Tutorial 8: how to photograph big bones

February 12, 2010

Since I started taking photographs of sauropod vertebrae back in 2004, I’ve got much, much better at it, and for the last few months I’ve been meaning to write an article about what I’ve learned along the way.  A few weeks ago, fellow SV-POW!er Ranger Matt Wedel posted an article on his 10 Minute Astronomy blog on how to photograph the moon through binoculars, and that served as a prod to get back into blogging gear in the post-Christmas season.

Before I launch in, let me be really clear that I am not a proper photographer — not at all.  I don’t even know what an F-stop is or what Single Lens Reflex means.  Probably I should invest some time into learning some of this, since specimen photographs are so important in the world of sauropod vertebrae.  (After all, the specimens are more than a little cumbersome to loan, so photos often have to stand as proxies for the actual specimens.)  Nevertheless, what I’ve learned in the last five or six years has got me to the point where I am producing much, much better specimen photographs than when I started, and I hope at least some of you can benefit from what I’ve learned.

The very best (and still very bad) of the first batch of Archbishop photographs I took, back in July 2004. Note that it's not square on, doesn't fit in the frame, that it's over-exposed and (as you'll see if you click through to the full-sized version) both blurry and infested with artifacts. Compare with the recent photo at the end of this article. Copyright the NHM since it's their material.

Equipment

Camera

First up, get a decent camera.  However skilled you are, you can’t take better photos than the hardware allows.  Although I am to blame for the composition above and for some of blurriness, the over-exposure, poor definition and artifacts are the fault of the camera.  I was using a truly horrible camera back then — some super-cheap list-of-features-on-a-discount-website piece of kit.

The good news is that a “decent” camera doesn’t need to break the bank: for our purposes you don’t need to spend a fortune on professional-photographer standard equipment.  I am looking on ebay right now, and it seems you can get my model of camera for £100 in the UK or $150 in the US (second-hand of course) which is a level of investment we really should be prepared to put into one of the most important aspects of descriptive work.

What constitutes a decent camera?  Mostly, optics.  These days, every camera has more than enough megapixels for most purposes, so you can just forget about that statistic altogether.  It’s about the quality of the lens and the size of the CCD — those are the factors that determine how much information the camera can capture, and if it puts out more bits than that, then all it’s doing is wasting disk-space and bandwidth.

Can I justify the claim that all modern cameras have enough megapixels?  I think so.  Suppose you’re preparing a full-page plate for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  In practice, plates are nearly always composites of several photos, but suppose you want a single shot filling the whole plate.  The printable area of a JVP page is 182 x 233 mm, which is 7.2 x 9.2 inches.  At 300 dpi, that’s 2161 x 2752 pixels, which is 5947072, or a slice under 6 megapixels.  So 6 Mp is enough for a full-page plate.  (For what it’s worth, my camera does 2272 x 1704 = 3.8 megapixels, and I have never found myself feeling a need for more resolution.)

For the same reason, you definitely want optical zoom rather than digital zoom, which really amounts to just blowing up the image.

Accessories

Another big win: get a spare battery, so that one can be recharging while you’re using the other.  If you don’t do that, your camera is out of commission half the time.

And get a big enough memory card.  What’s “big enough”?  For me, that means enough space to hold a whole day’s images so I can do a single dump onto the laptop in the evening, rather than having to keep stopping to transfer.  I can take maybe a maximum of 300 photos a day.  With 1 Mb images, that means I need a 300 Mb card, which is chickenfeed.  You literally can’t buy cards that small any more, so this is not really a factor these days and I might just as well not have mentioned it.  (The reason I did mention it is that my camera originally came with a 16 Mb card or something similarly stupid, which meant ten minutes or so of photography before downloading.)

Horrible photograph of a Brachiosaurus altithorax dorsal (holotype specimen FMNH P25105, natch), showing how NOT to compose a picture.

Composition

In the photo above, I did everything wrong.  The vertebra is cropped partly out of the frame, it’s viewed from an uninformative angle, it has a scalebar obscuring part of the bone, and the background is a mess.  Here are five simple rules to avoid badgering it up like I did here:

Get the specimen in frame

I know it sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reviewed my photos, picked one that is good in other respects, and realised that I’ve trimmed a bit off the end of a diapophysis or something.

Shoot from cardinal directions

Also  really important.  I am not (of course) saying that you should never get photos from any directions but the cardinals, but if you come home from photographing a vertebra and you don’t have shots from in front, behind, above and left and right lateral, you’d better have a good reason why not.  Only by getting all of these can you make informative composites like the ones of the Archbishop that I’ve been posting lately.

Don’t put anything in front of the specimen

Again this sounds terribly obvious, but I’ve got it wrong many, many times.  The most common culprits are scalebars (as in the picture above) and the tops of the sandbags that a specimen is resting on, obscuring the bottom of the centrum.  I know some people find it useful to have photos with scalebars in them: that’s fine; just don’t forget to also take some without the scalebars.

Use a plain background when possible.

Of course you don’t always have this luxury, but some collections have big white sheets of pleasantly rigid styrofoam that you have prop up behind your specimens to good effect — see the last photo in this post for an example.  Yes, you’re probably going to photoshop the background out later anyway, but it is much, much quicker and easier to remove a near-white more-or-less solid background than a busy one — especially if the background is similar in colour to the specimen, as for example when a brown bone has wood behind it.

But the good news is that all these problems can be ameliorated if you follow the last and most important rule in this section which is:

Take many shots and keep only the good ones

I remember reading once, long ago, that the single biggest factor in the difference of quality between a professional photographer’s work and an amateur’s is that the pro takes ten times as many shots and throws 90% of them away.  In these days of digital cameras with huge memory cards, we can all make like professionals now.  When Matt and I were at the Field Museum in Chicago, we took 168 photos of those Brachiosaurus dorsals alone.  Of those, maybe a dozen or so are really worth keeping.  But at least I have those dozen.

In general, I take every photograph twice.  As I’ve got better at taking the photos, I am increasingly finding that both come out well and it’s a toss-up which to keep, but maybe one time in ten or twenty, one of them just doesn’t come out right — something is wrong with the focus, or the camera shakes, or something — and that’s when I’m glad I have the spare.

Another terrible photo, this time with the flash washing out all the detail of the neural spine of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype HMN SII, 8th cervical, in left lateral view.

Lighting

Flash

I have found that it is generally best to avoid using the camera’s flash unit: more often than not it just washes out all the detail, as in the Giraffatitan cervical above.  You’d never guess it from this photo, but the lateral faces of that spine are delicately and elaborately sculpted.  Having said that, using flash does sometimes seem to improve a photo — I’ve not been able to put together a mental model of when it does and doesn’t, so I will often take a photo (or pair) without flash and an otherwise identical one with, and see which works better.

On the other hand, my camera’s built-in flash is pretty lame.  Expensive flash units might do much better.

Other lights

I have had varying success in posing external light-sources to illuminate vertebrae.  The lights at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are excellent, for example, and allowed me to get stellar picture quality in some of my photos of the Hotel Mesa sauropod material.  [Note to self: we should show some of that material here some time.]  On the opposite extreme, the old angle-poise lamps in the sub-basement of the Natural History Museum, when they worked at all, and could be posed without falling over, seemed to do little more than cast a sickly yellowish pall over the specimen.  But things are better down there since pterosaurophile curator and part-time cephalopod Lorna Steel managed to persuade the department to spring for a few daylight lamps.  They fall apart distressingly easily, but do cast good diffuse light if you can persuade them to go into, and stay in, the position you want.

As with flash, it seems that the only thing to do is try photos with and without external lights, and with the lights in various different positions, and see what comes out best.

Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SI, cervical vertebra 6 in right anterolateral view. Not a bad photo -- click through to the full-sized version to appreciate the awesome.

Stability

If you’re not using flash or external lights, you have a problem, because most sauropod bones are kept in dimly lit basements with no natural light and low ambient light levels that make photography difficult.  If you use your camera in automatic mode (and I admit that I do), it will compensate by lengthening the exposure time, which means that camera-shake becomes a much bigger deal.  With flash, or in good daylight, the shutter will typically open for 1/250 or 1/125 of second; but in low light, your exposure can easily be as much as 1/4 second, and it’s pretty much impossible to keep a camera truly still for that long.

So what can you do?  Well, there are several levels of compensation.

Simply being aware of remaining still

When I have to hold the camera in my hands and I know it’s going to be a long exposure I find myself going into a sort of zen state — I become aware of my heartbeat and try to time the shutter release so that the camera doesn’t get moved by my pulse.  It’s error-prone, but at least being aware of it can help.

Brace against a door-frame or similar

Better, if you can do it, is to brace the camera against an immovable object such as a door frame or a specimen cabinet.  The photograph above was taken using what Matt and I came to call “The Wedel Method”: the camera was held in place on the shelf across the aisle from the specimen, but with the barrel rotated 180 degrees so that the LCD screen faced back into the aisle.  I stood between the camera and vertebra, slightly off to one side and facing away from the vertebra so I could use the screen.  In that position, I zoomed and panned to the the composition I wanted, then let the shelf keep the camera rock-steady as I released the shutter.  This only works with a camera such as a CoolPix 4500 that has a rotating barrel, but that is a useful feature for other reasons, too, and I recommend that you get a camera that has it if possible.  (For example, when you need to get a photo from directly above a specimen, you can often frame it by looking at the rotated screen, even if the specimen is in a cabinet can’t can’t be moved.)

Tripods

Of course, much better than ad-hoc bracing like door-frames is a proper tripod, and I feel mortified that it took me about five years of specimen photography before I invested in a half-decent one.  I got a Hama Star 61 from Amazon, where you can currently get them at the absurdly low price of £7, and I am really happy with it: it it hits the sweet-spot between being too heavy to lug around comfortable and too light to stabilise the camera properly.  Listen: whatever you’re doing, stop it RIGHT NOW and go buy a tripod instead.  Not a little table-top one, a proper floor-standing one.  You’ll thank me.

Shutter delay

The other thing that can make a huge difference in avoiding camera shake is to arrange that the shutter is released a few seconds after you press the button — so that you eliminate the movement associated with the press itself.  On my camera, for some reason, you can only do this in macro mode (used for close-ups, also known as “flower mode”), but since the camera is happy to focus on large far-off objects in this mode, that’s not a problem.

The combination of tripod mounting and shutter delay means that you can get good exposure in almost any light.

The Archbishop in all its glory, with everything working right. The much-loved dorsals 8 and 9 in right lateral view. Click through to see the detail. Compare with the horrible photo of the same bones at the top of this article. Copyright the NHM since it's their material.

Summary

Get a camera with decent optics, and a tripod.  Compose your photos so that the element is fully in frame and unobscured, in orthogonal aspect, with a solid black or white background if possible.  Turn off the flash; use external lighting if it’s available and helpful.  Use shutter delay, and take several photos, keeping only the good ones. That’s what I’ve learned in six years of photographing sauropods, and I am a bit disappointed to find that it can be summarised in 58 words.

… And finally …

I was asked to pass this message on a while back, and I’m glad to finally do so:

From: Carol Brown<bcarol83@gmail.com>

Hi Michael,

We just posted an article, “100 Best (Free) Science Documentaries Online” (http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/01/100-best-free-science-documentaries-online/). I thought I’d drop a quick line and let you know in case you thought it was something you’re audience would be interested in reading. Thanks

Enjoy!

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20 Responses to “Tutorial 8: how to photograph big bones”


  1. Awesome post, very informative and very good recommendations! I definitely agree that a camera with good optics is one, if not the most, important part of getting good specimen photos.

  2. Andy Farke Says:

    Nice post, Mike! One addition (and I think your lighted photos show this nicely) is that convention is to light predominantly from the upper left.

    Does anyone know if there is a formal “how to do photography for scientific publications” guide out there? Particularly on the use of copy stands, microscopes, etc.? Totally irrelevant for sauropod vertebrae of course, but I run across the occasional specimen where it’d be nice to get tips on how to “do it right.”

    Finally, taking photos from the “cardinal directions” is important, but I’ve only recently fully realized how critical the oblique angles are for basic research tasks. I’ve got folders and folders of nice dorsal, ventral, lateral, medial, cranial, caudal views, and still kick myself for not having at least one oblique view of each specimen! Lacking 3D photos, there are often little (critical) features that aren’t really visible except from oblique angles.


  3. Light from the upper left is nice, and yes it is indeed a convention when photographing the kind of pifflingly tiny object that you can move around easily. But when photographing sauropod vertebrae, I am satisfied if I can get decent light onto it from any angle.

    Fair point on oblique-angled photos: looks like you and I are converging on the truth (“you need both!”) from opposite directions.

  4. Nathan Myers Says:

    This seems a good time to mention, again, a fast tripod substitute. Sometimes there isn’t time to set up a tripod, and there’s no doorframe handy, and maybe you’re not allowed to set one up where you are, or you are already fooling around with too much equipment to handle a tripod. Get a screw that fits in the tripod mount of your camera, and tie a cord to it a little shorter than yourself. Make a loop in the end big enough for your foot. (Maybe stiffen the bottom of the loop with heavy tape.) To steady the camera, step into the loop and stretch the string taut. Voilà.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nathan, I do actually have a homebrew tension monopod such as you describe; what I find is that I never use it. I mean, literally, never — as far as I recall, I have never taken a single picture with it.

  6. Nathan Myers Says:

    I leave mine attached to the camera.

  7. 220mya Says:

    Be aware that if you take a photo holding the camera (as opposed to using a tripod), it is pretty much impossible to get a crisp clear in focus photo at exposure times longer than 1/30th of a second. Even then, probably half of the photos you take will be blurry. To be completely safe, take the photos at 1/60th of a second or shorter exposure time. Of course this can cause problems in low-light situations, because it means you need to use a wider aperture (the mysterious “F-stop” Mike refers to), which results in a smaller depth of field (the interval of distance in the photo that is in focus). So, if you are photographing large three-dimensional objects in a museum basement, you pretty much require a tripod to get well-lit, crisp, sharp photos with a large depth of field. That way you can take photos with a long exposure time and small aperture.

  8. anon Says:

    An up-and-coming technology that vert paleo people should start using ASAP is the new “3-D model from photos” apps —

    Photosynth

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Photosynth
    http://photosynth.net/

    (Mostly used so far for modelling buildings and outdoor spaces, but seems to me could be used for fossils as-is or with minor tweaks.)

    ProFORMA

    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/11/amazing-software-turns-cheap-webcam-into-instant-3d-scanner/
    http://mi.eng.cam.ac.uk/~qp202/my_papers/BMVC09/

  9. Simon Harris Says:

    Thanks Mike, a very informative post. I spend a lot of time working in museum stores (though sadly mostly full of social history objects and not bones….), and as you say, sickly light and lack of space are your enemies. A sturdy tripod does make life much easier in my opinion.

    If you’ve not found it yet, check out the Strobist blog. Although written by a press photographer, the ethos is about creating high quality photos using minimal, lightweight equipment.

    http://strobist.blogspot.com/

    http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101-traveling-light.html

    There is, as far as I know, no book that covers this kind of photography. The closest is perhaps a book by Dorrell called “Photography in Archaeology and Conservation” but this is now quite an old book (doesn’t really cover digital) and is a bit thin on the actual “how-to” details. Perhaps I should write my own….


  10. Hi there. I’m a long time lurker and artist, and this post is of particular interest to me: I want to bring up the role of technical illustrations. Well-done illos highlight the details and sculptural three-dimensionality of a specimen, and can function as a sort of roadmap to accompanying photos. But the downside is that they cost time and money. Granted, they take longer to produce than a photo, but not significantly, given the time frame of publishing a paper. And some ilustrators aren’t too expensive.

    The photos you’re describing converge on sculptural photography, which is an expertise unto itself, like you said. For some researchers, hiring both photogs and illustrators might even be an option.

    But for folks like yourselves who publish online and are prolific in blogs, what is the role of technical illustrators and natural history artists?

    And in a side note, I think the photo above of the G. brancai paralectotype vert 6 is excellent and highly illustrative.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Simon, thanks for the link — I’ll check it out. Yes, this does seem to be a neglected area of photography: the expectation seems to be that you’ll just sort of figure it out for yourself. And as far too many uninformative published figures show, a lot of people never do.

    Demetrios, I think that well-executed technical illustrations are are a joy, both informative and beautiful. I’d like to include more of these in my own papers, but never in place of photographs, always alongside them. I am mistrustful of the many papers that only illustrate their bones and do not show you how they actually look. As for hiring someone to do GOOD technical illustrations: never going to happen for me, as I do all my own on literally a budget of zero — all costs come out of my own pocket.


  12. [...] July 19, 2010 Work continues apace with Veronica, my tame ostrich.  (See previous parts one, two, three and four).  I’ve been photographing the individual bones of the skull — a skill that’s taken me some time to get good at, and one that I might do a tutorial on some time, to follow up the one on photographing big bones. [...]


  13. [...] but for today, I want to tell you about an exciting adventure with Cervical U.  [Update: I wrote the How To post a few months [...]


  14. [...] a bunch of photographs that I’d taken of, I think, the Archbishop.  As a matter of policy, I take most of my photos twice, so that if I shake slightly or the auto exposure gets it wrong, I have a good copy that I can [...]


  15. [...] bone as well as I’d like — this was back before I’d learned all my lessons on how to photograph bones.  But here is a close-up of the posterovental extremity of the ilium, again from Fig. 2, showing [...]


  16. [...] amount of superficial muscle and ligament in the process.)  So before you start cutting, photograph the neck in dorsal, ventral, lateral, anterior and posterior [...]


  17. I just realized, Mike, that almost exactly a year ago you answered a very similar post of mine about photography/technical illustration. I seem to have forgotten about it. Can I have a senior moment at 27 years old? Either way, since practice makes perfect, I appreciate the repetition!


  18. [...] old buddy HMN SII as the paralectotype specimen of Giraffatitan brancai.  (Butchering a wallaby, photographing big bones, How fat was Camarasaurus, and baby giraffe neck, in case you were wondering.) Giraffatitan brancai [...]


  19. [...] of Giraffatitan to compare it to. Also my own photos of the sacrum, taken back before I figured out how to photograph big bones, are all pretty [...]


  20. […] link in the first slide will take you here, and Part 1 in this series is […]


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