Big and Beautiful! Large Object Photography for access and digitisation.

Big and Beautiful! Large Object Photography for access and digitisation.

So… Recently I have had a couple of enquiries about oversized or extremely large object photographs.  And so I thought I would try and explain the process.

All museums have these large objects. Some are so big they cannot be displayed, but as they are accessioned objects we need to care for them, and hopefully digitise them to increase access.

But where to begin?

If you have a photography department (lucky you!) then first point of call should be your expert photographers. If they can’t complete the task, or you are not equipped to photograph the object yourself, then send me an email, I’m certain that together we can find a solution.

 There are a couple of factors to think about when trying to photograph extremely large or awkward objects.  And like many museum-based activities, it’s a case of fail to plan – plan to fail.

Large object photography for museum collections and digitisation

Firstly is the size. I say this without any attempt to be funny. Many museums can find their objects are difficult or (occasionally) impossible to take out of storage. Some have been reconstructed inside doorways, or doorways have been changed without consideration for these objects.   Therefore it is necessary to photograph them in-situ. This means taking equipment to it and preparing the space around the object in order to photograph it correctly.  

This is where the second factor comes into play – its weight.  Can the object be lifted in such a way to allow a backdrop to be pulled underneath it? If not, what is the surface on which it stands like? Careful lighting and some tricks of the trade can reduce the distracting elements that cant be removed but these can be time consuming and fiddly.

Next we need to consider the ambient lighting of the space… this is usually less of a problem, as museums tend to store their objects in darkness. But just in case, can all ambient light be eliminated?

After we have formed a safe, and careful plan we can begin the setup.  This inevitably means moving surrounding objects and getting as much space around the object as possible. Then we set up a backdrop and base around the object – this is highly dependent upon its material and construction. Irregular shapes and awkward footings can prove tricky but in true Blue Peter fashion, some careful snipping and plenty of Acid free paper, something can usually be fashioned.  

They key to large object photography is careful composition and lighting setup. Getting it right can take time and is a labour of love, to hide the backdrop and base (and possibly our make-do-and-mend improvised fixes) and really highlight the details of the object itself. This will hopefully let the story of the object show very clearly; its life, its tangibility and its use are the things that we want to show off to our visitors. It takes a bit of trial and error to get this right in camera.

After careful lighting and compositional consideration the picture is ready to take… a lot of effort for a few milliseconds but worth it to have a highly detailed, museum standard image of a magnificence object.

It is such a shame that so many of these large and difficult-to-work-with objects languish in storerooms across the world, simply because they are difficult to deal with. They are usually the last to be photographed during a object digitisation programme yet can have the greatest impact. High quality object photography can give these objects a new lease of life, improve access to them and thereby increase exposure and research potentials around them, and your museum. Dust them off and give me a call… you won’t regret it!

But what of objects that aren’t part of a collection or need some geographical context to place them in your museum or heritage sites’ story?   I’m thinking of archaeological objects, standing stones, and elements of your buildings or even the surrounding area that form part of your site of special interest’s story.

Alfred Maudslay 1895. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

It may seem that photography of these objects is easier than a massive object in storage. However, as many of these things are open to the elements, there are additional considerations. Essentially what needs to happen is that the photographer has to transport his entire studio into the field. The uncertainly of natural light, the weather, the flora and fauna – all of these things tend to hinder the photography of in-situ objects… I know – my PhD was based on such a photographer, way back in the 1880’s in the jungles of Central America. These days, however, we have modern portable lighting and rain protection. But planning and careful consideration still needs to inform any shoot, with your intended use and goals for the image being placed at the centre of how we go about photographing such objects.   Again, I have a lot of experience photographing similar features of historic houses or sites of special interest, and can provide high quality imagery for your use.