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This info page provides tips and tricks to photographing fossils. A separate article deals with digital editing to prepare pictures for publication on the web. Also, we point out several technical and digital solutions to photograph small specimens and details of specimens. How do we properly make a picture of a fossil?


Both images below show the very same fossil. When comparing the images, it is clear that we would prefer the second one. The picture is crisp and the fine details are easily visible. Moreover, the fossil is depicted from several angles and a scale bar is provides, allowing us to know the size of the specimen and interpreting the picture correctly. The first pic, on the other hand, is unusable. The main error causing such picture is camera misuse. Taking a couple of simple guidelines into account, we can prevent most of this errors from happening. This guide shows how to make a simple yet effective setup for fossil photography, using clear examples. 


Most contemporary equipment allows for acceptable pictures of fossils. The trick is that many fossils are rather small, and from other, you'll want to capture fine details. Therefore, a camera capable of shooting decent macro images has obvious benefits for fossil photography. When taking pictures on the terrain, a built-in GPS might come in handy. Taking images of micro-fossils requires specialized equipment. 

The most obvious pieces of equipment for fossil imaging would be the digital camera and flatbed scanner. Both webcams and mobile phone cams lack the required image quality (in terms of resolution, sharpness and overall quality), but the technology is rapidly evolving. Using a flatbed scanner, one can make some pretty decent images, particularly of flat fossils, but the digital camera is our tool of choice. It allows easy captures from various angles, and the possibility to choose and change your light sources. Apart from the aforementioned equipment, some alternatives are available worth mentioning. Of these, the USB microscope is on of the most interesting for amateur fossil enthousiasts because of an attractive price/quality ratio and ease of use. A basic USB microscope is available from about 100 euro, and despite the mediocre image quality that goes with the price level, it might be sufficient for the many basic uses. 

This manual aims mainly at users of a simple digital 'point and shoot' style camera, as well as digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) users. The following technical setups can be suitable for fossil photography, amongst others:

A flatbad scanner combined with digital editing is able to produce good results

Purpose of the picture

Personal database

When taking pictures for a personal database you'll want to systematically live up to specific quality criteria. The fossil needs to be depicted clearly, identifyable and with a scale bar. Because of the large amount of pictures to be taken (a typical collection easily contains hundreds or even thousands of specimens), designing a fast standardized workflow can be a real timesaver. This means you'll want to minimize or even avoid any digital post-processing. The following guidelines might apply: 

Use of a caliper to avoid confusion.

Sharing (online)

Pictures intended for online sharing (e.g. on your website, facebook page or on a community forum), demand similar quality criteria. Of particular concern are:

The example below shows a composite picture of the same fossil showing different views and a scale indication (1cm). The white balance of the picture is not top notch, giving the fossil an overall yellowish chroma, but since color is of secondary importance here, fixing the white balance is not considered essential.  

Composite picture for fossil identification.

Publication (scientific)

Pictures for publication in a (scientific) journal should comply with the publishers' quality criteria. Usually, a minimal size and resolution is specified, with a dpi of 300 or 600), along with other quality criteria (sharpness, contrast, ...). The following guidelines might apply:

Taking pictures: setup

Take your time to set up for your shot. You can go to great lenghts to make a perfect setup, but these elements should be considered at any time:

TIP: putting the specimen on a glass plate, slightly above the background, prevents a shadow to be visible on that background.

A simple setup outside could look like this:

For this setup, we use a sturdy tripod. A scale bar is put on top of the fossil. We use daylight for illumination. As stated before, slight overcast weather conditions are ideal, as the sunlight is scattered and any harsh shadows are avoided. In case of direct sunlight, use a white reflective board and place it on the shadow side of the specimen, to lighten up the shadow.

An indoor setup might look like this:

Here we use a flash as the main light source. A remote triggered flash would be ideal. The light is not aimed directly onto the specimen, but rather made to bounce off a wall or reflective board. Again, this scatters the light providing a softer illumination. Position a second reflective surface at the other side of the specimen to lighten up the shadows even further.

Choose the angle of the main incoming light source carefully. Illumination from the side makes the small details pop up. Avoid a direct frontal illumination (e.g. from a built-in flash unit), as it will wash out most of the details. If you make the angle too sharp, the picture will get a dramatic look, but most of the details will be hidden in the shadows.

All tree pictures show exactly the same sea-urchin. The picture to the left demonstrates the loss of detail when the lighting angle is too steep. The example to the right demonstrates the overall 'flatness' of a picture when the illumination is full frontal. The example in the middle shows a good compromise, with lots of detail showing prominently. 

When taking the pictures, use the highest resolution your camera offers, and switch to macro mode on. Typically, the macro function is indicated by a flower icon.

!!! Macro photography using a DSLR requires a dedicated macro lens, even if  the camera has a 'macro' mode. When purchasing a macro lens solely for fossil photography, we would recommend a relatively short focal length (e.g. 50 or 90 mm). 

Getting the camera close to the fossil should never be at the expense of picture sharpness. Never exceeed the closed focussing distance of your lens. It is always better to take a sharp picture and crop afterwards, than to get close to the fossil and be unable to focus. Rely on the focus indicator (green light or brackets), or use trial and error. 

The distance between the scale bar and the camera should be the same as the distance between the fossil and the camera, to avoid perspective distortion. A scale bar which is in front of the fossil, makes the fossil appear smaller than it really is. 



(being translated)


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