Thursday, March 14, 2013

Photographing Artifacts

     Part of keeping records on museum artifacts involves documenting them with photographs.  Photos help to provide a record of an artifact’s condition, as well as a means of identification.  So, a good curator or collection manager needs a basic knowledge of photography.  Photography has been sort of a hobby of mine since high school, plus I was fortunate enough to have once had an intern who was a photography student.  So, while I’m not a professional photographer, I can at least get some decent artifact photos!
Here is a fairly typical artifact photo from my museum’s data base. It shows three musket balls against a black background, with a photographic reference scale. The scale helps to show the artifact’s size and color. 
The background is a black cloth. Paper can be used as well, as long as it is acid-free to protect the artifact.

I prefer to use a black background in most of my photos. Here it provides a nice contrast to this light-colored Morning Report.

Glass artifacts, especially clear glass ones, can be tricky to photograph! They tend to either blend into the background, or to reflect too much light which obscures the details. You can see in this shot of a glass eye cup that there is some reflection, but that the details (including the small chip in the glass) are still visible. I just won’t tell you how many shots it took me to get this one!

Sometimes I need to use different colored backgrounds. The black case for this portrait would have disappeared against a black background. These are supposed to be documentary photos and not “artsy” ones, so it’s best to stay with neutral colors like this gray. 

White can be a good background color as well. These Civil War field glasses show up well against this background.

I have to get more creative with the larger artifacts. I didn’t have a background cloth large enough for this flag, so I used something else I had on hand – acid-free white tissue paper.

     Sometimes though, I do have to leave the photographs to the professionals.  The NMCWM was recently contacted by National Geographic about getting photos of a few of our artifacts for an article they will be doing on Civil War medicine.  They sent one of their photographers to take the photos, but of course I was there to handle the artifacts.

Here’s the National Geographic photographer setting up for the photo shoot. I have to admit, that’s quite a camera! At 80 megapixels it makes my 10 megapixel museum camera look pretty puny.

 She had quite a bit of equipment to set up before she could photograph any of the artifacts.

My job of positioning the artifact was pretty simple by comparison!

I can’t wait to see how these shots look when they are published!

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


  1. very interesting! i photograph stone tools and am always on the look-out for tips and new ideas!

    all the best in 2014!

  2. Hi, I have a question. I am a private collector photographing and documenting historical artifacts of a famous ancestor (Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith). I note in your photographs, and those of the NPS, the color square with measuring guide. What is this item called? I wish to purchase one. Thank you.

    Jeff Smith

  3. They are photographic reference scales, sometimes simply called photo scales. A Google search should bring up plenty of options for you!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I came across your blog while searching for stock photos of museum artifact photography. A facilitate a group of teens who are volunteering at a museum, and one of their tasks was to photograph a collection of native american artifacts. What a unique set of skills- learned with lots of trial and error. The teens will enjoy reading through your blog. Thanks!