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The Secret to Photographing Antiques

Updated on March 9, 2011

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The photography of museum and collector's pieces needs considerable technical skill. The aim is usually to produce a factual presentation of the object, from which the connoisseur could get much of the information he would expect to obtain by a visual examination of the object itself. It must be to scale, free from distortion, indicate surface texture and show all decipherable detail.

Recommended Photographic Equipment

To do this sort of work properly a rear-focusing field camera is essential. It must have an extension more than twice the focal length of the normal camera lens, the length of this being at least equal to the diagonal of the film or plate it has to cover, focal length of the lens employed and the focal length of the lens should be at least equal to the diagonal of the film or plate it has to cover. Back focusing is necessary for working to scale, as otherwise any movement of the lens backwards or forwards in focusing changes the distance between the lens and the object and thus alters the size of the image.

The usual practice when photographing a number of articles to the same scale (snuff boxes, coins, miniatures and the like) is to set the camera by focusing on a foot rule and measuring the image on the focusing screen. It is then only necessary to move the camera backwards and forwards until the object is sharp on the focusing screen.

A double extension camera is necessary because so often in this work the object must be reproduced same-size and to do this the camera must be extended to twice the focal length of the lens in use.

A swing back is absolutely essential as converging verticals are no more permissible in a photograph of, say, a cabinet, than they are in a photograph of a building. This statement applies equally to converging horizontals, which should also be corrected by use of the relevant camera movements.

The equipment should include at least three lenses (normal, long-focus, and wide angle) to meet all possible needs. These lenses should of course be of the highest possible quality. Lighting. No hard and fast rules can be laid down on the lighting of antiques, as such objects are extremely varied. Some require soft diffused light; with others even spotlights might be suitably brought into play.

As exposure time is seldom important, it is always a good plan to use a smaller stop than would normally give the depth of field necessary to cover the subject. Extreme stopping down can, however, lead to an ultimate loss of quality, caused by diffraction. The correct use of tilt of the lens panel, on a camera where such movement is possible, can achieve overall sharpness without extensive stopping down.

In this class of work it is essential to expose for the shadows; modern slow emulsions have enough latitude to look after the highlight detail if development is not carried too far.

The background needs to be carefully chosen to give a clear contrast with the outline of the subject on both lighted and shadow sides. It should be colored or lighted to come out on the print as a neutral gray; it should never be white, as the strong reflected light tends to be spread by halation and destroy the crisp definition around the edges of the subject. Sensitized Material. Many experienced technical photographers prefer to use sheet film or possibly plates, as these can be processed individually. When using roll-film it is important, on any one roll of film, to shoot only similar subjects under similar lighting conditions, so that processing can be suited to the entire roll. Any work such as blocking out or titling that may have to be carried out on the negative is easier on a large sheet film or plate than on a comparatively small piece of roll-film. Whether panchromatic or ordinary color-blind emulsions are used will depend on the subject.

Ordinary color-blind emulsions are preferable when statuary or the like has to be reproduced in its natural gray tones, but, for subjects containing color, a panchromatic emulsion with a suitable filter is essential. The slower emulsions, whether panchromatic or ordinary, are preferable unless the subject has to be photographed in situ in poor light.

Nineteen out of twenty subjects will be suitably corrected on pan plates by using a 3x yellow filter but, very occasionally in antiques, one gets rich colors in, say, rosewood or marquetry or the tortoiseshell inlay on Buhl furniture which call for an orange filter. Focusing should always be done with the filter in position because the filter may cause a slight shift in the focus of the rays that form the photographic image.


In many branches of photography, processing which gives approximately correct tone values is all that is required. This standard is not good enough for a negative which may at any moment be the only record of a unique piece which has met with disaster. For that reason the normal practice of taking a spool of mixed subjects at varying exposures and developing it by time and temperature in a standard developer will not do. Such important records must be developed separately to a gradation and contrast scale which is complementary to that of the subject and yet may vary from one subject to the next.

Photographers who specialize in this critical work often develop by inspection. The developer employed is almost invariably a standard pyro-soda formula. With this it is possible to predetermine the character of a negative by varying the pyro content; a solution rich in pyro will tend to produce a contrasty negative, whereas by reducing the concentration the same exposed material can be made to yield the softest image it is possible to print.

Photographs of antiques are mostly used for records and for catalog reproduction, and for that reason they should preferably be printed on glossy or smooth paper which gives the maximum resolution and rendering of detail.


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