Photographing Fossils

At UK Fossils, we receive hundreds of photos of fossils every month and, although we try our hardest to identify each and every find, most photos we receive are so blurred or contain no scale, which makes it very hard to tell what they are. Following popular requests, we have written this small guide to photographing fossils and some standards to apply.

Using a Digital Camera

Background – The best background colour to use when photographing finds is light grey. This prevents any use of flash from reflecting against white, reduces shadows and is light enough for most finds. Fossils from the chalk may be best taken using black backgrounds and, for publications, it is best to photograph on a white background with no flash under ‘white-light’ to avoid ‘block images’.

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Type of camera – Most cameras are capable of taking photos of fossils without too many problems. However, for best results, choose a digital camera with a high resolution and ‘macro’ facility. This is particularly handy for smaller fossils. If you have a number of micro fossils, a ‘super macro’ facility is required. We also recommend the use of a tripod, as this enables you to take photos without the use of a flash, thereby preventing reflection and ‘bright spots’.

Angles – Many people ask us what is the best angle to take and our answer is three shots: top, bottom and side. Taking these three shots makes identification so much easier. Certain fossils may require certain angles. For instance, when shooting ammonites, be sure to get a shot of the side, since most ammonites can be only identified from the pattern on their sides. Also, take some of the top and bottom. If in doubt, the more angles you take, the easier it is to identify the specimen, as we can then see a clearer 3D model rather than the common 2D shots’

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Scale – You should always use something that can be used to show the scale of the fossil. It is best to keep that object consistent and think carefully about how it could change in the future. For example, we had some photos from a university in 1998, where they used a mobile phone to compare the size of the fossil. However, back then, mobile phones where chunky things and, today, if anyone saw the shot, they would believe the fossil was larger than it really was. In a similar way, people use coins, but over time, coins change shape and what happens if we join the Euro? All those sizes can quickly become forgotten.

The answer is to think carefully about what you use as a scale. Our best advice is to use a black and white ‘block ruler’ graduated in centimetres or if you have very small fossils, in millimetres. UKGE now uses a special ‘geo ruler’, which is graduated in centimetres and 10cm in alternating colours. This makes photographing so much easier. The rulers are plastic and hard, perfect for field use.

To avoid shadows, you should either photograph using high power ‘white spot lighting’, directed from two angles at your specimen – one lamp on the left and one on the right, against a white background, or either outside in a shaded area or indoors on the floor, away from direct sunlight. You can always use digital photo editing software to remove the shadow on most fossils.

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Using a Phone

These days, smartphones are so powerful that their cameras match most compact cameras. They are useful because we nearly all carry them with us all the time. Using phones to take photos is best done outdoors in good sunlight or holding the fossil up against the sky.

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Using a Scanner

Scanning fossils – For smaller or fairly flat fossils, computer scanners are better than digital cameras. Quality will vary depending on the make. At UK Fossils we use the Epson Perfection Range, which, unlike most other makes, has a ‘white top’ photographing onto a black background when scanning open topped.

Scanning techniques – Place fossils on transparent paper to protect the scanner from scratches and make it easy to clean. You will need to change the paper frequently, as it will attract a lot of dust. Run a preview screen and zoom in on your fossil. Then adjust the colour settings, especially the gamma setting, to ensure that the background is black, so you can enhance the fossil using the exposure setting. Scan at least 1,200 pixels, as the quality and best resolution will vary for different makes, so you will need to experiment a bit to find the best setting. Some scanners have focus controls, which allows the scanning of larger fossils.

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Scan of a 1.5mm Bird Bone from Bawdsey

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Scan of a 5cm Sharks tooth from Bawdsey

Emailing your Photos for Identification

Image type – The most widely used format is JPEG. This is perfect for emailing your finds, but be sure to keep them at a medium to high quality to ensure that they do not lose too much detail. UK Fossils has had people send us BMP or TIFF files, but these are uncompressed, so are massive to send.

Image Resolution and size – Another common problem we have at UK Fossils is photos that are too small to see any detail. Photos are best at 500 by 500 pixels or higher. These days, high resolution cameras are inexpensive and easy to obtain.

Details – Try to include as much information about the fossil as you can when emailing photos, including the location, formation, zone and so on.

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