Tips for Photographing a Collection

If you are making documentary photographs, the first thing to keep in mind is to do it straight- on from front, side, top, etc. Add as many other sides or views object’s size and value seem to justify. If it opens-up in some way, open it and shoot it again. Up to you, but digital photos on a CD are cheap enough that your patience should be a better guide then the cost of film and prints. Imagine yourself explaining to your insurer why it costs $$$$ and shoot accordingly.

collection photography

Photo captured by Beebo Wallace (Click Image to See More From Beebo Wallace)

Here is another other suggestion for the documentation side of the coin -put a ruler in the picture and put it close to your collectible and position it perpendicular to your camera angle. Or make a little scale with paper and black marker. Or a yard-stick. Depends on the size of your object. You can do the documentation this way and remove the ruler for the pretty picture leaving everything else set up.

Documentation and Aesthetics:

Terrific photography is made out of a lot of stuff like technique, composition, and vision. Can’t help you with composition or vision, but I can offer a few points on technique and -as far as it goes- technique works for documentation purposes as well as aesthetic ends.

Consider this: you feel strongly about your collection, right? You wouldn’t have put the effort into collecting all this stuff up if you didn’t find it fascinating. So let your photographic vision reflect your feelings about it all. This is to say that if a photo looks good to you -it’s probably pretty good. But give a little thought to showmanship -interesting backgrounds and props and all. Collect civil war pistols? You ought to have a flag in there somewhere. Costume jewelry? How about an ostrich-feather boa? Collect rocks? What about photographing them on the appropriate USGS topographic map? The one showing where you found the particular rock. At the very least, invest in some fancy-ass velvet from the fabric store. Make it black, white &/or gray -colors are apt to clash with or detract from whatever you are photographing.

There is one important caveat here. If you are taking pix for both documentation and aesthetics, take two pix. One with the showy backgrounds and one without. Might be best not to have to explain to some lawyerly type (insurance adjuster) just what the black feather boa is doing there.


Yep -you need one. Life is much easier and the pix come out better. End of discussion. Well, not quite. If you are taking real REAL close-up pix, (see below for Macro Lenses), you might find it easier to take the elevator part out of the leg bracket thing and put it back in from the bottom. (I have an old tripod where this is easily done, but my new one, the up-&-down-attached-to-the-camera-bit is stuck in there permanently.) It’s a little funny looking, but it makes for a easy-to-use get-up. You are sort of working between the tripod legs and you can shoot straight down without leaning over things or having anything getting in the way.

how to photograph a collection

"Shiny pennies" captured by davespilbrow (Click Image to See More From davespilbrow)

I suppose there are still folks that use film and they probably have good reason for doing this. Ain’t me. I also suppose that these folks know exactly what they are doing so I’ll address myself mostly to digital cameras. Wonderful little things -digital cameras. Mine is a few years old now -middle of the line at the time and I have no doubt it’s now hopelessly outdated compared to the latest and greatest, but -and pay attention here- a so-so camera well used is going to give you better results then an expensive camera used poorly. But I do have one suggestion to soup-up your little digital -especially if you are photographing small items. You can make yourself a fast and cheap…

Macro Lens
These are sometimes called ‘close-up lenses’. Most digitalis -or the not-so-expensive ones anyway- have universal focus and don’t focus well close up. Actually, they don’t focus at all and this is part of their appeal -one less thing to do before you to point and shoot. But what about shooting -for example- a wee piece of jewelry? From 5 or 10 feet away it’s going to look like a spot. Here is what you do.

Schlep off to the Dollar Store and buy a couple of pair of reading glasses. Let’s say a #1.25 and #1.75 or 2. Also get yourself some of that yellow sticky stuff they sell in the office supply store. I think it might be called Handy-Tack. What you are going to do is pop one of the eyeglass lens out of the glasses and use the sticky stuff to stick it on over the camera lens. Now you need to calibrate it -unless your digital focuses through-the-lens and your eyes are younger then mine. Easier then it sounds.

Put your camera with its macro lens on the tripod and set it up a foot or two higher then the dining-room-table. Lay out a tape measure on the table from just under the lens to the other end of the table and take a picture. Now don’t move the tape and go off to the computer and find out where on the tape measure the picture is in focus. You are not done quite yet. Your camera is working at a diagonal. You can either simply measure from your camera lens to place where the tape measure is in focus. Or if you remember the Pythagorean Theorem -have at it and make your old teacher proud. Do the same for the other lens -the one with the higher number will let you get in even closer. I keep the lenses and the sticky stuff in sandwich bags WITH the focal length WRITTEN ON THE BAGGIE. Seems that an old memory is as fallible as old eyesight.

photography for collectors

"my collection" captured by Heather (Click Image to See More From Heather)

If you have a lot of pictures to take you might consider trying a little string to the front of you camera and snipping the end at the focal length. Then you simply hold the string in one hand and move the tripod in or out with the other hand. MUCH easier then squinting at / through your camera every time.


This will be short. F’ged-abou’did. Flashes are meant to light up rooms. Use a flash to light up your best brass belt-buckle and you will have a picture of glare. There is nothing a flash can do that a little preparation and set-up can not do better. Flashes are fine for working in the field -sports and weddings and such, but we are working in the studio -a home-made studio, but a studio none-the-less. This brings up the last -and biggest- bit of equipment, your studio.

Your Studio:

This is a big can’o-worms. No need to pull out the gold-card though. Perhaps the most important piece of equipment you need might be nothing more then a large north-facing window. Add a table or desk top, and some butcher paper and you are in business.

Or trick things up with a cheap vinyl roll-up type window shade nailed up on the wall above the table-top and you can set up or tear down your studio in seconds. Make it wider then the stuff you want to shoot and long enough to pull down behind the stuff and drape it over the table-top. Makes for what is called a seem-less background But get it one size bigger then you think you will need it though -trust me on this.


Here is where we get out from under the flash. It may well be that the big old window will do the trick. Or go outside and do it there. But do it on the north side of the building. Direct sun -from the south- won’t get it -too grarie and harsh. Or do it on an overcast day. There are photographers that love the soft even light from a cloudy day.

There is much to be said for simple light-bulbs -old fashioned incandescent or high-efficiency-fluorescent -makes no never-mind. But use all the same kind. Your software can correct the overall color but it’s considerably more difficult to correct the blue light on one side and yellow on the other. More on software later.

A pair of $5.00 clamp-on reflector type from the hardware store work great. Pull up a couple of tall kitchen chairs, clamp the lights to the top, position then to either side of your set-up and you are in business. Whole books have been written on how to position your lights for dramatic effects. Back-light to make her hair glow, front light to make her stand out against a black background, light from below to make her look exotic. High to the right, low from the left. Who knows. Do what looks good to your eye. There is one place where you might want to take a little extra effort. Shiny sparkly things appreciate a…..

Light Tent:

A light tent is nothing more then the means of diffusing light all around what ever you want to photograph. The key here is that it SURROUNDS your objects. Let’s assume you are taking pix of jewelry. What you need is a frame to go over the top, both sides, and back and holding some sort of diffusing material. You use your two reflectors clipped onto your kitchen chairs. As to the diffusing material, one photographer I read suggested a pillow case. Make a frame out of unbent clothes hangers and duct-tape. Then use scotch-tape to cover it with a few layers of wax paper. Or make a fancy folding / unfolding thing out of thin translucent sheet-plastic. Or find a good sized cardboard box, cut out the middle of each side and have at it with spray adhesive and thin white fabric or marker paper. A dozen ways to get’er done.

If the objects you are shooting are small enough, it may be that you can tape up a cone out of a large piece of paper, cut a hole in the front to take your pictures through, and you are in business. You are simply looking to get large translucent surfaces on a few sides of the thing you want to photograph. Your digital camera will sort out the exposure for you if you give it just a little help with the lights and tent.

photo of a collection

"Nepalese currency" captured by Shaktiz (Click Image to See More From Shaktiz)

Your Computer:

You might think I’m belaboring the obvious when I suggest that your computer must be a part of this, but the single handiest thing you might do to make your “studio” work well is to either move your computer to your studio or move your studio close to your computer. My “studio” -the far end of a big desk with a vinyl window shade on the wall above- sits right next to my computer and I load, PhotoShop, LABEL, and file the pictures as soon as I take them. Useful enough for me when I take 5 or 10 pictures at a time, but if you are documenting a life-time of collecting -let’s say just a few hundred- items, this degree of convenience is going to go a long way to support accuracy, completeness, and ultimately, your SANITY.


Another can of worms, this. I have to admit that my own studio technique -fair to partly to begin with- has gotten a little sloppy ever since I got the good software (PhotoShop) and took a class on how to use the stuff. It seems my camera and scanner both came with some photo-retouch software that I never bothered to open and now the CD’s are long gone so I can’t comment too well on what you might have to do to tweak your pix. I might also mention that almost all of my work is to go online, and may not be the best way to go if you do the print thing. None-the-less, here is what I typically do when I’ve got pictures off / out of the camera and loaded into my ‘puter. (This applies to Adobe’s PHOTOSHOP.)

  1. From Photoshop’s menu, I to do Image, Adjustments, Brightness and Contrast. Sometimes I also bend the color a little one way or the other. Pay particular attention to the Shadows / Mid-tones / Highlights buttons as you adjust your colors.
  2. Crop and resize. Because I do it for my web-site. most of my pix are 300 pixels wide and I let the height go wherever it needs to go. Or I do them 300 high and let the width follow along proportionally. Sometimes -for the money-shot at the top of the page for example, I go 500 wide and do thumbnails 100 or 150 wide.
  3. Sometimes I select specific parts of the picture to fuss up a little. The selecting function is way beyond the scope of our needs, but burning and dodging often is worth your time,. But go at it gradually -10 – 20% strength and use a soft edge ‘”brush.”
  4. If you do a lot of rectangular things like I do -tables and drawer-cases etc, you might want to fiddle around with the Edit, Transform, Skew function to straighten up the sides of things.
  5. Only after the pix is sized I do my sharpening. Rarely do I sharpen more the once and truth-to-tell, I’m not smart enough to do the Unsharp Mask thing, but I’ve heard really good PhotoShoppers insist it’s the only way to go. Here again, I think this might be more important for the internet then it is for prints.
photos of collections

"I guess this is growing up" captured by Jennifer Pagan (Click Image to See More From Jennifer Pagan)

Some Final Thoughts:

  • If your collection is real valuable, consider hiring a pro -this has the added advantage of having a witness who can provide another layer of third-party documentation -perhaps even a dated and notarized statement as to what he or she photographed.
  • If you can’t afford a pro, hire a high-school kid. Or middle-school kid for that matter. Heaven knows they know more about techno9logy then you or I.
  • Stephen Dow has written on the subject in more detail then I have -from the perspective of a photographer rather then a collector. You might want to have a look at and hunt him up under “digital-photography-how-to-building-a-light-tent”

About the Author
Bill Harvey makes drawer and display cases for collectors and museums at He is also author of the Collector’s How-To series for dedicated collectors and hobbyists who wish to display and protect their very best stuff.

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One response to “Tips for Photographing a Collection”

  1. great advice on collection photography. Big Advantage to process and archive your pictures in Lightroom, is that it will keep track of your photos and allow you to put in keywords that help you find your files quickly! For this kind of work better and faster than photoshop and costs a lot less. LR tutorials are all over the web. Great photoshop and LIGHTROOM advice at photoshop TV…

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