The latest interview on Coin Update News is with numismatic photographer, Todd Pollock. He has taken images of more than 150,000 coins across all denominations, values, and countries of origin, including coins considered to be ultra rarities. Click on any of the images included in this article for larger versions.
How did you get into photographing coins?
When I got back into numismatics a few years ago, I joined an online forum. It wasn’t long after that, that I started doing some images as I sold some coins I had owned for a while. From that point on things just grew and I wanted to keep improving on my images. Since then I have taken well over 150,000 images of coins and still strive to improve my images. Part of what got me started was imaging my own set to carry on my iPod so I could see my set while at shows. With today’s technology having your coins imaged can help you become a better collector and also save you from purchase mistakes.
It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to take a proper photo; did you have any prior experience as a photographer before getting involved with imaging coins?
I was very active in photography in high school and college. For a while, I was a photography major in college. I decided that photography was not my path and pursued a degree in Economics and later a M.B.A., now as things go full circle, I am back to being a photographer. I even have a small box at home that is a couple folded photos, the top of the box is a close-up of Lincoln cent reverse, showing Lincoln inside the memorial. My guess is I did that image about 20 years ago for a high school photo class. While I think some photography background may have been helpful it is not a prerequisite for taking good coin photos.
Photographing coins is an activity that most struggle with doing successfully. What does it take to take the perfect photo?
Sometimes it feels like the planets need to align. What it really takes are for several things to go right. First you need the right coin, a coin with a good look and strike. Then if the coin is in a slab, you need a slab that is still in great shape and the coin to be perfect in the slab. Next it is time to get the lights just right for that coin. The perfect image is different to everyone. What I think may be a perfect image of a coin, others may not care for. Coins have many different looks depending on the angles, so there are many interpretations of each coin. I shoot my coins straight on because I feel that is how I look at coins and it gives the truest representation of the coin. To me a perfect image represents the true look of the coin and will show luster and the texture in the fields. Showing off the texture in the fields is one of the things I really like to see in a photo. I don’t like the fields washed out.
There are many aspects involved in photographing coins, from determining the proper lighting to choosing a suitable lens. Out of all the components involved in the photographing process, which do you consider to be most important?
I feel lighting is the most important part of the process. I don’t think there is one type of light out there that is “THE” light to have. What is more important is finding the light that works for you and working to maximize that light. I have been through several sets of lights and occasionally try some new ones, but for now I am set on my lights. I have a drawer full of prior experiment lights to prove it. I am not trying to downplay the importance of camera and lens, but the right setup and wrong lights will not do the coins justice. It is equally important to play with the lights. Moving the lighting angle all over and getting a sense for how the lights react with the coin is important.
Your photos are more than impressive, how did you get to the skill level that you are at today?
It has been a long road and it really comes down to practice and trying new things. When I feel I am at a certain level with my images, I do my best to concentrate on a new angle or type that I feel is not up to par. Some areas took some patience for me because I might not own many examples of a certain series so I had to wait until I had a few examples to play with. I wanted to be well rounded in my imaging and not just focus on one type of coin or metal. I manage to be imaging on a constant basis and rarely more than a couple days go by without having some coins to image so I never really have a break. I encourage people to find time to shoot a little bit every week just to keep in the groove. It becomes second nature after a while with practice.
Why do you think so many people have trouble imaging coins?
The process on imaging coins is quite different than taking images of your normal daily life. It is hard to change the thought process to image coins. Add to that the amount of time it takes for practice. It takes some real patience to learn and practice, many don’t have the time to spend on taking hobby photos and for some frustration kicks in. I would guess that people who struggle with coin images have not spent enough time learning how moving the lights effects their images. The relationship between the lights and the coin is very important to understand. Also slabs bring a unique issue into the equation, coins are tough enough then adding a layer of plastic does not make it easier.
You travel around the country, going to some of the biggest coin shows, not as a dealer but as a photographer. What is the experience of imaging coins at some of the biggest shows in the country like?
I did imaging at about 14 shows last year, none near where I live. A couple shows were within driving range but most were over 1500 miles away. I am now able to go to many more shows and stay quite busy at each show doing imaging. There are often shows where I do not see much of the bourse simply due to a lack of time to walk around. Being able to do the imaging at large shows is a real treat, I have been able to meet many collectors and customers of mine and have seen some amazing coins. I meet many people who just come by to say hi and they appreciate seeing my photos online. The shows have always been great fun, I don’t think I have the stress of most the dealers so I am able to just have fun with customers and coins. At shows I see a huge mix of coins from collectors, dealers, auction houses, and everyone else related to coins. I also traveled to shoot a few collections last year, being able to spend time with a collector and their coins being imaged is a great experience. The amount I have learned from the people I work for is something I could not have found anywhere else. My show experiences have really allowed me to become a better collector as it brought on many experiences I would not have been able to be a part of had I not moved into photography.
The hard part about shows is that I am there to do the imaging so I cant spend much time looking at the coins I am imaging. Sure I see them through the camera but I don’t get to sit down and really enjoy some of the amazing coins I get to image. At every show there are quite a few coins you just want to sit down and stare at for a while.
What has been your favorite coin to image?
This is a question I get at every show and I never have a great answer. I have seen some of the most amazing coins of all denominations, values and countries of issue. Naturally shooting coins that are considered to be ultra rarities is always special, and coins that are worth more than my house always give me goose bumps. I am a DMPL Morgan collector and I see lots of Morgans so I always enjoy them. I will never narrow it down to one image as a favorite. As I go to look for these images it is very obvious I could list hundreds of coins as favorites and there are hundreds of deserving coins in my image database.
What has been your hardest coin to image? Your easiest?
The hardest is easy, toned proofs. On business strike toners, you tend to sacrifice luster for color. On proof examples it goes a step further. On a toned proof example it is very hard to catch the color and the mirrors. Toned proofs have been giving me fits for a long time and I am just not working out a method that beginning to work well on them.
On the easy side I would say business strike seated halves and quarters. I have no idea why but they come to mind as being consistently on the good image side. They have good strikes and an overall design that images well. In general I find copper to be the easiest metal to image, I don’t collect copper but it just seems to behave well under the glass.
Do you have any advice for collectors who want to start imaging their own coins?
Practice, practice, practice followed by lights, lights, lights.
You don’t need the worlds best camera to take coin images, but preferably one with a macro mode, a white balance setting and focus you can control.
There is no one perfect setup for imaging coins, so practice and enjoy what you learn about your coins. Your images will bring out the good and bad in a collection and everything you learn is important. Don’t get frustrated!! It is not an overnight process so take it as a challenge and give yourself some time to tackle it.
All photos included in this post are courtesy of BluCC Photos.