Tips+Tricks: Photographing collections

Powerhouse Museum Photography Manager Geoff Friend offers tips+tricks on how to photograph heritage collections. Geoff has worked at the Powerhouse Museum for 26 years and in that time has built a photographic studio that would make any organisation envious. But in this article he offers suggestions on how to make-do with limited resources. It can also be downloaded from Sector Resources on the CAN website.

“Necessity is the mother of all invention” – Thorstein Veblen

Powerhouse Museum Photography Manager Geoff Friend

Ideally images should be taken with a digital SLR as they have better noise processing; which means the pixels do not appear rough when shooting in low light conditions. The digital SLR should have a full-frame sensor. A non-full-frame sensor has a multiplying effect so a 35mm wide-angle lens becomes a 52mm lens.
(Geoff uses a Canon 1DS Mk3 and Canon 5D)

If the budget only allows for a compact camera, it should have at least 10 megapixels to ensure high resolution images. These cameras are good for photographing events and exhibitions for the organisation.
(Geoff uses a Canon G10)

Most digital cameras have video capture which is great for the web.

Use a low ISO (film speed) such as ISO 100 to achieve the finest resolution.

Lighting_setup Lighting set-up to photograph the chair pictured below

The Powerhouse Museum uses professional electronic studio flash equipment – Broncolour floor packs with separate flash heads. The team uses a 1m x 1m softbox with a diffusion screen placed 50cm from the flash head to create a soft yet directional light source.


When using lighting equipment, avoid bare heads pointing at the object. Pulling the light source back from the object reduces the intensity of the light so that the detail is not burnt out. Angle the light so that it picks up the texture and pattern on the object if desired.

When photographing two-dimensional objects, make sure the light source is even. For example, place two lights on either side of the item at 45 degrees. Make sure the plane of the camera lens is perfectly parallel with the object.

If an artwork is behind glass, it is preferable to remove it from the frame. If it is too difficult, then cut a small hole in a piece of black velvet and shoot through the hole.

If the organisation cannot afford sophisticated lighting equipment, then it is a good idea to use natural light with the camera on a tripod. In this case a cable release cord or self-timer function on the camera should be used so there is no camera shake causing blurry photos. Avoid using the tripod’s centre column extension because it is unstable.

Please email Geoff Friend at the Powerhouse Museum for any technical questions.

3 Responses to “Tips+Tricks: Photographing collections”

  1. Brian Crozier Says:

    Hi Geoff
    Thanks for this – very helpful, particularly the news that digital images work better at slower speeds, just like film.

    Question – I’ve been trying to find a copy stand for document copying. Any idea of where I’d find one?

    Brian Crozier
    Museum consultant, Brisbane

  2. Geoff Friend Says:

    Hi Brian – Thanks for your enquiry. I’m not familiar with Queensland photographic suppliers but the larger ones should be able to help you. Try doing a Google search for “copy stand australia” or variations on those key words.

    The kind of copy stand, tripod or studio camera stand you select for shooting 2-dimentional subjects depends on your budget, the weight of your camera+lens, the size of the 2-D items you want to photograph and where you plan to shoot them (studio and/or location?).

    Some copywork can be shot with a traditional copy stand where the camera is supported on a vertical column and aimed down at a horizontal subject.
    Self-supporting subjects like framed posters can be shot standing on a shelf or hanging on a wall but note that it’s important to shoot with the camera’s film plane (or digital sensor plane) parallel to and centered on the subject plane so you accurately record its shape.

    If your subjects is framed behind glass you can control the reflections by shooting through a hole in a large piece of matt black cardboard or preferably black velvet. Otherwise you can minimise glass reflections by using polarising filters over the lens and possibly over the copy lights as well. Using both is called Cross Polarisation and requires the filter over each light to be arranged with their polarising effect parallel to each other with both at right-angles to the PL filter on the lens.

    If possible, avoid using a wide-angle lens for copywork because it is likely to distort your subject. I suggest choosing a normal, macro or moderate telephoto lens but note that as the focal-length of the lens increases so does the shooting distance between your subject and camera. The maximum height of your copystand column and the lens in use will therefore limit the size of what you can copy.

    If flexibility is important you might consider buying a good quality tripod with a centre column that can be positioned vertically or horizontally. That way you can shoot both 2-D and 3-D subjects in the studio and it will also be practical for location photography too.

    In the Powerhouse Musuem we use a heavy 2.5 metre high camera stand for most of our studio still-life and copy work. Some of the larger items we shoot, such as textiles and carpets, require us to mount our medium format digital camera on the camera stand at its maximum height. The camera is angled down at about 30 degrees so we can comfortably access the viewfinder from a ladder behind the stand. We position the camera so the lens axis is at right-angles to the subject which is laid out on an incline board (also at 30 degrees). The board is covered with plain textured fabric that prevents the subject from slipping.

  3. Brian Crozier Says:

    Thanks, Geoff. Again, very useful stuff, which I’ll keep for information. I did actually google copystands before, but did better with copy stands (two words). The LPL CS-7 from CR Kennedy and Co looks like a goer, though I’ve yet to learn the price. There was another with built-in lights but it cost over $300. But thanks again.

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