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Coin Photography


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Coin photography has come a long way in the last decade. The advent of digital cameras has made the process of taking images of coins more affordable it not always easier. I've owned three digital cameras so far; A .64 megapixel Sony Mavica, then a Sony DSC-F727, and now a Sony Cybershot DSC-H2 rated at 6 megapixels. I've heard good reviews about other brands as well, there just hasn't been a reason to switch and the Zeiss optics are a selling feature for me.

While the camera and the lighting can be important look at the 8 pictures below. They are of the same coin, taken with the same camera, under the same lights, at virtually the same time. Obviously, there are other factors that can impact image quality. I'm going to discuss those discoveries that have been the most helpful in my quest to take good pictures. Although the way technology is progressing it may soon be as simple as pushing a button to get any coin image to be perfect.


"A poor man can't afford to buy cheap stuff". This quote was uttered at our previous club meeting. When selecting a camera it is important to understand your needs and to buy a piece of technology that will serve your needs for years.

These days there are many cameras that will allow you to take good pictures of your coins be they ancient, modern, copper, silver or gold. But, there are still some basic things to consider.

Digital SLR

If a digital SLR has any hope of fitting into your budget it is probably the best way to go. The SLR cameras allow you to see the coin as it appears to the camera rather than being forced to rely on the LCD screens of regular digital cameras. The primary drawback to SLRs are the price which is still around $1000 plus some additional investment for the macro lens.

Macro and Zoom

When you buy a camera for coin photography you will definitely want the macro capability. This is usually indicated by the icon of a flower. If the camera does not have innate macro capability sometimes macro lenses can be purchased that will mount on the body of the camera.

For zoom it is just important to know that digital zoom simply blows up the image and is thus useless for actually getting closer to the object. Optical zoom means that the lens is actually focusing the light to allow it to see more of the object. I'd recommend a camera with an optical zoom of x5 or more.


There are different types of storage for cameras, memory sticks of varying shapes and sizes being quite common. Usually your computer will either have an interface for the type of memory you use or else the camera will have an adapter that will work with the USB port. Just make certain you can get the pictures from your camera to a permanent storage medium with your equipment.


Compared to film photography lighting is much less of a factor with digital photography. The technology inside the camera is able to balance the color, aperture, and shutter speed to create a properly exposed and true color photo with a minimal of effort.

Whether you use halogen, fluorescent, or incandescent bulbs, most cameras now have a white balance feature. This varies across the models but it can be applied in auto mode causing the camera to attempt to set the base for white. This does not always work. In my Sony I have the option to set my light source.

Another aspect of lighting that is important is the shadows it supplies to the relief on your coins. Flatter images should have the lights placed a little closer and nearly level with the coin's surface. This will bring out what relief there is. One light on either side of a coin should be enough to bring out the major details. For ancient coins, medals, and other high relief objects the lights can be moved further away and shine downward at about a 45 degree angle.


One thing I've found to have made a difference with all my cameras is the background. If I use a white background more light is reflected back at the camera causing a shorter exposure. This tends to be favorable for shinier coins but can cause certain coins to come up darker. The converse is true with a dark background. The exposures tend to be longer which can aid toned and copper coinage but make silver coins a bit overexposed. Manually setting the exposure is one way around this problem. Another way is to place the coin on a transparent surface a few inches above the background. This creates the effect of the coin floating in air and the exposure times for any shot will depend on the light reflected from the coin's surface.


One thing not to do, is to place the coin right on any solid background. Black, white, gray, it does not matter. Especially for flat and thin coins the camera will often focus on the background rather than on your coin creating a fuzzier image than you'd like. Raise the coin above the background color with a dowel, tube, or transparent plastic and the auto-focus should work ever time.

Processing and Printing

Once you have made your photograph you have the option of manipulating it on the computer before printing or posting your hard work. I typically combine the obverse and reverse images into a single file since it is easier to upload and manage one file rather than two per coin. On Windows I use Lview and on Linux the gimp works well enough.


Enlargement is another possibility with today's technology. This is where the megapixels come in handy. The more pixels per coin the larger you can make the image without distortion. Of course, typically one needs to reduce the images that come out of the camera since it is all ready so large. Image Resize is the name of this feature on most processing software.


One more thing I do is check the color balance of my image. I grab the color dropper and click on the white and black bit of paper I placed in my background. If the red, blue, and green values aren't all the same I the go to the color balance tool and alter the image so that the three colors match on black and white. This helps me get the photo closer to true color.

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