Coin Photography with Don Hart

19 May 2020

My first fascination with photography came as a spin off from another hobby, coin collecting. Like many collectors my collection is specialised, and cataloguing is part of the hobby. Unfortunately, I went further. I got involved with the art behind the coin. Each coin is a statement of how a regime wishes to be perceived. The strong, commanding portrait of a Head of State has been with us for over two thousand years. Or a symbol of a country’s ethos. The famous US ‘Liberty Walking’ half dollar and Italian Vittorio Emanuele III 1922 20 Centesimi ‘Liberty in Flight’, guiding the way with a torch. Considered to be the most beautiful coin minted. Each piece of small change in your pocket or purse a work of art. I decided to photograph my collection. Initially the pictures were technical images. Rather like you will find in the collectors World Coin guides. These were created using my 200mm telephoto with a 4 dioptre extention lens. Focal point was so close I fitted a very crude LED ring light to give clean even illumination. Chromatic aboration a disaster. This worked well for some coins, not others.

Henry III cut penny

Why? Coins vary in reflectance characteristics. A Henry III penny is very dull. A proof quality contemporary coin will be stunningly polished to a specular mirror reflection. Different ‘lighting’ techniques are required for each coin. Some coins require a directional ‘hard’ source of light to illuminate and reveal the detail, for example an Iceni sceat from AD61 with a Celtic face engraved on it – Boadicea. The coin is crudely made and almost a dark grey. A Vespasian denarius from 11 years later is remarkably bright and shiny with very strong relief. This requires a soft source which the coin reflects. Or perhaps, reflect an illuminated object in the coin.

Coin Compilation

So how can I use light and reflection to capture the beauty and textures of a coin? This application of illumination to create shape, or reveal detail combined with reflection of colours or objects can be very exciting. I found my hand supporting the lens was reflecting. Put on a pair of white cotton gloves and suddenly your hand becomes a soft reflector. Flowers, or mobile phone displays, carefully positioned to reflect in the coin.

Study of 1954[B] France 100 Franc OBV

By now I was using a modified macro lens which enabled up to 1.8x magnification. With an APSC sensor a £1 coin would exceed the size of the sensor. At higher magnification I prefer to use manual focusing techniques. Because I am constantly cheating angles for optimum reflections this flows better for me without a tripod. This montage of 4 studies of a New Pound commissioned by the lens manufacturer shows the framing range I can achieve on a cropped sensor.

Studies of a New Pound

The French medallic traditions of the 19th century led to the creation of an iconic feature on French coins from 1898 to today. In 1887 Louis Oscar-Roty created a sculpture of a rustic sower girl for an agricultural competition medal. The design was not used. But the Monnaie de Paris adopted the design for a fresh set of coinage in 1898. On their request Roty replaced the rustic peasant girl with a slimmer goddess-like sower wearing a Phrygian cap, identifying her as Marianne – the personification of the revolutionary values of liberty and reason. Known as La Semeuse this design is also used on stamps and is the most reproduced piece of art in France. Similarly, Arnold Machin’s portrait of our queen that was used on the decimal series, commonwealth coinage and still used on stamps. This is considered to be the most reproduced image in history.

A study of Roty led me to discover the design process. He worked in wax initially sculpting the figure of a nude model to which he then added flowing robes and hair. Roty’s model is widely thought to be Charlotte Ragot and photographs from the 1890’s show her taking the pose of La Semeuse. To bring La Semeuse to life I followed Roty and collaborated with French model Camille Alexandra. In the accompanying images I started with Camille in Sower Girl pose and a flat treatment of a 1968 5 Franc (identical to the 1898 1F) Then reflected an illuminated daffodil to bring to life in orange and yellow the sunrise design. Careful blending in PS exaggerated the colours and contrast making the coin appear on fire. Next stage in PS was to matte in Camille and play with the blend options to get the final look. And now I have my Sower Girl.

Bringing La Semeuse to life
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