Introduction to Object ID
  Project Team
  Part 1
  Part 2
part 2: creating backgrounds

Creating Backgrounds

For standard record photographs in black-and-white, the most effective and informative backgrounds are either black or white. The background material can be an ordinary roll or sheets of paper or flexible matte-surfaced plastic. For use outdoors and for uncleaned objects, such as archaeological materials, plastic is preferred, being washable and less likely to tear. A neutral, unobtrusive background is usually best when photographing a painting, print, or drawing, whether for black and white or color. An exception might be when photographing an object where it may be important to define the edge of an object as clearly as possible; in this case a contrasting background might be preferable. At the same time, some professional photographers prefer to photograph objects with reflective surfaces, such as silverware, against white backgrounds. White backgrounds also act as a useful check on the color balance of the film, since if the white is reproduced as truly white, then it is reasonably certain that the colors are correctly recorded. However, white should definitely be avoided if the photography is for color transparencies intended for projection, since white backgrounds are apt to glare on the screen. Black backgrounds are apt to swallow the edges, and thus the shape, of an object unless the lighting is very skillfully arranged. Black backgrounds should also be avoided if the photograph is intended for publication, because print reproduction processes rarely produce smooth areas of solid black. Very intense saturated colors distract the eye from the object. If the image is copied to black-and-white, an intensely colored background will appear very dark. Also, reflection from a strong background can tinge the object with its color.

The majority of metal objects fall into one of two groups: smooth shiny objects of gold, silver, brass, polished steel, plate, pewter, and the like; and darker rough-surfaced metal objects of cast or wrought iron, bronze, and sometimes copper, although there are, of course, many intermediate cases. For black-and-white photography, the first group is best shown against a black cotton velvet background. Color photographs can be taken against either, or against a colored background, but strongly colored backgrounds should be avoided.

When photographing ceramics in black-and-white, the objects are best positioned against black or white backgrounds, although usually white is better. Fabric, cartridge paper, or plastic sheeting make suitable backgrounds for ceramic objects. If possible, the object should stand on a glass or rigid plastic raised above the horizontal surface (see figure 14). White, black, or colored backgrounds will serve for color photography, making sure that light reflected from a colored background does not give a color cast to the object.

Coins and similar small objects with surface relief can be photographed against black, white, or colored backgrounds. If possible the object should be raised above the surface on a column of plasticene or modeling clay, a centimeter or so high, so that the background is out of focus. (Care must be taken, however, not to place any fragile object on plasticene or a similar material that might stain or lift off its surface.) The simplest white background is either a light box or a sheet of glass held above a white illuminated surface (see figure 14). However, white backgrounds created using light boxes should be avoided when taking color photographs because the fluorescent tubes may give an unpleasant blue-green color to the image.

figure 14
Figure 14:  The simplest white background for small objects is either a light box or a sheet of glass held above a white illuminated surface.

With such objects as pierced brooches it is essential to be able to see the piercings clearly; this is more easily achieved with an illuminated background. Colored backgrounds can be used, but if the object is placed on a glass sheet above a colored background, particularly a dark color, there may be strong reflections in the glass. For very small objects, which could not be raised above a black, fabric surface, ordinary black carbon paper gives a good matte black.

Glass is notoriously difficult to photograph, partly because of reflections, and also because its transparency makes it difficult to distinguish detail on the front of the object from that showing through from the back. If the overall shape of the vessel is its most important characteristic, it is best photographed against a light background; if the surface detail is more important, it should be put against a somewhat darker one. For simple cast or blown glass, a background of translucent plastic or paper with a strong light behind it is often the most effective background (see figure 15). When photographing glass with color film, it is usually best to avoid a colored background; otherwise the object will appear to be the same color as the background.

figure 15
Figure 15:  For simple cast or brown glass, the most effective background is of translucent plastic or paper with a strong light behind it.

Some statues and pieces of sculpture may have to be photographed in place, with little choice of position or viewpoint. When there is no choice about the background of such pieces, the setting should also form part of the photograph. It may be possible to make some adjustment to the background; for example, a sheet could be hung behind the statue, or — by eliminating the background lights — it could be isolated against a darker background. Movable objects can be positioned to allow the best conditions for photography, and smaller pieces can be treated like similar objects, with only the dullest background colors being used, placed well behind the object to avoid a color cast.

The background against which furniture is photographed will depend to some extent on the size and type of the individual object. Larger pieces may have to be photographed in place with no option of choosing a background. If the piece is small enough to be safely moved, the ideal placement is against a light background, with the object placed well in front of it. Defining the shape of the back and base is often a problem, and the problem is made worse if these parts are in shadow. Since nearly all furniture is wholly or partly free-standing, however, it may be possible to slide a sheet or light paper or fabric behind and under it (see figure 16). Such a background might be patchy or discontinuous, but this is preferable to having the piece disappear into darkness.

figure 16a figure 16b

Figure 16:  When photographing a large object, such as a piece of furniture, it may be possible to slide a piece of fabric behind and under it to create a uniform background.

The type of background used for textiles should be determined by the tone or color of the object: light backgrounds for dark material and darker backgrounds for light ones. If the material is open-textured — loose-woven cloth or basketry — an illuminated background can be effective. This can be either a light box or a sheet of glass raised above a separately illuminated sheet of white paper. If such material is photographed flat on a sheet of paper, of whatever tone, the edges of the weave are very likely to be lost in their own shadows. For color photography, a neutral or colorless background is preferred. This is particularly true with open-textured pieces, as a colored background might show through and dominate the result.

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