Chess Photography



A few people have sent me email asking for advice on how to take photos of chess pieces. In this article I will outline some of my findings. Photos do speak a thousand words and with such a small and distributed collecting community, being able to produced decent digital images of sets is a necessity for most collectors and dealers.


I need to preface my comments with the following disclaimer. I am not a photographer by trade and my advice is based on taking a couple of thousand photos with several different cameras over an extended period of time. I hope this article will grow based on feedback I receive and any other information I come across.


What makes this subject matter difficult to capture?

  1. Chess pieces are relatively small 3d objects.
  2. They can made be from many different materials, with different light absorption and reflection characteristics
  3. Even in the same set the pieces on each side generally have different colors, requiring camera adjustments
  4. Some pieces have a lot of fine detail work requiring very accurate focusing to reproduce well



The Dark Ages

Before digital cameras were generally available I tried using 35mm film cameras to take photos of sets and individual pieces. The results were not good. I would take 30 shots and maybe get one reasonable photo. This was an expensive and time consuming endeavor given the number of usable images generated. Some collectors went as far as using large box cameras on rails to try and generate good images, but again the results were still quite variable and the costs associated even higher. As a result many of the photos in the older chess collector books leave a lot to be desired in terms of detail, color and focus.



Digital Age

With virtually zero cost per shot, instant results and powerful software to post process photos, the tide had turned on what could be achieved in terms of photo quality.

If you have a �point and shoot� digital camera and have tried to take photos of chess piece you have noticed some of the following issues with the resulting photos:


  1. Glare on some of the pieces due to the flash being activated.
  2. Bad color reproduction
  3. Shadows apparent on the photos
  4. Some areas of the photo being out of focus.


To improve from there, think about doing some of the following:

  1. Read your camera�s manual fully, see if it has any specific �macro� setting that might help.
  2. Get an area setup (desktop studio) for taking your photos to get consistent conditions, such as lighting and backgrounds.
    Lighting the pieces from the front (same side as the camera is on), rather than overhead can help.
  3. If the camera has a light source setting make sure you set it to what you are using
    (tungsten, florescent etc)
  4. Use the camera�s timer function and a tripod to remove camera shake.
  5. Disable the flash and use the camera�s manual setting for expose and aperture to compensation. *There may be a setting that works with flash on, I just have not been able to make it work myself.
  6. Take the photos at the cameras highest resolution and largest size possible. You can compress and reduce the image size in post processing but you cannot increase the images quality if you have taken a very small and coarse image to start with.
  7. If your camera has a �custom white balance� feature, use itto improve color reproduction.
  8. Experiment with a variety of settings and note the results.


Having enough light on the subject (preferable filtered to reduce glare) is critical. It enables one to turn the flash off and reduce the aperture size which reduce the risk of glare and increase the depth of field in focus.


Even after all this you should take each shot with a few different settings and lighting setups so you have a choice of which image to use once your download the images to your computer.


Does the camera matter?

You can get decent results with a cheap 2 megapixel camera, if you have the time and patience to find the relatively narrow band of setting for the camera and the desktop studio that will produce good results. A better camera will give you more flexibility and these days more advanced cameras will compensate for the subject matter and environment more. In other worlds the band is wider in terms of setting and conditions which should save you time and give more consistent results.


When looking to buy a new camera don�t just go by the megapixel count. There are a lot of factors that determine a cameras potential. Consider sensor size and type, lens, camera adjustments both manual and automatic. There is some excellent information online in terms of camera reviews and related information. Start at


My Setup



Canon G5 powershot (now superseded by the G6).

Why I selected this camera :

  1. Macro performance and flexible setting available, note chess pieces generally are not small enough to be considered truely macro is size like a fly for example.
  2. White balance, focus control and low noise levels (low image corruption even as slower ISO film speeds)
  3. Memory functions on the camera to remember my favorite settings, this saves a lot of time.
  4. Extended battery life, nice download software and good price verses performance.



  1. Three light sources � one on each side from the front and one focused behind the pieces from on top to reduce shadowing.
  2. A non gloss white sheet of heavy paper for taking the darker side of sets and a non gloss dark blue background for taking the light side of sets.
  3. A see through Perspex box to allow pawns and main pieces on one side to be taken together.


Post Processing On Desktop

I have used a variety of software tools my personal preference is Adobe Photoshop. It�s a little expensive but it given you a lot of control and some very powerful features.


I keep all my large original photos (about 3mbs each) and then create an version for online publication by crop, compress and reduce their size using Photoshop until I an image approximately 1200 pixels wide and under 800k in size.


One final note for those using eBay, ifyou upload large image to eBay their system automatically compresses them and reduces their size to what eBay allows. This is not ideal so if you have some nice images you wish to use on eBay it best to host them yourself and link them into your eBay listing. There is an option to do this when you are entering your items details.


Closing Thoughts

I find it very satisfying to produce images that accurately portray a set of chess pieces on a scale and to a level of detail that allows others to share their thoughts and views without the images getting in the way. Hopefully we will see more dealers and collectors publishing online in the future which is a benefit to everyone in the chess collector community.




Please feel free to drop me a line with any comments to: Send comments


Return to main page: