White Backgrounds for Jewelry?
These days I get asked quite often about whether or not to shoot jewelry on a white background. There is no denying the fact that the use of jewelry images on white, or very light neutral backgrounds, for competitive show applications is on the rise. Over the last three years I have seen it go from the rare image to being almost common. When I visit show sites which display the images of the work accepted for their upcoming shows, I have seen images on light or white backgrounds representing as much as 20-25% of the overall group of images. So there is definitely something to it.
As I see it, there are a number of issues here. But they all come down to how the artist answers two simple questions: “Do my images represent my work as well as possible, and do they give me the best chance of getting into the kinds of shows I would like to get into?” Because after all, that is what the images are for, and the main reason one would choose to spend significant money having high-quality images shot of one’s work.
Let’s look at the first question, “Do my images represent my work as well as possible?” For years, literally for decades, going well back into the days of 35mm slides, the industry standard for shooting jewelry for high-end craft show applications has been to shoot it on a neutral (colorless) dark-to-light gradient background. There are a number of very good reasons for this. One is that a neutral background allows all the colors of the piece of jewelry to show truly without contamination. Another is that a graduated background can help guide the eye to the center of the image. Another is that a neutral graduated background is easy to completely ignore – it is non-distracting and doesn’t risk upstaging the jewelry.
Yet another advantage of the neutral dark graduated background is that it can, when done well, add a sense of mood and drama to an image. At its best, it can enhance the artistry of the piece of jewelry, and add a sense of elegance and professionalism.
What about the same piece of jewelry on a white background? Does it present as well? Does it lose anything it gained from the neutral graduated background? Does it gain anything from the white background? I don’t think there are cut-and-dried answers to these questions. Some jewelry presents quite well on white, some less well. However, in my opinion, I think most jewelry looks better on the darker graduated background. All other things being equal, I would prefer the graduated background.
But it’s never quite that simple, is it? There are always other concerns that influence these kinds of decisions. Just like jewelry itself, jewelry photography is subject to fads, trends, and stylistic evolution. It is generally a slow change, but it changes nonetheless. It is important for both the jeweler and the photographer to be aware of these changes and stay abreast of them. If there is a tread toward lighter backgrounds, we need to be aware of it.
So lets look at the second question: “Do my images give me the best chance of getting into the kinds of shows I would like to get into?” You might think that the answer to the first question would answer this one, too. If my images represent my work as well as possible, shouldn’t they give me the best chance of getting into the shows I apply to?
This is where the question of photographic stylistic change comes in, and why we are having this discussion in the first place. What if what we are seeing in the increasing use of images on white and light backgrounds represents a real stylistic change in what is considered a high-end image, and not just a fad or a short-lived trend? What if, in spite of the fact that professional jewelry photographers like myself feel that the darker neutral graduated background best represents a piece of jewelry, a new group of young artists who have come of age in the last decade have brought a new sensibility with them? What if this new sensibility, this new style, appreciates the cleanliness, the brightness, the newness of the white background? What if they feel that the neutral dark-to-light-graduated background is old-school and makes their work look dated, whereas the white background makes it look new and clean and fresh?
I think it is entirely possible that this is in fact what we are witnessing. I think there is a new generation of jewelry artists who see things exactly as I just described. It would not surprise me in the least to see the trend toward white or light backgrounds continue and expand, and even eventually supplant the traditional background as the predominant mode for presenting jewelry for competitive applications.
So what does this mean for established artists? It presents a real conundrum. For one thing, established artists probably have a collection of expensive images they have had produced over the last couple of years which are on the traditional background. What do they do? Throw them away and reshoot everything on white? Keep the old ones but shoot new work on white and slowly phase out the old ones? Keep on with the traditional background until they are sure which way the wind is blowing?
All of these are possible options, with up-sides and down-sides. If you throw away your old images you are throwing away a substantial investment, and incurring another big investment to produce new images which may or may not get you into the big shows, for reasons which I will discuss momentarily. If you keep your old images and shoot your new work on white, you guard your investment in the older photos, but it puts you in the position of mixing old images with new ones, images which are very different in look and style, which is generally considered a strong negative in a collection of jury photos. And if you keep on with the traditional look, you maintain a coherent and stylistically similar collection of photos, but run the risk of having a very nice collection of obsolete photography.
And there is yet another piece of this puzzle to consider: Who is on the jury? What do they prefer, the old or the new? If we are indeed in a transitional period when photographic style is truly changing, then it is entirely possible that for a while, some jurors will continue to prefer the old style, while others will prefer the new. Beyond that, there is also the question of how you want to be perceived – old and established, or new and innovative?
What’s an artist to do? Well, here’s what I am advising my artists currently, although this will be likely to change as I watch the trend develop. Since the great bulk of my clients are established artists with a history of getting into top shows, I’m aiming these suggestions mainly at them, but I think they will have a broad applicability.
In the same way that tracking (or leading) current style trends is important in your jewelry artistry, it is likewise important in the photography of your work. My recommendation is to straddle the fence a while longer, but to do it proactively. Here’s what I mean by that. If you are having good success getting into shows which are important to you using traditional images, I would keep at that for another year, and watch and see what happens. If you find your success rate is falling off sharply, (or have already found it dropping off) it is probably a good indicator you should make a change.
In the meantime, I recommend experimenting with a new series of images, on white or light backgrounds, applying to shows on a par with the ones you have traditionally been getting into, and seeing what kind of success you have. At the very least you can begin to refine a new series of images, and it is possible you will get into shows which could make up for possible rejections of your traditional images.
I don’t recommend mixing traditional images with images shot on white backgrounds in a single jury submission, for reasons stated above. I believe it makes for a disjointed presentation, and adds a level of distraction to a review process which is already very brief.
Further, I recommend examining the images in your current portfolio and seeing if they can be modified to reflect this new trend. Some can, some cannot. If I have produced your images, there is a strong likelihood that at least some of them can be modified in such a way that they can become part of a transitional group of images.
I can do this with my images because I produce my jewelry images using layers, with the background on a separate layer. It is thereby often possible to replace one background with another, to replace a darker background with a lighter background. But keep in mind that this doesn’t work with every image, or every piece of jewelry. (For more information on this please read my series of posts on Working With Layers and Cut-Outs.)
Takeaway: There seems to be a substantial trend toward using jewelry photographed on lighter backgrounds, including white backgrounds, in submissions to juried competitions. It is my opinion that this is more than a fad, and is driven by a generational shift as younger artists come of age and bring with them a different stylistic sensibility. Artists wishing to get into top shows, or to continue to get into top shows, need to be aware of this trend.
I recommend artists take this seriously and use the possibilities proactively. I don’t recommend making a sudden shift from traditional images to images on white backgrounds. I recommend a more measured approach, possibly including modifying existing images, and producing a series of new images on light or white background and testing them by applying to non-critical shows, and watching over the next year to see how this trend continues to develop.
For those without a substantial investment in traditional images, or who want to test-fly a group of new images, or want to jump in with both feet, I have a further set of recommendations, which follow. Stay tuned for Part 2…