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Photography.  Creating continuous-tone graphic images of coins and medals for use to illustrate articles, catalogs, books, advertisements. Coin photography is a branch of macro photography – closeup photography. Factors of lighting, focus and sharpness of detail are important factors in this field of photography. The intent is to show detail, often that is not that apparent to the naked eye, but is not just a magnified image.

Coin and medal photographs, other than identification photographs to identify a particular specimen, are mostly used for printed illustrations. However, a revolution has occurred in this field, from chemical photography to digital photography. Now coins and medals can be scanned and the digitized image stored on computer and retrieved for any printed illustration, circumventing the camera-to-negative- to-print-to-printing plate process.

A computer image can be enlarged (until the pixel is revealed), the image can be altered to vary the color, a nick or dent or stain can be removed, as well as other massaging. Thus the need remains for the old time photograph to be used for magnification of the surface of a coin or medal, for objects too large or difficult to be scanned, and of course for scenes, portraits and such.

History of coin and medal illustrations.  Prior to the widespread use of photography about 1850, illustrations had to be engraved by line engraving (also called surface or flat engraving to differentiate it from die engraving). Thus coins and medals were represented by line drawings rather than the actual item itself. In 1830 an attempt was made to make line drawings by machine (like a ruling pen), but this required a cast replica of the original otherwise the original might be damaged by the tracing stylus (see anaglyptography).

Once photography was invented it made for ideal illustrations of the actual items and some numismatic books were illustrated by actual photographic plates bound in the books. Even then the lighting was such a problem for a group of items (particularly that were different metals, each with a different reflective surface) that coins and medals were often cast into plaster, and the plaster replicas, all of one hue, were photographed! This process continued even until the 1930s.

With a photographic image some process was necessary for rendering it into a plate which could be reproduced by printing. Halftones were perhaps the most successful, but this broke up the image into tiny dots (from 60 to 200 per linear inch). Coarse paper would limit the fineness of the screen of the halftone (newspaper ranged from 60 to 80, machine made paper up to 150, and coated paper up to 200). Several processes to reproduce the continuous tone were developed (as colotype and others) but had limited use.

Thus what was once a major problem for every numismatic book publisher – the photography of coins and medals – has now come to rely on the computer-generated image (CGI). This book is illustrated with CGI illustrations. A scanned image can be made directly from the item itself, entered into the computer, stored, refined, changed, enlarged or reduced, all by computer. When it comes time to reproduce the image it is easily printed and this serves as the master for modern printing processes.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


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