In recent months I’ve found myself putting serious thought into artifact photography, or what I prefer to call archaeophotography. I like the term archaeophotography because it can be used to include not just artifacts, but sites, excavation units, stratigraphic profiles, isolates, artwork, structures and pretty much anything else an archaeologist may encounter. My thoughts have bounced from equipment to technique right round to photographic preservation and storage to the best books and websites on the subject. Photo documentation is an essential part of the archaeological process and it is necessary that archaeologists have an understanding of how to effectively execute this step. Over the course of the next few months, I plan to share what I’ve encountered in my time as an archaeologist and post my thoughts on a variety of subjects related to archaeophotography. As always, I invite everyone to share their opinions in the comments section below.
The. Most. Important. Thing.
Throughout my undergraduate studies my professors constantly instilled in me the importance of good photography skills. Actually wait, that’s a lie; it was never mentioned! In fact, most of my friends who studied archaeology in college were not required to take any classes in photography. The most important thing one must understand is that cameras don’t take pictures, photographers do. Cameras are just a tool. Knowing how to wield that tool is where the real power lies.
I find it upsetting that photography isn’t cold soldered into all Bachelors’ level archaeology programs. If you’re still in college, I implore taking a photography course if it isn’t already a part of your curriculum. What better way to mark off your electives than with a course you will undoubtedly use? If you’re beyond your college years, consider taking an adult education course or exploring online programs.
If you’ve taken a photography course and are familiar with how to use a camera, practice! Consider the artifacts you encounter in your work and explore new ways of approaching them. I spent the past month working with Iroquois pot sherds because I expect to encounter pottery on my next dig. Through a process of trial and error I’ve devised new ways of lighting fragments with intricate patterns; techniques that I plan to employ in the future. Its also good to familiarize yourself with all the buttons outside of the automatic setting. Learn what aperture and shutter speeds are used for, two words that have been all but forgotten in the advent of digital cameras.
Search the web for suggestions on how to improve your archaeophotography skills. Loads of other archaeobloggers are commenting on the subject, see what they have to say.
With that covered, I feel we can now move on to…
Choosing a camera should be like choosing a trowel; you want to have something you’ll feel comfortable using every day. A good camera doesn’t have to cost you a fortune, but it should suit your lifestyle. I have at my disposal a Nikon FE and a Canon Rebel XTi. While both are expensive cameras, they are necessary for the type of work I do. To someone else the features of an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera may seem a bit excessive.
There seems to be a large consensus that believes SLR cameras are a dangerous choice for the field. The reasoning behind that statement is that they are both expensive and bulky, which I agree. You’ll find few organizations willing to put a $700 camera in the hands of their field crew. SLRs are great in the safe and predictable setting of a lab. But not all archaeophotography takes place in the lab. Not every all finds can be dug out of the ground and carted off to be studied. So do you risk toating a pricey piece of equipment out in to the field, or settle for something less?
From an employer stand point, the answer is to almost always settle for something less. Most of the cameras I’ve encountered in the field have been Canon’s Powershot series. Introduced in 1995, these point and shoot cameras make good field cameras because they are inexpensive and easy to operate. They’re not impervious to harm; rain, humidity, dust and dirt make a mess of their insides and I’ve seen at least one destroyed by an accidental steel-toed misstep.
To help solve that problem, this past month Olympus released their Stylus Tough cameras. Billed as a high performance camera sturdy enough for the most extreme conditions, it immediately appealed to me. Among its core features the camera shoots at 12 megapixels and boasts dual image stabilization and a 3.6x optical zoom. It is also watertproof up to 33ft, freezeproof up to -10°C and is designed to withstand 220 pounds of pressure! I imagined myself in the wilds of Africa, accidentally dropping it over the edge of the Great Rift Valley only to find it at the bottom of the canyon ready to shoot. Okay, maybe that’s a bit unrealistic. At the very least its a camera I can expect will survive a tumble into a test unit.
Of course what is worse than not having a camera suited to the most extreme conditions?
Not having a camera at all.
There have been a number of instances when I’ve encountered some fantastic artifacts, but found myself sans camera. Just this past week, a friend and local antiquities dealer found this artifact and wanted help determining what it was. In cases like this I’ve relied on my BlackBerry Tour which, given adequate lighting, can take fantastic pictures. I snapped a few photos of the artifact in question and when I found myself in a research setting, pulled up the photos on my phone and determined the artifact’s true identity. I’ve actually grown quite fond of using my BlackBerry in the field as well, something I probably wouldn’t have said a year ago. Here’s why…
First of all, the quality of cameras on mobile phones are constantly improving. Cameras on the most popular smartphones now average between 3 and 5 megapixels. The camera on my own BlackBerry Tour has a 3.2 megapixel camera. That will produce a printed image measuring 7” X 5”, perfect for site reports. The camera also has a moderate level of customization; it allows me to control picture size, quality, adjust white balance, color effect and incorporate geotagging. I’ve found geotagging to be especially helpful in those instances when I least expect to find something, be it a foundation in the woods or a projectile point on a desert trail. I snap a picture, geotag it and then have the ability to relocate the find at a later date.
Another advantage of snapping with my BlackBerry is that I have the option of sending the photo off to any number of contacts in my address book for a second opinion. This has proven indispensible when determining whether or not to bag and tag a sample. I also have the option of uploading it to photosharing websites, like Flickr, for a much broader critiquing. In the past few years, several archaeology groups have sprung up on Flickr (Sexy Archaeology, Archaeology in Action, Graffiti Archaeology) making it possible for archaeologists to network their photos. I can also upload to sites like Twitter and Facebook, or MySpace if you’re still trapped in 2005. Smartphones skirt around the hassle of returning to the lab and uploading pictures via Bluetooth or USB. In just a few clicks I can have my photo in the public realm without ever having left the dig site. That saves me time and (potentially) my employer money.
Sure, the major downside of taking photos via this method is the vulnerability of the technology. Most smart phones aren’t made to withstand the rugged archaeological lifestyle, but everything has its limits. Even the Stylus Tough, I’m sure. That’s why I stress finding a camera that suits you and your lifestyle. There are a million cameras out there so do your research.
Most importantly: know what you are doing! Learn, practice and experiment because no amount of Photoshopping is going to save a picture if you are a bad photographer.