How to Photograph Your Collections :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Your Collections

by David Peterson 5 comments

So wait, you mean photography isn’t your only hobby? You do other things with your time besides take pictures? Shocking!

Okay, I confess. I have other hobbies too. Most people do. But have you ever considered that you might be able to combine your passion for photography with your passion for your other hobbies? It's true! And here's how to do it.

Let’s say you’re a collector. Most of us kind of are, whether we admit it or not. Some of us throw ourselves quite passionately into our collecting hobbies, acquiring large quantities of stamps, coins, books, etc.—and generally upsetting our spouses or significant others with the money we spend on stuff that doesn’t really have a practical use. Other people collect somewhat more discreetly. Maybe you're the sort of person who likes jewelry. Maybe you like art. Whatever the case may be, if you accumulate things you’re passionate about, you are a collector. And since you’re also a photographer, you can immortalize your collections in pixels as well as in albums, jewelry boxes or display cases.

Photographing your collections does more for you than just satisfy your need to take pictures of something. Having detailed photographs of the things you collect can also help you in a practical sense, especially if something were to happen to your collection somewhere down the road. Say you were the victim of a burglary or a fire—your insurance company might want to see photos of those lost items, so that it knows exactly what you lost and can make a determination about the value of those items.

Photographs of items in your collection can also be useful if you ever decide to sell any of those pieces. You can use the photos online in product listings on sites like eBay or Craigslist, and after they’re sold you’ll still have a photographic record of what you once had.

Okay, so now that I've convinced you that you should be photographing your collection, let's talk about the best way to do that. Taking photos of a collection is really a lot like taking photos of any inanimate object. The first thing you will need to consider is the light. Typically (unless you collect large things like cars or tractors), you will want to shoot these images indoors with a controlled light source, or outdoors in a place where the light is filtered and even.

What you need

The camera equipment that you should be using to take photographs of your collections depends somewhat on exactly what it is that you're going to be photographing. If you're photographing small objects like coins or stamps, for example, you will need a lens that has a macro capabilities, or at the very least you will need a point and shoot camera that has a macro mode. If the items you collect are larger such as books or model airplanes, you should be able to get away with using a non macro lens, though you will probably still need one that is labeled “macro.” If I’ve just confused you let me explain—a true macro lens is a lens that has the ability to capture an image at a size ratio of at least 1:1. What that means is that your subject will appear on the sensor at exactly the same size it is in real life. True macro lenses are always prime lenses, which means they don’t zoom. They have exactly one focal length, such as 50mm or 100mm. Other lenses may be labeled “macro,” but that doesn't mean they are true macro lenses. If your lens zooms, it is not true macro, though it may still be capable of focusing pretty close to an object (just not as close as 1:1). If this is the sort of lens you have, you should be able to take photographs of those larger objects without any trouble. If your subjects are smaller, you might want to consider investing in a true macro lens.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 100
  • f/32.0
  • 0.2 sec (1/5)
  • 180 mm

Wismuth -- Bismuth -- Bi by Flickr user Traveller_40

The next thing you will need is a tripod. There are a couple of reasons why. The first is because when you shoot objects at macro ranges or near macro ranges, you need to use small apertures. And at those smaller apertures—even when you have a good light—you may still not be able to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to allow you to hand hold your camera.

The second reason why a tripod is so important is because a tripod will help you keep your focus point where you want it to be. When you’re very close to an object and you’re trying to hand-hold your camera, it can be difficult to lock onto a small focus point because just that slight movement in your hands could be enough to cause the point to shift. Mounting your camera on a tripod will allow you to lock your focus point and keep it locked.

Besides the tripod, you will also need a way to remotely release your shutter. That could be a cable or remote release, or it could just be the self-timer feature on your camera. The reason you need this is because at those slower shutter speeds, the simple act of touching your shutter button could be enough to introduce camera shake into the image.

  • BenQ Corporation LH50X
  • 64
  • f/5.0
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 19 mm

IMG_0115 by Flickr user dno1967b

Finally, you will need good light. You may find that it is sufficient to just move your stuff outside, but make sure you find a place where there is even shade. What you don’t want is to place your subjects in direct sunlight—especially during the middle hours of the day. Direct sunlight will create glare, hotspots, and detail-obscuring shadows, and that makes for poor representations of your valuable subjects.

You can also shoot indoors next to a window. Window light is particularly well-suited for this type of photography, because it is soft and diffused, and comes from the side. The soft, filtered light will keep those too-black shadows and blown out highlights out of your photos, and undesirable qualities such as glare and reflection will also be less problematic. And when light comes from the side, it helps an object to look more three-dimensional. Side light casts longer, softer shadows, which help add a sense of dimension to your subjects. If you’re finding that the light coming through your window is still a little bit too hard, you can easily defuse it with a sheer curtain, or by propping up a photographer’s diffuser between the window and your subject.

  • Apple iPhone 4
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 3.9 mm

Making of 'Fire department' by Flickr user stavos

If you have a lot of objects to photograph, and using the window or going outdoors just isn't practical, consider investing in a table top light box. These are usually really inexpensive (you can pick one up on for between $20 and $60) and an extra bonus is that they’re quite simple to use. Just open it up, place the object you want to photograph inside of it, and then light it from either side with a tabletop lamp (preferably one equipped with daylight-balanced light bulbs).

Camera settings

When you’re working at macro ranges or even at semi-close distances, you don’t get as much bang for your aperture buck. What I mean by that is this: even though you choose f/16, you still may not get enough depth of field to keep an entire object in focus. Some photographers will use what’s called “focus stacking” to correct this problem, but before you commit yourself to a whole new post-processing technique, first try a couple of other strategies. You can improve your depth of field just by moving the camera back a little—don’t do this too much or you will also lose detail, but as a general rule the more distance there is between your camera and your subject, the more depth of field you’re going to get.

Also make sure that you are using the smallest acceptable aperture your lens can achieve (that will correspond to a large f-number, such as f/32). Be aware that you may get some extra softness at those very small apertures—this is due to a phenomena known as “diffraction.” It’s a good idea to test your lens to see when this problem starts to become noticeable, and avoid shooting at apertures smaller than that limit.

A final strategy you can use to cope with limited depth of field is to turn the object so that the important elements are parallel to your lens. When you do this, you’re essentially placing all those details on the same focal plane, so depth of field no longer matters. Flat and flat-ish objects such as stamps and coins are good examples of subjects that will greatly benefit from this strategy, though it may be more difficult to make this work with something that has a lot of depth, like a model airplane. If your subject is very long or wide, you will need to make a determination about what the most important feature of that object is, and use that as your focus point.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 500
  • f/2.2
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 135 mm

Going to Hold on to That by Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Getting that focus point right, obviously, is of great importance whenever you are shooting at macro ranges. To achieve this you could use the focus/recompose method (that’s when you place your focus point in the center of the frame, push down halfway on the shutter button to focus, and then recompose and take the shot), but I hesitate to recommend this technique when shooting macro because sometimes just a small change in camera position will change the focal point, which will be enough to throw the important parts of your subject out of focus. Instead, I like to use single point AF mode (called “One-Shot” on a Canon). In this mode, you can manually move your focus point around in your viewfinder using the joystick on the back of your camera. Just place that focus point over the most important part of your subject and then press halfway down to lock focus—no camera position adjustments necessary.

Finally, make sure you are shooting at a low ISO. Higher ISOs may introduce noise into your photo, and noise gets in the way of detail. When you’re shooting valuable objects at close range, you really want your viewer to be able to see all of that intricate detail. If there’s a lot of noise in the image, it actually creates an illusion that the scene is unfocused. That’s not what you want when trying to convey detail.

Other things to consider

We humans love shiny things. Yeah, maybe you wouldn’t say so out of loud, but who doesn’t love a polished chrome grill on an antique car? The same thing goes for those little items. Chances are, if you’re collecting something like model airplanes, you’ve got some shiny ones. If your collection is glassware or objects made of metal (such as coins), you’re also going to have this problem. And even paper objects like stamps can have very reflective surfaces. But the problem with all of these items is that you may not actually notice that reflection at all until after you have taken the photograph. So make sure you train your self to look for glare and reflection whenever you set up a shot. To limit glare, defuse the light source. Remember that sheer curtain we talked about earlier in this article? That can help reduce glare. That inexpensive the table top light box will also diffuse the light. But you also have to be careful about camera angle. If the surface of the object you’re photographing is a very shiny, you may actually be able to see the camera reflected in it. If this is the case, you will need to stand at a slight angle until the reflection disappears. You can also reduce glare by changing the camera position, or by moving the object in relationship to the light source.

Now reflections aren’t all bad and you shouldn’t try to avoid them altogether. Make sure they don’t obscure detail—a shiny coin for example, with a reflection right over the date, is going to make for a terrible picture. But if you have a shiny glass object such as a wine cask or a vase, a little bit of soft reflection is going to help make the object look three dimensional. So your goal should never be to remove the reflection altogether, but rather to make it work for you.

Similarly, you want to make sure you have some soft shadows in your photos. Shadows add dimension—without them, your coins will seem flat and your stamps will lack texture. While some photographers will strive to get rid of those shadows completely, that practice is misguided. Without shadows, three dimensional objects look two dimensional.


When your goal is to catalog your collection, you should try to use similar lighting and similar composition for all of your photos. Remember that you’re not necessarily creating art, but rather showcasing it. So it’s important to get the light, aperture and other details right so that you can show those valuable objects in the most accurate, most flattering way. Once you have those details mastered, it’s a simple matter of shooting your collection in a production line manner, so you’ll have a set of photos of your own personal collection that’s worthy of any museum guidebook.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Roger Dupuis says:

    I did appreciate the tips about taking pictures of collection, specially coins and give them some dimension with some shadow.
    The last question is about cleaning them before taking the pictures... I read some articles pro and cons...
    Thanks for the many tips!

  2. Tricia Shuist says:

    I took my son's collection of trophies, pins, ribbons, team photos, and using created a collage of all of his accomplishments. He's moved out of the house, and I'm updating his room, so I created the collection with each separate piece becoming part of the collage. There were 80+ photos in all, each was photographed using a black backdrop, and my camera on a tripod. The final collage looks amazing. I'm going to have it hard board mounted (placated) and hang it in his old room.

  3. dave says:


    I plan on taking pictures of objects (legos) in glass display cases. The glass is on the top and all four sides of the cases. The challenges: visual pollution in the background and sides, glass reflections. and inconsistent and poor lighting. Any suggestions?

    My plan is to put the camera on a tripod to reduce vibrations and have a consistent focal point. I'll also use the self timer (no cable release) to reduce vibrations. I may need to do a white balance for each seen, though I doubt that this will help because you really want the WB in the plane of the object, which is not possible with objects in display cases. To reduce visual pollution I may take some cloth of various colors (black, gray, white) to wrap around three sides of the display.

    Any other suggestions?

    Dave (a subscriber to the NL).

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Dave,

      My biggest tip would be to take the lego out of the display case for photographing. That will eliminate all problems with lighting and reflections because of the mirrors and glass.

      Use a light box to get even light and an 'infinity' horizon. You can get good lightboxes really cheaply nowadays (with white, black, red and blue backgrounds).

      I hope that helps.


      • Jannie Taljard says:

        Thanks David, most informative. Always enjoy your tips. i found the Martial Arts article quite interesting, especially for a keen amateur photographer like me.
        My keen interest is action photos of amateur Olympic wrestling at my club and tournaments. As coach and referee, ex wrestler i always look forward to take good action pictures, sometimes OK but still very amateurish at times. Would like to take really nice action pictures of my wrestlers as motivation, place it on the club wall for all to see. They like it a lot. I guess that i still has a long way to go.
        Any tips in action picture taking is welcomed. regards Jannie

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

17 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.