Taking photos of fossils in museums

As part of my huge and ongoing (but nearly finished) series of posts on material from the Carnegie museum, it was suggested in the comments that I write about the methods I use to take photos. I doubt there’s anything I can say that an experienced photographer can’t tell you already, but there are a couple of special issues that can come up and it’s something not everyone is likely used to dealing with. As such, I’ll run though it all and hope it helps a few people.

First off, the camera. I’ve always said you can take great shots with a cheap point-and-shoot and you can take terrible ones with a massively expensive SLR. That said it’s much easier to take great photos and harder to take bad ones with a good camera, so if you can afford to invest, it will make a big difference. Aside from that I don’t want to say much about cameras and lenses and settings as, well that’s part of good photography in general rather than taking photos of dinosaurs, but clearly if you want a good photo of the head of a sauropod or the details of a pterosaur strung from the ceiling, you need a good zoom and / or a macro lens. I take most of my stuff in dinosaur halls with about a 25 mm and then I have a 70-300mm zoom for details.

Next up, framing. Obviously how you frame your photo depends on what you want out at the other end, but there are some things to consider. First of all, line up the shot and check all around the edge of the frame that you have everything you want in place. Are all the feet in the bottom of the frame, the tip of the tail in there, the top of the head? Maybe the tail curves away and is hidden behind the body, so if you want it in there, you might have to move. If you want the photo to be of a specific element, consider taking the photo at an angle. For example if the head is angled down, then you’d naturally take a photo that showed that, but you can rotate the camera so the head runs straight left-to-right across the frame. The background may now look odd (beams or windows all crooked) but the bone is better illustrated. Try and make sure there are no people in the frame, or minimise where they are.

Don’t be afraid to adopt odd posture or lean out and round things to get the shot you want. Obviously be careful of your possessions and the material on display, but you can stretch an arm out over a balcony, or put the camera through a gap. A bit of practice and experience and you can get good shots even when you can’t see the viewfinder.

Be mindful of shadows and light. Your eyes adjust brilliantly to things that a camera won’t. Watch out for bright spots from reflections on glass or off metal supports, shafts of light from windows, or things being hidden in deep shadow. A lot of modern museums really like lots of small spotlights and these are great for eleminating odd shadows, but terrible for making bright spots on your photos. My technique is to alter the angle of the shot such that as many of these as possible are behind the bones, or *just* out of shot. Try enough positions and you should get the kind of shot you want with few, or even, none of these.

Try and avoid using the flash. Dinosaur mounts are a pain to clean and are often dusty, and the bones and mounts can be really quite shiny. A flash shot might get better illumination but it might be full of reflections and all the bones show up grey. So if possible, avoid it, and instead stick the ISO up on the camera and put the exposure time up. You can compensate with a tripod, or even just practice and a steady hand. Leaning on railings also helps keep things steady, or you can balance the camera on a bad or rolled-up jersey to get the shot you want.

In the case of cabinets, you might need to stick the flash on, so shoot at 45 degrees to the plane of the glass, or put the lens flush against the glass, both should stop flare. You can also use yourself to help block out reflections and make a nice dark area on the glass. Hold the camera with one hand (if you can) and use the other to block out spotlights behind you, drape a jersey off your arm, or even tie it around your thighs to hand between your calves. Little things like this can make a small difference and a few of them can add up.

Take lots of photos. With modern digital cameras you can take dozens and throw out loads of bad stuff. Even if it looks fine, take a couple again. If you’re not sure about things, take photos with different settings (flash on or off etc.) and at different ranges or angles. Taking things at subtly different angles can make nice pairs to show off details. If you have time, check some of them on your screen or even download them and check them on a laptop.

Take photos of signs. It’s nice and quick and can give a good reference for all manner of specimens and details. Try and shoot one specimen at a time so nothing is mixed up. Do sort your photos as soon as you can so you know exactly what close-up fits to which specimen.

Finally remember you can tweak things afterwards. You can always adjust tone, colour and exposure on the computer. You can rotate things a bit and crop out errors etc.

Right, that’s it from me, I hope this helps a few of you the next time you’re surrounded with dinosaurs on display.

3 Responses to “Taking photos of fossils in museums”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 21/12/2011 at 10:11 am

    See also the SV-POW! tutorial on how to photograph big bones. That is about shooting in collections rather than public galleries but much of the same advice pertains.

  1. 1 Dinopic of the day 17: for old times sake | dinosaurpalaeo Trackback on 21/12/2011 at 1:45 pm
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