Based in Los Angeles, Danny Sanchez is probably one of a select few gemstone enthusiasts to actively seek out imperfection. When something foreign is trapped inside a gemstone as it’s forming, it becomes an ‘inclusion’, and these can be anything from other rocks or water droplets to particles of gas or petroleum. In diamonds, an inclusion will damage the clarity of the stone, which makes it much less valuable, but if the inclusion in your piece of amber happens to be the remnants of a million-year-old spider, it’s safe to say you’re onto a pretty good investment.
Inclusions are at the very centre of Sanchez’s incredible photography. Digging through bin after bin at gemstone trade shows across the US, Sanchez will pick out a stone and examine it with his 10x microscope loupe and a fibre optic light to get a sense of how it would photograph under the microscope.
“I’ve got to hit all the gem shows and all the local events,” Sanchez told Doug Bierend at Wired. “I like the ones that are flawed. They’ve got the stuff inside them. I’m actually lucky in that regard because people don’t want them, so I get to pay less for them.”
Photographing these inclusions is no small feat, as most of them are objects the size of a pinhead inside another object the size of a pea. Using fibre optic tubes, Sanchez takes the time to light the gemstone under his microscope, before photographing it using many different depths of field. He then combines more than a hundred photographs into a single, perfect image.
"Once it's lit, I take a sequence of photographs at different focus distances. In microscopy, there is very little depth of field but with a technique called focus stacking we can manufacture depth of field with many many images and software designed to smash them all together to render depth ... Depending on how deep the inclusion is, it can take up to 120 shots just to make the final product."
Stacking is a super-hard technique to get right, says Bierend at Wired, but it gives the photographer the ability to move the focus by mere microns at a time, "allowing for super-fast exposures at different points along the inclusions”.
While his photography is mainly a labour of love, Sanchez says when he meets up with researchers who also practice photomicrography, his work gives them the ability to see how different materials are making their way into precious minerals. “They’re interested in documenting, ‘Oh this material is found in conjunction with this material, how interesting - we should document that,’” he told Bierend. “[But] there’s only so much conversation that someone like that can have with me before we just totally diverge on our technique.”
View some of Danny Sanchez's images below, and head to his website to view more.