Abigail Phelps-Life Lessons from Artifact Photography

In my time at the university’s archaeology lab, I’ve learned just how diversified archaeology work can be. While a lot of lab work is computer-based, including research and data entry, some lab work is very hands-on. Although I was familiar with washing, sorting, and storing artifacts, photographing them was entirely new territory for me. At first I was not too concerned about attempting this photography. After all, I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures on vacations and in my backyard. And in the case of photographing in the lab, I wouldn’t have to worry about harsh sunlight or moving subjects. So I could simply point the camera and shoot, right?

That would be the first of several life lessons I’ve learned from taking photos in lab: avoid foolish first assumptions! Over the last month or so, and with the help of Dr. McMillan, I’ve picked up several skills related to artifact photography, while also reminding myself of some important skills and values I can transfer to everyday life: patience, focus, and attention to detail.

While one can often get satisfactory results from point-and-shoot photography for scrapbooks and family albums, photographing artifacts is a more involved process. The purpose of taking these photos are to record in precise detail the appearance of an artifact, and to share them with other archaeologists, researchers, or the public, who cannot necessarily access the physical objects. Photographing artifacts also acts as a recording measure taken in case the original artifacts are destroyed. In order to get a high-quality photograph, we use a dark room with various backdrops, small adjustable lights, filters, and a DSLR camera with a tripod.

Getting the photo station set up is quite a process in itself. Setting up the tripod, attaching the camera, remembering to put the batteries in the camera and taking the lens cover off are all important. Then it’s lights (off), camera (on), action!  The next steps all depend on the kind of artifact that is photographed. Most artifacts, unless they are very dark, are placed against a black background to make them stand out, and to absorb extra light, avoiding a washed-out look. After the camera is level in relation to the artifact, it must be adjusted to the right zoom and focus. Choosing the shutter speed (how long the camera gathers light when taking a picture) and aperture (how large the light-gathering area of the lens is) determines how bright the picture will be. Of course, the lights themselves are a crucial factor in taking close-up shots of artifacts. How brightly they shine and the angle at which light hits the object can be the difference between a dull, shadowy photograph, or one that brings out the depth and detail in an object better than the human eye.

I could go on and on about the endless back-and-forth adjustments that are made between the artifact, the camera, and the lighting before even a single picture is made. But suffice it to say that a lot of finesse is required to make a good photo. As a beginner, I still have to take a dozen pictures with slight modifications to get one or two photos that make the cut. When I was first learning the whole camera setup and all the moving parts involved, I couldn’t understand how anyone could have the patience to spend over ten minutes getting one good picture of an inanimate object. It tested my patience, and even frustrated me at times, but as I got more practice, I learned to enjoy (to some extent) the subtle factors that make a successful photo.

Along with the increased patience required for this task, I also noticed how important a strong focus is, and not just for the camera. The camera needed exactly the right amount of light to focus well on its subject. It needed to be balanced stable, and in order to focus on the artifact, the background needed to be distraction-free. Sounds a lot like someone I know: me. I also discovered how important it is to consider all the details involved in each artifact and its background before taking the picture. Our minds might be wired to ignore the few pieces of fuzz on the black background, or minimize the shadows around an object, but the camera picks up on these details as readily as minor grooves and scratches on the artifact itself. Learning to recognize the need for minor adjustments turns a decent photo into a great one. The same could be said for countless daily situations.

I may not have mastered the use of a good camera yet, nor the art of taking photos of artifacts. But I’ve enjoyed applying and improving what I have learned from artifact photography, both in and out of the lab.


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