Coin Photography Made Simple
by J. T. Stanton, N.L.G.
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Coin photography is becoming more and more an integral part of the
hobby. Without photographs of coins, the hobby, as we know it today, would
be far less advanced, far less interesting, and certainly less enjoyable.
Many collectors would like to photograph their own collections, but
many feel the process is too complicated. Granted, photo-graphing small
discs of metal that reflect light so easily is not as simple as taking a
snapshot, but the process does not have to be difficult or drain the
There are several coin photographers in the country who are excellent.
Their work is professional. Generally speaking, these individuals spend
their entire workdays (and more) photographing coins. If you expect to
become as proficient as they are in just a short time, think again. If you
want to take coin photographs adequate for publication and archive, then,
with a little patience and moderate expense, you will achieve your goal.
In this article I will attempt to give you the benefit of my experience
and expertise gained during the last 15 years.
To begin, you must decide what type of coin photographs youíre
interested in taking. Micro photos or macro photos? The difference is much
greater than it may sound. Are you interested in color or black &
white? Or maybe both? How much money are you willing to spend? How much
time for practice are you willing to sacrifice? These are questions only
you can answer.
I'll start with a small list of basic equipment. The equipment is the
second most important ingredient. You are the most important ingredient.
Basic Equipment for Coin Photography
35mm single lens reflex camera This type of camera is vital. A
single lens reflex camera essentially allows the photographer to view the
actual shot through the lens of the camera, which is very important for
coin photography. Many modern cameras have a secondary lens through which
the photographer views the subject. An SLR camera, which has a manual mode
of operation, is required. Quite often, to get a good shot, you will need
to override the cameraís automatic mode.
Lenses A selection of camera lenses does not have to be vast. I
basically use only a 90mm macro lens for my macro shots. Other lenses can
be used in combination with extension tubes and close-up lenses, but a
good macro lens will produce the best results.
Stereoscope This is a vital tool necessary for micro photos.
Some photographers use a bellows extension to enlarge very small details.
I feel this can be very time consuming. Additionally, I use my stereoscope
for normal examination. It takes only five seconds to attach my camera to
the scope for photography. In this way, I get multiple use out of a piece
of equipment. I also feel that a stereoscope provides better clarity for
photos than a bellows.
Extension tubes and close-up lenses These accessories are often
necessary to get the most out of each photograph. Extension tubes mount
between the lens (or scope) and the camera body, increasing the distance
from the object to the film, thereby increasing the magnification.
Extension tubes are usually sold in a set of three: 14mm, 21mm, and 28mm.
These in any combination allow for very tight control over magnification.
Close-up lenses are a cheaper version of providing more magnification.
Most lenses have a minimum focal length (minimum distance from object to
film). These lenses allow for closer focusing of objects, thereby
"cheating" the minimum distance. However, at times, these can be
useful to the most experienced photographer.
Copy stands A copy stand is a device upon which the camera is
mounted, usually pointing downward, so that a small object can be focused,
and the camera held perfectly still. This is very important for macro
Other equipment Another piece of necessary equipment is a cable
shutter release. This is a cord-like object that attaches to the camera,
which allows the operator to release the shutter without touching the
camera. This is important to reduce vibration during the photograph. An
80A filter is necessary for lighting correction for color work (discussed
later). Other minor pieces will be discussed in more detail later in this
The film you use can be as important as the camera. Film is available
in different "speeds" (generally indicated by an ASA rating),
which differs in the amount of light necessary to expose the film
properly. Some standard speeds are 25, 64, 100, 200, 400, and even higher.
Generally speaking, each higher number requires half the amount of light
as the previous number to make a proper exposure. For instance, if an
exposure of one second is necessary for the ASA 25, an ASA 64 film would
require an exposure of Ĺ second; ASA 100 - 1/4th second; ASA 200 - 1/8th
second; and ASA 400 - 1/16th second.
Many brands of film today are all quite comparable. For color, almost
any of the major brands are suitable. For black & white, nothing beats
Kodak T-Max. All of these are available in a variety of film speeds.
However, the film I use most frequently for black & white print work
is Ilford XP-2. This film produces basically a black & white print but
can be processed with C-41, which is the process used for color film in
the convenient one-hour labs. It can be difficult at times to find a
convenient lab to process black & white film.
Another plus of the XP-2 is that, although it is rated at ASA 400, the
grain of the film is equal to that of ASA 100 speed film. Also, if
necessary, XP-2 can be shot as if it were ASA 100, ASA 1000, or even ASA
1600. It is very versatile.
I do use Kodak Gold and Fuji for my color work. However, I also try
other films from time to time. I have found that Konica is comparable to
Kodak, and I can buy it for as little as half the price of Kodak.
The choices of slide film are almost as varied as the choices for color
print film. However, when shooting slides, proper exposure is even more
critical. I trust Kodak and Fuji and will rarely try other brands,
although I am sure most are equally as good.
Since some of you may know very little about photography, I will try to
explain some of the basic photographic facts that you will need to know
for better results.
First, as mentioned earlier, an SLR is simply a camera that allows you
to view the subject through the lens just as the image will appear on the
film. Most instamatic-type cameras use a second lens for the operatorís
view. This view may be slightly different from the image that will
transfer to the film.
Most SLR cameras have a built-in light meter. This light meter will
indicate the shutter speed the camera suggests for a proper exposure.
Those cameras with an automatic exposure will use this shutter speed when
the camera is set in the automatic mode.
The shutter speed can be set manually and usually with a latitude from
1 second to 1/1000th of a second. Most cameras will have the 1 second
shutter speed setting indicated by a different color than the fractional
shutter speed settings. These settings will be indicated as follows:
The numbers from 2 through 1000 are fractions of a second. For example,
the 15 will indicate 1/15th of a second; the 250 will indicate 1/250th of
a second. The higher the number, the shorter period of time the lens will
be open. A shorter exposure time (lens opening) means less light exposing
Some cameras may have a 2-second setting, which will usually be in the
same color as the 1-second setting. Also, most of the SLRs will also have
a setting marked ?B.? This setting would indicate that the shutter release
cable (sometimes referred to as a bulb) would totally dictate how long the
shutter will remain open. When the shutter release cable is depressed, the
lens will open, and it will not close until the cable is released. This
would enable you to have an exposure of 5 seconds, 10 minutes, or
Another important setting on the camera is the film speed. This
adjustment is usually marked by numbers such as 25-64-100-200-400-800.
There are often micro adjustments between these numbers which would allow
you to set the ASA between these speeds. There are some cameras which
allow you to set the ASA lower or higher than the numbers that I
indicated. Still other, more modern cameras will make this setting
automatically by reading a code on the canister of the film. The film
speed setting is critical only when using either the automatic mode or if
the cameraís internal light meter is being used as a guide.
The lens on the camera also has an adjustment with numbers in a
graduated scale. This scale measures the lens opening (or aperture). This
scale will usually indicate numbers such as 2.5 -
4 - 5.6 - 8 - 11 - 16 - 22 - 32. The different aperture settings adjust
the amount of light being allowed through the lens opening. Using a given
shutter speed, an aperture setting of 5.6 will allow basically twice as
much light through the lens as will a setting of 8. A setting of 8 will
allow twice as much light as a setting of 16. A very important fact to
remember here is that the higher the number, the smaller the opening, and
consequently, the less light that is allowed through the lens.
The aperture also controls something called "depth of field."
This is simply the distance in front of and behind the focused point that
will remain in sharp focus. The higher the number, the greater
depth-of-field (greater distance in front of and beyond the focused point
which will remain in focus). This is very important with coin photography,
especially when taking macro (full-coin) shots. A smaller (higher number)
aperture would allow more latitude with the focus, which can sometimes be
A proper aperture, shutter speed, and film speed are all required to
produce a properly exposed photograph. Most SLR cameras are aperture
priority, which means that once the lens opening is set and the ASA rating
is set, the cameraís internal light meter will determine the time
required for a proper exposure. An exposure- priority camera (of which
there are few) would indicate that the camera will adjust the aperture
depending upon the exposure time set and the amount of light entering the
Macro (full coin) photos
When I am about to take macro photos, I will always start by checking
the camera to make sure it is operating properly. The next natural step is
to load the film and check the ASA setting on the camera with the film I
am about to use.
At this time the lens will be mounted on the camera. I am now using a
90mm macro lens. This lens allows focus of objects close to the lens, and
I can easily take photos of a coin two times its actual size.
A standard lens normally will focus only as close as about three feet
without attachments. However, by adding either extension tubes or close-up
lenses, you can focus much closer -- even as close as three inches. This
is a good alternative to a more expensive macro lens; however, you will
sacrifice some quality.
Extension tubes mount between the camera body and the lens. These offer
better quality than do close-up lenses but are more expensive. A set of
extension tubes usually runs about $125 to $150, whereas a set of close-up
lenses might cost only $60.
For macro shots, I will mount the camera on my copy stand. A copy stand
is simply a vertical bar mounted to a base. The vertical bar has a
mounting attachment for the camera. When the camera is attached, the
camera will be facing the base. In this way, the plane of the film is
parallel with the base. Many copy stands will have a mount that is
adjustable with a arm, which allows easy adjustment of the height of the
I have several jewelry pads onto which I will place the coins while Iím
photographing them. These offer a safe surface for the coin, minimizing or
eliminating possible damage. Additionally, they are available in different
colors, which will offer a variety of backgrounds. I generally use black
and will discuss the reason shortly.
The cable release is vital for macro shots. If you try to cut a few
dollars off your cost, you will spend it in added film expense. I donít
know of any one who can use the cameraís shutter button and not cause
some vibration of the camera.
Lighting is very important, but often over complicated. Some people
will tell you that it is necessary to have two lamps coming from various
angles to light the coin properly. However, I have found that a single,
standard 60-watt bulb is best.
I will slightly tilt the base upon which the coin is placed and have
the light angled so that the reflection is directed into the lens. Or it
may be easier to angle the camera slightly and then have the light reflect
from the coinís surface into the lens. The lamp will usually be the
typical bourse lamp, which is easy to maneuver into the appropriate
position. When using the tilt method, be sure to focus on the center of
the coin. This will help to ensure that the entire coin will be in focus.
If color film is being used, simply screw an 80A filter (about $25)
onto the end of the lens. This will correct the hue of the light for the
color film. However, a filter is not necessary for black & white film.
A blue photo flood can be used instead of the normal bulb and the filter.
This is an appropriate time for a tip. I have found that, generally
speaking, if you will try to get the fields of the coinís surface light
and the shadows by the coins devices dark, the results will be best.
Depending on the results you need, there are times when you might need to
do the opposite.
To get the proper exposure setting, the use of a "gray card"
is critical. A gray card is simply a card which is a precise degree of
gray, or neutral, shading. (Cost is about $15 for a set.) With the light
and camera in place, place the gray card in the position of the coin. Look
through the lens to see what exposure the cameraís light meter reads as
optimum. This will give you the proper setting for the shutter speed. Set
the exposure manually.
If you do not use a gray card, the cameraís light meter may be fooled
by the vast amount of light reflecting off the coinís surface. It is
always best to use a gray card. They are cheap!
I often find it necessary to move the light around from time to time to
get the best possible photograph. Different coins reflect light
differently, and obtaining the correct amount of reflection is important.
It is generally much easier to move the light slightly than to adjust the
coin. Also, I prefer to handle the coin as little as possible. Generally
speaking, best results are obtained when the fields of the coin in the
photograph are light, and the shadows appear on either side of the devices
or raised areas of the coin. This gives the coin a true, three-dimensional
There are two primary reasons that I prefer to use a black background.
First, black is an absolutely neutral color. It will not alter the hues of
any photograph. Even white will alter the hues. Second, black is the best
background if a photo is to be converted to a slide. Using a black
background during a slide presentation will permit the viewers to
concentrate on the subject, and not any surrounding fibers or other
However, there are times when I will use a blue or red background. As a
rule, red will sometimes enhance copper or gold, and blue will sometimes
enhance gold and silver.
Another tip: I will often use a small wood block to raise the coin off
the surface of the pad. Doing so will cause the background to be out of
focus. If the background is in focus, some fibers or the grain of the
background may show in the photo. The fewer detracting marks and threads
the better. You want the coin to be the focus of the photograph.
If you are photographing a coin that must be returned right away, try
"bracketing." This is a method of shooting several shots of the
same subject but with a few different exposures. In this way you will be
better assured of getting a properly exposed photograph.
Photographing coins through a stereoscope is really easier than one
might think. Obviously, a good scope is necessary, and I highly recommend
a stereoscope. This is a scope with dual eyepieces that will usually have
The camera will adapt to one of the eyepieces with a microscope-camera
adapter. Adapters are usually available from the microscope dealer or from
many camera supply stores. The adapter will simply match to the eyepiece
and will also attach to the camera body without the cameraís lens in
In this configuration, the scope is then acting as the lens of the
camera. Unlike with macro photos, the microscope will not have settings
for the lens opening. The scope will also be the only means of focus that
you will have. To focus, you must view through the view finder of the
camera and adjust the scope until the image on the coin is as sharp as
Best results are obtained when the coin is tilted under the optics of
the scope. I have built a small, angled table upon which I rest the coins.
Itís made primarily from cardboard 2 x 2s and covered with a black
The coin is then placed on this table and positioned under the lens of
the scope, so the light will reflect from the coin into the lens. As with
macro photos, best results are obtained when the fields of the coin are
light, and the shadows fall on either side of the devices.
Film and lighting are the same as with macro photos. However, I
recommend that film with an ASA rating of at least 100 be used. The lens
of the scope is usually rather small and will allow small amounts of light
into the camera. You will also discover, by moving the light around the
coin, differing results can be obtained. You may find it helpful to move
the coin platform around at times rather than moving the light.
I have learned with micro photos that the automatic setting on the
camera can generally be used. I will "bump" the automatic
setting on the camera to +2. This basically adds two stops to the length
of the exposure. Remember that each setting on the lens either doubles or
halves the amount of light as the next setting. A bump of two stops
actually takes the automatic exposure and multiplies it by 4. For
instance, if a normal reading would force the camera to an exposure of
1/15th of a second, a two-stop bump would force the camera to an exposure
of 1/4th second. That equals two stops.
Many cameras have an adjustment that will allow you to use the bump
simply by adjusting one dial. This dial will usually have 5 settings: +2,
+1, 0, -1, -2. If you set the dial at +2, you are adding 2
"stops" to the exposure. If your camera does not have this
adjustment, you can alter the automatic exposure by changing the film
setting. If youíre using ASA 400 film, set the camera at ASA 100. That
will give you the same result as if you had set the bump setting at +2.
Generally speaking, the light that the camera will read comes directly
from the coin, and this reading is not altered by peripheral matter, as
will the background in macro shots.
When producing slides for a presentation, I will usually shoot prints
first. This gives me the opportunity to view the shots before the more
expensive slide film is used. Once I select the prints I want, I will then
take shots of the prints with slide film using the macro lens. I can also
add type and indicating arrows to the actual print, so the type or arrows
will show up on the slide when presented.
Additionally, by making slides in this way, I can keep a set of prints
on files, and I can always make another set of prints or slides on the
subject. Itís really easy.
Magnification can be added to either the microscope or for macro shots
by adding extension tubes (or rings) to the camera. These are relatively
inexpensive, really easy to work with, and are generally available in sets
of three. By adding one or more of these tubes between the camera body and
the lens, magnification is increased. These also work with the scope and
can be added between the scope adapter and the camera body.
However, too many people feel that more magnification is better,
whereas the opposite is more often true. With micro photos, I often like
to be able to see some area around the object of my photograph. This often
helps to see other identifying markers, such as die polish and scratches.
Macro photos should be large enough for all details of the coin to be
* Test your exposures. Simply run a couple of "test" rolls
keeping track of each and every shot, what adjustments you made, and the
readings associated with that shot. This process will help to reduce
frustration in the future.
* Dead batteries can cause problems at the worst and least expected
time. Keep your batteries fresh, and keep an extra set available at all
times. Your batteries will die just when you need them the most. Batteries
* When taking your photographs, look before you snap. Itís often
helpful to be able to see die markers or some significant feature on the
surface of the coin. These may come in handy in the future, either in
identifying the coin or the die.
* Organize your prints, slides, and negatives so that they can be
retrieved easily. I file my prints in the following manner. Micro shots of
die varieties are filed in separate envelopes by denomination, date, and
variety. Macro shots are filed by denomination, type, and date sequence.
Photos of errors are filed by error type, and by denomination within that
error type. I have about 20,000 prints on file and can put my hands on
most specific prints within a minute.
Slides are also filed by topic, and most are housed in carousels ready
to show. The carousels are not really expensive, and whenever I create a
new slide presentation, I will buy a new carousel.
Negatives are also filed. Each time I have a roll of prints processed,
I will assign a number to that roll. This six-digit number will be as
follows: 920809. This simply means that the roll was taken in August of
1992, and it was the ninth roll I processed that month. In this way, I can
always determine when the photograph was taken.
The prints from that roll are numbered as soon as I receive them. The
number is placed on the back and includes the roll number and the exact
frame negative number. In this way, whenever I pull a print for use in a
publication, or if I need to have a copy or copies made, I can put my
hands on the exact negative in a matter of seconds. Even photos that I
shot twelve years ago! Youíd be surprised how much time and irritation
this procedure will save in the future.
* Buying film can get expensive, but you can save money here as well.
In the back of almost any photographic magazine, there are several ads of
companies which sell film, supplies, and equipment at prices far less than
your local camera store. For instance, XP-2 is usually about $4.75 per
roll in most camera shops. But I will buy 100 or 200 rolls at a time from
one of these companies for $2.95 per roll. Quite a savings!
However, if you donít use much film, I highly recommend that you buy
from your local camera store. Try to develop a relationship with the
owner. If you do so, he/she will be much more likely to help you when you
I hope these tips will assist you with your coin photography. If you
should encounter a tip I might include in the future, please let me know.
My goal is to be as helpful as possible -- both now and in the future.
If you try some photos and are not satisfied with the results, feel
free to send them to me, and I will offer my suggestions. I may be able to
tell you something simple that you can do to make the photo better. If you
do, please include some return postage. I'll always be happy to assist you
in every way possible.
Copyright 2000 by J. T. Stanton. This article may be reproduced in its
entirety, as long as the source is recognized.
J. T. Stanton
P. O. Box 15487
Savannah, GA 31416-2187