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Coin Photography Made Simple

by J. T. Stanton, N.L.G.

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Coin photography is becoming more and more an integral part of the hobby. Without photographs of coins, the hobby, as we know it today, would be far less advanced, far less interesting, and certainly less enjoyable.

Many collectors would like to photograph their own collections, but many feel the process is too complicated. Granted, photo-graphing small discs of metal that reflect light so easily is not as simple as taking a snapshot, but the process does not have to be difficult or drain the pocket.

There are several coin photographers in the country who are excellent. Their work is professional. Generally speaking, these individuals spend their entire workdays (and more) photographing coins. If you expect to become as proficient as they are in just a short time, think again. If you want to take coin photographs adequate for publication and archive, then, with a little patience and moderate expense, you will achieve your goal.

In this article I will attempt to give you the benefit of my experience and expertise gained during the last 15 years.

To begin, you must decide what type of coin photographs you’re interested in taking. Micro photos or macro photos? The difference is much greater than it may sound. Are you interested in color or black & white? Or maybe both? How much money are you willing to spend? How much time for practice are you willing to sacrifice? These are questions only you can answer.

I'll start with a small list of basic equipment. The equipment is the second most important ingredient. You are the most important ingredient.

Basic Equipment for Coin Photography

35mm single lens reflex camera This type of camera is vital. A single lens reflex camera essentially allows the photographer to view the actual shot through the lens of the camera, which is very important for coin photography. Many modern cameras have a secondary lens through which the photographer views the subject. An SLR camera, which has a manual mode of operation, is required. Quite often, to get a good shot, you will need to override the camera’s automatic mode.

Lenses A selection of camera lenses does not have to be vast. I basically use only a 90mm macro lens for my macro shots. Other lenses can be used in combination with extension tubes and close-up lenses, but a good macro lens will produce the best results.

Stereoscope This is a vital tool necessary for micro photos. Some photographers use a bellows extension to enlarge very small details. I feel this can be very time consuming. Additionally, I use my stereoscope for normal examination. It takes only five seconds to attach my camera to the scope for photography. In this way, I get multiple use out of a piece of equipment. I also feel that a stereoscope provides better clarity for photos than a bellows.

Extension tubes and close-up lenses These accessories are often necessary to get the most out of each photograph. Extension tubes mount between the lens (or scope) and the camera body, increasing the distance from the object to the film, thereby increasing the magnification. Extension tubes are usually sold in a set of three: 14mm, 21mm, and 28mm. These in any combination allow for very tight control over magnification.

Close-up lenses are a cheaper version of providing more magnification. Most lenses have a minimum focal length (minimum distance from object to film). These lenses allow for closer focusing of objects, thereby "cheating" the minimum distance. However, at times, these can be useful to the most experienced photographer.

Copy stands A copy stand is a device upon which the camera is mounted, usually pointing downward, so that a small object can be focused, and the camera held perfectly still. This is very important for macro (full-coin) photos.

Other equipment Another piece of necessary equipment is a cable shutter release. This is a cord-like object that attaches to the camera, which allows the operator to release the shutter without touching the camera. This is important to reduce vibration during the photograph. An 80A filter is necessary for lighting correction for color work (discussed later). Other minor pieces will be discussed in more detail later in this article.


The film you use can be as important as the camera. Film is available in different "speeds" (generally indicated by an ASA rating), which differs in the amount of light necessary to expose the film properly. Some standard speeds are 25, 64, 100, 200, 400, and even higher. Generally speaking, each higher number requires half the amount of light as the previous number to make a proper exposure. For instance, if an exposure of one second is necessary for the ASA 25, an ASA 64 film would require an exposure of ½ second; ASA 100 - 1/4th second; ASA 200 - 1/8th second; and ASA 400 - 1/16th second.

Many brands of film today are all quite comparable. For color, almost any of the major brands are suitable. For black & white, nothing beats Kodak T-Max. All of these are available in a variety of film speeds. However, the film I use most frequently for black & white print work is Ilford XP-2. This film produces basically a black & white print but can be processed with C-41, which is the process used for color film in the convenient one-hour labs. It can be difficult at times to find a convenient lab to process black & white film.

Another plus of the XP-2 is that, although it is rated at ASA 400, the grain of the film is equal to that of ASA 100 speed film. Also, if necessary, XP-2 can be shot as if it were ASA 100, ASA 1000, or even ASA 1600. It is very versatile.

I do use Kodak Gold and Fuji for my color work. However, I also try other films from time to time. I have found that Konica is comparable to Kodak, and I can buy it for as little as half the price of Kodak.

The choices of slide film are almost as varied as the choices for color print film. However, when shooting slides, proper exposure is even more critical. I trust Kodak and Fuji and will rarely try other brands, although I am sure most are equally as good.

Camera basics

Since some of you may know very little about photography, I will try to explain some of the basic photographic facts that you will need to know for better results.

First, as mentioned earlier, an SLR is simply a camera that allows you to view the subject through the lens just as the image will appear on the film. Most instamatic-type cameras use a second lens for the operator’s view. This view may be slightly different from the image that will transfer to the film.

Most SLR cameras have a built-in light meter. This light meter will indicate the shutter speed the camera suggests for a proper exposure. Those cameras with an automatic exposure will use this shutter speed when the camera is set in the automatic mode.

The shutter speed can be set manually and usually with a latitude from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second. Most cameras will have the 1 second shutter speed setting indicated by a different color than the fractional shutter speed settings. These settings will be indicated as follows:


The numbers from 2 through 1000 are fractions of a second. For example, the 15 will indicate 1/15th of a second; the 250 will indicate 1/250th of a second. The higher the number, the shorter period of time the lens will be open. A shorter exposure time (lens opening) means less light exposing the film.

Some cameras may have a 2-second setting, which will usually be in the same color as the 1-second setting. Also, most of the SLRs will also have a setting marked ?B.? This setting would indicate that the shutter release cable (sometimes referred to as a bulb) would totally dictate how long the shutter will remain open. When the shutter release cable is depressed, the lens will open, and it will not close until the cable is released. This would enable you to have an exposure of 5 seconds, 10 minutes, or whatever.

Another important setting on the camera is the film speed. This adjustment is usually marked by numbers such as 25-64-100-200-400-800. There are often micro adjustments between these numbers which would allow you to set the ASA between these speeds. There are some cameras which allow you to set the ASA lower or higher than the numbers that I indicated. Still other, more modern cameras will make this setting automatically by reading a code on the canister of the film. The film speed setting is critical only when using either the automatic mode or if the camera’s internal light meter is being used as a guide.

The lens on the camera also has an adjustment with numbers in a graduated scale. This scale measures the lens opening (or aperture). This scale will usually indicate numbers such as 2.5 -

4 - 5.6 - 8 - 11 - 16 - 22 - 32. The different aperture settings adjust the amount of light being allowed through the lens opening. Using a given shutter speed, an aperture setting of 5.6 will allow basically twice as much light through the lens as will a setting of 8. A setting of 8 will allow twice as much light as a setting of 16. A very important fact to remember here is that the higher the number, the smaller the opening, and consequently, the less light that is allowed through the lens.

The aperture also controls something called "depth of field." This is simply the distance in front of and behind the focused point that will remain in sharp focus. The higher the number, the greater depth-of-field (greater distance in front of and beyond the focused point which will remain in focus). This is very important with coin photography, especially when taking macro (full-coin) shots. A smaller (higher number) aperture would allow more latitude with the focus, which can sometimes be tricky.

A proper aperture, shutter speed, and film speed are all required to produce a properly exposed photograph. Most SLR cameras are aperture priority, which means that once the lens opening is set and the ASA rating is set, the camera’s internal light meter will determine the time required for a proper exposure. An exposure- priority camera (of which there are few) would indicate that the camera will adjust the aperture depending upon the exposure time set and the amount of light entering the camera.

Macro (full coin) photos

When I am about to take macro photos, I will always start by checking the camera to make sure it is operating properly. The next natural step is to load the film and check the ASA setting on the camera with the film I am about to use.

At this time the lens will be mounted on the camera. I am now using a 90mm macro lens. This lens allows focus of objects close to the lens, and I can easily take photos of a coin two times its actual size.

A standard lens normally will focus only as close as about three feet without attachments. However, by adding either extension tubes or close-up lenses, you can focus much closer -- even as close as three inches. This is a good alternative to a more expensive macro lens; however, you will sacrifice some quality.

Extension tubes mount between the camera body and the lens. These offer better quality than do close-up lenses but are more expensive. A set of extension tubes usually runs about $125 to $150, whereas a set of close-up lenses might cost only $60.

For macro shots, I will mount the camera on my copy stand. A copy stand is simply a vertical bar mounted to a base. The vertical bar has a mounting attachment for the camera. When the camera is attached, the camera will be facing the base. In this way, the plane of the film is parallel with the base. Many copy stands will have a mount that is adjustable with a arm, which allows easy adjustment of the height of the camera.

I have several jewelry pads onto which I will place the coins while I’m photographing them. These offer a safe surface for the coin, minimizing or eliminating possible damage. Additionally, they are available in different colors, which will offer a variety of backgrounds. I generally use black and will discuss the reason shortly.

The cable release is vital for macro shots. If you try to cut a few dollars off your cost, you will spend it in added film expense. I don’t know of any one who can use the camera’s shutter button and not cause some vibration of the camera.

Lighting is very important, but often over complicated. Some people will tell you that it is necessary to have two lamps coming from various angles to light the coin properly. However, I have found that a single, standard 60-watt bulb is best.

I will slightly tilt the base upon which the coin is placed and have the light angled so that the reflection is directed into the lens. Or it may be easier to angle the camera slightly and then have the light reflect from the coin’s surface into the lens. The lamp will usually be the typical bourse lamp, which is easy to maneuver into the appropriate position. When using the tilt method, be sure to focus on the center of the coin. This will help to ensure that the entire coin will be in focus.

If color film is being used, simply screw an 80A filter (about $25) onto the end of the lens. This will correct the hue of the light for the color film. However, a filter is not necessary for black & white film. A blue photo flood can be used instead of the normal bulb and the filter.

This is an appropriate time for a tip. I have found that, generally speaking, if you will try to get the fields of the coin’s surface light and the shadows by the coins devices dark, the results will be best. Depending on the results you need, there are times when you might need to do the opposite.

To get the proper exposure setting, the use of a "gray card" is critical. A gray card is simply a card which is a precise degree of gray, or neutral, shading. (Cost is about $15 for a set.) With the light and camera in place, place the gray card in the position of the coin. Look through the lens to see what exposure the camera’s light meter reads as optimum. This will give you the proper setting for the shutter speed. Set the exposure manually.

If you do not use a gray card, the camera’s light meter may be fooled by the vast amount of light reflecting off the coin’s surface. It is always best to use a gray card. They are cheap!

I often find it necessary to move the light around from time to time to get the best possible photograph. Different coins reflect light differently, and obtaining the correct amount of reflection is important. It is generally much easier to move the light slightly than to adjust the coin. Also, I prefer to handle the coin as little as possible. Generally speaking, best results are obtained when the fields of the coin in the photograph are light, and the shadows appear on either side of the devices or raised areas of the coin. This gives the coin a true, three-dimensional effect.

There are two primary reasons that I prefer to use a black background. First, black is an absolutely neutral color. It will not alter the hues of any photograph. Even white will alter the hues. Second, black is the best background if a photo is to be converted to a slide. Using a black background during a slide presentation will permit the viewers to concentrate on the subject, and not any surrounding fibers or other matter.

However, there are times when I will use a blue or red background. As a rule, red will sometimes enhance copper or gold, and blue will sometimes enhance gold and silver.

Another tip: I will often use a small wood block to raise the coin off the surface of the pad. Doing so will cause the background to be out of focus. If the background is in focus, some fibers or the grain of the background may show in the photo. The fewer detracting marks and threads the better. You want the coin to be the focus of the photograph.

If you are photographing a coin that must be returned right away, try "bracketing." This is a method of shooting several shots of the same subject but with a few different exposures. In this way you will be better assured of getting a properly exposed photograph.

Micro photographs

Photographing coins through a stereoscope is really easier than one might think. Obviously, a good scope is necessary, and I highly recommend a stereoscope. This is a scope with dual eyepieces that will usually have better optics.

The camera will adapt to one of the eyepieces with a microscope-camera adapter. Adapters are usually available from the microscope dealer or from many camera supply stores. The adapter will simply match to the eyepiece and will also attach to the camera body without the camera’s lens in place.

In this configuration, the scope is then acting as the lens of the camera. Unlike with macro photos, the microscope will not have settings for the lens opening. The scope will also be the only means of focus that you will have. To focus, you must view through the view finder of the camera and adjust the scope until the image on the coin is as sharp as possible.

Best results are obtained when the coin is tilted under the optics of the scope. I have built a small, angled table upon which I rest the coins. It’s made primarily from cardboard 2 x 2s and covered with a black fabric.

The coin is then placed on this table and positioned under the lens of the scope, so the light will reflect from the coin into the lens. As with macro photos, best results are obtained when the fields of the coin are light, and the shadows fall on either side of the devices.

Film and lighting are the same as with macro photos. However, I recommend that film with an ASA rating of at least 100 be used. The lens of the scope is usually rather small and will allow small amounts of light into the camera. You will also discover, by moving the light around the coin, differing results can be obtained. You may find it helpful to move the coin platform around at times rather than moving the light.

I have learned with micro photos that the automatic setting on the camera can generally be used. I will "bump" the automatic setting on the camera to +2. This basically adds two stops to the length of the exposure. Remember that each setting on the lens either doubles or halves the amount of light as the next setting. A bump of two stops actually takes the automatic exposure and multiplies it by 4. For instance, if a normal reading would force the camera to an exposure of 1/15th of a second, a two-stop bump would force the camera to an exposure of 1/4th second. That equals two stops.

Many cameras have an adjustment that will allow you to use the bump simply by adjusting one dial. This dial will usually have 5 settings: +2, +1, 0, -1, -2. If you set the dial at +2, you are adding 2 "stops" to the exposure. If your camera does not have this adjustment, you can alter the automatic exposure by changing the film setting. If you’re using ASA 400 film, set the camera at ASA 100. That will give you the same result as if you had set the bump setting at +2.

Generally speaking, the light that the camera will read comes directly from the coin, and this reading is not altered by peripheral matter, as will the background in macro shots.


When producing slides for a presentation, I will usually shoot prints first. This gives me the opportunity to view the shots before the more expensive slide film is used. Once I select the prints I want, I will then take shots of the prints with slide film using the macro lens. I can also add type and indicating arrows to the actual print, so the type or arrows will show up on the slide when presented.

Additionally, by making slides in this way, I can keep a set of prints on files, and I can always make another set of prints or slides on the subject. It’s really easy.

Adding magnification

Magnification can be added to either the microscope or for macro shots by adding extension tubes (or rings) to the camera. These are relatively inexpensive, really easy to work with, and are generally available in sets of three. By adding one or more of these tubes between the camera body and the lens, magnification is increased. These also work with the scope and can be added between the scope adapter and the camera body.

However, too many people feel that more magnification is better, whereas the opposite is more often true. With micro photos, I often like to be able to see some area around the object of my photograph. This often helps to see other identifying markers, such as die polish and scratches. Macro photos should be large enough for all details of the coin to be clear.

Other tips

* Test your exposures. Simply run a couple of "test" rolls keeping track of each and every shot, what adjustments you made, and the readings associated with that shot. This process will help to reduce frustration in the future.

* Dead batteries can cause problems at the worst and least expected time. Keep your batteries fresh, and keep an extra set available at all times. Your batteries will die just when you need them the most. Batteries are cheap!

* When taking your photographs, look before you snap. It’s often helpful to be able to see die markers or some significant feature on the surface of the coin. These may come in handy in the future, either in identifying the coin or the die.

* Organize your prints, slides, and negatives so that they can be retrieved easily. I file my prints in the following manner. Micro shots of die varieties are filed in separate envelopes by denomination, date, and variety. Macro shots are filed by denomination, type, and date sequence. Photos of errors are filed by error type, and by denomination within that error type. I have about 20,000 prints on file and can put my hands on most specific prints within a minute.

Slides are also filed by topic, and most are housed in carousels ready to show. The carousels are not really expensive, and whenever I create a new slide presentation, I will buy a new carousel.

Negatives are also filed. Each time I have a roll of prints processed, I will assign a number to that roll. This six-digit number will be as follows: 920809. This simply means that the roll was taken in August of 1992, and it was the ninth roll I processed that month. In this way, I can always determine when the photograph was taken.

The prints from that roll are numbered as soon as I receive them. The number is placed on the back and includes the roll number and the exact frame negative number. In this way, whenever I pull a print for use in a publication, or if I need to have a copy or copies made, I can put my hands on the exact negative in a matter of seconds. Even photos that I shot twelve years ago! You’d be surprised how much time and irritation this procedure will save in the future.

* Buying film can get expensive, but you can save money here as well. In the back of almost any photographic magazine, there are several ads of companies which sell film, supplies, and equipment at prices far less than your local camera store. For instance, XP-2 is usually about $4.75 per roll in most camera shops. But I will buy 100 or 200 rolls at a time from one of these companies for $2.95 per roll. Quite a savings!

However, if you don’t use much film, I highly recommend that you buy from your local camera store. Try to develop a relationship with the owner. If you do so, he/she will be much more likely to help you when you need advice.

I hope these tips will assist you with your coin photography. If you should encounter a tip I might include in the future, please let me know. My goal is to be as helpful as possible -- both now and in the future.

If you try some photos and are not satisfied with the results, feel free to send them to me, and I will offer my suggestions. I may be able to tell you something simple that you can do to make the photo better. If you do, please include some return postage. I'll always be happy to assist you in every way possible.

Copyright 2000 by J. T. Stanton. This article may be reproduced in its entirety, as long as the source is recognized.

Contact info:
J. T. Stanton
P. O. Box 15487
Savannah, GA 31416-2187
Phone: 912-667-5799
Fax: 912-233-1291



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