Digital Photography 101: Managing Cameras, Lighting and Workstations for Specimen Imaging

By Danielle Brennan

I found myself very fortunate to have been chosen to attend a workshop sponsored by the FOSSIL Project and iDigBio, hosted by the University of Florida on digital photography, managing cameras, lighting and imaging specimens. This opportunity allowed me the chance as an amateur photographer and fossil hunter to better experience the paleontological struggle that exists with collecting the, “best scientific specimen photo” available. I got to meet several local members from different backgrounds of the museum world and discover the different avenues available to each when it comes to photographing their specific media, whether it be invertebrates, fish, herbarium sheets, Lepidoptera, paleovertebrates or mammals.

This class allowed me to better understand my basic knowledge of digital photography from fossil hunting when it came to dealing with such media as paleo vertebrate fossils while enjoying the lesson plans presented by Mrs. Joanna McCaffrey and Professor Gil Nelson PhD, and Mr. Zack Randall on proper management of the DSLR camera’s potential. The lesson plans were evenly distributed so that the educator and the educated were capable of engaging each other with questions and answers ensuring knowledge of the subject was properly conveyed while being demonstrated during the labs provided.

Day one, we were introduced to the DSLR camera setup and given a presentation breakdown of the types of DSLR cameras available, subtle differences between brands and how to utilize your camera’s full menu functions. We were taken on a tour of the different imaging stations used at the university for the various media being studied. During these tours, we were shown ideas on how to capture your specimen’s full photographic potential while adjusting for lighting, background color and distance to your subject between foreground and background using squeeze tanks, light boxes and copy stands. Our final event of the day was a field trip to the Sweetwater Wetlands Park to begin demonstrating the techniques we had just learned. Several photographs of wild birds, alligators and fauna were readily available around the park. A side trip to the Alachua Trail Park was made by myself and my husband where photographic opportunities involving alligators, birds, rabbits, field mice, snakes and wild horses abounded.   

Field trip to Sweetwater Wetlands Park Photo credit Cathy Bester

Day two was spent studying the software side of taking photographs with a DSLR camera. Professor Nelson and Ms. Stephanie Leon gave presentations discussing the different types of post processing software available and the best ways to implement using this software to your advantage.  Ms. Kristen Grace gave a presentation discussing Metadata and the importance it serves in preserving your photographs.

Danielle practicing her technique on Eocene crocodile vertebrae from her collection

As a teacher, I have been using the lessons learned in this class to better educate my students whether it be in the classroom setting of marine biology or while being involved in the NOAA B-Wet PUP (Preserving Underwater Pastures) program currently being hosted by The Florida State University, in which I, three other teachers and seventeen students are conducting underwater research on several different dive sites. We are gathering data on fish counts, coral growth and impacted damage caused by human interaction with the underwater environment. Because of my taking part in this course, my students are getting firsthand knowledge on how to photograph subjects such as fish and invertebrates using a squeeze or photo tank while gathering their data which is crucial to the program. The knowledge learned has also allowed me to create lesson plans based on photographing and logging data in relation to different media studied.

This was a great experience that allowed me the opportunity to engage with members of the paleontological society and gain from their experiences when it comes to photographing specimens of different types and sizes. I would like to say, thank you to all those from the FOSSIL Project and iDigBio who made this event possible, especially Professor Gil Nelson PhD., Ms. Joanna McCaffrey and Mr. Zack Randall. To those fellow attendees, I say thank you for letting me be a part of your world, experiencing the trials and tribulations you must endure in the task of preserving these great collections from the past and present for future generations to enjoy. The skills I have learned during this class will be put to great use both in my professional educational career as well as my private journeys as an amateur fossil hunter and photographer.

Digital Photography Workshop participants Photo credit Joanna McCaffrey


Slides and other information from the workshop are available here. (Click on the text in blue for slides, etc.).


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