20 Tips for Photographing Watches and Timepieces

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The art of photographing the wristwatch is known as one of the most challenging aspects of still life photography. Between the relatively small size of the timepiece, reflective sapphire and acrylic crystals, shiny elements on the watch face, matte leather or nylon straps, etc., there are a multitude of surfaces with different properties and reactions to light and the camera.

Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp

If you are a lover of the wristwatch or a horologist, you’ve likely salivated over the plethora of amazing watch photography that floods a small corner of Instagram and other social media sites. Grab your “grail watch” and your camera and get ready to talk “flecto” and “lume” while making good time by blending your two passions into one, having fun, and creating your own art!

Note on the images in this article:

All of the photographs in this article were captured with the FUJIFILM X-T3 and the following FUJIFILM lenses: XF 90mm f/2 R LM WR, XF 56mm f/1.2 R, and XF 35mm f/1.4 R. Lenses were accompanied by the FUJIFILM MCEX-11 11mm Extension Tube and MCEX-16 16mm Extension Tube. Where indicated, the iPhone 11S was the camera used.

Note on the watches in this article: Unfortunately, no new watches were photographed for this article. The watches were retouched in post processing (to various degrees), but all of them have signs of years of use and abuse (especially the almost-20-year-old Omega and my father’s 40+ year-old Rolex). If you’d like to gift me a new luxury watch to photograph to add to the article (and my meager collection), please send it to B&H… Attn: Todd Vorenkamp.

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931 with BluShark NATO Strap.
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931 with BluShark NATO Strap

1. No Time for Rules… Time for Fun!

There is no right or wrong in watch photography, and don’t let anyone tell you different. If you create an image that you like, then your mission is accomplished. If you like reflections on the face or bezel, then, by all means, include them in your image. If you want to get rid of them, then get rid of them! The watch-photography police will not come knocking when you share on social media. Most importantly, have fun with your watch photos!

The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap on top of a Ries tripod head.
The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap on top of a Ries tripod head

2. General Types of Watch Photos

There are three basic approaches to a watch photo: 1) the “catalog shot” that just shows the watch in exquisite sharpness and detail as you’d see in a watchmaker’s catalog on a white or black background; 2) the “hero shot” that shows the watch in a staged setting, possibly with props or an alternative background; and 3) the “wrist shot” with the watch being worn on a wrist.

The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap showing some “lume.”
The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap showing some “lume”

Regardless of which version of the “watch shot” you are aiming for, a single shot can take a few seconds or many hours to create. However, the amount of effort you put into the image is totally up to you.

A 1980s vintage Timex Titanium Sport watch (this is the “dressier” version) was one of the first mass-produced titanium watches. Due to an incredible magazine ad featuring a broken watch (just the crystal) on a rail with the caption: “You should see what happened to the train,” it was a watch I always coveted as a youngster—a “grail watch.”
A 1980s vintage Timex Titanium Sport watch (this is the “dressier” version) was one of the first mass-produced titanium watches. Due to an incredible magazine ad featuring a broken watch (just the crystal) on a rail with the caption: “You should see what happened to the train,” it was a watch I always coveted as a youngster—a “grail watch.”

3. Camera

As challenging as watch photography can be, this is one of those moments when you can use just about any camera to get the job done. There are even online tutorials teaching you how to get great watch photos using your smartphone or tablet! Of course, an interchangeable lens camera, like a DSLR or mirrorless camera, or a point-and-shoot camera with manual controls, can prove advantageous for technical shooting sessions, but you don’t really need a specific camera for this genre of photography.

Cameras and watches go well together! Here is a Nikon FM3a with a Sekonic L-358 light meter and an Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.
Cameras and watches go well together! Here is a Nikon FM3a with a Sekonic L-358 light meter and an Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.

4. Lens

It would be a fair assumption to think that you would need (or want) a macro lens for watch photography; it is not required by any means. In fact, none of the images in this article were captured with a macro lens.

You do not need a macro lens to get this close if you are using extension tubes.
You do not need a macro lens to get this close if you are using extension tubes.

Many lenses will focus close enough to get a good watch photograph. If your lens does not, you might be able to simply add some extension tubes to the lens to get closer to the watch for the shot you want. For those unfamiliar with them, extension tubes are non-optical tubes that mount between the lens and the camera and allow for closer focusing. They are a very inexpensive way to increase your close-up photography magnification while maintaining your lens’s optical quality and were used extensively on the images accompanying this article.

If you do want to get very small or intimate details of a watch face, bracelet, crown, or maybe mechanicals viewed through a rear crystal, a macro lens might be required.

Non-macro lens profile views of three different watches. These were captured with a FUJIFILM X-T3, XF 90mm f/2 R LM WR lens, and extension tubes.

5. Tripod

Again, not a requirement, but, if you are going to do a technical watch photo shoot, you will want a tripod or alternative support to hold your camera steady. This is especially important if shooting in a studio environment and doing close-up photography. It wouldn’t be required for an on-the-wrist smartphone snap, but a tripod can help your image quality regardless of the shot.

Four watches in front of a black backdrop. Please excuse the crooked NATO Strap keeper on the Omega.

6. Diffuse Light

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of any kind of photography and, in watch photography, it’s paramount to nearly any other technical aspect of the genre.

The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap and a manual gear shift “golf ball” knob from a BMW race car.
The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap and a manual gear shift “golf ball” knob from a BMW race car

Find some diffuse lighting for your watch. If you don’t have your own system of lighting, a window without direct sunlight is a great source of diffuse light—especially on a cloudy day. Sheer curtains can help here, too.

My father’s 40+ year-old Rolex Oysterdate Precision Ref 6694. This was photographed on a plastic stand that was removed (not perfectly) in post processing.
My father’s 40+ year-old Rolex Oysterdate Precision Ref 6694. This was photographed on a plastic stand that was removed (not perfectly) in post processing.

In the studio, softboxes, umbrellas, and other types of diffusers will be your friend. You can also use white paper or foam core boards as surfaces to bounce light and increase diffusion. Bouncing light from a light-colored ceiling or wall can work great for diffusion, too. And many watch photographers employ tabletop shooting tents.

Of course, if you want harsh shadows and reflections in your shot, the watch-photo police won’t come calling.

A bit of reflection on the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 shown with a nomex desert tan flight suit, US Navy HGU-68/P flight helmet, and MBU-12/P oxygen mask.
A bit of reflection on the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 shown with a Nomex desert tan flight suit, US Navy HGU-68/P flight helmet, and MBU-12/P oxygen mask

7. Staging Accessories and Props

I mentioned the staged shot above. Set the scene to fit with your timepiece’s purpose in life. An elegant timepiece designed for black-tie dinners should be photographed on a different stage than an aviator’s watch, dive watch, or driver’s chronograph.

The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 and an AstroReality moon model.
The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 and an AstroReality moon model

For non-dress watches, think about using your everyday carry (EDC) in the shot with your timepiece. Camera gear goes well onstage with almost any kind of watch.

A trip to your local hardware store can give you access to a multitude of bases and backgrounds for a watch photo, from Plexiglas or acrylic to glass, mirrors, metal, rubber, stone, brick, sand, wood, etc.

These free laminate flooring samples from a local hardware store work great for backdrops of close-up shots. Did I mention they were free?
These free laminate flooring samples from a local hardware store work great for backdrops of close-up shots. Did I mention they were free?

Use the Internet for inspiration or put your creative hat on and think of some awesome staging for your watch!

This was my first ever wristwatch. I lost it on the playground of my elementary school, and, thanks to an online auction site, I will be giving this one to my son as his first watch when he gets older. It is photographed here on a glass plate.
This was my first ever wristwatch. I lost it on the playground of my elementary school, and, thanks to an online auction site, I will be giving this one to my son as his first watch when he gets older. It is photographed here on a glass plate.

8. Wrist Shot

The wrist shot is a subset of the watch genre that could easily get an entire separate tips article. I will keep it short and list a few tips here: 1) A white or bright shirt might act as a nice reflector for light coming back at your wrist. 2) Pay close attention to reflections from you and your surroundings when outdoors. 3) Think of a shirt that complements your watch. 4) Hand-in-pocket wrist shots seem to be popular and pleasing. You’ll need a model or someone to operate the camera. 5) Despite your secret wishes, you probably aren’t an “arm model,” and no one is looking at the photo to check out your arm—they want to see the watch. Long sleeves are preferred (at least by me!).

Look closely, because these are the first and last wrist shots you will see me make. I am not a fan of the genre, and don’t feel like I am very good at them. The image with the trees in the background is from an iPhone 11. For the others, I accessorized the Omega with a flight suit, the Rolex with a dress shirt, and the Hamilton with a Henley.

9. Cleaning

One requirement for any watch photo shoot is a clean watch. Yes, you can remove dust specs in post processing, but you want to get as much dust, grime, and fingerprints as possible off of the watch before you shoot it. If you are doing close-up macro work, you will be shocked at how much dust you missed in a thorough cleaning.

This is the “sportier” version of the Timex Titanium Sport watch shown above. This watch was advertised in aviation magazines with backdrops containing military fighter jets—effective advertising for me as a young wannabe pilot who made this one of my early grail watches.
This is the “sportier” version of the Timex Titanium Sport watch shown above. This watch was advertised in aviation magazines with backdrops containing military fighter jets—effective advertising for me as a young wannabe pilot who made this one of my early grail watches.

To help in this mission, you can use a blower and darkroom gloves to clean and help keep the watch clean while you handle it.

Here is some detail work with extension tubes and the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.

10. Reflections/Flecto

Almost all watches have a transparent covering over their face. Some are flat, others are domed. Some are coated to reduce reflections, some are not. When setting up your shot, you get to decide how much reflection to show on the watch face (if any).

The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap shows selective focus and reflections that give shape to its sapphire crystal.
The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap shows selective focus and reflections that give shape to its sapphire crystal.

“Flecto” is a term used by watch photographers around the world to describe a controlled reflection on the watch face. (The word may have been created by Australians who enjoy cutting words in half and making the last syllable an “o.” But, I cannot confirm!) Flecto can highlight a domed crystal and give the watch some visual depth, but too much flecto can hide details and/or reduce contrast across the watch dial. (On social media, check out #flecto and celebrate #FlectoFriday weekly!)

A kiss of #flecto at the 12 o’clock position shows a bit of depth to the domed sapphire crystal. Watch: Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931.

11. What Time Is It?

Many rookie watch photographers don’t think about setting the time on the timepiece. If you want to look like a pro horologist and pro watch photographer, set the time to around the 10:10 mark. Why is this? This position of the hands gives a nice balance to the face and usually keeps them fairly clear of the watch manufacturer’s logo and other text. Also, the watch, with its hands at 10:10, is smiling at you.

Aluminum foil is the setting for this Timex Expedition Scout 40mm Nylon watch with BluShark NATO Strap set to the classic official Timex time.
Aluminum foil is the setting for this Timex Expedition Scout 40mm Nylon watch with BluShark NATO Strap set to the classic official Timex time.

This isn’t a rule, and many watchmakers have their own special hand position for photos. Some, like Ulysse Nardin and Oris, are very unique. Here are just a few:

  • Baume & Mercier—10:09:34
  • Breitling—10:08:00 (Some exceptions)
  • Casio (Analog)—10:08:36
  • Casio (Digital)—10:58:50 (LOTS of exceptions)
  • Hamilton—10:08:37 (Sometimes credited with starting the 10:10 movement back in 1926)
  • IWC—10:08:38
  • Omega—10:08:37 (Some exceptions)
  • Rolex—10:10:31 (The date window, if present, is always the 28th.)
  • Seiko and Grand Seiko—10:08:42
  • Shinola—10:10:35
  • TAG Heuer—10:10:37
  • Timex—10:09:36 (Analog and digital)
  • Weiss—10:10 (Various seconds) or 1:51
If you photograph your watch at extreme angles, you don’t have to worry about what time is set.
If you photograph your watch at extreme angles, you don’t have to worry about what time is set.

A couple of outliers:

  • Oris—07:48:06
  • Ulysse Nardin—08:19 (Various seconds. Before 10:10 was popular, the frowning hands at 8:20 were the norm.)
The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 set to the time used by Omega when displaying this watch (it is discontinued). This image shows some of the wear and tear on the bezel and crystal after nearly 20 years of service.
The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 set to the time used by Omega when displaying this watch (it is discontinued). This image shows some of the wear and tear on the bezel and crystal after nearly 20 years of service.

12. Setting the Time

There are different ways to get the time set, but here are some suggestions:

Mechanical Analog Watch—If the watch has a “hack” function, you can pull the crown and set the time. “Reset” the crown after the photo in post processing. Alternatively, you can let the power reserve run out and hope the seconds hand (if there is one) stops in a good spot.

Re-seat the crown in post processing. Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931 with BluShark NATO Strap.

Automatic Analog Watch—If there is no hack function, you will have to set the time and wait for the hands to get where you want them.

Quartz Analog Watch—Use a hack function, set the time and wait, or pull the battery out and set the time.

Bezel detail (aka: scratches) of the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.
Bezel detail (aka: scratches) of the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.

Digital or Combination Analog/Digital Watch—Set the time and wait, or hack the hands, and/or scroll the digital display to a non-time mode.

Or you can just do all your watch photos at 1010 and/or twelve hours later at 2210hrs!

Not all watches are worn on the wrist. The hands of the 1960s vintage Heuer Yacht Timer Ref 33.512 were set to “2 and 10” even though it is a timer, not a timepiece.
Not all watches are worn on the wrist. The hands of the 1960s vintage Heuer Yacht Timer Ref 33.512 were set to “2 and 10” even though it is a timer, not a timepiece.

13. Freezing Time

Since we are talking about time, unless you are showing extrusive time with your photo, you’ll want to freeze time, if the watch is running in the photo. This means making sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the second hand (if there is one) or digital display (if it shows seconds).

I created a stage here with the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 sporting its titanium bracelet, a BluShark NATO Strap, a spring bar, and a Bergeon 6767 spring bar tool.
I created a stage here with the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 sporting its titanium bracelet, a BluShark NATO Strap, a spring bar, and a Bergeon 6767 spring bar tool.

14. Other Tools of the Trade

Watches make poor models when it comes to posing. They don’t like to stand up straight! Your local jewelry store might sell you a watch stand, or you can get them online. Alternatively, you might have luck with a hose clamp. “Earthquake” or mounting putty is also helpful for some setups. I also use a squishy black stress relief ball for the profile shots to avoid reflections from the plastic stands.

Three watch stands (one removed from the stand), earthquake putty, and a stress ball are my setup tools.
Three watch stands (one removed from the stand), earthquake putty, and a stress ball are my setup tools.

15. Digital Noise

Depending on your setup, you might be shooting in conditions that encourage your camera to create digital noise (dim lighting, longer exposures, small apertures). Be conscious of this and keep your ISO at its lowest native setting.

Selective focus shows the center detail of the watch face. Rolex Oysterdate Precision Ref 6694.
Selective focus shows the center detail of the watch face. Rolex Oysterdate Precision Ref 6694.

16. Selective Focus vs. Focus Stacking

If you are shooting the watch at oblique angles, you might want to consider taking multiple images and using focus stacking to get sharp focus throughout the watch. Alternatively, if you are doing super close-up macro work, you might want to use selective focus and a shallow depth of field to emphasize a particular detail on the watch.

Focus stacking was used here to show sharpness all the way across the watch face and case. Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap.
Focus stacking was used here to show sharpness all the way across the watch face and case. Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439931with BluShark NATO Strap.

17. Precision Focus Tools

If you are going to be doing macro lens/super detail/focus stacking shot(s), you might want to get some precision macro focusing rails. These will help you control the focus for the selective focus shots, as well as make focus stacking a lot easier and more accurate.

Getting close and personal with the Heuer Yacht Timer Ref 33.512.
Getting close and personal with the Heuer Yacht Timer Ref 33.512

18. Shoot-Through Board

To minimize reflections from the camera (and the photographer), sometimes it is beneficial to cut a hole in a piece of foam core for your lens. Interestingly, my camera is silver, and I found some reflections from the camera itself on some images.

The Timex Expedition Scout 40mm Nylon watch with a reflective band and in front of reflective material. This shot was illuminated by a Bolt VM-160 LED Macro Ring Light.
The Timex Expedition Scout 40mm Nylon watch with a reflective band and in front of reflective material. This shot was illuminated by a Bolt VM-160 LED Macro Ring Light.

19. Polarizer

A polarizing filter can cut down on reflections. Try one out!

The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 has an anti-glare sapphire crystal and good lume, but sometimes a polarizing filter can cut down on reflections.
The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00 has an anti-glare sapphire crystal and good lume, but sometimes a polarizing filter can cut down on reflections.

20. Compositing

Depending on your post-processing skills, you might want to give compositing a try. Some watch photographers will move lights around the watch while the camera and subject remain in place and then composite the images to eliminate unwanted reflections and shadows from the different angles of the lighting. The bottom line is that mad post-processing skills can help improve your watch photography and I do not have those skills!

Here is a composite shot (with minimal skill demonstrated) of the front and back of my Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.
Here is a composite shot (with minimal skill demonstrated) of the front and back of my Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 Ref 3291.50.00.

Well, time sure flies when you are discussing watch photography. I hope you enjoyed the tips and the images. Do you have other tips for watch photography or questions that I might be able to answer? Hit us up in the Comments section below… if you have time!

4 Comments

Great X-33 love letter. Mine’s running without a hitch 14-years and counting. Ironically, no hiccups until after its first service last year where it threw a pusher immediately after coming back from Omega. 

Hi Joseph,

Thanks for the kind words!

I wish my X-33 had the reliability of yours! I paid for a service long ago before learning that I was supposed to get free service. Since then, it has been overhauled 3 times beautifully. I just brought it in a few weeks ago for a battery change, and was informed that Omega is no longer offering free service...so the marks on the crystal are now here to stay, unfortunately! The cost of service is about 2/3rds the cost of what I paid for the watch!

Anyway...that was a digression! Apologies!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Beautiful shots. I enjoyed seeing another X-33 in the wild. I got mine in 2011 after a deployment when a group of us got together and placed an order. The three watches look great too. Thanks for the article!

Hey Terry,

Thanks for the kind words! I tried to get a classic Speedy when my squadron-mates did the order, but Omega wasn't offering it. Bummer for me, but the X-33 is rare and cool on its own!

Fly safe and thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

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