Previously, I had much to say about photographing specimens that you can move around and nicely place on a turntable. However, the world of vertebrate palaeo holds many specimens that do not fit into that category. Specimens that just generally do not fit at all, anywhere. Specimens like sauropod sacra, huge chunks of fossilized and therefore rock-heavy bone that you need a forklift to move. Beaten only by sacra with still-attached ilia. Oh, and obviously beaten by stuff too heavy to move at all placed in storage so that it is barely accessible. Like hips with a shelf right above them. Like this one:
As you can see, the next shelf isn’t far above. Luckily, there is some room, and there are aisles on both sides. This is in the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. The layout in the photo below (AMNH Big Bone room) is much worse, because the specimen is facing the wall:
How did I deal with the rather suboptimal conditions in Vernal?
First of all, I took photos with long exposures. The light wasn’t too bad, as there were long banks of fluorescent lights down both aisles, and behind me (on the photo above) there was a row of those gloss white painted collection cabinets that do such a neat job of reflecting light. So there was light coming in from many directions, and the shadow thrown by the shelf above wasn’t as hard as it could have been. But the level was, overall, rather low. Long exposures meant that I needed to use a tripod, which had the added benefit of “allowing” me to fiddle with the tripod until I got the perfect composition for each photo. It takes forever, compared to speedy hand-held shots, but in the end that time is easily compensated for by the lower number of photos needed, because each photo is better composed.
A specimen in confined quarters – and being very close to the ground is a confinement in that sense, too – requires a lot of variability in the tripod. Check out what I did to get good shots from a low angle, in order to capture as much of the lower edges and ventrally directed surfaces of the sacrum:
Yup, that looks pretty contorted! But it allowed me to take photos like this:
Look how nicely the surfaces on the underside show up!
So, how do you photograph such huge immobile specimens?
Ensure good lighting
In the case shown above, there was no need to bring additional lights. However, be prepared to set up a few lamps and use white cardboard as reflectors to light up the lower surfaces of the specimen.
Use long exposure times and a tripod
Take hand-held HDR shots
a contradiction to the last statement? No! To properly document the top of the specimen you may need to combine both methods. Or, in fact, take sets of photos of the complete specimen with both methods. Also, do not be afraid of taking the camera off the tripod and pressing it against the bottom surface of the next higher shelf to hold it steady; this gives you excellent top-down shots. or even use the flash!
This is a HDR shot, for which I held the camera under the next-higher shelf and aimed blindly.
Select views to maximize the coverage of the specimen’s surface
This may mean hanging a sandbag from your tripod as a counterweight and sticking the camera between the shelves! Most tripods have a small hook for this purpose.
If you follow these rules you will likely get pretty good results!