How to Photograph Artifacts and Antique Objects

Recently, I was hired by an underwater treasure hunter to photograph a series of artifacts recovered from shipwrecks. In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how I photographed a 500 year old bowl in two ways, one clean and simple, the other dramatic and artful.
When dealing with objects that are very old, here are a few precautions to make sure you do not damage the artifact.
  • Work in temperature controlled environment (and no smoking!)
  • Always presume it is unique, irreplaceable, and fragile
  • Do not touch it until you know precisely what you are going to do and how, everything get's set up beforehand
  • Have extra hands on set to care for the item, but no more people than necessary
  • Wash your hands with soap and water (oils and natural secretions on skin can soil objects)
  • Avoid use of handwipes or lotion
  • Wear Cotton Gloves (Latex is also an option)
  • Do not wear anything that can catch on the object, including: bracelets, necklaces, rings, tags, cufflinks, etc.
  • No food or drinks near work area
  • Properly sandbag and tighten all stands in work area
  • When in doubt, have the artifact handled and cleaned by a professional
  • Depending on the value of the object, consider taking out insurance for the shoot
Being hired to photograph a priceless artifact and then breaking on the shoot won't only cost you the job (and a hit to your insurance), it'll ruin your reputation. Depending on the material you are working, with take all precautions and follow all special cleaning guidelines to the letter.
I started by setting up a small coffee table next to the wall. Then I taped up a piece of white butcher paper to the top of the wall and front edge of the table to create a seamless backdrop. Next step was to set up our key light. For a situation like this, where you need to do many photos of many different objects in a short amount of time, start with a lighting setup that works for most objects. You can alter alter as needed for each object as you go. I put a light with a large softbox horizontally directly over the shooting area.
Base exposure with 1 light overhead, White Balance set to Flash. Set camera settings to expose a black frame without the flash, so no ambient light affects the exposure. Use a very small aperture to make sure the whole bowl is sharp from front to back. Shot @ ISO 100, f/18, 1/200sec, 100mm macro lens
Next I added miniature versions of V-flats, or white reflectors that stand on their own and wrap each object with light. I cut two pieces of cardboard and covered each with strips of white gaffer tape. This creates a reflector with a matte finish that will evenly illuminate the objects and not create hard reflections.
Overhead shot of setup
Cardboard reflectors with white gaff tape on sides. The problem with this image is there is a gap between the reflector and white seamless. Were this object reflective, there would be a dark shape reflected in the object.
Reflectors were moved in to eliminate shape and brighten object
To make the front of the object as bright as possible, keep moving the reflectors in until you can see them in the shot, then inch them out so they have as much reflective capability as possible.
Product photography demands accurate color rendition taht faithfully reproduces the original object. Any color cast in your photo could affect the sale or customer expectations, so you should always use a color checker. I use the Color Checker Passport by X-Rite.
Color Checker Passport by X-Rite
Using the color checker does two very important things. First, it allows you to get perfect white balance. If you compare the tint of the paper from the very first shot to this one there is a very slight shift from "flash" white balance to "proper" white balance. Second, the checker lets you create a calibrated profile for your camera that will accurately represent all of the colors in a scene. I normally use the Adobe Standard camera profile in my raw processing workflow, but the standard profile lacks significant saturation: it's meant to be adjusted by eye to recreate your subjectively pleasing impression of color in a scene. With the color checker you get objectively correct color without changing colour and saturation.
This is the final composition: the white balance is set using the color checker, the camera profile is changed from Adobe Standard to the profile set up by the color checker, and the front is illuminated by the reflectors. All other lighting and camera settings are the same.
At this point, our basic setup is done. Everything is properly exposed and entire object is in focus. We'll touch up the background to make it perfectly white in the retouching section below.
Dramtic lighting of antique bowl
Here's the new setup. Instead of using an overhead light that "just works" for all manner of things we want to highlight and accentuate the shape of this particular piece. I moved my softbox to the left side, not aimed at the bowl, but aimed across the bowl, pointed back towards the right side of my camera so that the bowl is illuminated with the edge of the light. This technique gives the light more of a wrapping effect, avoids any specular highlights, and lessens the contrast from highlight to shadows, while still giving a dynamic, graduated effect.
For the set, I thought about what would make this feel rich and luxurious. I imagined dark mahogany wood and old leather bound books. Since the bowl is blue, I wanted to contrast it with a warm set. Warmth compliments the blue of the bowl and makes the it pop off the page. I crumpled up a brown table cloth (carefully moving all the waves and wrinkles so it looked pleasing in camera) and set the bowl on the knife block from my kitchen. Since we're no longer on the seamless, I just put a piece of textured cardboard on the wall behind. To create a more interesting background and spotlight the bowl a little, I put a light on the ground aiming up at the cardboard.
Adding a highlight
Here is the reflector brought in close. Edge it back until we have the desired highlight on the object. We can remove the reflector from the final image by masking it out using a reference shot.
Now it's time to have a little fun. We need to make a final image that looks stunning. This bowl is worth more than my car: we need to get that feeling across in the photo.
Let's look at the ebay-style, object-on-white shot first. Using your favorite selection tool in Adobe Photoshop, make a selection of the bowl. I recommend drawing the outline with the pen tool, since the object has perfectly crisp edges. Invert (Crtl+Shift+I, Cmd+Shift+I on a mac) your selection so now you are looking at everything except the bowl and add a Curves adjustment layer (Image > Adjustments > Curves). Click on the eye dropper with the white tip inside your curves panel. This will allows you to set the white point by clicking in your image. Move your mouse to the darkest edge of the backdrop paper, and click.
It's a small adjustment, but important. Now you have a perfectly white background, and the image won't look weird with a gray edge when displayed on a white page.
Now on to the artistic shot! Open both photos, our original reference image (no reflector) and the image with the nice highlight. Copy paste one into the other document (Ctrl+A to select the image, Ctrl+C to copy, switch to the other document, Ctrl+V to paste. Cmd+A, Cmd+C, Cmd+V on a mac), so that each image is on their own layer, stacked on top of each other. Since I shot on the tripod, there was absolutely no movement of the camera or bowl between these shots, so all I had to do was create an inverted layer mask (Alt-click on the layer mask icon, Option-click on a mac) and use a soft white brush to paint in the rim light and lighten the shadows.
Our bowl is perfect, but the rest needs some work. Create a new group, and we'll make all the adjustments inside this group, then add a layer mask around the bowl when we're done. I wanted everything to look like dark wood, so I added a curves adjustment layer that just made the whole scene darker, giving it a fake dark wood look.
This looks pretty good, but this bowl is 500 years old. I want the scene to look old, weathered, sophisticated even. I took a picture of muslin fabric and put it on top in soft light blending mode. This added a more organic texture than cardboard has and evened out some of the contrast.
This looks fantastic, but it's messing with the bowl. We don't want the bowl to have any color or lighting adjustments that aren't perfectly calibrated, nor do we want a texture. Since you added those two adjustments into a group, you can add a mask to the group, cut out the bowl with the pen tool, and we're finished.
The client has a warehouse with millions of dollars worth of artifacts. Some are insignificant pieces that go for as little as $100, others are worth many thousands of dollars. All of the cheaper items should be assembly lined through the white seamless, saving you time, and the client money. If it takes 2 hours of your time to get this artistic shot, then the artifact should be high enough in value that paying you for those two hours is a tiny fraction of the greater sales price. These product shots are much more involved for commercial products that can be reproduced, so one photo sells millions of units. In the case of ancient artifacts, one photo sells one unit.
I hope this was helpful in showing you two different approaches for photographing antique artifacts for sale. If you've had the chance to photograph antiques, I'd love to hear your experience in the comments.


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