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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Use the Internet for inspiration or put your creative hat on and think of some awesome staging for your watch!
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!).
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.
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).
“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!)
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.
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)
- 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
- TAG Heuer—10:10:37
- Timex—10:09:36 (Analog and digital)
- Weiss—10:10 (Various seconds) or 1:51
A couple of outliers:
- Ulysse Nardin—08:19 (Various seconds. Before 10:10 was popular, the frowning hands at 8:20 were the norm.)
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A polarizing filter can cut down on reflections. Try one out!
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!
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!