Studio Photography: Fossils

At the Prehistoric Times Museum in Boxtel, Netherlands, I was given the opportunity to shoot photos of fossils. Surprisingly, digital photos reveal a hidden world of invisible colors and details that you probably would not notice with the naked eye. The details of fossils are very small—millimeters in size—and require a careful selection of the focal point.

If you find fossils to be fascinating, contact your
local museum to see if you too can photograph their every detail.

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

Ammonite: Acrioceras sp.
Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash, f/18 @ 1/100

In order to work in a studio-like setting, there are certain pieces of equipment that is required: a macro lens, an external flash, a cable release, a tripod, a reflector, and black and white background paper. Studio photography allows 100% control of the light on the subject and the creative uses of light on the subject are unlimited. Let us start with a basic setup for our first studio.

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash, f/16 @ 1/80

Studio Set-up

1. Use 50 x 50 cm (approximately 20 inches) black or white paper for your background and also place it on the base of a sturdy table. It is inexpensive.

2. If you don’t own a reflector you can also use kitchen foil.

3. Set up your external flash to utilize 30% of its light. The light from the flash will be reflected off the foil reflector and back to the fossil giving it a nice soft light.

4. Use a macro lens of 90 or 105 mm focal length, so you can get close to the fossil and get the entire fossil sharp.

Note: a 180 mm macro lens has less depth-of-field with a ratio of 1:1; DOF of 1.8 mm at f/5.6.

5. Set your camera to RAW file format and place it on a very stable tripod.

Note: You want to be certain the tripod head is strong enough to prevent movement in the camera (see technical note of your tripod) and always turn the image stabilizer of your lens or camera off (the stabilizer can give movement in the camera because of the long shutter speed).

6. Work with a high aperture, between f/16 and f/22, and an ISO of 100 or 200. This will create long exposure times but extremely high quality images.

7. When your setup is complete, turn your camera to manual focus. This allows you to select your depth-of-field.

Note: To see the difference, set your aperture at f/8. Set the sharpness at the front of your fossil and take a shot. Then turn on the sharpness ring of your lens and set the sharpness at the back of the fossil. Then shoot a picture and review the two photographs. You’ll easily notice the difference. Experiment with different focal points on your fossil and take your time so the process will help you understand this topic.

8. White balance: many digital cameras give you the option of setting the white balance in Kelvin at 100 degree Kelvin increments. Tungsten is around 2300 Kelvin and your flash is 6200 Kelvin, but set to use 30 – 40 %. Because of this, you’ll need to try some different Kelvin settings in order to find the right one.

Note: With every new studio setup, you should recalibrate the Kelvin. Many people object to this, but I find it is the best method to achieving great images. You could modify the settings in post-production programs, but each change will give you a loss of natural colors and sharpness, so the RAW files have to be the best quality possible, especially if you want to use your photos for large prints.

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash, f/20 @ 1/80

Trilobites were the first living insects on the planet. This one is 450 million years old. I set this fossil on white paper so its details would be separated from the background. I use paper from Adorama, as it has the best quality for white balance. You can also use simple white paper, but you will see a difference in the contrast.

The white paper made it possible for me to get less shades around the fossil. Because the white background reflects all of the light, our camera selects a short shutter speed without knowing it is white.

Since you are photographing in a studio-like setting, you are able to master the use of light—luckily, because when you are outdoors there are many uncontrollable factors.

More Advanced Set-up

Even with digital photography, I use a Sekonic L-608 exposure meter to measure the exposure time and flash light. With this exposure meter I can measure the percentage of flash light to illumine the fossil as I choose. Use an Omni Bounce Flash Diffuser on your external flash, then set the flash level of your flash gun lower. Many flash guns have steps from 1/1 to 1/32. Experiment with different levels to find out which is the best for your set up. Many flash guns allow you to set the focal length of your lens manually. Try varying focal length settings and see the difference in the photographs. You will notice that shadows are changing in the photographs; this tool allows you to be creative with light.

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash, f/18 @ 1/100

Minerals hide 40% of beautiful colors, so I use an external flash to light the minerals and reveal their hidden colors. The minerals within the fossil become visible under illumination. Minerals reflect the light and appear seemingly from nowhere, surprising me every time. I seem to spin out of control–my unlimited creativity running like a car. Once I have illuminated a mineral, I rotate it to see which part gives the best effect and to explore my composition.


© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

Take care with the composition of fossils to give people a good understanding of the patterns and colors, because the photo has to be interesting for the viewer. A fossil is a section of history and you’ll want to give people that feeling in your photo.

The rule of thirds: The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically), so that you have nine parts. As you’re taking an image, you do this in your mind, through your viewfinder, or in the LCD display that you use to frame your shot. With this grid in mind, the “rule of thirds” identifies four important parts of the image that you should consider as you place points of interest in the frame of your image. But remember, rules are meant to be broken, so always allow yourself to use your creative abilities to make your images stunning, while still maintaining the historical integrity of your fossil subject.

UV-Light on Minerals

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.


Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + UV Light, f/13 @ 60 sec.

There are some minerals which are great to photograph when using a UV-light. But take care with this; UV light can damage the retina of your eyes. Protect your eyes by wearing yellow glasses. Use a stopwatch for the exposure time, because UV-lamps are low light sources. It takes time to get enough light to a mineral, but it is worth the efforts.

It will be necessary to use a cable release while using a UV-light source, because you’ll want to set the exposure time of your camera to BULB, where the shutter speed depends on the time it takes you to press the exposure button.

The best place to shoot UV-lit photos is in a small room, so you have all of the UV-light on the mineral. Try various exposure times, because there is no formula for this. Start with 60 seconds and progress using a difference of fifteen seconds between each.

© 2012 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.


Sony Alpha 700 + 90 /2.8 Macro + UV Light, f/13 @ 100 sec.

Join in the world of fossil photography and open up the hidden colors for yourself.

by Edwin Brosens

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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