Chinese Porcelain Photography

Author: Kevin Lovelock
Senior Photographer
Photography & Imaging Department
British Museum

Currently I am working on a rather large project photographing all manner of objects for a catalogue written by a curator in the Asia Department, Jessica Harrison-Hall for the National Museum of China. This is also in conjunction with the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the British and Chinese governments earlier this month providing over £4M to UK Museums and Galleries. The objects range from bone china, ceramic, bronze, paintings,hanging and hand scrolls, jade and are all various shapes and sizes.

One particular piece has caused me no end of problems. The curator required a general shot and a detail showing a detail of the dragon motif. It was the dragon motif that was the problem.

As you (photographers) may be aware, most of the work we carry out is essentially a problem solving exercise whereby you are confronted by an object and you photograph it using your equipment to hand and your expertise over many years of shooting items of antiquity. Whilst trying to convey a creative style and also being sympathetic to the piece with a mind to the attention to detail of the man/woman who made it over 600 years ago. Obviously over many years of object photography, you get the feeling for how to shoot various objects. You know what works and what doesn’t. When you’re working to a tight deadline this experience becomes more profound and you almost work on autopilot. There are times, objects come into the studio that kind of set you back and if you’re like me, put that back into the safe and get on with the next piece, whilst it’s still in the back of your mind “How am I going to light that piece?”.

Franks 1a

So please look at the first shot of Franks 1a (above). This piece came to the British Museum in 1876 shortly after being exhibited in Bethnal Green Museum. In the exhibition catalogue it stated that it was a pair but only one came to the BM. It was bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks. It is described on our object database as :

Porcelain bowl with incised and anhua decoration beneath a monochrome tianbai glaze. The sides of this delicately potted bowl flare out from a low foot ring. Six V-shaped indentations are made to the rim, suggesting the petals of a flower. Inside, beneath the yellow-tinged white glaze around the sides, is an anhua design of two prancing dragons chasing each other’s tails and separated by ruyi clouds. The five-clawed dragons are depicted in profile but with their heads twisted around to stare at the viewer rather than the dragon they pursue. Incised in the centre is a four-character Yongle reign mark written in seal-script characters. To achieve this thinness of body, the sides have been pared down before glazing. The porcelain is completely translucent and fingers can be seen through its walls when it is picked up.

It is Ming dynasty and was made between 1403 – 1424 in Jingdezhen, China.

The description seems to be quite straightforward, however what you don’t realise is that the dragon motifs are incredibly feint and they seem to be made with a white slip painted onto the same white/cream bowl. Even when viewed using transmitted light, to distinguish the motif from the background is incredibly subtle. Also when using direct transmitted light there is the problem of flare. I found that by careful positioning of the key light above and using a snoot produced the desired effect (See Franks 1b, below).

Franks 1b

You have to shoot on a dark background otherwise most detail is lost. It’s a similar problem when you’re shooting jade. I’ve found that wherever possible, not to light the object directly. The key light used to shoot this object does not fall onto the object but instead is a pool of light, actually lighting the mirror. The light is reflected into the object avoiding overspill of light otherwise this will cause flare (see Franks 1c, below).

Franks 1c

With careful attention to the depth of field owing to the shape of the object. See final shot (Franks 1d, below).

Franks 1d

Equipment List and Image Specifications

Elinchrom Micro 6000 AS power pack with a S 3000 N flash head.
Sinar P monorail camera with F5.6 180mm sinaron se lens.
Phase One P45 digital back fitted to a LightPhase FlexAdaptor for 5″x4″ camera.
Final shot was taken at f22 creating a 117.3 MB tiff file using Adobe 1998 RGB colour space.

How did AHFAP come about 30 years ago, how has it developed, what have we achieved and what does the future hold?

Author: David Clarke
AHFAP President

In the following blog I share my observations as I witnessed the evolution of the Association. I am sure there are many who have different memories and views of events; it would be great to hear them, so please add to the blog.

How it all Started

The seeds of AHFAP were sown during a tentative conversation between a handful of museum photographers in 1985. They suggested meeting up on a regular basis to catch up with what was going on in their respective organisations and also to get to know each other socially. Meeting socially was a big step in itself. From my experience, photographers didn’t always mix well in groups. I have never known why but they certainly do now!

1988 Conference registration

1988 Conference registration Copyright: National Gallery

Thirty short years later, AHFAP has 280 members and presence and influence on a global scale; how did it happen? Well, in simple terms it has been due to the support and belief of many and the determination and hard work of a very few which has achieved this success.

Within those same thirty years, the world and in particular image making within the heritage sector, has faced three major areas of change:

  • The shift from film to digital technology
  • The growth of mass digitisation and mass access to art collections via the internet
  • In later years, a worldwide economic crisis

The Early Years of Digital, we start to find our voice

Very early on it became obvious that AHFAP was well placed to facilitate the communication between photographers and manufacturers as we stumbled, sometimes blindly, into digital technology. The Association did an excellent job to make sure we were all on the same wavelength as we tested and searched for appropriate equipment to achieve the standard of quality we required. At the time however, I don’t think many of us fully understood what the indicators of digital quality actually were or indeed how the parameters of quality would change so dramatically in future years.

Group experience and shared evidence linked to AHFAP membership was a very powerful tool when making the decisions and requesting funding from our respective budget holders. This would have not been possible without the free flow of dialogue between all concerned, mostly made possible through annual conferences but also by more ad hoc methods such as demonstrations and studio visits etc, more often than not organised by AHFAP. Slowly but surely a bond of trust was created between UK heritage imaging professionals which has proved to last the test of time.

International Partnerships are born

Quite early on, the move to new technology also triggered dialogue with individuals and organisations outside of the UK, including notables such as USA, China and of course mainland Europe. Over the following years, relationships were developed and friendships cemented, surrounded by understanding and mutual respect. In 2011 AHFAP organised an ambitious inaugural International Conference held in Brighton, which although a steep learning curve in logistics for the organisers, was a resounding success. Delegates met international contemporaries, sometimes face to face for the first time, and discovered the existence of a great commonality; the vast majority had the same worries and same sleepless nights over the same issues. A collective sigh of relief was heard over Brighton.

A wider reaching and more targeted international conference; 2+3D Photography – Practice and Prophecies, was held in 2015 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which attracted representatives from 22 different countries. This very successful conference showcased existing and emerging technology and discussed the need for commonly agreed quality standards. The conference model set by AHFAP, plus years of offered experience was an essential building block towards the success of the Rijksmuseum conference.

The Association spreads its wings and shapes the future

As AHFAP’s position of authority has become established, so too has its membership base widened. The Association, originally the sole domain of museum and gallery photographers, has and continues to attract a more diverse group of imaging professionals. It now includes Special Interest Groups from major libraries and archives, including universities, as well as a growing band of independent professionals and a number of digitisation companies.

Progressively through the years, AHFAP has been key in providing a platform to promote the development of best practice and new techniques for mass digitisation of not only fine art collections but archives held within cultural establishments and private collections.  AHFAP has become a pool of specialists who can often move from one organisation to another or indeed in these days of part time contracts, to simultaneously work for more than one employer. I can see a time when equipment, project staff and IS and web integration could be a communal activity which would transfer as a package between organisations. This would certainly benefit smaller or less resourced institutions.

Mass communication based around the web is now firmly established as both an educator and income generator. One major gallery for example, attracted approximately 7 million personal visitors in 2014 but 20 million web visits. The web in all its guises is image rich far beyond what could have been imagined even ten years ago. The image makers are accordingly valuable and essential to the continued development of web communication, including e-commerce which works in tandem creating an essential income stream, on which many cultural institutions now depend.

A Positive Twist emerging from the economic downturn

With regard to the economic downturn of recent years it could be argued that the situation has actually allowed image making within the heritage sector to flourish and prove its true worth. Audience generation via an image rich website is proven. So too are other schemes such as picture libraries which many larger collections operate. The success of high quality reproduction is of course dependent on high quality multi-purpose digital images. Confidence in technique and commonly held quality standards is rightly demanded by picture libraries and can now be delivered efficiently with confidence by in-house teams and independent specialists alike.  Issues surrounding image reproduction have always been identified as being of fundamental importance to AHFAP and progress in this area has helped strengthen the image maker’s hand.

I see a new confidence emerging, which was never there thirty years ago, or even ten years ago, for that matter. Imaging professionals feel more comfortable in their own skin, offering specialist expertise within their individual organisations and often working in other external partnerships.  The heritage sector is attracting talented newly qualified professionals. Image making in the sector is seen as an attractive option where individuals can follow both their technical and creative ambitions.  Crucially, budget holding managers also recognise the expertise which exists within their in-house teams. Specialist work which years ago would have been commissioned externally is now trusted to in-house staff. This includes architectural and advertising photography, web creation, film making, project management and a whole host of other activities. With the professional framework being promoted by AHFAP, heritage sector image makers in 2015 are being recognised as leading the field rather than following it, which was certainly not a general perception back in 1985.

Effects and Impacts on Individuals

What have we achieved on a personal level? I guess AHFAP could be officially described as a group of like-minded professionals working towards a common goal. However I prefer to think of AHFAP as a group of friends, for that is what they have become to me, who support and look out for each other. This has been well illustrated during the personal hardships of recent years. AHFAP has been invariably unable to intervene in any real sense when members have been made redundant or departments devoured by aggressive internal takeovers and stripped of their autonomy and some may say dignity and self-respect. However, the Association has provided a common and shared understanding, which has been immensely supportive to a great many people. Even in the face of the terrible time many have had, I do feel sure, for the reasons set out above, that a corner has been turned and there is a new feeling of self-empowerment emerging. There is a great future which is achievable and worth working towards.  Accordingly we certainly can be very proud of what has been achieved during the first 30 years of AHFAP.

David Clarke, President 2015

British Library Imaging Studio – opening up our collections

Author: Kristin A. Phelps
Senior Imaging Technician
British Library

In a quiet seaside town on the northern coast of Crete, a plaque affixed above the lintel of a deserted building silently states:

Today it is mine, tomorrow someone else’s.

Today it is mine, tomorrow someone else’s.

This statement remains a haunting reminder of the ephemeral nature of ownership. While land, building and object can be occupied or used for a finite period of time, they do not really belong to anyone. Indeed, the transient existence of an abandoned structure serves as an abbreviated symbol for our global heritage: today it is in our care, tomorrow it will become the property of future generations.

Museums, galleries and libraries are the first places which come to mind when thinking about heritage sharing vehicles, serving both current and future generations. But how accessible are the modern museum’s collections? It is an old statistic, yet no less true today, which still shocks those who hear it: on average our museums display approximately 1-3% of their total collection. Even with the age of digitisation upon museums , the percentage available to website visitors still does not vastly improve visibility (ENUMERATE’s 2014 Survey Report on Digitisation in European Cultural Heritage Institutions reported only around 17% of collections were digitised).

A Coptic and Arabic Gospel illumination, from a manuscript being digitised in the British Library Imaging Studio. (Or 1317 f57r)

A Coptic and Arabic Gospel illumination, from a manuscript being digitised in the British Library Imaging Studio. (Or 1317 f57r)

Even if accessibility improves, is the heritage sharing process effective? Does the manner in which these objects are shared shine light on their original functions? Museum stores are often full of objects which will never again be used for their core purpose or intended use and are shown in isolation and out of context: a Yorùbán mask which will never again be used in a ceremony, a Roman ring which will not be worn once more, or an airplane which will at no time fly again.

At the British Library and other library and archive collections, the landscape differs. Most of the Library’s objects still retain their core function—to be read. Even without physically holding a book or manuscript, the text can still be read through a digital platform, such as the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal.

The sharing task at hand though is jaw-dropping: with around 56 million catalogued items, it would still take someone more than 153,000 years to get through this material based on looking at just one item per day. And this figure does not include uncatalogued items nor the new items acquired each year, which are measured not by numbers but rather by kilometres of shelving. It has truly become a problem of big data…or is it an opportunity?

The British Library and others are currently developing strategies of how to best cope with this overwhelming amount of data and to turn it into something both useful and useable. Recognising the strategic issue of how to thrive as a library in the digital age is one of the inspirations behind changes.

In January of this year, the Library introduced its Living Knowledge strategy for the next 8 years. One of the purposes of this strategy is to ‘engage everyone with memorable cultural experiences.’ The British Library’s Imaging Studio is in a position to uniquely add value to this purpose. The Studio works with a random sample of the Library’s broader collection and therefore is placed in the unusual, fascinating position of being able to present a visual and digital snapshot of the many types of material being digitised. To help engage the public in one of the unique cultural experiences realised every day at the British Library, we have launched a Twitter initiative of an image a day. These images will appear on Twitter Monday through Friday of each week and will give a flavour of items being imaged during the week. We hope our feed will give the opportunity of engagement with the objects using a digital platform and create the opportunity to generate discussions.

Parchment stitching repairs on a Coptic manuscript (Or 3581a f31r) - recently posted via Kristin's Twitter feed.

Parchment stitching repairs on a Coptic manuscript (Or 3581a f31r) – recently posted via Kristin’s Twitter feed.

Later addition silver clasp on the binding of a 15th century French Book of Hours (Egerton 2019) one of many details of the physical collection items it is the Imaging Studio's task to capture.

Later addition silver clasp on the binding of a 15th century French Book of Hours (Egerton 2019) one of many details of the physical collection items it is the Imaging Studio’s task to capture.

We invite you to beautify your Twitter feed and engage with the digitisation process as the British Library’s Imaging Studio photographs a variety of items. We hope you will be reminded of all of the exciting things held by the British Library (which are not always books!). Follow the beautiful images of the British Library’s collection as seen through the eyes and lens of the Studio Enjoy and share the images that move you or make you think. Be a part of our Living Knowledge and help us share our global heritage!

You can follow the British Library Imaging Studio on Twitter.

This post was originally published on the British Library’s Living Knowledge blog. Republished with kind permission.

2 and 3D Reflections


Author: Susan Pettigrew
Photographer, Digital Imaging Unit
Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library

It is hard to believe that more than a month has passed since the fantastic ‘2 and 3D: Practice and Prophecies’ Conference at the Rijksmuseum in April. So much was packed into those 2 short days: standardisation in colour and targets (who knew standards were so non-standard?), mass-digitisation and bespoke object-specific photography techniques, panoramas, multispectral and 3D imaging, digital asset management and the role of photography in heritage institutions. This was a heritage photography event not to be missed, which is why I was delighted when AHFAP offered me their competition bursary to attend. I gathered so much information in Amsterdam that I am still sifting through the notes and links and chasing up my post-conference ‘to do’ list! However, I would like to share a few of my highlights from the conference.


Bianca du Mortier’s ‘pimped-up’ conservation boxes. Image © Malcolm Brown

Bianca du Mortier delivered a fascinating talk on the development of costume photography, from the days when it was an after-thought: photos taken with the originals in glass cases already on display in the museum battling against poor lighting and reflections, to photography as an integral part of the collection management: working creatively with curators and graphic designers to create ‘pimped-up’ conservation boxes or even include the odd naked model.

I have often felt that mass-digitisation didn’t sit entirely comfortably with rare and fragile museum collections, however the Smithsonian’s Günter Waibel made a compelling case for it. Faced with a 138 million-strong collection, they developed superb pre-digitisation organisation, followed by slick workflows tried and tested with rapid capture prototypes to show that mass-digitisation is achievable. What is more, he introduced us to digitisation’s new super-hero, Captain Capture!

New technologies permeated the whole conference. Robert Erdmann’s clever curtain viewer displays visible light, infrared and infrared reflectography simultaneously, allowing the under-painting to be revealed without the jarring sensation of switching between images. Click on the Triptych of St. Uncumber here to discover the hidden figures in the left and right hand panels.


Adam Lowe of Factum Arte showing the facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb

3D has really captured the imagination – its uses and potential seem to be expanding exponentially, from capturing a record of an at-risk archaeological site in time of war, to conservation and reconstruction of damaged artefacts, new ways for academics to collaborate and exciting possibilities for audience engagement. I found the work of the Smithsonian and Factum Arte particularly inspiring. The Smithsonian’s Vincent Rossi told us how 3D prints taken from fossil digs could be made available within 4 days, when it would be years before the originals were cleaned and made available for use. They have also used this new technology to refresh old traditions, faster and less intrusively – from President Lincoln’s plaster life mask to President Obama’s 3D print out. See for more information. In another project, Factum Arte scanned Tutankhamun’s tomb – accurate to 1mm – making a facsimile for the public to visit, allowing preservation of the original

There was also a wonderful range of practical workshops. I especially enjoyed Hugh Gilbert’s panorama session, in which he stepped us through making a panorama of the group, discussing the range of equipment and software available and imparting lots of tips along the way.


Hugh Gilbert’s panorama created with the piXplorer panorama head

In this, the 30th Anniversary year of AHFAP, I feel privileged to have been selected for this bursary. In Tony Harris’s lecture on the AHFAP story I learned their constitution was set up ‘To encourage the interchange of ideas and general support among photographers practising in these fields and to promote access to departments thereby increasing wider opportunities for experience.’ This bursary is just one example of how they are achieving this. The “2 and 3D conference” was an informative and inspiring event. There were also many opportunities to renew acquaintance and forge new links during the very enjoyable social events – canal cruising on a sunny evening is hard to beat! I would like to thank AHFAP and Colour Confidence for their support and the Rijksmuseum team for such a great conference. Finally, I look forward to seeing many of you again at the AHFAP Conference this autumn.