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This info page provides tips and tricks to photographing fossils. A separate article deals with digital editing to prepare pictures for publication on the web. Also, we point out several technical and digital solutions to photograph small specimens and details of specimens. How do we properly make a picture of a fossil?
Both images below show the very same fossil. When comparing the images, it is clear that we would prefer the second one. The picture is crisp and the fine details are easily visible. Moreover, the fossil is depicted from several angles and a scale bar is provides, allowing us to know the size of the specimen and interpreting the picture correctly. The first pic, on the other hand, is unusable. The main error causing such picture is camera misuse. Taking a couple of simple guidelines into account, we can prevent most of this errors from happening. This guide shows how to make a simple yet effective setup for fossil photography, using clear examples.
Most contemporary equipment allows for acceptable pictures of fossils. The trick is that many fossils are rather small, and from other, you'll want to capture fine details. Therefore, a camera capable of shooting decent macro images has obvious benefits for fossil photography. When taking pictures on the terrain, a built-in GPS might come in handy. Taking images of micro-fossils requires specialized equipment.
The most obvious pieces of equipment for fossil imaging would be the digital camera and flatbed scanner. Both webcams and mobile phone cams lack the required image quality (in terms of resolution, sharpness and overall quality), but the technology is rapidly evolving. Using a flatbed scanner, one can make some pretty decent images, particularly of flat fossils, but the digital camera is our tool of choice. It allows easy captures from various angles, and the possibility to choose and change your light sources. Apart from the aforementioned equipment, some alternatives are available worth mentioning. Of these, the USB microscope is on of the most interesting for amateur fossil enthousiasts because of an attractive price/quality ratio and ease of use. A basic USB microscope is available from about 100 euro, and despite the mediocre image quality that goes with the price level, it might be sufficient for the many basic uses.
This manual aims mainly at users of a simple digital 'point and shoot' style camera, as well as digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) users. The following technical setups can be suitable for fossil photography, amongst others:
- DSLR with macro lens: this setup can deliver high quality pictures if used properly. Main disadvantages would be a fairly high price tag, a steep learning curve, partiallt due to technical challenges such as dealing with limited depth of field. Macro lenses come in different focal lengths (50, 90, 150 and 180mm, a.o.). For fossil photography, a shorter focal length (e.g. 50 or 90mm) is the better choice.
- DSLR with standard lens (e.g. a 50 mm 1.8) and magification aid (bellows, extenders, macro converters, ...): there are many technical aids available for turning a high quality standard lens into a macro-capable setup. These can be roughly divided into (a) ways of extending the distance between lens and camera body (extension tubes or bellow), (b) pieces containing a magnifying lens (e.g. macro converter). Solutions containing an extra lens have an impact on image quality, although this can be marginal. We would prefer a solution using extension tubes or a bellow, in particular when one want to achieve extreme magnifications. Downside of such techniques is that you have to work manually.
- DSLR with reversed standard lens (either mounted directly on the body, or on top of another lens): a reversed lens functions as a magnifying glass. We recommend a fast 50 mm standard lens, some of which have a very high quality/price ratio (especially if found on the used market). Either purchase and adaptor to reverse mount directly on the body, or a ring to reverse mount on another lens.
- 'Point and shoot' camera with decent macro functionalities: one of the more obvious setups for basic close-up photography. The easy of use of this setup is offset by the loss of image quality. Because of the small sensor, depth of field is larger as compared to a DSLR-macro combination, which adds to the ease of use.
- High resolution scanner: mainly suitable for flat fossils, and sometimes capable of very good results. Make sure the glass plate remains unscratched (use a transparant plastic foil). Obviously, the fossil may not be too heavy or the glass might break. The upside of this setup is the ease of use, a possible downside is the uniform and frontal lighting, causing small morphological details to wash out.
A flatbad scanner combined with digital editing is able to produce good results
- USB microscope: These are digital microscopes which are directly connected to the computer. They often provide their own (LED) illumination. The cheaper models do not deliver image quality wise, but they are very easy to use and provide large magnifications. Price/quality wise a very interesting option.
- Stereo microscopes with adapter: when you already own a microscope, you might want to opt for an adapter to mount your camera directly to one of the eyepieces.
Purpose of the picture
When taking pictures for a personal database you'll want to systematically live up to specific quality criteria. The fossil needs to be depicted clearly, identifyable and with a scale bar. Because of the large amount of pictures to be taken (a typical collection easily contains hundreds or even thousands of specimens), designing a fast standardized workflow can be a real timesaver. This means you'll want to minimize or even avoid any digital post-processing. The following guidelines might apply:
- Create an easy setup that allows for a fast workflow, for example using a tripod and a remote switch or cable release, or manually using a good flash setup
- Take orthogonal pictures, i.e. perpendicular to the fossils' main axes.
- Photograph additional details where needed (e.g. of diagnostic features)
- Make sure the fossil fills the entire image to avoid the need for cropping
- Take medium-sized pictures to save time (avoid resizing) and disk space
- Include a good scale bar in each picture. Make sure the scale bar lies in the same plane as the fossil (lens-fossil distance = lens-scale bar distance). You can use a caliper to make a precise measurement of the fossil and include that in the picture to override perspective distortion.
Use of a caliper to avoid confusion.
Pictures intended for online sharing (e.g. on your website, facebook page or on a community forum), demand similar quality criteria. Of particular concern are:
- file size: match the picture size with the required online display size, use compression formats such as jpg and remove unneccesary meta-data from the picture's exif.
- when placing pictures online for fossil identification, provide a scale bar and views from different angles.
The example below shows a composite picture of the same fossil showing different views and a scale indication (1cm). The white balance of the picture is not top notch, giving the fossil an overall yellowish chroma, but since color is of secondary importance here, fixing the white balance is not considered essential.
Composite picture for fossil identification.
Pictures for publication in a (scientific) journal should comply with the publishers' quality criteria. Usually, a minimal size and resolution is specified, with a dpi of 300 or 600), along with other quality criteria (sharpness, contrast, ...). The following guidelines might apply:
- composite picture of orthogonal views from all relevant angles
- scale indication
- reference number (allowing referencing in corresponding text)
- whitening of fossil with ammonium chloride to bring out the morphological details
- high resolution and quality for printing
Taking pictures: setup
Take your time to set up for your shot. You can go to great lenghts to make a perfect setup, but these elements should be considered at any time:
- Tripod: a vital tool to prevens vibration blur in low-light conditions. Als practical when photographing a series of specimens. Experiment until you have the settings (focus, distance, light) just right, and then all you need to do is position the specimens and take the shots.
- Background: ideally an even background, dark or light depending on the preference and specimen color.
- Scale reference: in order to be able to judge the size of the specimen. A scale bar is a better choice than an object such as a coin.
- Light: good lighting is often overlooked, but of vital importance. Use daylight, which is almost always a lot brighter than artificial light. Slightly overcast conditions are ideal, because direct sunlight creates hard shadows. Working indoors with artificial light almost always requires a tripod.
TIP: putting the specimen on a glass plate, slightly above the background, prevents a shadow to be visible on that background.
A simple setup outside could look like this:
For this setup, we use a sturdy tripod. A scale bar is put on top of the fossil. We use daylight for illumination. As stated before, slight overcast weather conditions are ideal, as the sunlight is scattered and any harsh shadows are avoided. In case of direct sunlight, use a white reflective board and place it on the shadow side of the specimen, to lighten up the shadow.
An indoor setup might look like this:
Here we use a flash as the main light source. A remote triggered flash would be ideal. The light is not aimed directly onto the specimen, but rather made to bounce off a wall or reflective board. Again, this scatters the light providing a softer illumination. Position a second reflective surface at the other side of the specimen to lighten up the shadows even further.
Choose the angle of the main incoming light source carefully. Illumination from the side makes the small details pop up. Avoid a direct frontal illumination (e.g. from a built-in flash unit), as it will wash out most of the details. If you make the angle too sharp, the picture will get a dramatic look, but most of the details will be hidden in the shadows.
All tree pictures show exactly the same sea-urchin. The picture to the left demonstrates the loss of detail when the lighting angle is too steep. The example to the right demonstrates the overall 'flatness' of a picture when the illumination is full frontal. The example in the middle shows a good compromise, with lots of detail showing prominently.
When taking the pictures, use the highest resolution your camera offers, and switch to macro mode on. Typically, the macro function is indicated by a flower icon.
!!! Macro photography using a DSLR requires a dedicated macro lens, even if the camera has a 'macro' mode. When purchasing a macro lens solely for fossil photography, we would recommend a relatively short focal length (e.g. 50 or 90 mm).
Getting the camera close to the fossil should never be at the expense of picture sharpness. Never exceeed the closed focussing distance of your lens. It is always better to take a sharp picture and crop afterwards, than to get close to the fossil and be unable to focus. Rely on the focus indicator (green light or brackets), or use trial and error.
The distance between the scale bar and the camera should be the same as the distance between the fossil and the camera, to avoid perspective distortion. A scale bar which is in front of the fossil, makes the fossil appear smaller than it really is.
Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.