The art of photographing pocket watches


Auckland Museum Collections Photographer Jen Carol encountered many challenges and delights when she embarked on photographing the Museum's 100 antique pocket watches.



As part of the imaging team I was recently presented with the rare opportunity to image over 100 antique pocket watches. Like jewellery it’s no easy task as you are dealing with highly reflective, very fragile albeit exceptionally beautiful objects that require a very specialised style of archival photography.

The collection is significant, both in size and in historical value.  Collectively they span the 17th, 18th and early 19th century and for the most part were in excellent condition, a testament to the workmanship of the time.  One particular watch from the 1920s  had a gunmetal case and a gilt push-piece at the side.  I hadn’t seen this before and a quick search online suggests that when push-piece is pressed it gives off a series of  chimes that represented hours and minutes.  Essentially these were the smart watches of the time.

Having no prior knowledge of the language of pocket watches I became awfully familiar with terms like ‘pierced cock, beetles and poker hands’. To my delight I found that rubies & 18 carat gold featured regularly in the collection. I also learnt a little bit about the sentiment of the time. Some of the watches had beautifully inscribed messages. They varied from love notes to well-chosen words of appreciation for those who served in the armed forces.  Sentimental moments suspended in time.

Photographically there were many challenges. The watches had multiple parts that opened, hinges were worn with age so they had to be handled with extreme care. Watch faces were often scratched and faded. I could not suspend, prop or force any part of the watch. How the watch sat is how it was photographed. Carefully I worked my way around each watch, photographing all the tiny hallmarks and engravings, the surface patterns and mechanics before placing it back in its box for safe keeping for many hundreds of years to come.

Essentially these were the smart watches of the time.

The variety of materials used to make the pocket watches included glass, gold, silver brass and copper, all of which were reflective. I had to come up with a fixed lighting system that worked for everyone one of them. I needed to tame the reflections but not kill them. Completely removing reflections from the image tricks the eye into the thinking glass covers and the like aren’t there, so you need to see them, but not so much that you can’t see the face of the watch underneath. At the museum we shoot for archival purposes, not for a commercial reason and it’s objects like these where it’s most obvious.

The wear and tear, the dust, the scratches, the broken bits, they are all important, they form part of the history of the object.

We don’t do any post production work, no touch ups, no alterations. The photo stays true to the moment the object came into the museum’s care. This is where the photographic setup is so important, the image is final, there is no going back.  

The first decision I had to make was how to light the face of the watches through the glass knowing my biggest issue would be reflections.  The obvious choice was placing a circular polariser over the lens.  Essentially this filters the light, controlling it so that when you rotate the filter it calms or enhances reflections at different points in the rotation. To further increase this polarising effect I placed polarising gels over the barn doors attached to the P70 – a small light modifier used on studio lights.

The reflections died right there. However the combination of hard directional light and the lack of reflections looked horrible.  I needed a cup of tea.

I realised two things.  I wanted a more well-rounded diffused light and I wanted some of my reflections back. I decided to ditch the polarising gels but keep the circular polariser on the lens to give some control over the reflections. I opted for 3 strip boxes placed on either side and the back of the table.  Strip boxes are lighting modifiers giving long, thin rectangular light. Using strip boxes I could keep the lights relatively low to avoid glare or ghosting over the face of the watch.

In fact I could add just enough reflection to show the edges of the glass. I used a simple bounce card, shaped in a curve for the front on the watch where I wasn’t able to put a fourth light.

Note:  At the time of setup there was only one strip box available so I used 2 larger soft boxes and hid two thirds of them under the table to create the same effect.

I opted to photograph the watches on black perspex board.  The smooth black finish was a nice contrast with the hard surface of the watches.  At certain angles it creates a beautiful reflective element that showcases the intricate detailing and workmanship.

It is my hope that the photographs capture this impeccable craftmanship and that the viewer is taken on the same fascinating journey that I went on.  It’s a rare opportunity to see such an extensive collection that spans three centuries in such detail, and a real honour to give people a sense of the artistry and life contained within these small, perfectly-formed objects.

Auckland Museum has now photographed our entire collection of pocketwatches. All pocketwatch images are made freely available under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC BY license. 

  • Post by: Jennifer Carol

    Jennifer is a Collection’s Photographer working within the Imaging Team at Auckland Museum.