Photographing objects and specimens in the museum collection is a fairly regular task for our department. We’ve done tiny insects from Entomology and large settees from Ethnology. And about ninety-five percent of the time the subject is brought to our studio for photography. But every once in a while we’re asked to photograph a collection in situ.
This can create a whole range of issues from power supply to simply getting our equipment to the location. We’re often dealing with poorly lit areas, so bringing our own studio lighting isn’t that unheard of. However, when we were asked to photograph the Chief Case in the First Peoples Gallery, a whole new host of problems arose.
Carlo and I were asked to photograph the Chief Case for use in a virtual tour that was going to be put on our old website, the idea being that viewers could zoom in to a high-resolution image to view details about the objects inside. What made this shoot particularly challenging was not only the many reflections from the surrounding gallery, but the internal reflections within the glass case itself. This particular glass case didn’t consist of a single pane along the front, but a whole rectangular section that came out in the middle (see Fig.1). This created reflections along the side pieces of glass that needed to be accounted for, and photographs from any angle other than head-on would clearly show them.
We decided to tackle the issue of the internal reflections by shooting vertical slices that would later be stitched and blended together in Photoshop. By shooting in this way, we were hoping to create a final image with very high resolution and detail, as well as minimizing distortions and changes in perspective. This would also allow us to shoot straight into the glass partitions that came out from the case, eliminating the internal reflections altogether.
To achieve this properly we needed to ensure that the camera remained as square as possible to the wall while moving sideways along the case, so we had staff from our Exhibit Fabrication department (thanks Colin) build a sliding rail that we could mount our camera to. The rail system was supported between two sawhorses and squared to the facing wall using a laser distance measure. As we moved the camera along the rail, the individual photographs would be made and then later stitched and blended to create a final, seamless image.
In order to deal with the external reflections from the gallery itself, we set up two large, black backdrops, a black drop-cloth across the rail system and taped black paper over any smaller items, such as the Exit sign lit-up just outside the case.
Because the shoot was taking place in one of our galleries, it had to take place outside of visitor hours, and anticipating a long setup we decided to return after the museum closed for the evening. A trip with all the gear up the freight elevator and about two hours of setting all the equipment up, and the actual shooting was ready to start. We did some shots with our wide angle lens, moving the camera along the rail as we shot each frame. Then we packed everything into a back room off of the gallery space.
However, once we got the images into Photoshop and started to blend them together, we realized right away that what we had wasn’t going to work. The wide angle lens had distorted the perspective too far, and no amount stitching and blending was going to create a natural-looking image. We were going back.
The following night we were back at it. However, this time we brought our process lens. This is a flat-field lens, meaning that it’s virtually distortion-free and has a very flat field of focus, perfect for copy and macro work. We would have to shoot more frames, but hopefully we’d end up with less changes in perspective as we moved laterally across the case. Setup was a bit quicker this time around as the gear was already upstairs and we had a good idea of what needed to be done. Everything was setup and ready to shoot, and that’s when all the lights in case went out…automatic timers.
We decided to leave the equipment setup for the night as best we could and return the following morning before the gallery opened to the public. A few quick tweaks and the shooting was completed. We got everything dismantled just in time for the first visitors to arrive at ten o’clock.
Now came the post-processing, which still wasn’t working as easily as we had hoped. Even though we had used a copy lens and had shot vertically, the changes in perspective still caused a lot of headaches. It was better than when we had shot with the wide-angle lens, but still not the easy stitch job we had hoped for. After about 3 hours of manually blending layers in Photoshop, Carlo finally had the image you see below.
This single image required three takes and upwards of 10 hours to complete, not to mention the help of staff outside the photography department. While this may sound excessive for one photograph, we learned invaluable lessons, developed some new equipment and some new techniques.
It may not be the most exciting photograph to view, and it was never meant to be anything but practical. But to us it represents a unique photographic challenge and, ultimately, an image we were both proud to achieve.