On an early Spring morning I took a train to Stowmarket to visit the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL). My travel companion was Dudley Hubbard, Senior Photographer at the British Museum for the past 28 years, who had kindly agreed to take the trip to share his expertise on object photography. We were going to meet Lois Garrod-Smith, the Museum Futures Trainee at MEAL, and Caitlin Peck, the Curator.
Lois and Caitlin are working on a project called Search for the Stars, which will transfer the records of all MEAL’s objects from old-fashioned index cards to an online and publicly accessible system called E-Hive. As they are going through every single object’s record and storage location to get them all online, this is their chance to check condition of objects and highlight “star” objects in their collections. It’s also a chance to take high quality digital photographs of each object. They think they have around 40,000 objects. That’s like trying to take a professional head-shot of every football fan at a packed Goodison Park stadium in Liverpool (Curator Caitlin also happens to be an Everton fan).
What I learned on this trip is that you can do excellent object photography even at speed and even when your photo studio is a shed within a shed. All you need is a digital camera, lights, some simple materials like mirrors and polystyrene, and a bit of experimentation. This trip also gave me the opportunity to see Lois in action and lean more about her experience as a Museum Futures trainee.
One of Lois’ first tasks as a trainee was to help set up a dedicated photography space at MEAL. Lois is self-taught in photography and the traineeship is her first job in the museum sector. Lois explains her reason for applying: “Having felt that university was not the right path for me I have tried to get into roles that would start my heritage career however I have been unsuccessful. I feel this is mainly down to my lack of qualification which is what this programme can assist me with”.
After three months in the traineeship, Lois is proving to be a brilliant addition to the team and she is already making tremendous progress on the Cultural Heritage Diploma. Lois is also from Stowmarket - she walks from her house to MEAL everyday - so it is an added benefit of the traineeship that she get to learn about the local history of the area.
Before this trip, the only other dedicated museum photography space I had seen was in the British Museum: the Sepulchral Photo Studio (Sepulchral is BM’s select way of saying ‘basement’).
This sprawling space is home to four studios, 3D shooting sets, a digital scanning suite, and some really expensive cameras. And a team of photographers who have been honing their craft at the British Museum for a combined 100+ years.
By the time Dudley and I visited MEAL, Caitlin and Lois had been improving their object photography through trial and error and were taking good record shots, just maybe not as quickly or consistently as they would have liked. Dudley’s mission was to try and distill his wealth of experience into a few pointers so that they can maximise the efficiency and quality of photography. This would also allow then to train volunteers on the process.
One of the first things Dudley was able to help with was the lighting in the shed. We reduced the ambient light by simply covering the overhead room lights with sheets of paper. Then we were able to turn up and focus the lights on the object: one main bright light, one side light, and one above light. More light meant a lower (faster) shutter speed on the camera, which would help reduce the impact of any vibrations or movement in the shed. Then Dudley showed us how to incorporate different objects that reflect light including walls, sheets, and white cardboard.
Next, we narrowed down the ideal camera settings for use in the shed. Dudley shared a simple tool called the grey card which I had never seen before. A grey card is used to figure out the correct exposure and white balance setting on the camera. The middle part of this card is 18% grey (or “middle grey”), which is an important number because 18% grey is what your camera is trying to calculate when it meters to expose for a scene. This means if you put a grey card in front of an object, and take a meter reading off it, you will get a correct exposure.
Additionally, you can take a photo of just the grey card and use this to easily set a custom white balance. This is especially important when taking record shots as you are trying to accurately recreate colors of the objects.
When it was time to test the new lighting and camera settings, Caitlin and Lois selected several objects that showed the diversity of MEAL’s social history collection. With the help of Dudley’s insights and a few props, I could see the the photos improving right before my eyes.
Object one was a Parrafin container. Originally, the texture of the black velvet background was too noticeable in the shot, and this was remedied by moving the object away from the background (away from the wall in this case). The parrafin container is also a good example of why MEAL is not using a photo light box, which is often used for object photography. For one, it probably wouldn’t fit in most boxes, and if it did the box would immediately get dirty. We recreated the effect of a light box by bouncing light off the white wall on one side of the object and adding a white cardboard box on the other side.
The second object was a postcard. The postcard was placed on a stand and photographed at a perpendicular angle to the stand so it still appears straight on.
The third object was a printing block with very small marks on it. The subtle details were made visible in the photo by using raking light – bringing the bright light parallel to the object and illuminating across the surface.
It was extremely rewarding to see how small props and adjustments to lights can make a big difference. Almost as rewarding is seeing the Museum Futures trainees starting to make a great impact at their museums.