Melissa Allen, and the Art of Gemstone Photomicrography
With twenty years of gemological experience, Melissa Allen has the ability to capture the otherworldly experience that is found within gemstones. By exploring inclusions and playing around different angles, Allen demonstrates the vast skills, patience, and precision in taking captivating photomicrographs. Learn more about Allen’s process and story by reading along below.
When did you first learn about gemstone microphotography? Did you know right away that it would end up being a passion of yours?
When I first started noticing gemology photomicrography, I never imagined that I would be able to achieve anything similar to this. It was not something in my vision for myself in any way. I have the Photoatlas set, and I love them as all gemologists do, but then I started to see inclusion photos that I loved online; Danny Sanchez really stood out to me. His photos blew me away when I first started to explore them. There was one photo of a spinel with an octahedron inclusion, and it was this photo that made me start looking deeper into how he was able to capture these images.
With twenty years of gemological experience, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Put yourself out there. Learn. Learn from school, learn from hands on experience (which is invaluable), and most importantly learn from others by listening.
We have a fantastic professional community! Find skilled and practiced people with a similar passion, and reach out to them. Ask questions and listen. We get where we are by helping each other, when we are young and fresh in this business, find people to guide and inspire you. These people will help you raise yourself to places you were not even aware existed. Then, one day the opportunity will present itself to return this, and you will be able to give back.
Can you tell us a little bit about the photomicrography process?
I always look for and keep stones on hand with inclusions. There are some days that you can pick up a stone and see nothing special under the scope, then another day you can discover the most beautiful inclusion in that same stone. I usually take out a handful of stones to play with, and briefly look at them under the scope to see if anything pops out. It is funny how often the most inconspicuous stone can hide the most beautiful inclusion! Once something catches my eye, I will refine the lighting, position, and see if I can make it really pop out. Good and ample lighting is the most important element in taking a nice photo. Good optics are very important, but not as much as good illumination. In my opinion, you can shoot a very nice photo with an average optical setup and a very good illumination, while you cannot get the same result with a top optical system if your illumination is poor. You have to be creative sometimes in building your own filters and light sources; that is really an important part of the creative process of photomicrography.
My camera permanently resides in the photo port of my microscope, and it is always connected to my computer monitor. The monitor gives me the ability to see what the camera is seeing on a large scale. Another important factor is keeping your microscope stable and free of movement. Avoiding vibration is critical when shooting at high magnification, it can really make a difference in the image being sharp. I take my time between each shot, when I adjust the focus I wait for a while to make sure there is no movement. Then I capture the shot with a remote app, thus I do not touch the camera and cause movement.
Can you elaborate on what gemology photomicrography means to you?
I have never been an artist, but it has always been a desire of mine. As I look through my scope, I immerse myself in another world with as the stone tells a story of where it came from, what it has been through. As you explore the stone its story unfolds under your eyes. It has been a means for me to find my creative side.
Originally when I started to take photos, I wanted to use my photos for educational purposes and to help people learn, but this was an idea that turned out much more complex than I had envisioned. Maybe one day I will be able to fulfill this dream.
What has been your favorite inclusion you have photographed to date? Is there any gemstone you haven’t worked with, but would like to in the future?
My favorite stone that I was ever able to work with was a Morganite with helvite inclusions, sent to me by Sid Tucker to photograph. It was a piece that the great John Koivula had worked with in the past. A tabular rough crystal with two clear natural windows, allowing you to see inside, something not very common in rough. These windows let you see the helvite triangles sprinkled throughout the stone. It is truly an amazing and special stone!
I have not had the opportunity to work with red beryl, or a nice horsetail inclusion in a demantoid garnet, yet. These I would really love to work with!
Have you found any difficulty when capturing specific gemstones throughout this process?
I definitely have issues working with certain stones. I personally struggle with getting nice shots in emeralds; they are well known to be complicated for technical reasons. I have yet to get a photograph that I really like. I would love to build a nice database on emeralds and their tell-tale inclusions that they can have.
In your work, you specifically mention if a gem has been heated or not; what effect does it have on the outcome of your images?
It is part of the story the stone can tell us. How stones and their inclusions look, and possibly change with and without treatments. If I have the ability to share location and/or treatments, I want to use this in order to help others see and learn.
Who has been your biggest inspiration with photomicrography? In general?
Both John Koivula and Danny Sanchez really inspired me. John laid the foundation for photomicrography in our business, and Danny has the adeptness to make his photos show the other world hidden inside of the stones in an incredibly beautiful way.
What have you done throughout COVID-19 to stay inspired?
I took virtual photoshop classes during the lockdown. But the stones are my escape and inspiration. If I ever lack direction or motivation, I just take out a few stones and escape to the other world they show us under the microscope. The stones are my inspiration.
We noticed you capture images from both inside and outside gemstones; in your opinion, which do you think expresses the material’s true character?
Symmetry in nature is what really captures my eye. You can often see this on the surface of a rough stone, you can see the way it grows. Many times, this is showing a symmetry, like trigons on a diamond. You can even see this inside of a stone, for example, the symmetry of the helvite inclusions inside of the morganite where they showed up as seemingly perfectly preserved 1mm triangles.
What do you find most fascinating about capturing “the inside world” of gemstones?
Looking into a stone has always been magical to me. Seeing what stories it has to tell you, as you search it. When I am able to capture and share this hidden world, I feel as if I am able to share the magic and stories with others.
Where does this process take place? How long does it normally take?
I have a study with my microscope, camera, light sources and computer setup. How long it takes varies so much. When David Baker, GG, let me photograph his four rough colored diamonds, I spent two days taking photos. Changing the angle or lighting here and there can give a completely different perspective, and make a feature pop out that had been hidden. After the two days spent on the photos, it took another few days going through them all stacking and editing only a portion of them. Other days, I can get two good photos in a few hours.
Gemology photomicrography allows one to escape into the “micro world” of a gemstone.
To see more of Melissa Allen’s enticing work, and to venture into the magical world that gemstones have to offer, go to gemologyresources.com and follow along on Instagram @gemmomel