Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Photographing the Small Stuff

So we've looked at 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional photography, and now we're going to focus on all those tiny artifacts in the museum. This can include coins, buttons, pins, small stone tools, lead shot, badges and medals, etc etc. We've got lots of little stuff, and it requires special attention.

1. Set the camera to macro. This is the little flower icon, and allows you to get much closer with the camera lens. With the Passage-supplied cameras, you should be able to get within 5-10cm of the object. Don't forget to you use this setting on larger objects as well when you want to get a detail shot. And all those ceramics, silver, and other stuff with makers marks stamped on the bottom - macro is your best friend.

  2. Use your tripod. Since the macro setting sets a longer exposure time, the camera needs to be absolutely still for the the image to be clear. Try as you might, a shot without a tripod will not be as good as one with a tripod. Small tabletop tripods are also available and well worth the investment if you have a large collection of tiny artifacts.

3. Use the self-timer. This is another very helpful tool when using macro and a tripod. Set the timer to two seconds (or something comparably short) and push the button. So if your hand bumps the edge of the camera or the pressure of pushing the button moves the camera slightly, the lapse in time allows for everything to settle before the shot is taken. It also ensures that the longer exposure takes place without movement, thereby giving you a much clearer image.

If you are comfortable playing with your camera settings, you can also try adjusting the aperture (generally speaking, a larger f-stop number gets you a better close-up shot), but the auto settings coupled with macro should give you a decent image.

Ok, now let's look at some tiny artifacts from our collections.

First up is a lovely fake tortoiseshell hair comb. It's small, but not tiny. However, the detail of the marbled plastic can quickly be lost if the picture is not taken close-up. One of the general artifact photography rules is to centre the object in the shot, but if the scale is larger than the object, this can really ruin the aesthetics of the shot.

In terms of setup, this is a great 3d artifact image. The object is dark so the light background fabric was used to provide contrast, the scale is pretty straight, the image is cropped, and the colour is decent (a bit dark). But where the object is so small, the scale is a little overpowering. So again using Picasa, I cropped out the edge of the scale so that the measurements are still visible, but the scale becomes less of a focal point. The only thing that would have made the shot even better would have been putting the comb closer to the scale so that it would be truly centred in the shot.
Remember, the scale is not what you are photographing. It is a reference point that should be included, but it's perfectly acceptable to crop out one side, or in the case of this, the outer edges of both sides.

Here's a tiny object with even more cropping. Since the ends of the scale would have left a lot of dead space in the shot that would take away from the artifact, they were cropped out. But we can still tell that this object is about 4cm in length and 2cm in diameter. As with the hair comb above, the object should be a bit closer to the scale, and a few little fine touches would have improved the shot, but you get the idea.
What if you don't have a scale? I know that some sites have made their own, or have tried to use a normal ruler instead. If for some reason you cannot have a scale in the picture, follow the same steps above and focus on centring the artifact (and don't forget to crop once you transfer the image to the computer). Here we have a biface from the south shore. Since this object is very light in colour, it was photographed on a dark background. The macro setting was used, which is why so much detail in the stone can be seen.  The photographer took the time to play with the camera settings to ensure that the aperture, ISO, and white balance produced a high-quality image. The tripod and timer were used to ensure that a clear image was captured (I'm not just making all this up, I was there when the image was taken).  The measurements are noted in the object record, which means that even without the scale, the audience will still know the size of the object.

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