KODA 
Watch Photography

N.B. #1: Before we begin, grab a big cup of coffee or your favorite glass of spirit. This is going to be a long read. 

 

N.B. #2: This article has not gone through the magical hands of our editor. It’s raw, unedited, and comes from the heart.

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Photo credit @morgansaignes

Introduction

 

An artistic movement is generally named by a critic and recognized after the fact, once all of the artists of said movement are well up there in their years or have long passed away. Think Impressionists or Renaissance painters who naturally started creating art that was inspired from one another, or art that comes from the fact that they studied under the same master and later developed their own style whilst adding their own twist. All art movements gathered around the same principles of expression and subject matters. The same can be said of watch photography that we see on Instagram. There are basically two main schools of watch photography: the lifestyle one that almost always uses natural light and shows the watch being worn, and the studio flat-lay one in which the watch lays flat on a surface and is surrounded by props.  

 

Other types of watch photography that exist—for example, wrist shots and outdoor flat-lays—although we can often come across them, don’t quite belong to either of the two aforementioned and established trends. 

 

The two styles identified earlier are diametrically opposite and if one photographer adopts one style, he/she doesn’t do the other. And both movements, based on my own clinical observation of thousands of posts over the past two years, were created at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, I cannot go back in the past and see what type of photography was being made before 2020 (because I was not on Instagram), I do know, however through the multiple interviews I’ve conducted, that all of those who embrace natural light and lifestyle photography started doing so more or less at the end of 2019 but especially at the beginning of 2020, when the world came to a stop and that we had nothing better to do than to photograph our watches. 

 

In this article, then, I wanted to talk about the lifestyle type of photography which I propose to call “Koda Watch Photography,” in reference to the legendary Kodachrome camera film that was used to create most of the historical and iconic documentary photos of the 20th century. Kodachrome was famous for showing color in its most subtle tones and offering good contrast and representing dynamic range accurately. All visual qualities that can be attributed to the type of watch photography we are about to discuss and discover in this article. As we will see, all photographers of this style share common aesthetics and methods, aspirations and inspirations, and all have captured my wildest imagination through their outstanding work. 

 

I will name a few of these photographers who many of us look up to and who are at the origin of this movement. Because all of those who best represent this style have mentioned one another as a source of inspiration, it is possible to trace back one of the main influences for this style of photography to one particular individual. Please do take what I say in this article with a grain of salt, though. All of what I’m talking about here is subjective and you may or may not agree with me. Hey, that’s fine. Send me an email to share your thoughts: vincent@mainspring.watch.

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Photo credit @thewatchdude2

Where It May Have Started

 

I assume there are tens of thousands of people who photograph watches today. Just like there is a new independent brand (I started to use the word “independent” instead of “micro”) coming to life each day, there is a new watch photographer appearing on Instagram each time the sun rises. There cannot be enough of us. And, actually, the more people photograph watches the more there will be people photographing watches. Therefore, the more content is being created and the more we get exposed to watches and brands and the more opportunities we have for interacting with each other. Regardless of the above, all of these thousands of people who started photographing watches in the past two years (2020-2022) may have, either consciously or not, been inspired by a very few people who we all know and we all follow. One of them is Allan a.k.a. @TheWatchDude2. 

 

I wrote a profile story about Allan a few months back, and since then I have interviewed another dozen of watch photographers whose style is reminiscent of Allan’s and this for a good reason: he was their inspiration. It seems that miraculously they all came across Allan’s work when they first created their Instagram account, perhaps due to the way the algorithm worked in 2020 or because of the fact that Allan has impeccable tastes in watches and photographs some of the most popular sport watches that exist: Rolex Explorer 1, 2, the Submariner, amongst others. Or, most simply, his stuff is so good that we all got hooked as soon as we saw a photo of his. 

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Photo credit @thewatchdude2

No, this article is not here to just praise Allan. This article is a story about what makes his work so influential and how he inadvertently brought many of us together by way of his own passions and personal influences, and how it all comes together into a watch photography movement. 

 

I invite you to think of Allan as the person who may have started the movement for lifestyle watch photography and also as someone who himself was influenced by lifestyle and documentary-style watch photography outside of the Instagram realm. Before he started photographing watches, Allan had been photographing for a while and perusing photography magazines in which his artistic eye was being trained to look at light and frame shots in particular ways. He therefore transposed these influences into watch photography. Just like Henry Cartier Bresson always carried a camera with him, Allan made a habit of doing so in order to never miss a shot. 

 

As we will see in more details below, all of the photographers who will be named in this article, and whose style falls under the same style as Allan’s—use common visual language characteristics that make it possible to categorize them under the same style of photography. These characteristics have to do with the light, the framing, the subject matter, and the editing. I think it’s necessary to let you know, at this point in the article,  that I’m no photographer and hence will be using simple language to explain these characteristics which I believe they all share in common. 

 

Lastly, Allan may not actually be the one person who started the Koda Watch Photography movement. But he’s one of its best ambassadors.

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Photo credit @young_watch_dude

Key Common Visual Characteristics 

 

First of foremost, let’s look at the list of photographers I have in mind when speaking about this style of watch photography: @TheWatchDude2 (obviously,) @a_watchguys_life, @m.adcock81, @morgansaignes, @lar5erik, @ethanwrist, @wristcheckindia, @youngwatchdude and @the_vintage_guy. Naturally, their style is not a carbon copy of each other—thankfully so—however I can easily argue that they share many similar characteristics. It is important to note that I have not interviewed all of the aforementioned photographers, however I was brought to discover their account because they share common visual characteristics with Allan’s work and the ones I have interviewed. And this is just a short list to help you get started in analyzing their style of watch photography on your own. There are many others like them out there. 

 

The first common element of their visual expression is how they use light. They, for the most part, use natural light and they do so at specific times of day: right before sunrise or sunset. The latter is when you get the “golden hour” during which the light becomes warmer and more cinematic. This is my favorite time to photograph watches, as the light is even and has hints of orange, giving the photos a relaxed mood and soft shadows. When this light is then edited in Photoshop or Lightroom, one can accentuate the contrasts to make the photo even more moody. (There is actually a hashtag #moodywatchshot which I follow and I recommend you the same.) 

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Photo credit @the_vintage_guy

Natural light can also be used when there are clouds and basically inclement weather. I found that photographing outdoors half an hour before a storm hits is also a great opportunity to get good lighting. Some of our friend photographers live in Northern Europe (Scotland, Finland, Norway) where cloud coverage is quite a normal sight. It won’t give them a good sun tan but it’s basically like having an enormous softbox to photograph with. Lastly, a good natural light can be had by standing by the window of your home, either at sunset, or by covering your window with a sheer curtain (I sometimes use a painter’s drop cloth.) This allows indirect and softened light to come in. Ah, I almost forgot standing in the darkest corner of your room at any time of day (thank you Harin.) 

 

All of the Koda photographers use either one of the above techniques to get even natural light that displays subtle contrasts and soft shadows. @Lar5erik and @a_watchguys_life, for example, always photograph near a window that is covered by a sheer curtain to diffuse the light, and use reflectors to make the light bounce from the opposite side (inside the room) to light up all sides of the watch with the same even light. When photographing outdoors, the key is to wait for the right moment when there is no longer any visible sun so that there won’t be any reflection on the crystal of the watch. Looking at Allan’s photos, one can tell that he often photographs right before sunset. @Morgansaignes and @m.adcock81 use indirect light coming from a window, but don’t stand immediately next to it. 

 

What follows light is framing which itself comes hand-in-hand with spontaneity. Our friends’ photography displays watches in a certain way that shows them within a context. This context is how the watch is being worn on the wrist, as  opposed to flat-lays in which the watch is laying flat on a surface, surrounded by props that are always more or less the same: a knife, a book (about watches, preferably), coffee beans, a camera, a lens, and some kind of cool leather jacket. Conversely, Koda photographers show the watch on a wrist and parts of the body—the arm, the mid-section, or even the full body—to give the watch a sense of proportion and style. A watch by itself surrounded by inanimate objects does not infuse life to the timepiece, nor does it show how it wears on the wrist. Koda photographers are positively obsessed with showing the viewer how it feels like to wear the watch, which is, after all, what we want to know about it. 

 

But a watch being worn hiking, hugging a loved one, or riding a motorcycle infuses the watch with life, energy, and character. More often than not, Koda watch photography is about a sports watch, not a dress watch, which itself makes it possible to place the watch in more adventurous situations and to pair it with a certain type of clothing. Allan—going back to the ambassador of this movement—always pairs his watch with fashionable, rugged clothing that perfectly match each other. He manages to create a visual aesthetic that we gravitate to and which invites us to join him on his adventures. That is what drives the others to do the same, which in turns drives more people to join in to this type of photography. (I do not have a good wardrobe, which doesn’t prevent me from trying myself at Koda photography in a nearby forest.)

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Photo credit @a_watchguys_life

A while back I read about a study of how people from different cultures photograph a portrait. Americans would do close-up shots of the person’s face while Japanese would show the person, full body, within a complete context, for example a room. While Americans would tend to remove the context the person lives in completely, Japanese people could not make a portrait—which is a representation of someone—without showing their environment. Koda watch photography is more similar to how Japanese people go about doing a portrait: they show part of the entire context the watch is being worn in. Although most of them only show part of their body, because they want to remain anonymous, they do show where the watch is being photographed, be it a studio, a forest, or an apartment. So showing the environment, the context in which they are truly wearing the watch is key for Koda photographers. 

 

Oftentimes, the location they photograph the watch in says a lot about what we are up to most days. For example, @a_watchguys_life takes all of his photos inside his home by a window. All of his photos display an even and soft lighting that is by far the cleanest and clearest of all lighting I’ve seen on any watch photos. He therefore photographs all of his watches in the same context of his home where he has been spending more time due to the pandemic. Of course, I’m not saying that he doesn’t spend time outside of his home—he’s not a hermit!—but that is where he photographs his watches. His collection exists within the context of his interior living space. He could have done flat-lays, but instead he invites us to be part of his process by showing part of his body in the photo, by giving us a context. 

 

Koda watch photographers also tend to be more spontaneous since they photograph according to the natural cycles of the sun. While some of them aim to photograph everyday one hour before the sun sets, they may not be able to do it at all because suddenly the sunset could be hidden by clouds and the photographer would find himself without enough light. Allan takes his camera with him everywhere he goes so that he can snap a photo when the light is right. Lars photographs his watches outdoors when the weather and light are right, sometimes having to improvise a shot. Although I won’t compare myself to any of our friends here, I do tend to photograph out-of-the-blue because suddenly the light is right. Koda photographers, therefore, tend to be spontaneous. And if they aren’t, they are nevertheless following a natural element of daily life: the cycles of the sun rising and setting. 

 

Last, but not least, the editing also plays an important role in how the photos come out. Since they use natural light, the photo will automatically come with natural shadows that they won’t try to correct during the editing process. Rather, they will edit the photos to add or remove contrast, alter the color of the light to add or remove some of that cinematic lighting. But whatever they do, they will never remove the visual quality that comes from photographing using the natural—imperfect—light. They are looking for, should we say, for a general aesthetic that matches the context within which they photographed the watch. If they photographed during a snowstorm, they will translate the coldness of the air by making the light bluer; if they photographed during the golden hour, they will translate the warmth of the light by accentuating the reds and the oranges. They respect the natural tones produced by the light and ever so slightly change it during the editing process. 

 

As we’ve seen, our friends share common traits when it comes to photographing their watches: using natural light, giving context to the photo, and editing the photo to safeguard the qualities of the first two other characteristics. What links all of them too is how they perceive watch collecting and photography. 

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Photo credit @the_vintage_guy

A Shared Vision of Photography and Watch Collecting 

The painters who fall under the umbrella of Impressionism clearly had a certain sensibility to the natural world, the changing color of the sun as it sets, of how the wind can move tree branches and the clouds create even lighting. They all had a certain fascination for the natural cycles of life and spent a lot of time observing them. They slowed down a lot, I imagine, to figure out how to best capture what they were seeing and feeling internally. The same can be said of Koda photographers: they see watches the same way and approach photographing them the same way too. For one, they see watches as a way to connect with others, to express who they are and who they aspire to be, and to have that specific relationship with time that’ll come from tracking it by way of a timekeeping device. 

 

A common trait that all Koda photographers have—again based on those I have interviewed and on the captions of similar photographers on Instagram—is that a watch is an object that connects them to others. In many cases, their first watch or their most important watch was given to them by a parent or spouse to mark an important milestone—getting a first job, getting married, or the birth of a child. The watch is the object used to connect them to this happy event and is given by someone who is important to them and who understands what they love and what they put importance in. The watch, in this context, is more than a timekeeping device: it represents history and as such, a watch will never leave a collection. I own such a watch, a Breitling Navitimer that belonged to my father and which I inherited when he passed away. This watch will never leave my collection and connects me with my dad who also enjoyed horology. 

 

Watches can also be a way for them to express who they are. In the case of male collectors, a watch is virtually the only piece of jewelry they can wear and that makes a statement. If one wears a dive or field watch, it means he is into adventure. If one wears a dress watch, it means he is a business person. Of course, these watches are interchangeable but the point is that what they strap on their wrist says something about them. The same is true of female collectors who accessorize with a watch; a specific watch for a specific task or moment of the day. For either gender, a watch becomes a way by which we signal to others who we are and what we are about. And sometimes a watch can mean two things at the same time: it can mark an event (the birth of a first child) and signal being a proud parent. 

 

In order to properly relate the way they feel about their watches, Koda photographers will, for the most part, photograph watches in the environments they imagined themselves wearing it in. Doing so requires a go-slow, environmental type of photography which makes it possible for the photographers to show the watch being worn within a complete context. Flat-lays wouldn’t be as efficient showcasing, for example, the intense emotional drive that one gets when going on a hike in the Scottish mountains, or diving colorful coral reefs. Going outside to photograph a watch is a commitment, and as such means photographing less, or producing less shots than they would have by remaining indoors. 

 

And even for the Koda photographers who mostly work indoors—thinking of @a_watchguys_life and @m.adock81 here—they spend tremendous amounts of time preparing the shot to demonstrate, by way of images, how they feel about it and how it feels to wear it. They do so by framing each shot differently and finding new angles; they do take their time to put it all together. They don’t really re-use the exact same prop or angle each time, so they have to spend time (such a nice recurring word here!) brainstorming the ways in which they can tell the story using new angles, new props, new backgrounds, to communicate something unique. Think again of Impressionists painters who could represent a garden or a river bank, a factory, or people walking the streets of Paris, by using the same thematic narrative.

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Photo credit @Lar5erik

The way Koda photographers capture their watch is so important that oftentimes they have as much pleasure speaking about photography than they do about watches. And in most cases, actually, they prefer talking about the creative process they go through to capture the watch rather than the watch itself—as in talking about the watch specifications or history is not as interesting as talking about which mountain they went climbing to get the right light, or how they generally go about shooting watches. Naturally, they are all into watches, but it is interesting to see that they care as much about the process to create the image than they do wearing the right watch for the right occasion.  

 

Similarly, Koda photographers are very engaged on social media and make a point to respond to each person who leaves a comment on their Instagram posts, and to themselves engage with other photographers by way of comments or direct message. We can all agree that we, watch nerds, love to talk about watches, and it is equally true that Koda photographers love talking about watches and photography, engaging the community uniformly on these topics. The same is true of any one who is into any sort of hobby or collection: they probably spend more time talking about what they do than doing it, and that is what keeps the community alive and striving. Allan, for example, engages in lengthy conversations about photography and where he goes to shoot, more than he does about the watches he takes on his adventures. 

 

And I can totally relate to this: ideally, everyday I would go hike a mountain or explore a desert to photograph a watch I’m writing about or wearing for my own pleasure. I get magnetized by the types of adventures Koda photographers go on with their watches and I have wanted to do the same for a long while. As soon as I joined Instagram, and as soon as I had the opportunity to travel in 2020, I took my then only-watch to the Southwestern deserts of Arizona and photographed it hiking in canyons and riding dirt bikes in the red sands of Sedona. All of this is to say one thing: Koda photographers go out of their way to photograph watches, and as such, enter into some kind of zone while doing so. They must go slow in order to capture a certain vibe in their photographs, a vibe that is present in all Koda photographers' work. 

 

Another common trait of Koda photographers is that they don’t see themselves as professional photographers, despite the professional-quality of their work. This is not the expression of some sort of artificial humility, rather it is the sign that they care the most about taking a good photo of a nice watch to accurately represent the experience of wearing it, in which situation it can be worn, and what this watch is all about. Similarly, it is sharing about a moment they spent with their watch and not accomplishing the best shot possible that should win them a prize. All of what they do, in a way, is about slowing down and teaching themselves new skills—photography, videography, editing—to better integrate their feelings about watch collecting within their process and to create memories with the timepieces they wear. 

 

As we saw, Koda photographers have similar ways to look at watches and to create a bond with them. In the last part of this article, I want to get a bit deeper about a few points of their process most of them have in common.

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Photo credit @m.adcock81

A Shared Process 

There are three specific aspects of their creative process that Koda photographers have in common, and in some ways we have touched upon some of them already. (But they are key and deserve to be repeated.) The first one is that they photograph more or less at the same time each day; the second is that they picture their shots in their heads before taking it; third is that they take their time to photograph. I know, it doesn’t seem like the 21st century’s most sensational revelations. However, these three steps are key in creating Koda photographs. They don’t all do all three steps and although there is somewhat of an order in which to go through these steps, they don’t necessarily all move through the same motions in the same order. 

 

Since Koda photographers use natural light, they will necessarily photograph around sunrise or sunset in order to get that soft and contrasty light we spoke about. By default, this means they must wait for either of these natural phenomenons to occur which means they are bound to photograph more or or less at the same time each day. This means that the very nature of their process makes them follow a natural order of things. Sometimes, however, they can photograph at any time of day as long as they have light, meaning using a window covered by a sheer curtain provides a constant stream of soft light. Those who photograph in this way tend to photograph at the same time always, during the end of the afternoon, after a long day of work. 

 

 If we extrapolate this idea of photographing at the same time each time they photograph, we must also look at those like Allan who go photographing in the outdoors and dedicate an entire day or weekend to the craft. When he goes out, Allan in a sense dedicates a time to go photograph—in this case on the weekends—and will wait until the right cloud coverage is present or for the watch to show it’s getting close to sunset to take most of his shots. Someone like Allan plans some of his shoots several weeks ahead of time. On the other end of the spectrum, someone like @m.adock81 photographs at the same time each morning from his studio in the basement of his house. (Although we should note that recently he has been spending more time going on adventures.) 

 

Another common characteristic of Koda photographers is that they picture the shot they want to take in their head before taking it. Whether they want to do a wrist shot or a more complex setup (e.g., them wearing the watch driving a Land Rover), they picture the whole scene, a bit like a movie director who puts together all of the scenes in his mind’s eye before rolling the cameras. This step is important for Koda photographers as it allows them to mentally prepare to set up the shot and take it, allowing them to slow down when photographing, limiting the number of frames they take; taking fewer photos but better ones. This idea of picturing the shot in their head is common to all creatives, and I bet that people who do flat-lays go through the same process.  

 

However, it’s the combination of all of what they do that creates this type of art. Yes, Koda photography is an art form in its own right. Which brings us to the last common characteristic they all share: going slow. As we have established, they like to use natural light which inherently means they must wait for a certain time in the day to photograph. Once they have reached that crucial moment, they must then wait when the light is perfect: not too strong, not too weak, the type of light that creates soft contrasts and almost no shadow and has certain hints of red/orange/blue. This means that they wait and observe the light changing to take the best photo possible. 

 

For those who photograph indoors, Koda photographers have a tendency to literally sit with their watches before photographing them. They all have in common to be coffee drinkers and to own one or two watch magazines. Imagine them sitting down with their cup of coffee, looking at their watches and imagining how to photograph them as they are waiting for the light to change to perfection. A good example of this is @a_watchguys_life who go through the aforementioned motion every time he shoots. And @morgansaignes does the same thing: he sits with his watches and waits for the right light to photograph them. 

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Photo credit @young_watch_dude

Conclusion

For all Koda photographers, this art form was at first a necessity: they needed to learn how to photograph a watch—if not learn to photograph at all to begin with,—in order to show people the watches in their collection. For most of them, photography became a passion in itself and they made significant investments in getting the right gear. They realized that learning photography was an integral part of telling stories about their watches and that’s why they became so good at it. They are also regularly inspired by how they each photograph, and they aspire to be able to mimic this photography style as it is the one that inspires them to tell stories. It’s akin to finding the right culinary school that teaches how to cook in a way that naturally resonates with us instead of going to the best and most popular school to learn to do something the same way everybody does already. 

 

In a sense, all Koda photographers are endowed with the same creative sensibility and respond to the same type of storytelling. The documentary/lifestyle type of photography using natural light appealed to them in an almost visceral way and they all naturally gravitated toward each other because of that. 

 

Alright, I know this was long and convoluted at times. I’m not sorry. I wrote this article with as much spontaneity as Koda photographers pull out their camera to capture the right moment. Just like the light won’t be perfect—there will be dust on the lens, too many shadows—I too wanted to share my thoughts about something that has unequivocally unified many of us watch nerds and amateurs of photography, and most importantly of all, passionates of storytelling. 

 

I wish I could have gone more deeply about each Koda photographer’s style and quirks. I did mention you because you are part of this moment and your name should be mentioned. You are part of something that nobody meant to create or plan for, and that’s what makes it so beautiful. We may not always have the time to go out and explore, however we always have time to get in touch and share our respective passions for watches, photography, and stories. 

 

Thanks for reading.