If you love watches and you have an Instagram account, you’ve probably snapped a wrist shot. Or two. Or a million. And that’s ok! This is a safe space. Over the past several years, what once began as scrolling fodder on niche forums and dusty Web 1.0 message boards has, thanks to social media, become the default currency of online watch enthusiasm.
So let’s take a closer look at the art of the wrist shot. But don’t worry, all of the basics are identical to the ones I laid out last month, in How To Take Better Photos of Your Watches (Without Buying a New Camera). Following in the format established by that previous post, this is an entry-level guide meant to minimize the stress and maximize the results. If you want theory, jargon, and complexity – look elsewhere.
What you’ll need…
A Camera: As with the previous post, I’ll be shooting these photos (unless otherwise stated) with a current-gen iPhone 12 Pro Max in a JPEG format and without HDR enabled. That said, you can use any camera that allows you to focus close enough to create an image of your own wrist. At this level, the gear does not matter all that much.
A light source: The easiest here would be a big bright room – or space near a large window. You can also use light sources (anything from a desk lamp to a true camera flash) but this will add complexity.
A white shirt: This will allow you to effectively use your body as a reflector to bounce light into the darker areas of the photo.
A piece of black foam core board: Helpful for blocking out reflections on the crystal and dial of the watch. Not likely something you’ll carry around for a wrist shot on the go, but definitely useful when shooting with intent.
A sleeve: I’m sure your forearm brings just about everyone to the yard, but in a wrist shot, it looks like a featureless fleshy tube. Wear a long sleeve. Maybe a jacket with some character, a few stacked cuffs, or even a Canadian tuxedo (as I did). This will lend your image texture, depth, and visual interest.
Plan The Shot
With a bright space illuminating your unquestionably tasteful watch-and-sleeve combination, make sure that your watch is clean and that its hands are set in a manner that doesn’t detract from your shot (don’t cover the brand or any major function or design element on the dial).
With this covered, the steps are very similar to how you take a lay-flat shot. The light comes from one direction and you need to determine how best to get an image that’s neither too bright nor too dark.
Likewise, the elements of the setup are identical, where you have a watch (a) on your wrist, a light source (b), and something reflective (c).
Make The Shot
Step 1: See both sides of the light.
Hold your wrist in a comfortable position, preferably one where most of the watch is visible (not under a cuff) and where the crown isn’t digging into the back of your hand. Generally speaking, the image will have a gradient of brightness, where the side of the scene closest to the light will be the brightest and the area between the inside of your wrist and your torso will be darker.
Step 2: Light up the darkness
This is where a white shirt comes into play. The camera can manage the brighter elements (keeping them from being overexposed), but you can help by wearing a white shirt that can reflect light back into that dark area.
Step 3: See what the camera sees.
Once your image looks balanced, grab your iPhone and see how it looks on-screen. Tap your screen to focus on the dial, and then assess whether the brightness looks balanced. Assuming you followed steps 1 and 2 and have balanced light, all you should need to do is manually adjust the exposure to brighten or darken the image. On an iPhone, you can slide your finger up or down on the sun icon that shows up next to the focus box. Too bright? Drag down. Too dark? Drag up.
Step 4: Eliminate reflections.
Pay close attention to your watch dial (presumably the central focus of your wrist shot). Do you see any reflections? Most commonly, especially if you have the watch facing a light-colored ceiling (or the sky), you’ll see the outline of your phone or camera – and quite possibly the outline of your own hand or face.
If you’re shooting at home, grab a piece of foam core board and cut a hole in it so that the camera can shoot through the board while it blocks the aforementioned reflections. If you’re out and about, you need to get more creative. Try raising your wrist to angle the watch away from the sky, or leaning over your wrist so your body blocks the extra light. You can even stand under an awning or some kind of overhead cover. If all else fails a simple umbrella can work beautifully, though you may get some looks.
Eliminating reflections just takes practice, and I’ve had plenty of situations in which I could not get an outdoor wrist shot without them. You may look very silly adjusting your stance for that ideal blend of light and dark, but I assure you that it gets easier (or maybe you just stop caring about how you look).
Share! (Then Shoot Some More)
Drop that crispy wrist shot into your favorite image editor (the one built into your iPhone, or within Instagram, is a great place to start) and make any final tweaks before posting. With a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to Costanza-level hand modeling.
Editor’s note: If you have any questions for James about taking better watch photos, please put them in the comments. He’ll answer as many of your questions as possible.