Monday, February 14, 2011

Photographing Artifacts - the good, the bad, and the ugly

I'd like to dedicate this blog post to Miriam Harris, a conservator who is also an instructor in Fleming College's Collections Conservation and Management Program.  Miriam trained me in artifact photography, and while our entire class always complained about how strict she was with her marking of our before & after treatment photos, it all makes sense now.  I get it.  Thanks Miriam :)

To date, 45,199 artifact and archival photos have been gathered for the great data migration to CollectiveAccess.  Being a curious person, I've been conducting quick checks of these images - partially to see what's hiding in Nova Scotia's community museum collections, and partially to conduct a little quality assurance.  It's been a couple of years since I've done on-site training in photography, so looking at these photos has been a great way to see how much training has "stuck".  There are some really great images, as well as some not-so-great images.  So I thought I'd share a few samples of artifact photos, and explain what makes them good, or note how they could be improved.  I will not say where these photos are from because this isn't about praising or embarrassing anyone; this is about learning and improving ourselves.

The Good:  brown silk, cotton and buckram hat with flowers

As Mary Poppins would say, this image is "practically perfect in every way". 
What's right:  the natural positioning on the head form allows you to see both the top and side of the hat, and gives an understanding of the front and back details; the background fabric provides a good contrast to the dark brown, the scale is tucked close without interfering with the symmetry of the photograph, and the image has been neatly cropped to give the photo a framed effect.

What could be improved:  if you want to get really picky, there are some slight shadows and a couple of wrinkles in the background fabric.

The Bad: white cotton blouse
Textiles should be photographed on a mannequin or dress form.  If you don't have one, find a local seamstress or tailor who can lend you theirs.

What's right: the entire blouse is in the picture, the colour is pretty good, and the scale lets us know the size.

What's wrong: the photo is a bit blurry and shadowed, the scale is up to the right instead of in the lower left, the blouse isn't buttoned and isn't even on the hanger straight.  The background fabric should be darker to provide better contrast and wrinkles should have been ironed out (only in the background fabric, not in the blouse). 

The Ugly: a chair
Furniture should be photographed similarly to the hat above, angled so you can see all 3 dimensions and lots of construction details - hardware, moulding, inlays, upholstery, carved detailing etc.

What's wrong:  I'm not sure which chair I'm supposed to be looking at and neither of them are entirely in the shot, the image is overexposed due to all the sunlight from the window so the colour is off, there's no background fabric or scale, the chair doesn't fill the frame, and the image becomes very grainy in the lower right.

The Unbelievable: knitting needles
This is quite possibly one of my favorite artifact photos ever, so here's what I have to say about it:
Yes this is only a summer job, but you still need to be professional.  A good reference can go a long way, and a bad one can lose you your dream job.  So if you are going to document your 2008 wardrobe choices in an artifact photo, at least pretend to be interested instead of sitting slouched back in a chair with the camera barely capturing the needles.
Also, I can see the accession number on one of the needles and the image is overexposed at the top.

What's important to remember here is that our new database system is going to be wide open; your artifacts will be available for all the world to see.  So if you're photographing your collection you have to take the time to get a high quality image because these will be a direct reflection of your museum's level of professionalism.  If you are assigning this task to summer students, make sure you train them instead of assuming that they know how to take good artifact photos.  Trust me, they don't know how (unless Miriam or someone like her trained them before they started, in which case you should be able to ask for their portfolio of work).  You have to be checking on their work regularly to make sure it's of high quality.  We want to be as professional as possible, especially since these images will be seen by the general public.  So take the extra five minutes; it will be worth it.


J Goreham-Penney said...

I think that photo-documenting artefacts is my least-favourite part of collections care. Just yesterday I was frustrated from photo-documenting a silverware collection.

Karin said...

Shiny stuff is always frustrating, but there is something very satisfying about getting that great shot.

Mindy Bowls said...

Yay for Miriam!

L said...

These are good tips for any photo taking really (I supposed I don't always have to worry about the scale being bottom left, but now I know).
"The unbelievable: Knitting needles" is my favourite picture too!

Sarah said...

For imaging shiny objects a "light tent" is the best option. It is most often a cube made from a semi translucent fabric. The opening in the front allows you to take the picture, but the sides and top allow for minimal reflection of other objects in the room. You also get a very balanced light. Search Youtube for DIY options.