At the Garstang: setting up photographic equipment and taking some test shots

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I had my first session at the Garstang on Wednesday. It wasn’t a proper session, per se, but one for reviewing logistics and taking a few test shots. My first project with the museum is to photograph some papyri for Gina, so I wanted to test out my photographic equipment on them. I also got to go down to the photographic suite and see how the equipment there could compliment/enhance what I already have.


The photographic suite

A man holding a strobe flashlight in a dark room. He's fiddling with the settings on the side of the light
Testing out Big Bertha, the studio strobe


The photographic suite is deep down in the bowels of Abercromby Square, firmly away from any natural daylight (which is, of course, what you want when you want to be able to control your light carefully). As you’d expect, it’s set up with backdrops and table coverings so artefacts can be photographed with a plain background. There’s also some lighting equipment, which will come in handy to enhance the kit I already have. I took the photo above when JR and I were checking to see if we could connect my camera to Big Bertha, their studio strobe light.

Obviously, the photographic suite is the best place for photographing objects; it’s a controlled environment and out of the way. But, what happens if you can’t move an artefact down to the basement?


Photographing in situ

Some of the papyri I’m photographing can’t be moved very far because their glass casing is damaged and awaiting restoration. These’ll need to be photographed in the museum’s teaching room.


A long table with several ancient Egyptian papyri laid out on it
The museum’s teaching room


The biggest problem here is lighting. The room’s lit by overhead fluorescent lights, which create horrible reflections on the glass. I could try using a polarising filter on my camera, but they only cut down, not eliminate, reflections. They also work only if the camera’s at an angle to the glass; they don’t work when the camera’s looking straight on.

I took a couple of quick test shots using the lights in the room, but even when I put a physical barrier between the fluorescent light and the glass surface, I still had reflection problems:


A closeup of a section of an ancient Egyptian papyrus showing a boat in the afterlife. There are reflections on the glass caused by the overhead light
The photographer’s nightmare world of glass reflections


The solution? I had to switch off the fluorescent lights and light the papyrus from the side. As I didn’t have any of the studio lights up in the room at the time, I had to come up with a DIY solution for the day: the LED light on my mobile phone.

Because the light on my mobile is teeny, it illuminates a small area only, the light not spreading very far. So, there was I, standing in a dark room, taking photos with a ten-second exposure (leaving the camera shutter open for ten seconds), waving a mobile phone around to spread the light evenly around the papyrus. I think you’ll agree, though, that the preliminary result is much better. Not only have the reflections gone, but the sideways lighting really brings out the texture in the papyrus. I also think it gives the papyrus a slightly ethereal, otherworldly feel to it:


The same section of papyrus with the boat, but this time it's lit from the side, eliminating the reflections and highlighting the texture in the papyrus
Lighting the papyrus from side-on with a mobile phone light


This, of course, is not a final product, but a test shot. However, when I’m back in this week, I can get my lighting set up for the best results straight away.

I also found out that if you don’t wave the phone around enough, you end up with an unintentional light painting on the glass


An ancient Egyptian papyrus held in between two sheets of glass. There's a bright, swirly pattern on the left-hand side from where a mobile phone light has been shone and moved around during a long exposure
Long-exposure light painting


Equipment set up

So, how do I set up my camera for photographing these papyri? Really, really carefully, for starters! This isn’t the kind of photography you can’t do handheld because:

  • I’ll need to use longer shutter speeds and I don’t want hand shake to blur the photos
  • If I don’t get the lighting or camera setting correct the first time and have to retake the shot, the camera will still be in its original position
  • If I’m photographing the papyrus in several parts to stitch back together in Photoshop, I need the camera to be the same distance from the papyrus in each one
  • The camera needs to be straight on, and not at an angle. I can’t do that when handholding a camera as well as when I have it set up on a tripod
  • I don’t particularly want to be leaning over irreplaceable ancient artefacts and dividing my concentration between camera and papyrus


So, I need a tripod, a couple of different lenses (one of which is a macro lens for getting really detailed shots), lighting and a remote control. The remote control lets me take a photograph without actually having to touch the camera itself. This eliminates the risk of making the camera shake when I press the button.

Here’s my camera set up in the teaching room taking some test shots. The tripod (part of the university’s kit) is great; the middle section comes up and out so you can point the camera straight down across the papyrus. As you can see, I’ve had to counterweight the back of the tripod with one of my bags (a standard counterweighting technique in the photography world) so it doesn’t topple over forwards onto the glass.


A camera on a tripod. The tripod is extending out over a table with an Egyptian papyrus on it. The camera's facing straight down towards the papyrus


I hope this gives you a bit more of an idea of what it takes to get good, professional photographs of objects. Next week, we start the photography in earnest.

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2 Responses

  1. […] But why were you in near darkness?, I hear you cry. Because of my arch-nemesis: reflections. […]

  2. […] an early session, experimenting with lighting. I was using my mobile phone as additional light, and accidentally created a light painting on the glass […]

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