We are pleased to re- introduce you to our favorite gemologist, E. Billie Hughes but this time, we invite her not as the lab gemologist but as the multiple photography award winner. Today, days after being awarded the title of best photomicrographer of 2016 by the Gemological Association of Great Britain (Aka Gem-A), Billie is back with us for an interview on her favorite topic: Photomicrography!
AsiaLounges: Hi Billie. I'd like to extend our congratulations to you for winning two awards in the Gem-A Photographer of the Year competition. You must be very proud! Could you explain us how you were drawn to it?
E.Billie Hughes: My interest in photography actually didn’t start with photomicrography. I started taking pictures while traveling to different gem mines around the world with my family. In fact, my first published photos were a photo of Ilakaka, Madagascar, which appeared in Vlad Yavorskyy’s Terra Spinel, and a photo of a Sri Lankan sapphire miner which appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
E. Billie Hughes's early works published by the Wall Street Journal on May 16, 2013
(Click on the picture for more)
In 2013 I took the FGA course from the Gem-A (the Gemological Association of Great Britain), which is when I started my formal gemology training. We would look at gemstone inclusions in lab class everyday and I started taking snapshots of inclusions by positioning my iPhone over one of the eyepieces. It was a lot of fun, but I was never really satisfied with the quality. When we opened our lab, Bangkok-based Lotus Gemology, in 2014, I started playing around with our research-grade, trinocular microscope, and that’s when I fell in love with inclusion photography.
I started by taking inclusion photos of quartz, and that year I entered the Gem-A’s photography competition for fun. I was just getting started, but I ended up winning second and third prizes in the competition that year!
"Black and Gold"- Awarded 2nd Best picture of the Gem-A 2014 competition - Pyrite in Quartz Crystal - E.Billie Hughes
After that as our lab got busier I began photographing stones that came in for testing as well as specimens in the Lotus research collection, and my passion for inclusion photography has grown ever since.
AsiaLounges: What is Photomicrography?
E.Billie Hughes: Photomicrography involves taking photographs through the microscope, so you are seeing a magnified version of what you would normally see. In our case, the subject is a magnified gem, but actually photomicrographs can be of any subject. Other photomicrographers may choose to photograph snowflakes, for example.
AsiaLounges: What makes it so special?
E.Billie Hughes: I love looking through the microscope because it’s like entering a whole different world in each gemstone. Inside the stones you can see millions of years back; each gem is a time capsule that has collected a microscopic speck of the earth from many lifetimes ago.
Black graphite crystals are encapsulated in some of the negative crystals in this unheated Sri Lankan sapphire - E. Billie Hughes
AsiaLounges: Do you think photomicrography is misunderstood?
E.Billie Hughes: I think most laypeople have probably never even heard of photomicrography, and have no experience with gemstone inclusions. Those that have sometimes see it as a negative rather than a positive, because so many consumers have been taught hat inclusions are a detractor from a gem. This is probably in large part because of the focus on clarity when selling gems, particularly with diamonds.
But to me inclusions can enhance, rather than take away from the beauty of a gemstone. I love the idea that in each crystal that becomes a gem, there may actually be tinier crystals inside, like a secret gem-within-a-gem. Some inclusions actually make colored stones more beautiful, like the fine “silk” particles that scatter light in corundum (ruby & sapphire) and make stones appear less dark.
This corroded crystal guest in a Burmese sapphire represents a protogenetic inclusion, one that existed before the sapphire itself - E. Billie Hughes
What you have to remember is that inclusion photos may magnify a stone anywhere from 15x to over 100x, so something in an inclusion photo may have little to no effect on the appearance of a stone seen with the naked eye. In fact, I actually like to think of inclusions as a sort of “fingerprint” or DNA of a stone that identifies it and makes each stone unique.
Indicted and convicted. This melted crystal, fingerprint, and string of melted crystals are positive proof of heat treatment - E. Billie Hughes
AsiaLounges: How do you see yourself evolving in this world?
E.Billie Hughes: I think I’ve already gotten a lot better at inclusion photography than I was two years ago when I started. I hope that I can continue to grow and learn by looking at great photos from some of my fellow gemstone inclusion photographers and by getting lots of practice.
I’ve gotten great experience working with ruby and sapphire and spinel in the lab because that’s what we test, but I’m also becoming interested in working with other materials, so that will be a new challenge for me.
AsiaLounges: Are you planning on exhibiting your pieces at some point? How can people discover your shots?
E.Billie Hughes:Most of my inclusion photos can be found on the Lotus Hyperion inclusion search engine. This is our online database where inclusion photos can be searched by stone type, treatment, and origin, and currently features over 600+ inclusion photos. The great thing is this is a living database that we are adding to weekly with our newest shots.
A lovely rosette surrounding a mica crystal decorates the interior of this ruby from Montepuez, Mozambique - E.Billie Hughes
We also post an image from Hyperion each week on the Lotus Gemology Facebook page.
AsiaLounges: In your opinion as a photomicrographer, what makes for a good shot? How can we differentiate between a good and bad photomicrographs?
E.Billie Hughes: A good inclusion photo is like any good photo. It needs to have a compelling subject with a clear focal point, and the same guidelines for composition, lighting, and others aspects of a good photo apply.
Iridescence on a chalcopyrite crystal as it floats within the interior of a ruby from Mozambique’s Montepuez region - E.Billie Hughes
I think with good inclusion photos you also have to have context. A lot of great inclusion photos can show us something about their host material and teach us about gemology.
And like with other kinds of photography, photos being over or underexposed or out of focus will ruin a good shot.
AsiaLounges: Asides from yourself, who are the best photomicrographers currently? What sets them apart?
E.Billie Hughes: You don’t talk about gem photomicrography without mentioning the great John Koivula, author of the Photoatlas series. He has a prolific body of work, and was a pioneer in the field, and has won Nikon’s Small World competition numerous times. He also has authored articles teaching others how to improve their photomicrography techniques. What is amazing about John is that he actually took a lot of his photos before the era of digital photography, so a lot of his shots, already fantastic in their own right, were actually taken on film. This seems incredibly difficult coming from someone like myself, who has only ever shot in digital, and makes them even more impressive.
Another great photomicrographer is Danny Sanchez. Danny really shows you how gem inclusions are a world of their own, and to me his shots really emphasize the depth and space inside stones. (Click here for more about Danny Sanchez' work)
The third guy you should be looking at is Nathan Renfro, whose shots show a great use of color. I like how a lot of them almost look like an abstract texture or pattern.
Thank you very much Billie for this second interview with us today. I'm sure our readers enjoyed this as much as we did. Don't forget to follow Billie and the Lotus Team on their Facebook page and or order their various books on gemology where you'll be able to see some of Billie's best shots.
As for us, our next rendez - vous will be with Jeffery "Master" Bergman from Primagem on the topic of Capital Gemstones A.K.A. investment type gems! Stay tuned and as usual,
See you soon in the Lounges,