1. Focus - I think this is the most important aspect of good photography. You can edit* your photos to brighten them or remove dust from the background, but you can't edit in the details of a clear photograph. If your photos are blurry, use a macro-mode for the closeup shots or step back from your jewelry until your camera is able to focus. Take your photos at the highest resolution possible and you can edit them later to bring the jewelry "closer" without losing detail. If you don't have a tripod, you can use a washer on a string to keep your camera more steady (visit Instructables.com for directions).
Royal Drops Earrings - unfocused photos look sloppy
Turquoise Loops Earrings - focused images add detail and class
2. Lighting - Use natural light to avoid the yellow/blue tint from indoor lights. Pick a window with good exposure on sunny days or go outside** on bright, cloudy days - this provides enough light to avoid dark photographs (one of my biggest problems) without overwhelming your jewelry in direct sunlight (which creates glares and shadows that dominate the photo and block the details of your jewelry). If you want to show how the piece "glitters," try a penlight (it's what gemstone photographers use to make the stones shine) instead of direct sunlight.
Au Natural Earrings - details are lost in a dark photograph
Blue Agate Stack Earrings (sold) -
with the right lighting, details jump out
Some people prefer complete control over their setup and use a lightbox. I could never get enough light to use this setup and it is more expensive. There are several tutorials online to help you make your own for less, such as this one by Studio Lighting. Another option is to use a scanner. You can get really good details on your jewelry, but sometimes the lighting is a little funky.
Winter Lace Necklace (sold) - scanner image
3. Background - Simpler is better. The less clutter and action you have in the background, the more your jewelry will stand out. This doesn't mean you have to use a black or white background; in fact, neutral tones of gray or tan would be better (and cheaper) because both light and dark jewelry shows up nicely. If you are partial to black and white backgrounds, have both on hand. Dark pieces will show up well on white, while light pieces will look nice on black.
Gothic Envy Necklace -
dark jewelry is hard to see on a dark background
dark jewelry is hard to see on a dark background
Aspen Necklace - light jewelry is visible on a dark background
Think about texture, too, when choosing a background. Velvet makes a lovely background, but you have to be careful of the smallest particles of dust showing up in your photographs. Mirrors or shiny surfaces can make nice backgrounds, but they need to be very clean to make a nice photo. I find soft, non-reflective surfaces such as handmade paper or leather make excellent backgrounds. They are fairly cheap and come in a wide variety of colors and sizes. Stay away from anything too busy (bold patterns, bright contrasting colors, etc.) - it distracts from the jewelry.
Royal Hearts Necklace - a neutral, lightly textured background
Some people like the use of props in their photos but I'm not very good at using them so I generally stay away from props. I've seen others use them to great effect, however. Props should be visually appealing, but not distracting to the piece. Your jewelry should be what stands out and shouldn't have to compete with busy props. Use the same rules as for backgrounds - props should be clean and simple. Heavy texture such as silk flowers can overwhelm the jewelry too, but shallow texture such as seashells or driftwood can work very well. If you are using a model**, keep hair neat and tucked away from the jewelry so the jewelry is on display clearly and have the model moisturize (it keeps the skin looking soft and clean, especially important for hand shots).
Carnelian Drop Earrings (sold) - simple props are best
Seashore Necklace - keep hair out of the picture
4. Head-on Shots - This is especially important if you are selling your jewelry. Show the entire piece in at least one photograph - including the clasp. Other photos may be taken at oblique angles or show only part of the piece, but at least one photo should be head-on. This angle usually captures the most details and shows off the piece the best to the customer - there is no confusion as to what is being shown and bought.
Pink Waves Necklace (sold) - Oblique angles can be artsy & fun...
...but head-on photos show off the entire piece for customer clarity
I have chosen to use my own photography because I didn't want to "show off" others poor photographs (I make plenty of my own!), although I know I can find better examples of great photography. These are not perfect, but hopefully they get the ideas and tips across. If you have other suggestions for photographing jewelry for less, I'd love to hear them!
*Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP.org) is an excellent open-source paint program. It's free and has most of the same features as Adobe Photoshop.
**Remember: Customers want to feel like they are the first ones to wear a piece of jewelry. Some people may be turned off if they see jewelry outside or on a model. You can avoid both of these issues by photographing outside on a portable background (even a blanket) or using jewelry stands (try making a jewelry stand from a rolled bit of cardboard covered in cloth or paper). Also, never model your earrings (this is unsanitary and why shops don't generally accept returns on them)!