How to light and photograph coins

how to photograph coins
A single strobe with 7’’ reflector at ~45°. No bounce cards used, to show only the contribution of the main light.  Coin diameter 1-1/16’’. Other light positions and angles can be tried. Exposure measured with a light meter at f/8, 1/250s, ISO 100.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres

coin photography setup using a single light
Make sure the camera’s sensor plane is parallel to the coin. Tighten every knob. To avoid vibrations, use the self-timer or mirror-up functions. Use a remote trigger. Light angled at ~45°.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres

A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why are all coins photographed the same?”

“Err… what do you...?” the horse said.

“What do I mean?” the bartender interrupted.  “What I mean is that all coin photos are made with a light either to the left or to the right, and that’s it.” The bartender, who was a duck, motioned his wings left and right, to the rhythm of his words. “Kind of boring, don’t you think?” he added.

The horse just stared at him.

“Oh, come on! Don’t give me that long face. You know what I’m talking about. You’re also a photographer, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I don’t see the problem with…”

A white rabbit with red eyes, seated at a table on the far corner overhears the conversation. He leans forward, emerging from the partial darkness, and then says, with a raspy voice:

“You should ask the wise ass by the old tree.”

“The old tree!” the duck replied. “That’s on the arse-end of nowhere!”

“I just want a drink. A Whis…,” the horse started to say.

“Don’t be an ass!” the duck stopped the horse. “This is a matter of importance. And the rabbit is right. We all should go.”

“I never said ‘we’ should go.”

“And you can assist,” the duck said to the rabbit. “You can guide us there.”

The rabbit accepted his fate. With his left foot took a slice of lemon from a plate. Then, with the right foot sprinkled grains of salt onto the left. With the right foot took the tequila shot and drank it in a single gulp. His face contorted. Then, with a quick twist of his ankle placed the empty glass upside down onto the table, making a loud noise. Finally, licked the salt and squeezed the lemon into his mouth. His face contorted again.

“It’s settled then,” the duck said. “VĂ¡monos!”

The duck and the rabbit jumped on top of the horse. The horse galloped out of the bar.


Axial lighting setup for coin photography
AXIAL LIGHTING SETUP. The glass must be at 45°, exactly. Its side that points down to the coin should face the light source. Part of the light will be reflected towards the coin, and the other part will travel through the glass. An angled black background is used to prevent light from reflecting back from the room into the glass. Light should be blocked from hitting directly the coin. A lens cap, thicker than the coin, is used for that.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres

Tape glass borders to prevent internal reflections and cutting yourself. Small glass piece is 4x4” and large glass is 8x8”. They are 4mm thick but 2mm (5/54”) would be preferred for the small one used in the Axial lighting setup.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres  

Coin photographed using the axial lighting setup
Back of $10 Mexican Pesos (2018) Coin photographed using the Axial lighting setup.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres

They entered the black forest and for days traveled through mountains and valleys and rivers, and mountains and valleys and rivers.

“Quack!” the duck suddenly exclaimed.

“What?” the rabbit said.

“Forgot to close the bar.”

“You, dumb ass!” the rabbit said to the duck.

The horse stopped.

“Oh, whatever…” the duck paused for a second. “Move your lazy ass,” he said to the horse.

The horse whinnied and they continued through mountains and valleys and rivers.


Dark field lighting setup for coin photography
DARK FIELD LIGHTING SETUP: (Fig. 1) The strobe is on the floor pointing up towards the lens. An 8x8” glass is supported on top of the strobe’s reflector. A lens cap is used as a background, with the coin on top of it. The background should fill exactly the angle of view of the lens at its final framing and focus distance. Background should be preferably rectangular (or the proportions of the sensor) and no smaller than the angle of view and not much larger either. (Fig. 2) Three sheets of paper are placed on top of the glass to reduce exposure to f/7.1. (Fig. 3) A spare strobe reflector is used to bounce light back into the coin. White cooking bowls can also be used, or white card board fixed in a conical shape. (Fig. 4) Final setup, with the lens at its focusing distance.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres
Coin photography using the dark field lighting technique
Back of $10 Mexican Pesos (2018) Coin photographed using the Dark field lighting setup.
© Eduardo Machuca-Torres

The trio finally emerged from the forest into a prairie. To the distance, in a sea of yellowish grass, an old tree in the middle.

“There is where the wise ass lives,” announced the rabbit.

When they got closer to the tree, all they saw was a very tiny wood house to the side of the trunk.

“Hello?” the duck called.

A weasel emerged from the tiny house.

“Howdy! We are looking for…,” the horse started to say.

“I am the wise ass,” the weasel responded.

Both the horse and the duck looked intensely at the rabbit.

“What?” the rabbit asked with surprise. “What did you expect? A donkey?”

“I know why you are here,” the weasel called their attention. “Come inside to my studio,” he motioned them.

The weasel suddenly stopped at the door and turned around.

“Did you bring the money?” he asked, inquiringly.

“I thought we could barter,” the rabbit said. “You know, I have a large audience and could recommend your workshop in exchange for your teaching us for free today.”

“Don’t be a smart ass,” the weasel said. “That doesn’t fly around here,” he added, and extended his paw with protruding sharp claws.

The horse and the duck paid and waited for the rabbit to pay.

“What?” the rabbit said. “I don’t have any money,” he paused, “just my followers.” He looked down to the floor.

The horse and the duck paid for the rabbit’s share and they all entered the tiny house.


“Looks are deceiving,” the horse said. “Your house is really spacio...”

“Thank you,” the weasel acknowledged. “I will show you three techniques to light coins. The first one is the simplest one.”

“Yes,” the duck said. “Using one light to the left or to the right.” He swinged his wings left and right. “I think we can skip that one.”

“Ok,” the weasel agreed. “The other two techniques are called Axial lighting and Dark Field lighting.”

“Never heard of those,” the rabbit said.

“It is easier to see it than explaining it,” the weasel said. “Come here to the studio area.”

The studio area was packed by an assload of wolves, walking in circles around something in the middle.

The duck and the rabbit climbed on top of the horse to be able to see anything.

“What is this?” the duck said.

“Those are the lighting setups I mentioned,” said the weasel, proudly.

“I think that by ‘this’, mi amigo means THIS,” the rabbit pointed to the wolves.

“Oh, don’t worry! There was some mistake and the workshop was oversold,” the weasel said and cleared his throat.

“But I thought we were going to receive personalized training,” the rabbit remarked, clearly upset.

“Don’t be a pain in the ass, or you can bet your ass that I will kick your ass,” the weasel calmly said, while showing his claws.

The rabbit shivered.

Bubbles of silence filled the room like sardines in a can.

“Ok, Ok,” the weasel finally said. “I’ll give you a five percent discount and tell everything to the horse.”

The weasel jumped to the horse’s neck and started whispering to his ear.

“Ok… yes… forty five… Ok… on top…” “Oh! I see.” “Ok, yes, I got it,” said the horse.

The weasel jumped back to the floor.

“What?” the duck and the rabbit asked in unison.

“I’ll tell you everything on the way back,” said the horse.

The trio left the wise ass’ tiny house.


A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why do all landscape photographs have to be sharp from front to back? Kind of boring, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what…” mumbled the horse.

“Of course you know what I mean!” the duck replied. “Sharp from front to back, front to back,” he said, while swinging his wings from his belly to an imaginary horizon.

“You should ask the wise ass by the purple waterfall,” a rabbit at a corner of the bar said, with a raspy voice.

“The purple waterfall!” the duck complained. “That’s on the arse-end of the universe!”

“Have you at least tried the coin lighting...?” the horse started to ask.

“I haven’t, yet,” the duck interrupted. “I’ve been kinda busy here,” he said, while cleaning invisible spots from the bar counter.

“Me too,” the rabbit echoed, and took a sip of his tequila shot.

They looked at each other in silence.

Moments later, the horse galloped out of the bar, carrying the duck and the rabbit on his back.

─The end─

Short story by Eduardo Machuca-Torres.

Inspired in part by Ismo Leikola’s comedy sketch, “Ass is the most complicated word in the English language.”