Taking Better Jewelry Photos - Part 1

My wife and I spent a big chunk of last year struggling with an overhaul of our Etsy shop's photography. Though we were satisfied with what we had, we felt that we could kick it up a notch. Unfortunately, neither of us is a photographer. Also unfortunately, jewelry photography is tricky! The tiny scale, the glare, the dust... the frustration. So we spent many months reading articles, asking opinions, experimenting with materials and techniques and, finally, settling on a whole new system that we are reasonably happy with. So I thought I'd share what we learned. Hopefully these tips will save someone from having to go through their own year of photography frustration.

 Where all the magic happens.

Where all the magic happens.

THE SETUP: I use an inexpensive light tent and a white background. After using colorful papers, wood, and various types of stone and slate, I just use simple printer paper these days. Above the light tent I have a small LED light which gives off a white light that leans towards the bluer end of the spectrum, for a bright, clear light. To the left, I’ve got an incandescent white bulb (which gives off a somewhat yellower light) with a cloth filter over it (softening your light source is so important for cutting down glare on shiny metals and stones). This combination of light sources works well, keeping the piece from looking washed out and giving it a warmth that you might see in real life. You can certainly experiment with more indirect light, bouncing it off of reflectors, but I've found that to be too cumbersome for the tiny area I have allotted for photography.

You can find lots of options for tents and lights online (like this one, with a few fun extras), but I suggest asking around first. Most jewelers' photography setups go through several iterations before they finally settle on one that works for them, so you may get lucky and find that someone you know has just what you're looking for in the back of their closet.

CAMERA SETTINGS: Your camera doesn't have to be fancy (I use a secondhand Fuji S5100 with a broken battery door), but if your camera has no other bells and whistles it must have a good super-macro feature. I couldn't do without it. Beyond a good macro, even the simplest cameras today have lots of settings to fiddle with. Don’t be afraid to experiment with them to find the combination that gives you the best effect. Use the white balance if your camera has one. If your camera has an exposure compensation button (the little +/- button), use it to cut down glare on shiny pieces and compensate for a very dark or very light background. I have mine turned way up. It makes a big difference.

EDITING: Don’t feel you need to invest in a pricey Photoshop setup for your photo editing. There are lots of simple apps and free, open source editing software that will do everything you need. Even if you are just using the camera on your phone or tablet, plenty of apps will freshen up your photos for more professional results.

I use a photo editing app on my iPad called Photo Editor- (it's free!) It handles all the essentials: cropping, brightness, contrast, sharpness, etc. It can add filters and text, and its Blemish feature makes the dust and fibers you inevitably missed during your photo shoot disappear by simply touching the screen.

 The final product.

The final product.

Next time I'll get into a few of the specifics we've learned about things like photographing stones, dealing with dust, and describing scale. Stay tuned!

Measuring Your Ring Size

If you're considering buying a new ring, one of the most important things to know is your ring size. Here are two quick rules for getting your correct size: 

1. Finger size can vary from day to day or even throughout the day due to a variety of factors including diet, hydration, exercise, allergies, temperature, etc. It can be difficult to get an accurate size even when using a ring sizer, so I recommend measuring your finger more than once, ideally at different times of day. Later in the day is generally best, as your finger is likely to be its largest after a day of working with your hands and being in the heat of the day. 

2. Be sure the sizer slides comfortably over your knuckle. If the ring you wish to order is over 1/4” (6mm) wide, I would recommend ordering a slightly larger ring to compensate for the width. Wider rings constrict more of the finger and so will fit tighter than a narrower ring of the same size. Go up 1/4 size if you are ordering a ring between 1/4” (6mm) and 5/16” (68mm) wide. Go up 1/2 size if you are ordering a ring that is 3/8” (9.5mm) wide or wider.

The Basics of Jewelry Making - Part 3

For the final post of this series, I'll discuss a few techniques and tips for using the materials we previously discussed. 

1. The pickle: I never follow the directions for mixing the pickle, but here are some guidelines: add acid to water (always); I never use as much water as it calls for. Instead, I put in enough water for my needs, to cover my work entirely. Usually just a couple of inches. Then add in some of the dry pickle, and mix in. You do not need to turn on the crock pot for the pickle to work but it works quicker with heat. So if you have a lot of stuff and you are in a hurry, use the heat. Just try not to forget to turn the pot off, which can evaporate out all the water (still no big deal, just add more). Distilled mineral water is best. You might also get some kind of non-metal pan or tray for under your crock pot in case of spills. Lastly, locate it in a spot where children or pets are not going to get into it. Pickle is not a deadly acid that will burn your skin the second it touches it, but you don’t want it on your skin just the same.

2. The solder: Easy melts at the lowest temperature, then Medium, and finally Hard melts at the highest temperature. You only need all three if you plan on doing complex projects with a lot of solder joints. Then you don't want to be using the same solder for the whole piece because as you are working on the last joints, the first ones are also heating to flow point. You plan out your soldering in advance, then start with hard and work back to easy. That way the hard joints aren't flowing when you are working on the easy joints. Color your solder sheets different colors with permanent marker. I use red for easy, purple for medium, and black for hard (color both sides). You don't want to mix these up if you can help it, for the reasons above (i.e. soldering an easy joint with hard solder will make all previous joints flow before the one you are working on). Then cut off very thin strips with scissors and then cut little square snips from those with your wire cutters. I have three marked containers for my solders so I don't mix them.  I have friends who use medium solder for everything and that seems to work for them but I would still urge you to get all three if you are soldering anything with more than ten solder joints.

3. The flux: I flux everything before I start soldering. The solder is wet and if you start right away, everything will bubble and your solder, if you pre-place it, will bubble out of place. If you let your piece sit, the flux will dry out and then not bubble when you heat it.  Also, not thoroughly fluxing a piece can lead to the build-up of firescale in sterling silver.  That is when the copper in the sterling alloy comes to the surface when the piece is heated and gives the silver an orangish hue.  This can be a huge pain to buff out, especially if the surface is highly textured.

4. Venting: You should also rig up some sort of ventilation system to remove any fumes from your workspace.  This can be as simple as a fan at your back and an open window if front of you, or a kitchen range hood mounted above your soldering area.  Try not to solder while looking down on your work because then the fumes will be flowing upward into your face.  If you do this once you will tend to avoid it afterward— it’s really unpleasant.

And, finally, here is a trick.... I take the piece of solder onto my pick, by wetting the pick first (either in water, or in the flux) then heat it until it balls up. Then I place that ball where I want it. This gives you a lot more control of where the solder flows. When you start with the flat chip, it just sort of melts like a pat of butter with the heat. When it's in ball form, it tends to follow the seams of the piece better (e.g., if you are soldering two pieces of sheet together at a 90 degree angle). Also, have a small container of water handy to dip the hot pieces into before dropping them into the pickle pot.

If you've ever been inspired to learn the basics of metalsmithing, or just been interested in seeing how it's done, I hope these posts have been helpful. If you've enjoyed this series, or if you have a question or two, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!

(originally posted March 2015)

The Basics of Jewelry Making - Part 2

In this post, I would like to briefly discuss how to acquire some of the basic metalsmithing skills necessary to get started. Keep in mind that most moderate-sized cities will have at least one community college, arts center, or privately owned jewelry studio that offers classes and workshops.  Do a Google search for your area or find jewelers on Etsy from your area and email them to see where they learned their trade.  Maybe some of them offer private lessons or are looking for an apprentice.  

A weekend workshop is often all you need to get started.  You can then supplement your knowledge with books on the subject.  Most bookstores have several books that give step by step instructions for doing basic jewelry tasks like sizing rings, setting stones, cutting designs out of a sheet of metal, etc.  The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight is an excellent jewelry resource.  Surprisingly, it only really takes a weekend class to learn most of the basic skills that you will need.  Take the class multiple times if you really want to make sure you get the most out of it.  After that you will know enough to make at least crude jewelry designs on your own and from there it is just a matter of lots of practice to hone your skills and strengthen your knowledge.

I'd also like to offer up a few suggestions specifically about the soldering materials that I suggested in yesterday's post which could prove helpful to anyone just getting started:

1. I use a small hand held butane torch for most of my soldering projects.  The only things that it does not work well for are larger pieces where you need a larger flame to keep the heat from diffusing too fast before you get your solder to flow.

2. You can buy the torch fuel from Rio Grande but they have to ship it via hazardous cargo and it takes forever and costs extra. But you can readily find the refill canisters at most gourmet kitchen supply stores such as Williams-Sonoma. They come in cans about the size of your average aerosol can. Do not refuel your torch while it is hot -- always let it cool first.

3. You only need one of the soldering pads mentioned -- it all just depends on the size you have room for and the the scale of the work you are doing. I have the 12"X12" because I never work on only one thing at a time. Also, the bigger the pad, the less chance something is going to fall off the pad and make it to your floor (or worse yet, your lap!)

4. You might want to get a small, cheap rug for under your work bench to protect your floors. It's not often that something hot ends up on the floor, but you don't want melted linoleum or to ruin your carpet when it does.  Also, although the flame from the butane torch is small, you should avoid setting up your soldering station in front of curtains or other potentially flammable surfaces. 

5. The copper tongs are for the pickle pot. Never put steel in the pickle. The solution pulls copper from the silver you put in and it will turn bluish. When steel is introduced in the solution (even momentarily) it creates a charge, which will copper plate anything silver in the pot. It's a huge hassle to get it off.

By now, I hope you're feeling encouraged and a little less hesitant about jumping right in. In the final post of this series, I'll be discussing a few helpful tips I've learned along the way.

(originally posted March 2015)


The Basics of Jewelry Making - Part 1

I'm often asked about how to get started in jewelry making, so I've decided to put together a series of posts that might be helpful to anyone who has every been curious about metalsmithing and felt that it was beyond their current skill set. It's not! We'll start here with the basic, relatively inexpensive materials you'll need to get started.

Most people think that soldering takes years of training. Nothing could be further from the truth. All you really need to get your start in the exciting world of metalsmithing is a beginning jewelry workshop and a few basic tools that I will list out below. You can get everything you need for less than $200. While it might take you years to master the basic metal working techniques and develop your own unique style, with the basics you can be making simple fabricated jewelry right away. And once you learn those basics, you can refine your skill by taking classes or working on projects from any of the many jewelry how-to books found in most big bookstores.

We’ll start with a little guide to beginning soldering—a list of all the most basic supplies that you will need to start experimenting with metalsmithing. I have made up a list from my handy Rio Grande catalog, complete with different choice options, stock numbers, and prices. You can browse Rio’s selection of tools and material at RioGrande.com, or you can order similar items from any other jewelry supply company with a little bit of research on your own. A lot of this equipment is fairly standard and most companies will carry some version of the items below.

What do you will need:

1. Butane micro-torch (#500-230) $65.00

2. Soldering pad (choose one of these three):

-soldering pad 6"X6" (#502-064) $8.75

-soldering pad 6"X12" (#502-074) $13.25

-soldering pad 12"X12" (#502-075) $23.25

3. Copper tongs (for pickle pot) (#501-017) $7.75

4. Soldering pick (package of 3) (#503-019) $11.95

5. Soldering flux (flouride free) (#504-089) $15.25

6. Pickle (#501-0233) $11.25

7. Tweezers (#115-052) $4.00

8. Easy solder (10"x 2" sheet) (#101-200) market price

9. Medium solder (10"x 2" sheet) (#101-701) market price

10. Hard solder (10"x 2" sheet) (#101-702) market price

GRAND TOTAL: about $160.45

In addition, you will need to buy a small, inexpensive crock-pot to use as a pickle pot. Find one with an on/off switch built in. A lot of them are just plug in or unplug and you don't want that if you can help it. You can get the crock-pot for about $15.00. 

This short list of materials is really all you'll need to hit the ground running. In future posts, I'll talk more about getting started, staying safe, and honing your skills.

(originally posted March 2015)