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How to Photograph Fossils

Updated on March 16, 2015
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.


Public Domain
Public Domain | Source

Crinoid Fossils

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

"Fossils (from Classical Latin fossilis; literally, "obtained by digging")[1] are the preserved remains or traces of animals, plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossiliferous (fossil-containing) rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record.Like extant organisms, fossils vary in size from microscopic, even single bacterial cells[6] one micrometer in diameter, to gigantic, such as dinosaurs and trees many meters long and weighing many tons. A fossil normally preserves only a portion of the deceased organism, usually that portion that was partially mineralized during life, such as the bones and teeth of vertebrates, or the chitinous or calcareous exoskeletons of invertebrates. Fossils may also consist of the marks left behind by the organism while it was alive, such as animal tracks or feces (coprolites)" Wikipedia

Fossils can be quite exciting as well as being able to shed light on our ancient history.

Looking at them and photographing them are both two exciting possibilities and don't forget the learning experience that can result as well.

I have always been fascinated by them and have collected several over the years.

Now I can combine two things that I love; fossils and photography into a fossil study using my photographic skills.

Off course you need to have several specimens ready to photograph and unless you are granted access to a museum collection you have no other choice but to research locations that feature them and that freely allow them to be photographed.

But relax, there are plenty of such places and all you simply need to do is ask, and perhaps offer them some free copies of your images.

There are many shops that sell fossils and there are also many other museum type attractions that feature them as well.

Now this project does not intent to photograph major fossilized specimens like the bones of T Rex, but rather is focused on much smaller yet just as interesting ones.

These smaller versions are the ones that you can find at shops and other museum type locations.

Laccopteris smithii, fern

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

pyritised Echioceras ammonite and Archaeopteryx (plaster copy)

Public Domain
Public Domain | Source
CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

The purpose is to get a detailed record in photos of several fossil specimens and you can either capture images of various and different subjects or specialize in one main type like shells, fish, plant life and so on. One main image of each should suffice.

So far as what gear to use, it is best to use one main lens like a regular 55mm one since the fossils are not going anywhere and you can take your time.

You have the option of how close to move in, what angle to use as well as what perspective to focus on.

The light source should be either ambient light or a dedicated flash set up at an angle of about 45 degrees and away from the camera, not a camera mounted unit since this will more than likely cast a strong light plus strong shadows.

Since most fossils can be found embedded in stone a side illumination works best because it is the best way to show and emphasize depth, texture and bringing out patterns plus details.

Side lighting is more effective with portrait style photos (the fossils are in a manner of speaking "portraits") because it helps you emphasize the emotion and depth of your subject in a more dramatic fashion.

A frontal light creates wash out images, it is the less dramatic of set ups, eliminates most details and fails in bringing out the texture in the subject.


Public Domain
Public Domain | Source

There are many applications for the project such as in a commercial use like a scientific publication, for home or office décor, for calendars, and photo related publications.

But it also exposes you to a rather unusual subject matter plus consider the learning process that goes along with the photos.

If used for home or office décor you can have individual photos mounted on frames that simulate the surface where they where they were found.

You can also create a larger frame featuring several similar species or various different ones much like what a collage looks like.

Keep in mind that all the images/species should have or rather be identified as to what they are using the correct scientific name. Hardly any serious publication will use images that are not clearly identify each subject.

Something else worth doing is to include a detailed written piece to supplement the images. Tell a story about each specimen, what it is, where it was found, and other historical related details about each such as time frames or periods when these creatures or subjects where roaming or present on Earth.

Do you think that this is an interesting photo subject?

See results


Public Domain
Public Domain | Source

Meganeuridae indet or possible Tupinae

CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

Dickinsonia costata

CC BY 2.5
CC BY 2.5 | Source

Getting your hands on original fossils specimens would be the ideal scenario, but can prove to be time consuming and costly to go from place to place in search of them.

First research the availability of copies as these are more abundant and less expensive.

You do not have to buy them but you will definitely need to ask permission to take photos inside of a store that features them for sale and you should ask if it is OK to photograph in many other locations like a children's museum or any other establishment that has them.

In bona fide national history museums and such, photography is seldom allowed or you may need to ask special permission plus pay a fee.

© 2015 Luis E Gonzalez


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