Photographing Clocks – some tips

Clocks are easy to photograph, difficult to make exciting

Clocks are easy to photograph. However, it is difficult to find new ways to portray a clock in an exciting way. This was taken using a fish-eye lens.
(Click to see full size).

Why photograph clocks?

Why take photos of a clock? Some straight forward reasons include for Insurance records and to enable identification and valuation in the event of a theft. People also buy and sell clocks – especially if they are collectors items. So a competent shot is important for these purposes.

As photographers our interest is more likely to be focussed on clock symbolism rather than identification and adverts. Clocks are an important part of modern busy lives. The humble clock is often used to characterise our concept of time. However, as a representative of time, clocks are a cliché. The difficulty is to find a new, interesting or exciting view.

I will be looking at how best to photograph clocks and some ideas on how to view them differently for the more unusual view…

Taking a great photo of a clock

What are the problems with taking photos of clocks? Simple, highlights and reflections. Typically clocks have a convex glass front. Often visually appealing clocks are highly polished, or reflective. Using flash may spoil the shot with ugly highlights and flash bounce. Of course bright flashes and nasty highlights aside, the odd reflection in the glass can be a picture enhancer – if it is done right. So it is important to think around the subject when taking pictures of clocks. Here are some simple points to take care of first…

Clean…

Dirty clocks ruin the picture. Make sure the glass is polished, there is no dust on the clock body, and the area around the clock is clean too. Dust often becomes suddenly visible under flash. In photography cleanliness can really save the day. Finger prints should be avoided too. When handling objects after cleaning I wear white cotton gloves to avoid remarking the object. Keep a cloth handy during the shoot to wipe up as you go along.

Get close…

Fill the frame! There is little point in taking a picture of a clock if you can see most of the room and no detail of the clock. This is especially important for record and advert shots. Detail is critical.

Shot angle…

Carefully consider why you are doing the shot. If you are selling, advertising or cataloguing a clock – present the clock square-on to the camera. Odd angles and peculiar views may put off buyers and obscure details that will be of interest, especially for valuation. Often, especially for antique clocks, the provenance (item history) can affect its future value assessment. A clear, easily viewed angle will help the future valuer to make a judgement on how the clock has been treated. If you are selling the clock, especially if it is quite large, consider using several shots showing more than just the front/clock face.

Macro…

Really close shots are great for clocks. A macro lens, macro tubes or camera macro mode (look for the flower symbol) are a great way to bring out specific details. Also these magnifying shots allow you to get close enough to, say, a watch. Macro mode on modern point and shoot cameras is great for this type of shot. Get right in and take say, a quarter of the clock face. It will show the detail, condition and general appearance of the clock really well.

Sharpness…

The biggest mistake when advertising clocks is a soft or blurry picture. This goes for record shots and valuation shots too. Ensure a steady camera. Use a tripod! [Hama Star 62 Tripod with Carry Case] If you don’t have one, use any of a whole range of other fixings… Joby Gorillapod for mid-sized SLRs, table top, The Pod red 13 cm R 0017 B. If you are taking clock shots regularly you will be well advised to buy something to hold your camera in place for the shot. Sharpness is essential with anything that has fine detail. Clocks really justify care in this respect.

Surroundings…

The good character of a clock is really ruined by bad surroundings. If you have a really nice setting for your clock the setting may not look good close-up. So think about isolating the clock and show it in a simple way. A bright white background is the traditional way of showing clocks for sale. Look here for examples. You can easily place the clock on a white board. White mount-board can be bought for about £2 or £3 (around US $5) from art suppliers. If you have more than one board you can place an upright behind it while shooting. If the clock is intricate or detailed it will always be improved by a simple background. If you do leave the clock in its current surroundings it is best to try and make them as simple with as few distractions as possible. Anything substantial nearby will distract the viewer and lower the impact of your clock.

Reflections…

The glass of the clock can easily become a mirror, especially after polishing. So be careful what you allow to reflect in the the glass. A few years ago a photo circulated the Internet. It was of a kettle for sale on Ebay. The hapless individual who had photographed it was in his birthday suit. He had failed to notice his unclad reflection on the kettle! Not inspiring for viewers/buyers! Try placing a white board nearby, out of shot. It should be placed in such a way as to ensure a white reflection in your shot. I have occasionally put black strips down it so that there is a little variation on the glass reflection in the shot.

Lighting…

Try to ensure your clock has continuous soft light if you can. Direct strong light creates highlights and strong shadows (see: on hard and soft light). When lighting your clock using bright but diffused natural light, slightly from the side is the best option. However, you may need to use a long exposure if you want to get the best brightness, especially indoors. If you are using indoor, non-photographic lights then beware of colour casts and set your white balance properly. If using flash, it is best to use off-camera flash. With a unit which is not directly in line with your shot you can create better shadows. However, strong shadows will make your clock look especially angular. So try to diffuse the light (see below). With on-camera flash you have a more difficult task. There are ways to diffuse the light even then. Be careful to avoid those highlights. If you are forced to use direct flash do the following… turn the flash down (refer to your manual on how to do that; make sure a white reflector card is in near range to at least introduce some diffused light.

Diffusion…

There are many accessories to deflect the camera flash. Avoid highlights at all costs. So if possible try to get the flash to point at something bright, preferably white. Then use the reflected light from it to illuminate the clock. If you are using a point and shoot camera you need to find a way to diffuse the on-board flash. I have found that a small strip of translucent paper/white tissue paper can be stuck on to the middle of a piece of sticky tape. Then make a slight ‘U’ shape with it and stick it to the camera in front of the flash window. The tape will stand off the flash and allow some light to escape either side. The rest will go through the tissue and be highly diffused. You may also need to play with the flash power, lower settings are often better, especially close to the clock.

Diffused light always makes a better picture - avoid highlights

Diffused light always makes a better picture - avoid highlights. This was taken using a Canon G12 with a 'tape and tissue' flash diffuser. Click to view large.

Flash-reflection is very effective at diffusing the light. If you have off-camera flash it is even easier. You can diffuse the light through a photographic umbrella, or by using a ‘soft-box’ – a box with a fine white mesh on the front. This diffuses the light over a wide area. Using the off-camera flash from the side helps to define the clock, but try not to do it too much. I have seen some shots where the shadow from the clock hands is very sharp and off to one side too much. It makes it look like there are more than two hands. So, remember to think of the shadows as well as highlights.

High Key Shots…

If you want a bright white background to your clock you need to brightly light a background white surface some distance behind the clock. The light which lights the board will need to be behind the clock too. Then, focus on the clock face and get the light exposure correct for the clock face using diffused light from in front of it. When you take the shot the white light will ‘blow out’ or go pure white. If you are using a histogram on your SLR you will see flashing white/black for the background. This is correct because the background will be brilliant white in the picture. However, you have taken the shot of the clock as will be lit how ever you set up the light for it from the front.

Creative shots…

If you are trying to symbolise time or using a clock for, say, a still-life shot, then also consider the angle. However, in this case the angle may be more related to everything else you are trying to show. In this case the clock is more about conveying a feeling of time, rather than the detail of the clock. So you can be creative in how you apply the shot. Clocks lend themselves to a wide variety of creative shots. The only limit is your creativity. Here are some ideas you can work on to develop great clock shots that are a little different:

  • Open the clock up and photograph it inside (very diffused light and a macro lens is great for this).
  • Find a setting where you can emphasize the importance of a clock… on the seat of a bus stop? Out on the top of a taxi? On the head of a runner on the starting blocks?
  • Within a still life? Looking through a chess game to a modern digital clock; in a kitchen over a pie or other cooked meal?
  • Show the clock hands having moved through say five minutes. You will need to either take a number of shots and merge them in an editor later or use the bulb setting and very low light levels.
  • Show a sports event with a large digital timer in the background… or try merging a sports activity over the front of a clock face.
  • Photograph a pendulum swinging with a long enough exposure to show its arc and movement.
  • A clock with a time-lapse series of shots with the sun or moon moving across the sky above. Alternatively look up how to do star trails and superimpose your clock below them. Even better, adjust your light to very low on a clock to show the clock time duration of the star trail.
  • Show a clock with the right time on a sundial showing the correct shadow time.
  • Photograph a clock under water
  • Break an egg over a clock – show the yoke running down the face and the shell on the table next to it.
  • Show an alarm clock on the floor next to a sleeping animal – cute!
  • Take a shot with a teddy bear in the foreground and a clock on a small table in the background looking up to it – a childs-eye view of time.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
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