The secret of
realistic and pleasing likenesses of your
prized coins lies not in the camera, but
rather in the lighting. Thus lighting and
lighting techniques will be our focus.
you have a film-based camera with a macro
lens, take heart. You do not need to rush
out to buy a digital camera. The statement
about lighting applies, whether your camera
is digital or film-based. The digital camera
is just more economical for many 21st
century coin hobbyists.)
REFLECTORS ARE USED to spread
and diffuse the light. Shown is a white
reflector above the camera being used to
even the light across the raised design
devices of the Proof Kennedy half
Our discussion of lighting will explore
two basic techniques. (The lighting is the
same whether you use a tripod or copy
The first lighting technique discussed in
this article is called directional or "side
Some copy stands are equipped with
lights. Whether the light source is attached
to the stand or whether you are using an
unattached light source, position two lights
directly across from each other, aimed at
the coin and at the same height as the coin.
They light up the shiny surface of the coin
and provide "dark field" illumination. That
is, the flat surfaces - typically the fields
of the coin - appear dark, while the
elevations and depressions - typically the
design devices - appear light.
SIDE LIGHTING of the Proof
Kennedy half dollar before adding the
reflector is depicted in the image to
the left. Cameo portrayal of the same
Proof coin, right, is achieved using
side lighting and reflector above the
Side lighting is most often used for
highly reflective Proof silver coins, when
the desire is to highlight the coin's design
devices rather than to inspect the field for
possible contact marks or hairline
scratches. It can also be used for
Uncirculated or circulated coins. In
general, side lighting does not portray
Uncirculated silver and clad coins with
highly reflective fields in a pleasing
manner. It is more popularly used for
circulated coins, especially copper and gold
coins, which absorb light more readily than
highly reflective silver-colored coins.
TWO PHOTOFLEX Silver Dome
softboxes containing Starlite 3200
lights provide a cool, safe lighting
environment. The lights, the same height
as the tabletop, provide side lighting.
The same lighting can be achieved with
various light bulbs housed in metal
reflectors, which because of heat from
the lights, require careful use by the
The second lighting technique is called
"axial lighting." For this you need one
light, a glass plate and a dark panel to
prevent the reflection of unwanted light.
Sometimes this technique is termed "frontal"
lighting. It is called "axial lighting"
because the light actually emanates from the
axis of the camera's lens. To achieve it,
you interpose a clear optical glass at a
45-degree angle between the lens and the
coin and laterally position the light source
even with the coin. The glass plate reflects
the light from its source onto the surface
of the coin. The light then returns from the
coin through the glass to the lens. The dark
panel stationed behind the glass prevents
the reflection of unwanted light from the
glass to the lens.
DIRECTIONAL OR "side lighting"
produces a dark field for the business
strike (Uncirculated) coin, left, and
Proof version, right.
Axial lighting provides bright field
illumination and renders crisp detail of the
relief surfaces of a coin. Flat areas show
as light tones and depressions and contours
show as dark (shadow) tones. Coin collectors
like images of coins that have been
photographed using this technique because it
captures more closely the appearance of the
coin as if it were being seen with the human
A variety of lights can be used with
either lighting technique. A limited survey
of hobbyists and professional photographers
who consistently produce excellent digital
images revealed a wide choice in the kind
and size of lightbulbs used. The sizes range
from 75- to 100- to 250- to 500-watt bulbs
and spotlights. The type of lights ranged
from incandescent or household lightbulbs
(which tend to give a red-orange cast to the
image) to halogen spotlights to daylight
photofloods (blue bulbs) for digital
cameras, to Type B photofloods.
FROM LEFT: Box stage used in
axial lighting allows light to be used
underneath the coin to prevent shadows.
The coin rests on white Plexiglas
diffuser shelf. Small block cut at a
45-dregree angle holds the plate glass
in place as photographer Garry Leapley
uses blue light bulb housed in metal
reflector to illuminate the coin field
using the axial lighting technique.
Blue bulbs appear to be the most popular
and practical choice and can be purchased at
most stores that sell cameras and photo
equipment. (Type B photofloods are a
necessity for those who are using film
cameras and tungsten film.)
All of these lightbulbs give off intense
heat and should be used with a reflector
globe that has handle and clamp, to allow
you more versatility in use. (When you
handle or change bulbs, be sure they have
cooled and avoid using your bare hand.
Instead use a clean cloth like a
handkerchief or cotton gloves. Traces of oil
from your skin left on blue bulbs may
contribute to early failure.) Also, it is
advisable to use a power strip so that your
light(s) can easily be turned on and off
from a single place.
THE DIFFERENCE is in the
lighting. The same Proof Kennedy half
dollar appears different because of the
lighting technique used. At left, axial
lighting was used; at right, side
lighting was used.
One tip is to keep a logbook to note
running time of photographic lights. Life
spans range from approximately two hours up
to 10 hours, depending on the type and size
light you choose. Also, keeping a notebook,
especially at first, allows you to pinpoint
the best light techniques for the type of
coins you are photographing and takes the
guess work out of "f" stops and aperture
settings, if you operating your camera
Warning: Lights are hot
In addition to getting the best quality
image, safety is always a concern.
Photofloods become extremely hot quickly and
can burn flesh within a few seconds of being
turned on. If you expect to photograph large
numbers of coins, it would pay to invest in
a professional lighting system. There are a
number of professional systems available.
FIELDS OF Uncirculated "slabbed"
Morgan dollar, top, and "raw" Kennedy
half dollar, bottom, are illuminated
using axial lighting technique.
One that came to our attention and we
tested is the Small Product photography
lighting kit developed by Photoflex Inc. of
Watsonville, Calif. It proved to be ideal
for properly lighting coins for digital
photographs for both side lighting and axial
The Small Products Photoflex kit includes
two each of the Starlite 3200 lighting
system, SilverDome nxt softbox, and
four-section Litestand, plus an
instructional CD-ROM featuring assembly
information and lessons that help users
maximize kit capabilities.
The Starlite 3200 tungsten light used in
the kit was specifically designed for use
with a softbox to provide soft, even,
natural-looking light. It permits continuous
lighting with a housing design that allows
air to flow through the unit and prevent
overheating. Each Starlite comes with a
500-watt (120v) tungsten lamp.
THE GLASS USED to direct the
light onto the surface of the coin can
be held by hand or by a stationary
platform. The stationary platform takes
the guesswork out of achieving the
45-degree angel. The closer the light
source, the more illuminated the field
of the coin will be.
For directional or side lighting, both of
the lights in the Small Products kit are
required. It is priced at $774.95. Only one
light is required for axial lighting. A
Basic kit with just one light retails for
$389.95. For additional information on the
Photoflex kits go to www.Photoflex.com and
click on Products, then Starlite Lighting
Kits to find the Small Products and Basic
Our search for a practical way to use
axial lighting with coins led us to develop
a small "box" stage upon which to place the
coin. Actually, we built two, one for "raw"
coins (not encased in plastic holders used
by professional coin grading services) and a
larger stage that can be used for "slabs"
and holders such as those containing U.S.
Mint Proof sets.
POSITIONING OF THE light is
critical to fully illuminating the
surface of the coin. Also, different
lights may cast different hues on the
surface of coins.
The small "box" stage, constructed of
lightweight wood, is 7.25 inches long, 5.75
inches wide and 7.25 inches high with a
9-inch back. It contains nine quarter-inch
groves that provide for the flexibility of
moving the 4.75-inch by 6-inch stage shelf
to different heights. (We use a plastic
stage shelf so that light can be used
underneath the coin to prevent shadows in
the background.) A small wooden block, cut
at a 45-degree angle, serves as our glass
holder. The glass is 6.5 inches long and 3.5
inches wide. (For safety, be sure to smooth
the edges and corners of the glass.)
The large "box" stage is 7.5 inches long,
11.75 inches wide and 7.5 inches tall, with
a 10.75-inch by 7-inch shelf. This size box
requires an 8-inch by 10-inch glass.
THE SAME COIN, photographed
using the axial lighting technique but
different lightbulbs, produces different
results. At left, the results of using a
spot light; at right, a GE Reveal bulb.
While we provide you with some basic
lighting techniques and tips, anyone who
ventures into coin photography quickly
learns that it is very much an art. You must
train your eyes to see light and absence of
light as it plays on the surface of the
coin. Often, you will have to move the light
source around in order to capture subtle
tones and distinctive features.
Jody Garver, chief photographer at
Heritage Rare Coins, advises: "Paint your
coin with the light."
Success, she explains, is achieved when
your are able to capture the "flash" of the
coin - that is, the coin's beauty and