Photographing opals

Anyone here ever make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse?

Photographing opals: I’m using a Nikon on a tripod set up in my
studio using ambient light coming from a skylight.

Now for the problem. I’m trying to see the color in the opal that I
see live through the camera’s eye. The color in the opal is
astonishing, georgeous but I can’t get it in the camera. I use the
macro setting, focusing perfectly in that regard; but the color I
see with the naked eye is nowhere to be seen. I peek over the camera
and the color is vibrant.

I tried everything I can think of

I’ve tried to shoot from above the stone, move the stone to off
center, but still in focus; lower the camera to photograph directly
into the stone. Nothing seems to work.

I have the opposite problem that L Surpin mentions about
manipulation. The color never comes close to the vibrancy of the live
color. Should I attach a disclaimer.


Hi Keven:

I’ve never shot opals, but a couple of tricks recommended by friends
who do:

(A) try shooting it while it’s submerged in either distilled water
or alcohol.

(B) add a polarizing filter, and try with/without water.

The fun part is going to be avoiding the reflection off the top of
the water. You’re going to have to be shooting nearly straight down
into the water. The polarizer will help control that, but it may foul
up the color flashes. (Do this in a dark room, at night, with the
room lights off.)

Hope this helps…


The flash of an opal’s color will vary enormously as you vary the
angle of illumination vs the angle of observation. In short you
would probably like the results if your illumination and observation
were coaxial. This would automatically be the case if you were using
a surgical microscope with internal illumination, and you might even
find the most pleasing results if only a percentage of the
illumination is coaxial.

Give me a call (206 954-4166) and I’ll try to give you some ideas of
how the accomplish it.

Dr. Mac

I'm trying to see the color in the opal that I see live through
the camera's eye. 

Kevin, check back Brian Meek aka Alberic’s post dated 08/06/02 in
the Photographing Jewelry 101 thread. He talks about photographing
reactive metals, a problem similar to yours, it seems to me.

Let us know how his suggestions work with opals.


Hello Kevin,

Regarding the problem photographing an opal so that the fire is
captured. I’ve had the best luck by immersing the opal so that the
stone is covered shallowly with water. Obviously the camera shoots
down from above. There must be absolutely no vibration or the surface
of the water will be rippled. Also look for reflections in the water
of lights, etc. and make adjustments.

The photo through water shows much more of the fire, but I’ll bet it
will be necessary to photoshop the fire bits individually for a good

I’ll be watching to see what others say,
Judy in Kansas

Kevin- Try placing the opal in a clear container of water. I’ve had
it really make opals pop in a photo with natural light. Washes out
any faceted stones in the ring though.-Jo


In respect of photographing opal the same thing happens to me. The
camera (digital Fuji finepix) does not see what the eye does.

I believe this is probably due to the fact that the camera processes
the digital from the sensor (by means of a more or less
accurate, mathematical, averaging-out algorithm) before it commits
it to memory Wayne Emery could comment on this much more
authoritatively than I. (Wayne? Yoo-hoo…you on deck somewhere?)

If my supposition is correct this would imply that 35 mm analogue
slides might give a more accurate rendition. Anyone feel like doing
some comparative experiments?

Hans Durstling
Moncton, Canada

Correct answer is glycerine or benzyl benzoate.


I have the opposite problem that L Surpin mentions about
manipulation. The color never comes close to the vibrancy of the
live color. 

I think that’s the same problem we’re all having (all who’ve posted
seeking advice). It’s not a case of trying to make a piece of
jewellery look better than it really is, but we’re trying to make it
look as good as it does in real life and the camera just doesn’t
seem to do that.

It must be a very frustrating problem in the case of your opals
Kevin, as that’s predominantly the stone you work with and their
colour play is the essence of their beauty.

I find it really difficult to capture the fire in stones too. I have
some really good quality, well cut CZ’s that put most diamonds to
shame - they really are F clarity/D colour and the different colours
that flash from them is simply gorgeous - but I simply can’t capture
that with the camera. They just look dull and lifeless and no better
than if I’d set a piece of glass in the jewellery. Looking at images
of diamonds all over the net, the same applies to them as well. I
may get comments about using cheap stones and that I shouldn’t expect
any different, but for my stage in the business and my buying power,
they are appropriate - and in any case I actually prefer wearing the
pieces I’ve made and set with the CZ’s to wearing the diamond
jewellery I have.

Has anyone found the secret to capturing the spectral colours that
stones like diamond, demantoid garnet and good quality CZ’s exhibit?
Or is it a case of the camera not being able to capture what our
binocular vision sees, as suggested yesterday?


I'm trying to see the color in the opal that I see live through the
camera's eye. The color in the opal is astonishing, georgeous but I
can't get it in the camera. 

Opal consist of tiny silica spheres held together. The play of light
is due to splitting of light beam by spaces between the spheres.

Laws of Optics dictate that Angle of Incidence equal to Angle of
Reflection. That means that in order to see the opal play of color,
camera must be positioned along the Angle of Reflection. That is the

In practice if we do that, the picture that we get is not what we
see. If our cameras would be transparent we can position light
directly behind the camera, but cameras are not transparent and that
would not work.

The solution is to use a “beam splitter”. I will try to describe it,
but without use of drawings it is confusing, so Google on it for more

Make a cardboard tube. Inside walls must covered with light
absorbing material like black velvet.

In the center of the tube position glass plate at exactly 45 degrees
angle to the tube’s long axis.

In the side of the tube make an opening in such a way that a light
beam through the opening would strike the glass plate in the center.

Position tube between camera and opal aligned with the direction
camera is facing.

Shine strong light through the side opening at 90 degrees angle to
the long axis of the tube. Take a picture.

The mechanics as following:

Light beam through the opening strike the glass plate. Depending on
glass refractive index, some of the light will go through, but some
will be reflected towards opal. When light strike the opal, a portion
will be reflected towards the camera alongside the tube axis. When it
hit the glass plate, again some of the light will go through, and
some will be reflected. What it means that only a small portion of
the light will reach the camera, so exposure must be long, and you
would need sturdy, professional quality tripod, but picture should
approximate what the eye sees.

Beam splitter can be bough ready made, if money is not a problem.

Leonid Surpin

Hi Kevin, and all,

I’m usually a lurker here, being a lapidary, but you’ve hit my area
now. Ambient light probably isn’t strong enough there. And your
skylight probably affects color temp as well as strength. Artificial
light is very tricky. Reds are the hardest to get usually. I
generally shoot a dozen shots for each keeper.

I’ve gotten good results in sunlight, but that will wash out really
bright stones. Traditional opal viewing rules say to have the light
coming over your shoulder. Not easy to do with photos. I often use
mixed light sources. The best usually is daylight with some
incandescent and/or my Ott-Lite. A mix of just the incandescent for
warmth (rapidly disappearing due to energy conservation agenda) and
the pure white balanced OTT-LITE works well for many stones.

Of course glare and light spots are a problem. Sometimes you can
solve a reflection problem by immersing the opal in water so there’s
no reflection on the stone itself. It takes a lot of light to show
the opal color, as the eye is much more sensitive. But really bright
opals will overwhelm the camera sensors, particularly if there is a
strong UV component to the color. Lots of my black opal/blue silk
stones wash out into purple where the blue is most intense.

I actually used to get pretty good results with my old computer
flatbed scanner. A low dome or flat face stone will photograph
pretty well if it is put into a small puddle of water on a flatbed
scanner. Sometimes you have to try pretty weird things to get what
you want. I’ve been thinking of trying one of thse little gooseneck
LED worklights. They are pretty strong and you can get concentrated
light at whatever angle will show the color play best. Anyone who
has used this system might want to chime in here too.

Background color is another huge factor. Your camera will be
influenced by the surface color behind the opal. I get totally
different results with the same light and stone, but different
colored surfaces. The body color appears different on different
colors of background too.

A tiny change in viewing angle presents a different display with
opal. Peeking over the camera means that you are viewing the stone
from a different angle than the camera.

The digital “film” sees and captures light differently from the eye,
so it’ll almost never be perfect. Each opal will require a different
light mix too. Body color affects the camera’s ability to record the
play of color.

And then there’s the whole question of photoshop filter
manipulation. Don’t get us started on that slippery slope. I don’t
go there, but many do.

You are certainly not alone. Capturing opal color is the opal
dealers’ greatest challenge. Can’t sell 'em if you can’t show 'em.

Mike Kelley

Note From Ganoksin Staff:
Looking for a led work light for your jewelry projects? We recommend:

Greetings all:

Apropos of Leonid’s beam splitter idea: why not just use a ring
flash, or ring-light?

These are flashes that screw onto the nose of your lens, and
surround it with light emitting surface. They provide even light
straight out from the lens.

There are modern LED versions that are daylight balanced (allegedly)
and that are constantly on, instead of being a momentary flash.

I’ve shot faceted stones with them with some success, although that
was an experiment. (I boosted the ringlight off my engraving
microscope to see what’d happen. It worked, but I haven’t had a need
to shoot stones like that again.) The opals might respond well to it.
(Hummm…now I’m curious…)



I recently photographed an Ethiopian Black Opal which had the most
beautiful range of colours!. as with the common complaint, I could
not get what I was seeing to show up in a static photo. I set up a
platform in the sunlight and then used half a dozen mirrors to
reflect the sunlight onto the opal in different areas… the result
was not fantastic, but at least I got some of the colour-play
captured in the pictures.

maybe this helps?

Hi Kevin and all,

Giving it all more thought, particularly about why, less than how?
Part of the eye vs digital camera problem was suggested correctly, I
think, by Hans, as inherent in the digital process. More expensive
digitals will let you adjust white balance, bracket exposures, dump
RAW files for photoshopping and other tricks, but that’s a lot of
fiddling, even for those good at it. A lot to learn for a busy
jeweler too. I recall my old store in Austin, back in a previous
century, when all we had was 35 mm or larger format transparencies. I
recall that method produced some very true pictures of opals I had
cut. For some purposes, that might be a solution, but prolly not for
day to day work. I can’t imagine the time and expense if I had to use
roll film, then scan it for showing on the website or on eBay or
wherever. It takes too much time even now with digitals, I think.

But another factor is how we process ourselves, in our
head. The camera has one eye, we have two. So first of all, we are
getting twice as much color to our brains as the camera
is getting to the “film”. The other aspect is that each of our eyes
sees a slightly different color display, due to the opal’s physical
structure and how it processes light. Even that tiny displacement
makes a difference, and the three dimensional model we build in our
brain is richer in dimension and contains more color information
than a photo ever could. OK, you can laugh now, at me sitting here
blinking at a tray of opals, first one eye, then the other, then
both. Go ahead, we’ll wait. OK, now you try it. Make sure no one is
watching or they may question your sanity and finally take you away.

I used to use a ring flash with roll film, but I find that flash
just washes out the stone, wet or dry. With water, you don’t have to
shoot straight down, the camera and lights can be set at any angle
which shows the color best. With opal, you’ll usually want several
angles anyway, to show off the changing color display. I often use
an empty stone bubble to hold the opal in water, and it’s easy to
hold it in your hand, or place it on a beanbag and change the angle
of shooting. I don’t usually use a tripod, preferring the dynamics
of rolling the stone and camera for the best angle. I do throw away
a lot of fuzzy shots though. I have an older digital without image
stabilization. I guess I need a new camera too, I’d think that the
more megapixels, the more color and possibly a truer

Mike Kelley

Don’t know much about this… I was wondering if this is a case
where film might be better than digital… That’s a question that
might be rhetorical. I went looking, as I do, out of curiosity.
Found a couple of things that might be interesting to some:

In one of the posts on the above link, there is mention of a man
named “Len Cram” - expert opal photographer and all around
interesting guy, for any who might search for him…

Hi Folks,

I can’t tell you what to do to get that shot right with the opals,
but it seems to me, that the problem I had when photographing opals
was they came out with almost too much flash and fire, especially
the black opals. They did look that good in my hand but only with
perfect light conditions so for a customers viewing, I had to
downplay the fire a bit. And I think I used both film from 4x5s to
35mm, and digital. Both mediums had their own set of hurdles I’m sure
but probably second nature to a photographer. Try incandescent
lighting as my experience is that opal in sunlight usually gets a bit
washed out. Many of them look terrible in sunlight.


Photographing opals: I'm using a Nikon on a tripod set up in my
studio using ambient light coming from a skylight. 

When my pro photog (Larry Sanders) photographs pieces of mine with
opals, he uses little spot lights which he bounces off tiny mirrors
to aim the light just so, to let the lens see the color our eyes see.
It is painstaking (read:expensive) work, and before he had a digital
camera to use for instant proofs, it still didn’t always come out

I cannot imagine that you are ever going to get anywhere using
ambient light.