Photograph of Dunbar fisher lass, c1900

Working with Photographers


This brief incorporates material from 'Choosing Resources', repeated and extended here to bring all the suggested photographic procedures under one head.

The photography of objects and documents is a cooperative venture between the researcher and another professional practitioner - the photographer.

The researcher should have a clear idea of the number, order and detail of the shots that (s)he requires. An entire day is best set aside for photography, allowing time for set-up, photographic work, and tidying, etc. Before the start of a session the shots ought to be fully discussed with the photographer and any suggested changes incorporated into the day's plan. A photographer may suggest changes in the order of items based on his experience and give advice about cropping, lighting, positioning and other matters. Any complex problem of layout must be discussed thoroughly beforehand so that both parties are aware of limitations that may be imposed by the photograph or the object itself. An itemised printed list of the proposed work for the day is a useful means of checking off and adding notes during the discussion.

In general, photography breaks down into 'copying' and '3D work'. Copying encompasses all 'flat' work - photographs, prints, documents and works of art that can be positioned underneath a camera; it can be accomplished quite quickly once everything is set up and if a sequence of similar (size or surface texture) material is being used. Note that works of art framed and hanging on walls will come within the second category '3D work'. This category will encompass all photography of 'things' and large flat work such as wall mounted paintings and banners. The category is a more complex challenge - think of silverware (reflections) or glass (transparency), a medal (small) or a banner (large), a ceramic (hard, glossy surface) or a sash (absorbent, soft surfaces). The photographer will work with a suite of lenses and adaptors to be able to encompass large variability and still get the best shot. This takes time, as does lighting such a range of complex objects as outlined above. Hence, generally, 3D work is more expensive and less can be done in a working day.

The researcher should aim to have all the material for a session conveniently to hand in a known order. It is generally good practice to keep protective sleeves, etc on until the last possible minute and to restore copied work to sleeves immediately after being used. Researchers and photographers must handle material in accordance with the guidelines/rules of the institution or owner at all times.


It is unfair to expect photographers to work with small batches of less than 20-30 items: their on-costs will be proportionately higher and, as work is generally charged on an image basis, their return will be less if there are fewer objects. However, the number of photographs possible in a day can rarely be predicted accurately - an approximation will suffice and the exact delivery will become apparent as the session proceeds - some might be left out for later, etc. The figures below are based on experience and count from an estimated start time of between 10 and 11 am (allowing photographer's travel time). The indicated amounts anticipate that all pre-photography preparation, setting aside of objects, work list, clearing photography space and other tasks have taken place.

Copying: for ordinary copying of easy (similar size, similar surface) material 110 items (equivalent to 1 CD after digitisation) is a good target for 1 day's work. This is not prescriptive so don't sit and struggle to find exactly 110. Call for the photographer if there are 80+ items to be copied. Adapt this target downwards if there is any complex manipulation to be done.

3D material: for reasonably sized (table-top) material and batches of similar objects 60-80 items might be the target for one day's work; again, be flexible around the target and adapt numbers downward for complex situations.

Mixed batches: Always assuming a higher proportion of flat stuff, around 80 per day is a useful target. However, this is by far the most complex logistically as both flat stuff and úD must be assembled and scheduled and the photographer has to switch from copy-stand to tripod.

Notes: Large material requiring large format photography ought to be discussed on a case-by-case basis with the Project Manager and Photographer: formats available include 6 x 4.5 cm and 5 x 4" (at a minimum batch size of 15 and 5). Once the project is up and running smaller amounts of large work could be integrated into a day's programme, with targets adjusted accordingly.

Note that the mechanics of preparation, setting up, photography, tidying and replacing objects in store can easily eat up three days. Try and account for this time in advance so that writing, research and sourcing pressures can be maintained on a month-by-month basis (the end of month report is the time to sit down and plan). In essence, only two or three sessions a month can be fitted in around other targets, so make efficient use of the photographer when you have one and take care not to let backlogs accumulate.

Procedures: Copying

Copying will be (mostly) done using a copy stand (as discussed in Choosing Resources). A copying stand supports a camera vertically above a photograph or other flat work; the photographer moves the camera vertically up or down, lights the object from either side (adjusting angles and reflectors as necessary), sets exposure and focuses: lighting from the sides minimises glare and flare from reflective surfaces.

The job of the photographer is to take the photograph; the researcher must exercise due care in the preservation of the resource's integrity.

Thus any complex problem of layout must be discussed thoroughly beforehand so that both parties are aware of limitations that may be imposed by the photograph or the object itself.

Ultimately, it is down to the researcher to call the shot.

When working with a copying stand there is usually room for another pair of hands to assist the photographer. It will also be helpful to have on hand some padded weights, plastic bulldog clips (a good range of sizes can be found), plastic rulers, and a variety of supports (to protect spines or level up an object). Please try to avoid using blu-tak, or similar temporary adhesives - take advice from the owner of the document in extreme cases.

For a copy stand the photographer will need a table with access from three sides (working and lights to the left and right). Copy stands generally have a base of around 20" and a bit of room on either side helps to make things easier. For objects larger than the reach of the copy stand, consider reversing the head to enable working from the floor. I.e., with the stand on the table, post to the edge, an extra metre or so of room is added to the reach of the camera mounted on the head. Make sure that a piece of backdrop* or neutral material covers the floor-space used and that a weight is placed on the copy stand platform for stability. At least one further table or sufficient space to array objects, etc would be useful. The room should be capable of being 'dark': i.e., at worst north facing windows, at best completely blacked out (blinds, curtains or no windows), with a convenient power point.

One copy stand is available at EL HQ: this will need to be booked in advance if required in researcher's venues. HQ will act as a clearing-house for bookings: reserve through Manager (and remember the other project might require it so we may be coordinating several researchers' work and a preferred date might have to give way), but researchers will be responsible for ensuring that they collect it and have it ready (note that some photographers might not need ours).

*We propose to purchase several shades of backdrop for 3D object photography between the two projects to make best use of resources. This will be divided up between researchers to avoid the photographers having to carry it around; in the meantime, some is available at EL HQ.

3D work

The photographer will work from a tripod or even with a hand held camera (and flash), positioning lights as required around a temporary rostrum or stage. This could be created on a table (for smaller objects) or against a wall (for larger). A correspondingly greater amount of space is required than for copying: the work needs room for freestanding lights, tripod, and rostrum. Light requirements are the same as for copying - a dark space (an ordinary room with blinds drawn, north facing windows if no blinds, etc). To dress the set and provide a coherent background the photographer will position objects on a neutral ground - a backdrop. The researcher should discuss their needs with photographers and their Manager well before a session, to allow delivery etc. Further, conservation grade male and female 'bodies' are available at EL HQ - for draping regalia, etc. Book through Manager.

For the actual photographic process, the rules above under copying apply. In general, flash photography should be avoided. However, in such circumstances where the photographer suggests it is the best means of obtaining an image, consideration should be given to the merits or demerits of a short intense flash versus a long bright light, but include the owner of the resource in any discussions. Further, if objects cannot be moved to a rostrum or photo stage, however temporary, discuss with the photographer and curator if photography can take place in-situ - this is often a viable strategy.

It will generally be best to work on a single site on a single day, with all objects immediately to hand. But, with negotiation, two or more sites might be accommodated - it is up to the researcher to work out logistics, access, etc. This consideration also applies to mixed batches - discuss thoroughly beforehand so that all are aware of eventualities: extra pairs of hands are generally essential when working with large works: programming a 'team' is critical - e.g., project manager, museum curator, museum assistant, library assistant, and photographer.

Tracking or cross referencing

This is a critical process. It is essential that the link between image and record is maintained throughout the resource building process to ensure that, on delivery, image A is connected to record A, etc and no occurrences of image A with record B creep into the final delivery; experienced users of SCRAN will know that one or two errors like this have crept into the final database: they spoil the presentation to the public, spread misinformation to the unaware and can only be corrected retrospectively once noticed.

The researcher must be able to relate the appropriate image to its digital record.

Once hundreds of records are 'in play' this can be a complex task: think of 50 similar looking documents in a sequence spread over several photography sessions. It is easier to have temporary information added to the database to help track photography than to sit two or three months down the line with a CD and wonder 'what the heck is that?'

There are several ways that tracking or cross-referencing can be accomplished. One might create a series of documents recording object, session number, film number, image number, etc and keep them safe until the data from CDs can be added; the info might then be added to the caption database. Or information can be added to the caption database for a temporary period. The 'which CD' and 'which file' fields will be empty until a full CD is returned. Prior to a session, a number (letter or some other accounting symbol) can be added to one of these fields; a filter can later be run to pull out this group of records for further work. After a session, filter out the records on the database and add a film number and image number, which means the set of records can then be sorted in 'session - film number - image number (photography sequence) order', as the way they were photographed almost certainly won't be the way that they were originally entered into the database; having them in photography order then makes later cross-referencing work easier. Note that in the first instance the photographers will provide the films un-mounted in transparent sleeves, in which the film strips ought to be kept for dispatch to the digitiser: each sleeve can be numbered and each selected image can be indicated for reference and for the digitiser. When a CD is returned, this order will aid the insertion of the correct entry in 'which file': see 'digital work', which will be the next in this series.

Procedure check-list

  1. Select material and write working list for photography session and reference; think of problems, detail non-obvious shots and note any specific instructions. The list ought to relate directly to records in the researcher database for ease of cross reference;
  2. Contact Manager for an Order Number (to be given to photographer for invoice purposes) and discuss any eventualities (note work invoice will go to Manager);
  3. Check proposed photography is clear with institution (if not working at home base) and reserve a photography space (sometimes a semi-public space might be all that is available. Don't worry about being a spectacle, if the photographer agrees);
  4. Contact selected photographer: give venue, time, approximate number and type of shots and discuss any special requirements; contact Manager for copy-stand, backdrop or other supplies required;
  5. Put aside all material for photography in a convenient location;
  6. Photography session;
  7. Replace all material;
  8. Mark up database with a session number in CD or image fields (a temporary expedient);
  9. Photographer's Invoice passed for payment by Manager;
  10. Receive and check photographs, mark up selected images for digitisation and replace database session number with a film and image number (again, a temporary expedient);
  11. Contact Manager for digital order number;
  12. Post for digitisation.

The last three stages will be covered in detail in 'digital work', to follow.

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