, to Type B photofloods.


FROM LEFT: Box stage used in axial lighting allows light to be used underneath the coin to prevent shadows. The coin rests on white Plexiglas diffuser shelf. Small block cut at a 45-dregree angle holds the plate glass in place as photographer Garry Leapley uses blue light bulb housed in metal reflector to illuminate the coin field using the axial lighting technique.

Blue bulbs appear to be the most popular and practical choice and can be purchased at most stores that sell cameras and photo equipment. (Type B photofloods are a necessity for those who are using film cameras and tungsten film.)

All of these lightbulbs give off intense heat and should be used with a reflector globe that has handle and clamp, to allow you more versatility in use. (When you handle or change bulbs, be sure they have cooled and avoid using your bare hand. Instead use a clean cloth like a handkerchief or cotton gloves. Traces of oil from your skin left on blue bulbs may contribute to early failure.) Also, it is advisable to use a power strip so that your light(s) can easily be turned on and off from a single place.


THE DIFFERENCE is in the lighting. The same Proof Kennedy half dollar appears different because of the lighting technique used. At left, axial lighting was used; at right, side lighting was used.

One tip is to keep a logbook to note running time of photographic lights. Life spans range from approximately two hours up to 10 hours, depending on the type and size light you choose. Also, keeping a notebook, especially at first, allows you to pinpoint the best light techniques for the type of coins you are photographing and takes the guess work out of "f" stops and aperture settings, if you operating your camera manually.

Warning: Lights are hot

In addition to getting the best quality image, safety is always a concern. Photofloods become extremely hot quickly and can burn flesh within a few seconds of being turned on. If you expect to photograph large numbers of coins, it would pay to invest in a professional lighting system. There are a number of professional systems available.


FIELDS OF Uncirculated "slabbed" Morgan dollar, top, and "raw" Kennedy half dollar, bottom, are illuminated using axial lighting technique.

One that came to our attention and we tested is the Small Product photography lighting kit developed by Photoflex Inc. of Watsonville, Calif. It proved to be ideal for properly lighting coins for digital photographs for both side lighting and axial lighting.

The Small Products Photoflex kit includes two each of the Starlite 3200 lighting system, SilverDome nxt softbox, and four-section Litestand, plus an instructional CD-ROM featuring assembly information and lessons that help users maximize kit capabilities.

The Starlite 3200 tungsten light used in the kit was specifically designed for use with a softbox to provide soft, even, natural-looking light. It permits continuous lighting with a housing design that allows air to flow through the unit and prevent overheating. Each Starlite comes with a 500-watt (120v) tungsten lamp.


THE GLASS USED to direct the light onto the surface of the coin can be held by hand or by a stationary platform. The stationary platform takes the guesswork out of achieving the 45-degree angel. The closer the light source, the more illuminated the field of the coin will be.

For directional or side lighting, both of the lights in the Small Products kit are required. It is priced at $774.95. Only one light is required for axial lighting. A Basic kit with just one light retails for $389.95. For additional information on the Photoflex kits go to www.Photoflex.com and click on Products, then Starlite Lighting Kits to find the Small Products and Basic kits.

Our search for a practical way to use axial lighting with coins led us to develop a small "box" stage upon which to place the coin. Actually, we built two, one for "raw" coins (not encased in plastic holders used by professional coin grading services) and a larger stage that can be used for "slabs" and holders such as those containing U.S. Mint Proof sets.


POSITIONING OF THE light is critical to fully illuminating the surface of the coin. Also, different lights may cast different hues on the surface of coins.

The small "box" stage, constructed of lightweight wood, is 7.25 inches long, 5.75 inches wide and 7.25 inches high with a 9-inch back. It contains nine quarter-inch groves that provide for the flexibility of moving the 4.75-inch by 6-inch stage shelf to different heights. (We use a plastic stage shelf so that light can be used underneath the coin to prevent shadows in the background.) A small wooden block, cut at a 45-degree angle, serves as our glass holder. The glass is 6.5 inches long and 3.5 inches wide. (For safety, be sure to smooth the edges and corners of the glass.)

The large "box" stage is 7.5 inches long, 11.75 inches wide and 7.5 inches tall, with a 10.75-inch by 7-inch shelf. This size box requires an 8-inch by 10-inch glass.


THE SAME COIN, photographed using the axial lighting technique but different lightbulbs, produces different results. At left, the results of using a spot light; at right, a GE Reveal bulb.

While we provide you with some basic lighting techniques and tips, anyone who ventures into coin photography quickly learns that it is very much an art. You must train your eyes to see light and absence of light as it plays on the surface of the coin. Often, you will have to move the light source around in order to capture subtle tones and distinctive features.

Jody Garver, chief photographer at Heritage Rare Coins, advises: "Paint your coin with the light."

Success, she explains, is achieved when your are able to capture the "flash" of the coin - that is, the coin's beauty and natural appearance.


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