Photographing Watches

Reflections on Photographing Luxury Watches

Watch photography, when done at the top level like photographs created for companies such as Breitling, Rolex, Blancpain etc., is very work intensive and requires specific knowledge.

Because watches are constructed with several different materials, each material requires a specific type of lighting to look its best. This implies several different captures, each for a specific material. On a single watch, at that level of photography, there will be at the very least a capture for the watch metallic parts, one for the bezel (the glass part), and one for the band if it is leather or rubber. In addition, there will be several captures for the metal parts if markedly different metals or finishes are used. Finally, there will be at least one capture for the background. Often, the background is shot separately and added as another layer.

With film this was done through in-camera masking using large format (4×5 but mainly 8×10 Sinars – only large format allowed the precise masking required). Today this is done in Photoshop by layering the different captures.

Here is an interesting example:

Romain Jerome Titanic DNA watch

At 300k for a single watch, the watchmaker will purposefully spend a lot of money on photography and advertising. One of the basic concepts of marketing is the more expensive the product or service is, the more you can spend on advertising it.

While I don’t know who did the photography and digital processing, I have no doubt the photographer alone charged a six figure fee. The advertising campaign must have cost several millions $.  Whether selling a luxury watch made from bits of the Titanic is in good taste or not is an entirely different matter. It did cause a stir when it was released in mid-2008.

It also has become common practice for “big companies” to use CAD (Computer Aided Design) in place of photography for advertising. This is commonly done for cars for example because car photography is very expensive (significantly more than watch photography which as I mentioned earlier isn’t cheap) and because cars cannot always be placed where the ad director would like. For example, most of the Hummer “photos” were done with CAD, only the tires and wheels were photographed on site, carefully placed to be located exactly where the Hummer will be in the final image.

That way the car can be shown in locations where it would be very difficult to physically drive it, either because of adverse terrain, or because permits cannot be secured (in National Parks for example). I have seen ads for Jeep that show cars where I know I can barely hike to, where driving is impossible, and where commercial photography is not permitted. This means CAD is how they were done.

Food for thought for the next time we buy a car on the basis of a photograph! Hint to car buyers (all of us I suppose, unless we are committed to using bicycles or public transportation for the rest of our lives): buy the vehicle based on how it drives, not only on how it looks, and certainly not on the basis of any photograph. All car photographs make the car look better than it can ever be in reality. You are basically sold an image, not the actual product and definitely not how the car looks in reality (hint: images are not real. Only reality is real. Even then, some question that too but that’s another story altogether) . This is true for many products, watches being one of them.

Alain Briot

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1 thought on “Photographing Watches

  1. Hello Alain,

    As a reader of your books, listener to your podcasts an above all admirer of your work i visited this reflections page many times during 2010 only to notice that little happened around here. I am happy now that i see you posted some articles.
    Being a commercial photographer i recognize the working method that you describe. I used to do in camera masking, double exposures etc. all to cope with the problems you described. Nowadays it is all much easier with digital composing.
    The technique of multiple captures to render different materials i use very often as well as multiple exposures to overcome contrast issues.
    As for reality and straight photography you explain that well. I hope more people learn to see beautiful things in real life.

    gr. Henk

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