The problem of shooting tiny sculptures on the road

06 Aug The problem of shooting tiny sculptures on the road

 In the case of the gothic prayers beads, the objects were so small and so detailed that it was very difficult to observe and study them with the naked eye. The conservation and curatorial teams needed high-resolution photography, which had to be really consistent in lighting and in scale. The objects were housed in collections all over the world, the largest grouping of which were in locations across Europe.

‘The objects needed to be photographed at exactly the same scale, with the same lighting, and in the same format. So that when we saw all these works together, we could compare them realistically, one to the next— something that had never been done before.’

Sasha Suda, Director, The National Gallery

The Subjects: Tiny Boxwood Sculptures

I traveled with the AGO to Europe to shoot medieval boxwood sculptures in 2015. Over the course of three trips, we visited museums in Amsterdam, Antwerp, London, Paris, and Salzburg, shooting dozens of artifacts along the way. Prior to the trip, we discussed the logistics of doing overhead shots while on the road with limited access to equipment. 

The Solution: A Custom Rig

We were about to embark on several trips to Europe so we started to brainstorm custom solutions. The project required top-down photography, which normally requires an enormous stand or a special tripod, the latter of which is awkward to operate and yields inconsistent results. What we would build needed to be really solid;  each image required multiple exposures so we did not want the rig moving, even by the smallest amount. The rig also had to be really light, as we would be checking it with the airline and it needed to fit within baggage restrictions and be portable. So the requirements for the custom rig were that it be easy to use, portable, and light.

We settled on making the column out of aluminum extrusion, as it was easy to work with and light-weight. I designed the prototype in SketchUp.

Sketch up rendering of top-down photography rig

Custom rig prototype in SketchUp


Camera mounted on custom rig, shooting top down on prayer bead

The custom rig in use

The Raison d’Etre for the Custom Rig: Focus Stacking

With depth of field, the camera can only get so much of an object in focus at one time.

This effect is even more apparent on small objects; the smaller the object is, the less you can get into focus at once. As a result, we needed to use specialized techniques in order to have an image of a small object like a prayer bead where everything is in focus. The solution was to use focus stacking, essentially, to make a series of individual images that are combined to make a composite image where the entire object is in focus.

Up close shot of prayer bead showing high level of detail

The final result

The resulting high resolution images were used for the Small Wonders exhibition and book. 

Photography by Ian Lefebvre © AGO