Opal Photography

welo opal photography 2

Opal Photography

Taking good opal pictures is not an easy task,where most gems express their beauty through uniform body colour, same from every direction, opals appearance differs considerably, depending on viewer and light source respectable position and even the type of illumination used. Play of colour that gives opal the originality makes it hard to capture stone at it’s best, sometimes even slightest movement can change it’s appearance completely. Additionally opal will never look as good at the picture as to your eyes. That’s because of the way we see the world-our eyes are like two cameras set at an angle, combining picture together. Another problem is that many of opal colourful patches are quite 3 dimensional-a feature that cannot be captured by camera due to shallow depth of field. Truly the only field where the picture holds the advantage over a live stone is it’s size- obviously the image size of a computer screen will let you see much more detail than your naked eye.

Ethiopian Opal oval cabochon

Some Opals will really let you marvel at natures beauty.

One of the Most important components of taking good opal pictures is a light, opal needs good quality, strong illumination as it relies on reflected light to display it’s beauty,unlike most gems that use a body colour as their main feature, which is visible even in poor light conditions. Listed here are various light sources beginning with the best: sunlight, halogen light, incandescent and finally fluorescent light.
Direct Sunlight- usually it’s best  while holding opal in a hand, as it provides full spectrum, high temperature and intensity illumination. The only drawback for opal photography is the difficulty in positioning to receive the best play of colour flashes as sun obviously cannot be moved, this leaves moving the stone or the camera as the only options, giving additional work in adjusting focus. Sun light may not be the best choice as well for some stones for which it is too strong thus “washing out” their play of colour.
Halogen and standard incandescent light- the only difference between those two is colour temperature, both are good sunlight replacement having full spectrum,although halogen is essentially better as it’s colour temp is higher. During picture taking those artificial illumination sources hold one advantage over sun light- they can easily be moved thus making the process of positioning the stones much simpler. This day, digital photography makes an opal photographers life easier as it permits making White Balance changes even in post shooting stage, thus allowing achievement of colours not differing much from those you can see in daylight. Please note that we are talking about very subtle hue changes here as opals appearance in sun light and incandescent light is essentially the same. Possibly one exception is an opal variety exhibiting mirror like effects. It’s fire is basically a reflection of the light source in one of the spectral colours it shows, with the pattern varying from pinfire to broad flash (different number/size of reflections)
an example in our gallery
Fluorescent light-I do not recommend this type of light for opal photography and indeed even for viewing opals at all. The main reason is that fluorescent light does not possess a full colour spectrum, which makes opals play of colour process unable to occur at those wave lengths resulting in smaller area giving play of colour and lesser number of colours visible, that can turn beautiful stone displaying full rainbow into uninteresting green-red one. From my experience up to date, there currently exist no fluorescent bulb which produces full light spectrum, even those advertised to do so are in fact just covered with additional layers of phosphorus giving richer spectrum than the standard ones, but still greatly insufficient for opals. Sellers, especially on the internet are not very honest about this and will claim post factum that “full spectrum” is not a technical term and they use it to advertise. This way or another, sufficient to say that every jewellery store and gem show you will see have halogen lights, not fluorescent, despite the fact that they take more power and generate more heat.
                Equipment is another factor important in opal photography. In general to take good macro pictures you are going to need SLR camera with a macro lens. you can use Point and Shoot camera but the optical chips in those are just not big enough to capture the detail level of professional macro pictures. Try to get a macro lens that will give you 1:1 close up, this means image of object being photographed that hits optic chip is the same size as that object, although you will  not ordinarily need to go that close, it is nice to have such option.Tripod is also a must, the best to get a sturdy one to eliminate all shaking. This will allow you to save on camera remote, which is advised for gemstone photography but a good tripod combined with some tricks in picture shooting makes it an unnecessary expenditure.

DSLR Camera like this Nikon is highly recommended for Opal photography.

Last but not least comes the technique, shooting macros will probably be the source of frustration before satisfying results are achieved as it is considered one of hardest fields in photography with the possible exception of micrography. Lets start with camera settings here. What worked the best for me so far is:
White balance- set it accordingly to your light conditions, you can choose from one of presets or input colour temperature if you know it,you can alter it as well in post shooting stage if necessary but it’s best to save yourself the additional work.
Exposure metering- spot metering directed at the opal works the best as it is more important to get clear not overblown colour flashes rather than darker regions like background.
ISO– 100/200, avoid auto as it will produce varying results due to changing high contrast areas, messing with your efforts in setting exposure.
Active D Lighting/Extended Dynamic Range- although it makes pictures look nice, it produces results beyond real life and its not ethical to use it for commercial purposes.
Zoom– use manual, especially for an opal with it’s 3D flashes.
Image saving format- choose RAW as it will give you more natural dynamic range and allow easier editing afterwards.
Shooting mode- manual, in general the more direct control you have over every aspect of shooting macro pictures, the better, if the results do not confirm that then you simply need to practice, practice and… practice.
About shooting itself– after you’ve made all the settings on your camera, set the aperture couple stops down from the widest possible, if it’s 2.8 put it at 4.5 if it’s 4 put it at 7.1 etc. for most lenses this usually gives the best results in terms of sharpness. Some may think that making your aperture small (high number value) is a good idea, especially because it improves depth of field, but it is not. Small aperture requires longer exposure time, hence bigger possibility of vibrations causing image blur, additionally there’s not widely known fact that it causes real image resolution drop ( not the number of pixels- that obviously stays the same) due to light interference. The exact mechanism of that is beyond the scope of this article, sufficient to say that your images will not be very sharp. Next, aim metering spot at bright play of colour area and adjust exposure time. Once that’s done, you zoom,and here is one of the tricky stages. Macro photography suffers from very shallow depth of field and you will often find it frustrating to balance between putting your stone in position where you get sufficient area in focus and a position where colour flashes are at their best.

Ethiopian Opal sculpture with multicoloured fire

Shallow depth of field: while the face of the stone is in focus, it’s side is already not so sharp.

As a rule, depth of field becomes greater with increasing distance from the object being photographed, but then you cannot get as many details, so in the end you need to play with it and often strike a compromise, which may go somewhere along those lines- if you plan to show small size pictures you can shoot from afar, because the details will be lost due to the size anyway and you will at least achieve greater depth of field, if however you plan on displaying large images, then in order to capture more details you need to shoot from closer range and figure out the right balance that will satisfy you. To some degree focusing on the stone and then just manipulating the light speeds the process but you will not get everything possible out of your opal without repositioning it in the end. Before you shoot there’s another thing you should mind, especially if you don’t use a remote. In order to eliminate camera shaking you can set Exposure Delay Mode and even possibly 3-5sec timer, if it doesn’t help and your images are coming out blurry try to get stronger light thus lowering required exposure time or get better tripod. The last stage is post shooting editing,a taboo subject usually, with many people saying you shouldn’t do anything but there’s a couple of problems with digital photography that not all know about. First of all most cameras at the moment use Bayer type sensors that cannot truly reproduce colours, you will have issues usually in red and blue parts of the spectrum. The only sensor that gives true colours is Foveon but cameras that use it are either ridiculously expensive or not very good in other respects. However Nikon and Canon have already filed patents for Foveon type sensors of their own so we can expect improvement in the future. Another reason for editing pictures is that while resizing for web use they will loose some sharpness and local contrast, not to mention that many cameras (like mine) already do some editing automatically, usually rising contrast, brightness etc. so, for true accuracy you can zero them out. Most of the pictures will need to have their significant portion cropped as you usually capture too much background, and internet size limitations really push you to display only what is important- the stone.

examples of Ethiopian opal pictures

Even though it seems that the image on the right has been colour enhanced due to strong blue spots, it is in fact the left one that has improper white balance, indicated by the skin colour. Making reds and yellows stronger is a common practice sadly as many Welos are dominated by those colours. The right side image is one of the cases probably caused by my cameras hypersensitivity to some shades of blue. It is a case confirming my belief, that sometimes you need to alter the colour balance in post shooting stage to bring your image to reality.

In the end, in opal photography you should try to obtain results matching as closely as possible to what you see with your eyes, if that’s your aim then in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with adjusting some settings, as long as you don’t add colour to make your opal’s play of colour artificially good as it’s sometimes the case with some sellers on certain general product selling sites (I will not give the name here). Simply saying you should be suspicious if the pictures seems to be too good to be true in terms of colour saturation, plus they are taken on one type of background only, thus not giving you any reference possibility.  Another little trick here- if you take photos not on a white background, try to put something white in the corner of the frame that will be cropped out later, this way you have a point of reference if white balance needs to be adjusted. Maintaining accurate pictures will help you in establishing yourself as a trustworthy seller, that buyers recommend and come back to do business with. As for my website, all pictures are only minimally adjusted, unless stated otherwise and are pretty accurate to the real life.

Click to see Ethiopian Opal section at Treasurion.com store

Click to enter Australian Opal section at Treasurion.com store

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