Object and Collection Photography and Digitisation

Object and Collection Photography and Digitisation

It’s the subject I get asked about the most… How can I photograph my collection, cheaply, quickly and easily? Well, sadly there is no easy fix to object and collections photography. To digitise your collection properly takes, time, effort and money.

However large or small your collection is, you should recognise that to photograph a collection is a skill in itself, and often a full time occupation. Have a look at this blog from the British Museum about their photography or this excellent Instagram from Metropolitan Museum of Art’s imaging centre. From these links you can see just how many resources can be directed towards object and collections photography. Just as you have studied and practised for years to do the job you do, a photographer is the same. It is not reasonable to expect an amateur or a volunteer who owns a camera to produce the same level of quality that a professional with years of experience is capable of. Yet many times I have seen images on museum databases that are sub museum standard simply because they were rushed or made by a amateur or non heritage photographer who didn’t know any better.   Fortunately there are ways you can save some money, learn the skills necessary and simplify, to a certain degree, the process.

Firstly decide what the outcome or your aim is. Is it object photography for the catalogue or a specific project or exhibition? If you have a limited number of objects to photograph then it is probably easier to outsource the task to a professional, such as myself.  A professional photographer can provide an excellent service photographing small numbers of objects quickly and efficiently.  A photographer is a good option when you need special objects photographed, for example large or oversized objects, which may be difficult to photograph without specialist equipment or objects that cannot be moved.  Also, a pro photographer is a great option when time is limited or you need images of a very high quality for example images for exhibition catalogues or press releases (you can always use these for your CMS too).   You should always hire a heritage photographer, who has experience in museum object photography, collection and object handling, and is mindful of the conservation requirements of the objects they are photographing. A well meaning wedding photographer for example might give you a great image, but they also might break your object and charge you licensing fees for the next 5 years.  

For large object collections and complete catalogue or CMS photography, it would likely prove too expensive to outsource and the best option would then be a full time digitisation officer. A digitisation officer can offer a service beyond object photography and can assist in many aspects of your curatorial practices such as the presentation and organisation of your catalogue and help research your collection.

Funding options are available for digital asset management and staff, however if your budget is tight, the only option is to roll your sleeves up and do it yourself.   Now this can be a daunting task.   Many curators or museum professionals feel intimidated by the pressure of learning to photograph objects correctly. However, don’t see this as a problem, but as an opportunity. You get to learn a great new hobby, and it can be fun… I love taking object photographs, its one of my favourite things to do.

Firstly you need training. I can provide training designed to get you to a level of proficiency and confidence in which you can make a start photographing your collection. I usually advise a three-day programme but can tailor a training course to your needs depending on the objects you are working with and the number of people being trained.

You should also remember that photography is a skill and it takes time to get the hang of it.   But within three days I can get you to a point at which you can produce reasonable images that conform to the industry standards and which can act as part of your CMS or catalogue.

The next thing you need is equipment. Many smaller museums I’ve worked with, have taken the advice of a well meaning amateur and rushed out and bought equipment that is far from what is actually needed. Uncle Henry and his new DSLR may mean well, and have lots of back copies of Amateur Photographer to look at, but not necessarily the experience or knowledge of this niche museum activity. A little time and research will reward you with a much more suitable system for your needs. I can also advise on equipment and have in the past tailored a gear list for specific collections and their objects. By doing some research into your collection and armed with your budget, I can produce a list of equipment that will be far more suitable, and cheaper, than if you walk blindly into a camera store… for example – there’s no need to spend a fortune on macro lenses without a very large collection of small objects.  

As with all things, the more you spend on equipment the better, however even a modest (well chosen) budget can create great imagery. I would advise anyone that there are 5 definitive pieces of photographic equipment you need – a camera, a decent lens, lighting, colour management tool and the best computer you can afford. Apart from the computer, the other pieces of equipment needn’t be the highest priced or most expensive. If you target your equipment to your needs, even budget equipment will start you off on your journey into object photography.

There are two other things you need to complete a collection object digitisation project… Space and Time.

You should try and dedicate a small area for photography close to your object stores but in a place that is out of the way, with minimal light interference from windows, skylights or office lighting. This means you don’t have to break down your gear every time you finish a day’s photography. It also means that you can keep a setup that works for your objects, and tailor your process to reduce the risk of damage to objects or integrate photography into your normal curatorial, cleaning or collections management programme.   This is far more beneficial than simply photographing objects at random and will make integrating photographs into your collections management system much easier.  I can provide advice on how to setup a space for your photography and will include this during any equipment advice I give.

One thing I cannot provide is time.   It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a collections photography project will only take a short amount of time, or to overestimate how many objects you are capable of photographing during a session. I’ve also seen other photographers wildly quote to digitise entire collections within a few weeks, and charge accordingly. These projects are bound to fail. Even a modest collection of 10,000 objects will take a number of years to catalogue, photograph, and edit correctly. Yet it is your organisation that will be left with substandard imagery and an astronomical photography bill that could have been better spent with a little expert guidance.  So beware of photographers baring amazing time frames… they are undoubtedly talking rubbish.

It is a simple fact that to photograph an object requires a process as unique as each of your objects. Every object needs careful thought and attention, meticulous lighting and positioning, careful colour correction and editing, and exacting cataloguing and data management.     In the beginnings of your project, you should be satisfied to be photographing between 5-10 objects per day.   With a little time and experience, it is reasonable to assume you can photograph anywhere between 15-30 objects per day, including all of the data management and editing, depending on the types of objects you hold.   Larger objects or unusually shaped or complex objects take longer, whereas simple objects, like coins, can be photographed quickly once the correct setup has been achieved.

But even these estimates show how long a full digitisation programme can take. It is a lengthy process and requires dedication and commitment, as well as a lot of time and patience.   It is no accident that the larger national museums have dedicated photography studios and full time teams of photographers.  

But do not despair… the first step is to drop me an email to discuss your options. I will always give honest, open advice whether that is a direct commission to photograph some of your collection, some training or equipment advice, or assistance and guidance into a larger collections photography project and funding. Get in touch!


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