5 tips to make your watch photography better with @waitlisted

"Shoot the photos that make you happy"

When I first reached out to James, the man behind the @waitlisted Instagram account, about tips for improving one’s photography, his advice was simple: read, re-read and read again the hundreds of articles Ming Thein has posted on his blog about photography.

“It’s probably the best resource I’m aware of for someone that’s really serious about learning photography,” he said.

Still, I wanted to get some insight into James’ creative process, so we hopped on Clubhouse (yea, I know), to chat watch photography. We went through 5 key parts of photography: equipment, lighting, composition, getting a quality shot, and post-processing.

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A post shared by James (@waitlisted) (@waitlisted)

Words and photos by James (@waitlisted)

1. Equipment

A lot of the questions I get are about the equipment that I use, and in particular my choice of camera. I won’t go so far as to say that your gear doesn’t matter, but it’s only a small part of the equation, especially for watch photography. Not only are most modern cameras incredibly good, even at the entry level, but watch photography is a genre of photography that almost always allows you to extract the maximum quality possible out of your camera: you’re shooting a stationary object, often under controlled lighting, and often on a tripod. Under those conditions, almost any modern camera can give you output that is more than good enough for anything you’d need to use it for. As long as you have a reasonably modern camera, I’d generally recommend learning how to make the most out of that camera first before rushing out to buy something else. If you find that your watch photos often turn out blurry, or dark, or grainy, then there’s something you could be doing better, and it’s probably best to figure out what that is first. 

That said, if I had to pick one aspect of a kit that is worth giving some thought, it’d probably be your choice of lens. I shoot all my photos with a 90mm lens, but something a bit longer or a bit shorter works fine, too. What I wouldn’t recommend is shooting watches with a wide-angle lens — not only will you have to shoot with your camera fairly close to the watch in order to fill the frame, which will leave you little leeway in terms of lighting and controlling reflections, but it will also introduce noticeable perspective distortion. Essentially, this refers to the fact that as your camera’s sensor moves closer to the subject, the size of objects closer to the sensor will appear more exaggerated relative to objects further away: this is why wristshots you take with the “wide” lens on your iPhone (a 26mm equivalent) make a watch look larger on your wrist, while those taken with the “telephoto” lens (in reality, a normal length 52mm-equivalent) will often appear more natural: the telephoto lens allows you to move your camera further away from your wrist, mitigating perspective distortion. 

2. Lighting

While your choice of camera is relatively unimportant, lighting is incredibly important. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire ballgame when it comes to watch photography. Photography in general, and watch photography in particular, is all about light — after all, photography is nothing more than the capture of light. Good lighting makes a good watch photo. In general, you want lighting that is both directional and diffuse: directional because it creates shadows that will lend a photo depth, texture, and context, and diffuse because harsh light sources will blow out highlights and detail (as an aside, this is why watch photos taken on overcast days tend to look more pleasant: the clouds act as a natural diffuser). Minute variations in the angle, intensity, and positioning of your light sources make an enormous difference in the look of a watch photo. One way to appreciate this is to take a bunch of photographs of the same subject with the same composition under different lighting configurations, and observing just how variable the results can be. 

This also means lighting is a hard thing to teach because there’s simply no one-size-fits-all lighting configuration that is appropriate for all the photos you might want to take. Different compositions will require different lighting, and on top of that, each watch reacts differently to light: a lighting configuration that is flattering to one watch may not be to another. I rearrange my lighting setup for each shot that I take, and I often tweak the setup repeatedly in between test shots until I get a result that I like.

In terms of equipment, lighting sources can be divided into two broad categories: continuous lights and flashes (or strobes). Continuous lights essentially refer to any light source that is always on — it can be an LED panel, a flashlight or lamp, or even your window. Continuous lights tend to be cheap and accessible, and the advantage of working with them is that they allow you to preview in real-time how changes in the angle of the lights or the watch will affect the shot. The downside is that continuous light sources tend to be far less powerful, flexible, or modifiable than flashes, which can leave you at the mercy of ambient light (or otherwise require you to shoot in a dark room and/or on a tripod with a slow shutter speed). 

For those who are serious about pursuing watch photography, I would recommend learning how to work with off-camera flashes. I personally use a set of Godox flashes with a wireless trigger, with the flashes shot through plexiglass panels that act as diffusers. I almost never use more than three flashes for any of my shots, and many of my photos can be accomplished with one or two (plus a sheet or two of white cardboard to bounce some light and fill in shadows). More light isn’t necessarily better: not only will having too many different light sources cause the lights to start interfering with each other, but you’re liable to end up with a boring photo that appears too flat and evenly lit.

3. Composition

Composition — i.e., how you arrange the subject and other elements of a photo in the frame — is of course an important aspect of photography. You’ll often hear people talk about various “rules” of composition, such as the well-known rule of thirds (or its converse, that centering your subject is boring and should be avoided). I would be cautious about thinking too rigidly about those strictures: as the old saying goes, rules are made to be broken. While they may serve as a useful guide when thinking about composition, they may not be optimal or appropriate for every shot. I rarely consciously think about any of those rules, and if there’s a composition that reflects my creative intention but that doesn’t observe such-and-such rule of composition, I’d always choose to go for what reflects my creative intention.

Before I set up any shot, I generally have an idea in my head of how I want the shot to look, how I want to position the watch, how I want the light to hit the watch, and what aspects of the watch I want to highlight. The physical act of setting up the shot is essentially an attempt to deconstruct and reverse engineer that mental picture into the actual setup — where the light(s) should be, how the watch should be positioned, etc. It’s almost always an iterative process: even now, having shot thousands of watch photos, I very rarely get it right on my first try. More often, I’ll set everything up, take a shot, look at it, and think about what could be improved and how to angle the light or the watch differently, and repeat until I get closer to the mental image in my head. A lot of watch photography involves trial and error, no matter how experienced you are, and sometimes I feel like the only real talent I have is a persistent willingness to keep shooting, tweaking, shooting, tweaking, shooting, tweaking (you get the point) until I’ve gotten a result that I’m happy with.  

4. Getting a quality shot

When I shoot, my goal is to get as much right as possible in-camera. In general terms, this means framing the shot correctly so as to minimize any cropping that I have to do in post-processing, controlling both the reflections coming off the watch and how light falls on the watch, and coming away with a well-exposed file that preserves shadow and highlight data (and places those shadows and highlights where I want them to be). Circling back to what I said previously about learning how to extract the maximum quality possible out of your camera, every budding photographer should familiarize themselves with the three variables that make up the so-called exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I won’t go into them in detail here, but each variable controls the amount of light your camera collects, with individual tradeoffs that can impact both file quality and your creative intention. Because I shoot with a flash, I always shoot watch photos at my camera’s base ISO, and unless I need to use a longer exposure for creative purposes (such as a lume shot), I’ll have my shutter speed set to my camera’s maximum sync speed. I’ll then vary my aperture according to how much of the photo I want to be in focus. 

5. Post-processing

Post-processing is somewhat of a personal decision, in that there’s not necessarily a “right” way to process a photo. You can certainly post-process for creative purposes — shifting colors, split toning, compositing different photos together, etc. I tend to stick to a more light-handed, transparent style, which means that I don’t want my post-processing to be the first thing people notice when they look at one of my photos: I’d rather people see the watch first. I process all my photos in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, and the primary adjustments I make are the following: making sure the white balance is perceptually correct, adjusting global contrast (through use of tone curves), adjusting local contrast (through use of Photoshop’s dodging and burning brushes), and retouching dust. That’s about it. 

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Shoot your shot

It’s important to have fun. I got into watch photography because I really love watches, I loved staring at them and admiring their beauty, and I wanted to both record that beauty for myself and be able to share what I saw in them with others. That’s still what drives me to keep shooting. Don’t get caught up on external validation in the form of Instagram likes or attention: shoot the photos that make you happy. It’s no secret that Instagram can be a toxic and demotivating place, and while I love Instagram for the opportunity to connect with friends and other members of the watch community, I’ve never sought it as a source of validation or motivation. If I were motivated primarily by Instagram reshares or likes, I’m inclined to think I would have given up a long time ago. 

One last note: watch photography isn’t easy — as much as I love it, it can often be extremely frustrating. Even now, I’ll often take 20 or 30 shots before I land on something that I like. Don’t be afraid to experiment, don’t be afraid of getting things wrong, and don’t be afraid to iterate until you get things right. And whenever you do get a shot right, try to isolate what it is that made you like that shot and keep that in mind next time you shoot a watch. Always try to do something a little bit better each time you pick up a camera: it could be big, it could be small, it could be something that people will notice, it could be something that nobody but you will notice. Just keep trying to do something better. Do that often enough and one day, you’ll look back and realize you’ve come quite a bit further from where you started. 

You can follow James @waitlisted on Instagram

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