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Photographing Coins?–Got Milk?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Close-up or macro photography is fascinating for the simple fact that you are able to make pictures of things you barely can see with the naked eye.

The close-in detail on a coin, for example, or on a piece of jewelry. These things are rendered in tack-sharp focus through the ability of special camera lenses to focus incredibly close. Depending on the lens, you can see more detail than you would by using a huge magnifying glass that would do Sherlock Holmes proud.

But translating these up-close images into well-lit, well-exposed photographs is something else again.

Often the problem with macro-photography is targeting light well enough so that it rakes across the surface of your subject to render detail while not being so harsh as to produce annoying shadows or blow out detail.

The easiest, and arguably the most expensive, way to do this is through use of a translucent lighting tent, a conical or dome-shaped affair that lets you shoot either directly down on your subject or from a slight angle above it, with light from strobes or floodlights filtering through the nearly-opaque medium. The tent most often is made of translucent fabric or plastic (like the commercially available Trans-Lum).

Unfortunately, tents like these often are made for product or catalog photographers who need to photograph such shiny objects as a silver tea service or highly reflective sculpture. Incidentally, when shooting at an angle, the camera lens pokes through a shooting hole so that there is no reflection of the camera, the lights–or of the photographer.

Still, when photographing small individual objects like coins or jewelry, a lighting tent can seem like a bit of expensive overkill. But, until a recent discussion with a friend and neighbor who is an avid numismatist and longtime amateur photographer, I was hard-put to come up with any alternative.

Enter Bill Mullan and his gallon milk jug-turned lighting tent.

Bill, a retired engineer and systems designer for the Washington, DC, phone company, has been making photographs about as long as he has been collecting coins. When he is not writing articles about coins for the Numismatic International Bulletin, and illustrating them with his own first-rate pictures, he is lecturing school groups about the development of money as a means of exchange. Bill also is a hell of a gardener, but that's a whole other story.

A graduate of Catholic University here, Bill put out the college's slick yearbook, The Tower, in the same era as legendary photographer Fred Maroon. "I talked him into being my photography editor–the only claim I have to fame." [See Fred Maroon Remembered: Forever the 'Amateur' 11/9/01]

Like so many of us who have been shooting for decades, Bill is reluctant to part with gear that still has plenty of use in it. And that reluctance to go out and buy The Next New Thing led in no small measure to Bill's efficient and economic lighting break-through.

Bill's basic rig is, well, basic: An old Testrite copy stand, a well-used Minolta 35mm camera with a 100mm macro lens, a cable release, an ancient floodlight and reflector, and, of course, a gallon milk jug.

"When I started taking pictures of shiny coins," Bill recalled recently, "I got a light that just overshadowed fine detail,"

"I thought 'what I need is diffusion.'"

"I also thought a milk jug probably would do, and it all pretty well followed."

[Note: this is the same kind of inspired noodling that led Isaac Newton to think great things about gravity after the apple hit him on the head.]

Bill cut the top and bottom off a milk jug and was delighted with the first results he got. Because he chose to use photo-flood light, as opposed to strobes, he was able to look through the viewfinder of his camera and actually see when the light showed off his coins at their best. The milk jug created an ideal diffusion medium that showed excellent detail on the coins themselves. Still, Bill was not totally satisfied.

The problem was that, while Bill was getting good detail on the coins, he also was getting a harsh shadow around their edges. This was because he was laying the coins directly on the surface of the Testrite's wooden copy platform.

That's when Bill had another Isaac Newton moment.

He modified the Testrite stand by substituting the wooden base with non-reflective plastic, of the type often used to create non-glare picture framing. Then, to allow the edge shadow to fall away from the coin, Bill elevated his whole rig–copy stand, camera and platform--from his work surface.

When Bill demonstrated this technique in my dining room, I supplied the "elevation"–four identical cans of Diet Coke.

The whole thing worked like a charm.

To render greatest detail, Bill tends to use a fairly medium speed films like BxW Kodak Plus-x or Kodachrome 64 color slide film. He calculates exposure simply with his in-camera exposure meter and uses a cable release to help eliminate camera shake.

Obviously, this arrangement will work just as well with a digital camera, as long as the camera lens has macro-focusing capability. And, obviously too, with digital you have the added advantage of seeing results instantly and being able to fine tune the lighting as you go.

This summer in Maine, while I was teaching a day-long seminar at the University of Maine at Machias, one of my students asked about the best (and cheapest) way to photograph the jewelry she designs. There's no reason Bill Mullan's rig shouldn't work great here as well.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Photographer Bill Mullan poses with his equipment for photographing coins. The Testrite copy stand helps him position his camera and 100mm macro lens directly over his subject. But the key to Bill's success is his cutoff gallon milk jug.

© Frank Van Riper
With all in position, Bill demonstrates how he makes a shot. Hand-holding a tungsten floodlight allows him to angle the light just so-to bring up detail in the coin, while the milk jug does everything a pricey translucent tent would do to create near-shadowless light.

© Bill Mullan
As with any photography, it's results that count. Bill Mullan's perfect portrait of this 1860 Indian head penny shows what can be done with creative ingenuity.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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