A gifted photographer turns his eye on vintage copper.
After admiring Martin’s beautiful photographs of his Leon Jaeggi pot, I invited him to write in his own words how his love of photography and copper come together.
Long ago I used to like taking pictures, but for professional reasons I had less and less time for this hobby. The equipment remained unused for many years. But the professional activity has been completed several years ago and now I have time again and can devote myself more to photography.
Since I come from the analogue period, I mostly took photos in the classic black and white style. I developed and enlarged negatives myself in my darkroom. A huge effort that you can hardly imagine today. But this school of analog photography was very important. Because the effort was far greater than with today’s digital photography, I learned to study light and its effects on objects and landscapes carefully. You had to be able to visualize the finished image in your mind, because you couldn’t evaluate the result on a camera monitor like today. Since our eyes perceive differently than the optical system of a camera, photography is a translation process. That is, a photographer first has to understand the “perception, cognition, sense” of his camera.
A camera is nothing more than a tool, more or less like the coppersmith’s hammer. There is not the only best hammer. My tool is a small Leica M10 viewfinder camera, when photographing the copper pots mostly in combination with the excellent Leica macro lens f4/90mm and the Leica APO-Summicron f2/90mm, an excellent portrait lens.
A viewfinder camera is actually anything but ideal for use with a macro lens, but since the M10 is also equipped with Lifeview-display (monitor), this is not a major problem. However, I have to do without the convenience of autofocus and focus manually. But pots keep quiet.
Since I have to work with very small apertures in these telephoto lenses in order to achieve a sufficient depth of field, a tripod is essential. The camera is released with a wire release to avoid any shock and blurring. ASA setting usually 200, rarely 400, today tentatively 100. Otherwise I do not use any tools.
I take all the photos in my apartment at available light. A corner in my kitchen or living room is my “studio”. Today the back of my armchair and a small side table served me as an “arrangement”. I do not need more. The most important thing is the observation of light with its constantly changing effect it has on copper. I usually position the pots in such a way that incident light from the side plastically highlights the contours. But some goals require a different light. There is no magic formula here. Watch and try. Play with the light.
At first, I found it surprisingly difficult to photograph copper pots, especially when the copper was freshly polished. Copper is like a mirror in which the camera, photographer and the entire environment can be reflected. Hammered copper is easier to photograph. But if you look closely at the photos, you will also see dozens of small mirror images that together look like a mosaic or sometimes like a cubist image. The effect is completely different with old hammer patterns that have been flattened by multiple polishing. The colors are softer, sometimes washed out or flowing like a watercolor. That’s how I see it, others may perceive it differently.
Even the best sensors of modern digital cameras do not “see” as well as the human eye. In particular, the processing of high contrast levels and very light tones is not yet successful. The M10’s sensor is only average in this regard. I am therefore looking for more gentle lighting situations for photography.
Of course, the raw data stored in the camera chip must then be post-processed with an image processing program (I use Adobe Lightroom). However, my skills here are limited to standard procedures.
Product photos are quasi portraits of objects.
It is therefore recommended to use the same lenses, i.e. moderate telephoto lenses (80-100mm in the 35mm area of conventional SLR cameras). The more universal macro lenses with a similar focal length are even more suitable. Portrait lenses are (also) calculated for short distances and show particularly best optical performance in this area.
This applies even more to macro lenses. With them you can get even closer to an object, better photograph details. In the macro range, image scales of 1:2 to 1:1 are achieved. In some cases, additional aids such as intermediate rings are necessary. With the macro lens I use, objects with a size of 12x18cm can be reproduced with an adapter. With other camera systems, even smaller details can be reproduced in large sizes. So if you want to photograph the stamps of copper pots clearly legible, macro lenses are the first choice.
A meaningful photo does not necessarily have to be “correctly” exposed. The automatic exposure metering of every camera (in simple terms) is based on average values. If you rely on it, you will get an “average” photo at best. A good picture requires a manual control of the exposure or a subsequent correction in the image processing (as far as possible). Contrast control, lightening or darkening of individual parts of the image are further means of image optimization with appropriate programs.
In order to achieve the maximum technical picture quality, the use of a good tripod (or a comparable stable support of the camera) is always necessary. Smallest movements of the camera inevitably cause motion blur. Of course, a tripod cannot always be used (e.g. reportage and street photography). But with product photography the use of a tripod is easily possible and very advisable.
Although photography is also technology and requires appropriate knowledge, the decisive factor is the photographer, his gaze, his ideas, his patience waiting for the best light and his willingness to seriously deal with the object. Nobody comes up with the idea of seeing the quality of a novel depending on the writing object used (pen, typewriter, laptop, etc.).
Camera or smartphone?
For reasons of convenience and speed, I sometimes also photograph copper pots with my smartphone. The latest devices deliver an astonishing picture quality, so you can easily photograph the smallest details – not least because of the auto focus. But since smartphones are equipped with wide-angle lenses, objects are distorted in perspective, that is, they are depicted unnaturally. You can zoom and thereby change the focal length electronically, but the image quality suffers enormously. With a copper pot, the wide-angle perspective is less disturbing than with a close-up portrait, in which noses play a dominant role. However, if you want the best picture quality and natural perspectives, you have to use SLR, DSLR or similar cameras.
The photos below illustrate the difference. The photo on the left was taken with a Samsung smartphone. The photo on the right was taken with the Leica.
Photographing copper pots has some pitfalls.
Copper, especially when freshly polished, behaves like a mirror. So in a photo you can see not only the pot, but also the surroundings reflected in it. In these circumstances you cannot get a good picture of the pot.
As is well known, pots are round. However, since lenses always only sharply depict a surface parallel to the lens (focus plane), another problem arises.
How do I achieve a sufficient depth of field?
No matter which lens I use, stopping down to smaller apertures helps to extend the range of focus. But that’s just a trick to deceive the human eye. The remaining image areas are not as sharp as the area of the set focus. As long as you do not make large enlargements, this simple technique is sufficient. However, small apertures also mean longer exposure times. Handheld photography is no longer possible. But anyway, with this type of still object photography, I generally recommend using a stable tripod or other stabilizing support for the camera. In addition, I use a wire release or use the electronic self-timer of the camera to avoid any blurring during the release. The slightest vibration of the camera causes the photo to be blurred.
Another problem arises from the rounding of the side walls of the pots. The light is reflected very differently from the copper. There is usually a spot with maximum brightness and without any “drawing” (no visible details) that overwhelms every sensor. Other areas of moderate brightness show many details. Finally, one sees dark to black areas with little or no details. However, when I look at the pot with my eyes, I can still see details, at least in the dark areas. This is because the human eye can process a much larger contrast range than the sensor, quasi the retina of a camera. In addition, our eyes “scan” every object several times. The focus is also varied again and again, i.e. aligned to different areas of the pot. You could also say that the eye takes a short movie sequence while the camera only holds on for a short moment.
What can you do to reduce the contrast range?
Take photos in rather diffuse, soft light, which illuminates the pot as well as possible from all sides, almost enveloping. Sometimes a second window helps, through which the light falls on the object from a different angle. Or a wall reflects the light and thus complements the main direction of the lighting. I also experimented briefly with reflectors. The success was unsatisfactory. You could also use a so-called light tent, but the effort is even greater and the image effect is somewhat artificial for my taste. I take all of my photos at available light. I prefer to adapt to the given light rather than using artificial lighting, as professionals in the studio do.
Another option is to balance the contrast range in image processing with appropriate programs. I only use standard options. That is, I control the exposure and the contrast, light to dark areas (depths) and dark to light areas. The latter measures lead to more tracing (detail reproduction) of these areas.
Here are some examples of raw photos and then the image with some processing work.
I try to find an optimal cutout when I take the picture, but sometimes I think that a subsequent cut is appropriate. Sometimes I find a narrower neckline that shows even more details or is more harmonious, more appropriate. But that’s a matter of taste.
The best copper pots were made by hand. Similarly, a really good photo requires a photographer’s manual skills.
- Well-considered choice of location and composition: concentration on the object, neutral or subtle background.
- Observing the changing lighting situation: when is the best moment for a photo?
- Manual setting of aperture and time after careful exposure measurement (ideally light measurement with a separate measuring device)
Exposure measurement: cameras always measure the light reflected by the object. This method of object measurement is quick, but is not always ideal, especially in difficult or complex lighting conditions.
Light measurement with a separate light meter leads to better results. Here the light is measured that falls on an object.
All exposure meters ultimately calculate an average value, this means they average the measured values to a “neutral gray”, a gray of average brightness. If you photograph a white sheet of paper using the automatic function, you get a photo on which the paper is medium gray. A similar picture is obtained when black paper has been photographed in this way. In order to obtain a pure white in the first example, the exposure must be corrected by 1 to 2 steps (longer exposure time or larger aperture). In the second example, the values have to be corrected by 1-2 steps downwards to get a rich black.
When measuring the exposure with the camera (object measurement), you have to make sure that the measuring range does not record extreme light values (strong reflections or very dark parts of the object). If the camera enables spot metering, it is possible to select image points of medium brightness for the measurement. A multi-field measurement, probably the most commonly used method of exposure measurement of modern cameras, usually leads to usable results, special lighting moods or effects will not be achieved with this method. Custom work requires manual exposure.
Which lenses are recommended for product photography?
Wide-angle lenses (28/35mm) bring a lot of surroundings into the picture due to their large field of view. There is a risk that the main motive itself becomes a minor matter. The more elements I take into the picture, the more carefully the picture composition has to be designed. Another disadvantage of these lenses has an effect especially when taking close-up pictures: they change the proportions of the objects. Everyone knows that from skyping. If I go close to the camera, my nose is unfavorably enlarged. The rest of my face shrinks. The large range of depth of field of wide-angle lenses is advantageous.
Standard lenses (50-60mm) produce natural looking photos. In close-ups, however, they also slightly change the proportions of the motifs. The depth of field is satisfactory. Some standard lenses also have a so-called macro area, so they are also calculated for close-ups. With this focal length, even in the close range, some surroundings can still come into the picture. Again, I have to think about it, I wish it and then how do I design the picture.
Moderate telephoto lenses (70-100mm) concentrate the image detail on the subject. The environment is largely hidden or blurred in the background. These lenses are preferred by photographers when they want to take close-up portraits. The small range of depth of field can be used to advantage by focusing on the eyes and then remaining softly drawn on a face. If you want more depth of field you have to stop down a lot and you can no longer do without a stable camera support. Pronounced portrait lenses are specially calculated for use at close range.
Macro lenses with focal lengths of 80-120mm are even more suitable for close-up photography. They allow image scales of 1:2 and with other aids such as intermediate rings up to 1:1 (original size). Based on the size of a sensor in 35mm format, this means an object size of approx. 24×36 mm, which is shown to fill the format. Good for the exact reproduction of stamps. The biggest disadvantage is the very small depth of field of these lenses of a few millimeters. Again, you can reduce the problem by stopping down, but it is about a general blur due to diffraction effects. Here I still have to gain experience up to which aperture a fade down is still useful.
Here a photo of my Dehillerin 32cm stewpot taken with the APO-Summicron portrait lens in the indirect, soft afternoon light of my kitchen. The reflection from kitchen furniture and walls alone is enough to produce a certain glow of the copper (aperture 9.5, 1/2 sec exposure).
Light, darkness, and copper
The photos we usually take are roughly in line with what our eyes have perceived. With macro shots we are rather surprised what the “eye” of the camera reveals to us. Do these photos still show the reality as we think we know them? While the light and warm shine of the copper dominates when the pot is viewed from a normal distance, the dark areas are surprising when you look at the copper up close. In fact, the copper is not really darker in these areas either, rather it is a reflection of objects from the surroundings.
The closer I came to my object the more difficult the recordings became. It was inevitable that the camera and the tripod would appear in the picture. However, these shadows can only be guessed at by experts. During the image adjustment, my body shaded the selected image section. When I took the picture myself, I stepped aside so as not to obstruct the incidence of light. However, I was only able to assess the image result afterwards.
Not everyone will like this “dark side” of copper. But I love all kinds of reflections, all the tiny details that I discover on copper pots with my camera. On another day with different lighting conditions, very different impressions would arise. The photos below were taken within an hour. Light conditions stable, rather soft light. Different image scales. I used the Leica M10, Leica APO-Summicron 1:2/90mm, partially supplemented by macro adapter, ASA 100. Image processing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 6.
Examples of this can also be found in the rather colorful reflections on the underside of a sauté pan.
I am always surprised at the details that can be drawn out. Although the copper appears glossy and smooth when viewed normally, macro shots expose completely different properties. I would have expected thousands of micro scratches, but no apparent “roughness”. Here the copper looks sandblasted if you enlarge it a bit.
I forgot some of the most important things. It was your photos that animated me to take pictures of my pots. I like the natural, warm colors of your photos. They convey the charm of old copper very well. At the same time, all the details that characterize the respective pots are well presented. If you look at your photos, your interest in old copper will certainly be aroused or your enthusiasm for it will be increased.
I’m surprised with some photos that you took against the light, but many details of the shaded side of the pots remain visible. I therefore assume that there is another window in this room at right angles to the large lattice window. Or the walls of the room reflect a lot of light and thus compensate for the back light. I like how the window and the vaguely visible garden create a complementary atmosphere without distracting from the actual object. It is helpful here that you have not dimmed too much. As I wrote earlier, small apertures increase the depth of field — good to bring out more details of the pots. However, this can also cause disruptive backgrounds to be emphasized too much. As always, everything is a compromise that has to be found for every single photo.
In the photos that you have posted on Instagram, I find the atmosphere that your great stove conveys, a nice and suitable addition to the pots and dishes.
VFC writes: Thank you, Martin, for this beautiful and thoughtful discussion of photography and copper. I’m honored that you have taken the time and effort to take and document these photos and share them with us.
Thank you also for your compliments about my own photos — you inspire me to think more deeply about how to use my camera. I’m sure your specific suggestions will help me and others to capture not only the image but also the spirit of our copper pots.
And to my other readers — I’d love to hear your stories too! How did you discover copper? How does it fit into your life? What have you learned, and what would you like to share with us?