Objects please wait in line for photography

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Objects are lining up and waiting for their moment in the lights!  The photography studio for the Hearst Ethnographic Move project is designed to accommodate a fast flow of diverse objects coming through on their way to packing. Diverse is an understatement, as we’ve had everything from tiny ancient Greek coins about a centimeter across to a 9 1/2 foot tall Maori house post! Each type of object needs its own type of photographic set-up, but the method and workflow we use for them stays the same. 

This Ba-Kuba mask from Congo includes beaded textiles and cowrie shells (PAHMA 5-6238)


Photography Assistant Dino Vajraca dusts around an African mask while staging it for photography.


The camera is hooked up to a laptop and software is used to control the settings remotely. This tethered capture allows for the most efficient and fast-paced photography.  We use two Canon cameras, an EOS  Rebel T3i and an EOS 5D Mark II, which can be controlled by Canon’s free remote shooting software.  The laptop screen becomes the viewfinder, so one assistant runs the computer and helps the other assistant frame the photograph. The images automatically save to the laptop, where they are renamed with the object’s museum number by scanning its barcode tag.


Photography Assistant Alan Hernandez carefully places an African mask under the camera set-up.

Photography Assistant Eboneigh Harris uses the computer to focus on an African mask.

There are a few rules in the photo studio: 1) ask for help if the object looks delicate or difficult to handle, 2) don’t drop the camera, 3) two hands on objects at all times (no wielding of swords!), and 4) ask if you have a question about what the objects are. So far we’ve gotten deep in discussion about why anthropologists collect so many tweezers, how to distinguish different styles of masks from numerous Nigerian tribes, and which way is up in Ethiopian script.

Objects, like this decorative sword, are photographed with a label, scale, and standardized color checker that are placed so they can be cropped out later.

Every photograph has to capture the relevant details of the museum object: form, materials, condition, colors. A scale, object label, and a color checker are included in the frame for reference and to ensure a correct color balance. These extra elements are always arranged so that they don’t overlap with the object and can be cropped out later for any glamor shots!

Two photography assistants run the tethered capture set-up: Alan Hernandez manages the computer while Michelle Angeli adjusts the camera.

The goal is for the photograph to act as the object’s stand-in for researchers, conservators, and collections managers. The less that an object is taken from storage and handled, it will be better preserved. Online access to object photos also facilitates research, bringing our amazing collection to the public.


Elizabeth Minor

Move Photographer

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum

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