How to Take Better Watch Photographs

In an industry whose lingua franca is the #wristshot (3.2 million tags on Instagram and counting), photographs of watches can often look redundant and uninspired.

In 2020, during the pandemic, James Kong, then a corporate lawyer in New York, sought to change that. He had purchased a new camera and resolved to post one new watch image to Instagram every day, with the goal of making his timepieces look “heroic,” Mr. Kong said by phone last month.

“I was working from home, and I needed something to get my mind off everything that was going on,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

Three years later, Mr. Kong has become a prolific freelance watch photographer, whose clients include brands and editorial platforms, including the well-known watch website Hodinkee. He quit his day job in December, when a fellow collector, Thomas Fleming, approached him about a position at Fleming, the watch brand he had founded. Mr. Kong is now Fleming’s chief operating officer.

In some ways, Mr. Kong is following the trajectory of one of his mentors, Ming Thein, a professional photographer-turned-watchmaker, whose blog about photography Mr. Kong read “front to back” in 2020.

“Something I learned from Ming: There’s no excuse for sloppiness,” Mr. Kong said. “When you’re taking a watch photo, you’re in control of every variable. You should be able to put the shadows where you want them.”

But how, exactly, should one do that? The New York Times asked a cohort of photographers — professionals as well as hobbyists — to share their tips for taking better watch photos.

Most people can take perfectly good watch photos using their smartphones. For anyone seeking to level up those images, however, a proper camera setup is in order.

Lydia Winters, the Sweden-based chief storyteller at Mojang Studios, the maker of Minecraft, got serious about watches, and watch photography, during the pandemic, when she and her partner, Vu Bui, passed the time by shooting pictures of flowers at the botanical gardens in Stockholm.

In January 2022, the couple started posting on a YouTube channel they had created for watch and photography enthusiasts. In the first episode, they focused on basic tips for capturing better watch shots. “Tip No. 1: If you want to elevate your watch photography, elevate your watch,” Ms. Winters said on the video. She then slid two plastic bottle caps beneath the Seiko model she was shooting to show how raising it off a flat surface helped draw attention to the timepiece.

Ms. Winters uses a digital medium-format Hasselblad X2D — the Swedish camera brand named her a “Hasselblad Heroine” in 2022 as part of its focus on female photographers — equipped with a Hasselblad XCD 120-millimeter macro lens as well as an XCD 80-millimeter lens, which allows her to achieve a shallow depth of field.

“In traditional watch or product photography,” she said on a recent video call, “you’re trying to have everything in focus on the item. But I’m just shooting for myself, so I’m fine if only a small part of it is in focus because sometimes it can make everything look more magical.”

Mr. Kong said he relied on a Nikon Z7 II digital camera for his professional work along with a Canon 135 millimeter TS-E as his primary lens. “The TS stands for tilt shift, a specific kind of lens that allows you to change the plane of focus,” he said. “I find that useful for watch photography because you can position the watch at an oblique angle and still have the dial be in focus.”

A German-made Leica is Atom Moore’s camera of choice, but the New York-based photographer acknowledged that less expensive options could be just as effective.

“When people ask me what the best camera is, I always tell them it’s the camera you’re willing to take with you and know how to use,” Mr. Moore said on a recent call.

Mr. Moore, who did the original photography for a forthcoming book about the 40th anniversary of the G-Shock watch, recommended using the latest crop of mirrorless cameras — with their built-in image stabilization — together with a software program such as Capture One, which tethers the camera directly to a computer. “That way, I can see exactly what I’m getting,” he said.

Many photography professionals insist that the trick to capturing a good photo is good lighting, but with watches, “It’s really about reflection management,” Mr. Kong said.

“A watch is like a multifaceted mirror,” he added. “Each watch reacts to light differently, depending on where its surfaces are, the texture of the dial, the shape of its crystal.”

In the beginning, Mr. Kong used only natural light. Then he moved on to continuous types of lighting before embracing off-camera flashes and strobes “because flash photography allows you to control your ambient environment in a way that natural or continuous lighting does not,” he said.

Yet natural light is often preferred by casual photographers, such as Ms. Winters. “I can sometimes put myself between the camera and the light source, and that can take care of the reflections” on the watch crystal, she said.

Inexpensive reflectors or “bounce cards,” which help channel light in a desired direction, are a simple way to brighten a watch, Mr. Moore said. He recommended buying a big sheet of quarter-inch-thick foam board at an art-supply store and cutting it into little cards that fold open like a book. LED lights would accomplish the same thing, he added.

“Having a card on one side of the watch, and/or an LED light, can go a long way toward making a really good shot, even for just a quick social media thing,” Mr. Moore said.

To get the best shots on a smartphone, it helps to manually lower the exposure by swiping down on your screen when you’re in the camera app, Ms. Winters said.

“If you underexpose the photo, you can always make it brighter, but if you accidentally overexpose it, you can’t get that back,” she said.

Once you’ve gotten the shot, a photo editing app such as Lightroom allows you to make subtle, yet meaningful, improvements. “I try to get as much right in camera and then use Lightroom to get a little pop or some clarity on the watch face,” Ms. Winters said.

Mr. Moore cautioned against going overboard with editing. “Sometimes, over-contrasting things can make it obvious you’ve manipulated the image,” he said.

In addition to the technical details that go into producing a top-notch watch image, photographers say they also keep artistic considerations in mind.

Karine Bauzin, a Geneva-based freelance photographer who specializes in documentary photos as well as portraits of watch-industry executives, has spent the past decade working on a personal project for which she traveled to more than 20 countries and photographed random people responding to a simple question: “What time is it?”

About 80 photos from the ongoing series, which she snapped using a Leica with a 35-millimeter lens, were shown in an exhibition at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva this past spring, while a smaller selection went on display at the Watches and Wonders Shanghai fair earlier this month.

“When you wake up in the morning until you go to bed, you see so many pictures,” Ms. Bauzin said during a video call. “For me, a picture you remember is a picture when you have an emotion.”

For Ms. Winters, watch photography is at its best when it’s both playful and personal. On St. Patrick’s Day in March, for example, she shot three Rolex watches with colorful dials arranged in a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.

“I really like photos that tell you something about the person or the item,” she said. “Are you in a cool place? Do you have stuff around? Sometimes it’s nice to find props around your house. Why is this your watch and not just a watch anyone can have?”

The quest to tell stories is what keeps Mr. Kong clicking.

“When I started watch photography in 2020,” he said, “I didn’t set out to become known as a photographer. I was just motivated to share these things I’d spent so much of my life staring at and obsessing over.

“If I look at a photograph and it makes me dream, it’s worth showing,” he added.

Then again, some people are simply looking for an image that will help them sell or trade a watch. In that case, Mike Nouveau of Craft + Tailored, a Los Angeles-based company that deals in vintage watches, has some detailed advice.

“The dial is 80 percent of the value and should take up 80 percent of the photo,” Mr. Nouveau said by phone from New York. “I tell them to pretend the bracelet is not there and to cock the watch maybe 30 degrees.”

A vast majority of watch sales happen online, he added. “People will send $200,000 without seeing the watch so they are relying on photos.”

Anyone who has cruised through the watch listings on a resale site such as Chrono24 is probably familiar with bad watch photography. So much of it floods the internet that Mr. Nouveau said some people had discovered a lucrative side hustle in simply buying up timepieces with bad imagery and reshooting them so they look more attractive.

“If you’re a dealer who has a gift for photography,” he said, “you might make some money.”