Coin Photography
Experiments with My New Toy


Two years ago, when I bought my first ancient coin on-line, images were rare. But now, they're the rule. Whether for online coin catalogs and auctions or simply to illustrate your web site, people want and expect to see the coin.
I've been getting adequate coin images for a while now using my scanner. This didn't give much control over lighting and the quality was limited, but it sure beat no images at all. But now, high resolution digital cameras have led to a flood of higher quality images. Scanned images look a bit ratty and "second rate" by comparison.
So imagine my thrill when my wife said, "David, we really should consider getting a digital camera ..."

I won't bore you with the details of our camera search, but we selected a mid-range model, the Olympus D-450 "zoom". It has a 1.3 "megapixel" resolution, 3x optical zoom, a 2x digital zoom (but who cares?), and has a built-in "macro" mode for close-ups. At $500, it was half the price of the new 2-megapixel models, and it met our needs just fine.

This camera uses "Smart Media" cards to store pictures. To get pictures from camera to computer, you can either run a (supplied) cable from the camera to the computer or purchase a floppy drive adapter for $80 extra, as we did. You insert the little "smart media" card from the camera into the floppy-disc shaped adapter, then pop the adapter into your floppy drive. It's that simple!

WARNING!! I believe this camera does not provide a way to fasten attachments to the lens. The built-in features meet my needs for now, but other experienced coin photographers recommend using filters and add-on magnifying lenses -- something I don't think can be done with this camera.
Digital Camera Self-Portrait

But even the best camera won't automatically produce great pictures. I had pretty good luck with straight photographs, such as this "Tzedakah bank" in the shape of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and more "artsy" photos like this little 1,600 year old oil lamp.

But good coin pictures proved more elusive. Lighting was hard. The flash "washed out" the coin, but room light would make the silver coins look yellow -- and the slow shutter speeds turned the tiniest hand tremors into badly blurred images. I sought advice from a more experienced coin photographer who shall remain nameless, but his initials are Kevin Barry (hi Kevin!). He told me to get a tripod and a lamp that could be adjusted to shine from any angle. Oh, and get a bulb that simulated natural sunlight.

The bulb that worked best for me was the Philips brand "Daylight" Energy Saving Bulb. They describe its output as ... "A cooler light, more like natural daylight". It's 15 watts, producing light comparable to a 50-watt incandescent bulb. It screws into a normal socket, though it's longer and wider than a standard bulb, so make sure it fits first.

Be warned that not all cameras "see" colors the same. My anonymous advisor (hi, Kevin!) uses Philips "Earthlight" fluorescent bulbs with his Sony Mavica camera. I got one of those, too, but it turns my denarii yellow!

TIP: Don't just turn on the light and start snapping. Fluorescent bulbs require a warm-up period to achieve full brightness, so give them at least 15 seconds.
Simulated Daylight Bulb

If you're still with me, hang on! We're almost to the good stuff -- coin pix! But first, I had to solve the problems of controlling the light direction and holding the camera steady at a good distance. Oh, and getting the camera's automatic brightness adjustment to make the coins neither too bright nor too dark.

Coin Photography Setup
If you recall, Kevin -- er, I mean, my anonymous advisor -- had suggested I get a tripod. Just so happens I had a cheapie lying around. But its minimum height held the camera 17 inches above the counter top, too far for my camera to take an optimal image, so I stacked old floppy disc storage boxes to a height of ten inches. (Yes, those are 5-1/2" floppies -- I really am that old!)
An "Architect's light" that clamps on to the counter top gave me the needed lighting flexibility, and a soft gray rag under the coins convinced the camera to get the correct light balance.

For the observant, you're right -- that isn't my digital camera on the tripod. Since I took the picture with the Olympus, I had to send in the "stunt double" -- an old Pentax point-and-shoot camera we had lying around.

TIP: Release the camera before it takes the picture. The vibrations from your hand can blur the image. On my camera, there is a brief delay after you press the button while it focuses and adjusts lighting -- plenty of time to move my hand away.


Here you'll see three coins -- two silvers and a bronze. All were shot with the above setup, then edited with Adobe Photo Deluxe 3.0, which came with the camera. The top images were shot with the Philips "Daylight" fluorescent bulb, and the bottom images were shot using a Philips "Earthlight" fluorescent bulb of similar wattage.

This is an excellent rendering of the coin's overall grade and appearance. It accurately represents the wear state of this coin. But even on bronzes, the "Earthlight" bulb caused my camera to add golden highlights that aren't present in real life.

Tiberius "Tribute Penny"
Here's a denarius that I scaled to be proportionately approximately the same as the Augustus As above. You'll note that on the silver coins, the "goldifying" effect using the bulb that didn't simulate natural daylight is far more pronounced than on the bronze. It even "infected" the gray background!

Antony and Octavian Denarius -- Enlarged
These images were taken with the same resolution asthe ones of the "Tribute Penny" -- in fact, I took these with both coins side by side, then used Adobe Photo Deluxe to cut and paste them into separate images. I left these pictures larger to better show the detail possible. Once again, we see the false gold tones in the second set of coins.

BTW, the "scratches" on the second image are a hair that fell on the coin.


TIP: The angle of the light is very important. For portrait coins, typically you want to be above and slightly in front of the portrait, so it shines toward the forehead. On coins with a lot of wear, try bringing the light source down so it shines sideways across the surface of the coin; shallower angles tend to bring out the detail that's still present. But on coins with high relief, this leads to annoying shadows, so you want the light to be pointing nearly straight down from above the coin. You'll need to experiment. Each ancient coin is different. Try several shots from different lighting angles to find the one that brings out the important details.

So much for ancient coin photography. Modern coins pose a set of challenges all their own.

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