Archaeological Photography – Experimenting with a Light Tent

I’ve been trying to come up with a better strategy for photographing artifacts while in the field in Jordan. There is a lot of nice, natural light but it’s so windy all the time that a rig with sheets or with paper scales can be difficult to manage. I decided to try out an inexpensive light tent. I thought about making my own, but these aren’t particularly portable and the more portable ones on Amazon were cheaper.  We ended up getting this one, and it arrived in a box without instructions. Not that we really needed instructions to put it up, but folding the light tent back into a small enough shape to put it back in the case proved problematic.

I also finally added a macro lens to my photo kit, the Sigma 105mm Macro, which one of my friends recommended to me after taking photos of very small pressure flakes on a piece of porcelain successfully. It was fairly mid-range for a macro lens, and I tested it out on a horse mandible that I had hanging around:

I found the lens to be really responsive during more out-in-the-world photography. The photo of the mandible was taken without a tripod. It was also very good with artifact photography, but I struggled with the light tent, mostly because it put me far away from the artifact and it was hard to position a tripod correctly–nearly impossible to get above the artifact like you can with a regular photo table.

This is a piece of metal recovered from Dhiban in 2009. Overall, not a terrible photo, and it will work for publication, but not ideal.

This is the head of an Iron Age figurine that I side-lit to pick up details of the face. Don’t talk to me about those photo scales–it was humid that day and the stupid paper I used wasn’t thick enough to lay flat. I’ll replace them for final publication anyway. It’s also a bit dark–I haven’t mastered integrating Adobe’s Lightroom into my workflow quite yet. I’m really happy with the program overall though.

The experience with the light tent was frustrating, but I may still try to make it work. We will likely take the tent itself to Dhiban, but maybe not the light rig–I think there will be enough ambient light to make it work.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

4 thoughts on “Archaeological Photography – Experimenting with a Light Tent”

  1. I don’t envy the conditions you are trying to shoot artifacts in. That Sigma lens is looking pretty damn good though.

    One question about the light tent setup: how are you metering and/or choosing your exposure? It kind of looks like all of the light tones of the tent are making your meter underexpose a bit. Looks to me like the images could use 1 or 2 more stops of light.

    1. Light tents are great for soft shadows and even light, the results look good but I dial in 1 stop of exposure compensation (at least) since the meter is happier rendering the white background as grey. I usually put a piece of glass from a photo frame down which removes the creases and uneveness of the cloth and gives a reflection which can look good if shooting from side angles or none at all if shooting from above.

      My tent has a little opening at the front, a sort of curtain that you can poke the camera through to stop your hands etc reflecting on it when you turn the tent up on it’s side to shoot straight down.

  2. Hi, can you please tell me where, in which collection the IA figurine from Dhiban is kept now? I am the director of a Franco-German project on this kind of figurines from Jordan (we are taking RTI’s) and would like to integrate this head into our database. Thanks in advance, Regine

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